Archive for the “Piano” Category
In Two Worlds
music for saxophone with electronics
In Two Worlds,
James Paul Sain
John Anthony Lennon
Susan Fancher, soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones
In Two Worlds
collects recordings of works for saxophone and electronics that cover a wide range of styles and showcase different sound worlds from the 80s, 90s, and today (that latter part sounded like a radio station ad, I apologize). The title track, composed by Morton Subotnick, is at times dreamy and at times driving. Some of the synth sounds are a little dated sounding (the original date on the work is 1987) but the quality of the work and the performance outshine any cheese the synths possess. This recording addresses the issue of historic preservation and performance practice of electronic music. The technology originally used to create In Two Worlds
is no longer viable and available. Thanks to the interest of Susan Fancher and the programming chops of Jeff Heisler and Mark Bunce, the work gains new life. I love it when a work of this nature is embraced by such talents that are unwilling to let technological adversaries overcome the access to the music.
Jovian Images, for soprano sax and electronics, let’s Fancher play around an improvised landscape that provides space and shimmering serenity. Fancher’s tone and control are the real draw here, the electronics are more texture than gesture and the focus never turns us away from her solo line. For something completely different, we follow up with SaxMax by Mark Engebretson. This work is sneaky, murky, and dark. Fancher’s sax murmurs and mutters, the textures of the electronics murmur back and coalesce into a freaky calliope of twisting accompaniment. Fancher really controls this work, guiding and shaping its energies through a myriad of sound worlds. When the drums kick in and the piece turns into a free jazz style jam, it is hard to remember how exactly we got here. It sounds right, though, so I don’t ask too many questions.
Solemnity returns with Corail for tenor sax and interactive electronics. Fancher’s sound is sultry and thick, even as the piece erupts with ebullient pops and snaps. Pound for pound, this piece sounds like it does the most with the saxophone’s sonic potentials. An earthy funk groove tries to emerge about 3 minutes in and, again, it sounds like the absolute right thing to have happen. Corail’s organic processes make you forget about the electronics and just listen to the sound of what is going on. Fancher seems to be playing chamber music with her subconscious.
Penelope’s Song seems to take the most traditional approach to sax+computer music. A solid beat starts the piece, representing Penelope’s loom from the Odyssey. Fancher sings in a playful and spritely manner which is a fitting match to the sneaky story of the source material. The beat, while persistent, is never sonically static. Shatin resonates the beats, providing extra nuggets of timbre and pitch to the groove. At the same time, Fancher does the same with multiphonics (in a truly integrated and effortless way). There is a lot to listen to on this track and repeated listenings will provide rich rewards.
The last two works, Slammed and are perfect polar opposites to round out the CD. Slammed is muscular, angular, rough, and irritating. You start in an uncomfortable place, intentionally, and the energy keeps pushing and pushing and pushing until the whole system reaches the breaking point and snaps. A fun ride. Aeterna, with its simple delay, is a lovely and plaintive closer. Instead of dazzling us with computing power, Fancher reminds us why we were interested in this disc in the first place: the soloist. Alternate fingerings provide the spectromorphology, but it is Fancher’s poetic playing that gives this work a real soul. Lennon gives Fancher the right material, the right use of electronics, and just lets the music happen. The piece could keep going but manages to find a perfect ending nonetheless.
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Oppens Plays Carter
The Complete Piano Music
– World Premiere Recording
Two Thoughts About the Piano
– World Premiere Recording of Caténaires
Ursula Oppens, piano
Today, being the 100th birthday of Elliott Carter, seemed to be the most appropriate day to post a review of the new and expanded Complete Piano Music of Elliott Carter, this time recorded by longtime Carter advocate Ursula Oppens and released on Cedille Records (as opposed to the now incomplete Rosen recordings on Bridge). Of course, at the rate that Carter is still cranking out music, I’m sure a new Complete Piano Music two-disc set will be in our near future.
To be honest, when I saw Oppens and Carter on the same disc, I was pretty sure I was going to like it. I could have written you a review of the disc without even hearing it. Oppens is a powerhouse of technique and sensitivity and she plays Carter with a surprising effortless quality. Even thorny, ominous works like Night Fantasies flow smoothly from her fingers. The piano music of Elliott Carter and the piano technique of Ursula Oppens go together as well as gin and vermouth. This is an awesome disc and one that should be in your collection if you dig the music of Carter. It is a no-brainer.
In comparison to the Rosen recordings, Oppens’ tempi are generally quicker (shaving over a minute off of 90+) and her piano timbre is cooler and more crystalline than Rosen’s warmer and richer sound. The Rosen recordings are, to my ears, a bit more ponderous while Oppens chooses a more mercurial and fluid approach. Anyone that tells you that music of such complexity and detail as Carter’s is going to sound the same no matter who plays it clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about.
Oppens, of course, performs everything to the highest possible caliber. Of particular interest to me were the works receiving their premiere recordings. Matribute is a sparse and lurking work, full of single low notes and scrambling bursts of higher textures. Carter then stands the work on its head in the final minute with a gradual accelerando and humorous “stinger” ending. Centénaires is a wild, romping, monophonic perpetual motion. Coming off of the rich and thick harmonies of the Piano Sonata, Centénaires is refreshing and invigorating. It makes you want to start the disc over again. And I’m going to be spinning this disc a lot.
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WUORINEN: Ashberyana; Praegustatum; Fenton Songs I and II; Ave Christe (Josquin); Josquiniana. Sarah Rothenberg, Alan Feinberg, piano; Leon Williams, baritone; James Pugh, trb; Mark Steinberg, David Fulmer, vln; Misha Amory, vla; Nina Maria Lee, vcl; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Brentano String Quartet; Charles Wuorinen, conductor. Naxos 8.559377. 61 minutes.
Charles Wuorinen’s rhetorical bark has always been sharper, edgier, than his musical bark. Many of his verbal excesses about the primacy of 12-tone technique and the death of tonality have proven less than prophetic.
In fact, Wuorinen’s own musical development has belied his bellicose statements. Much of his music expresses a direct, modern lyrical impulse. He has a good ear for instrumental color and line. The biggest problem I’ve had with Wuorinen’s music in the past is that I’ve often found his rhythmic style in conflict with his pitch vocabulary””the rhythms feel much more tonal than the harmonies and melodies would seem to suggest.
The accompanied trombone solo that begins the first piece on this Naxos disc, Ashberyana, (written in 2004 for baritone, trombone, string quartet, and piano, on poems of John Ashbery) reveals a composer whose style has resolved the tensions within his musical personality. Or a critic who is hearing better. At any rate, the trombone’s lyrical line (played with style and power by James Pugh), with its fleeting but unmistakable tonal references, is accompanied by sharp, dissonant chords on the piano.
Wuorinen’s text setting is clear, though the vocal line is often more angular than the trombone line, but this is appropriate for Ashbery’s poetry, with its ellipitical imagery and complex structure. Baritone Leon Williams gives a strong performance of the difficult vocal part, and the composer leads Da Camera of Houston in a solid, authoritative performance.
The rest of the program, consisting of a solo piano work (very well played by Sarah Rothenberg), two brief song cycles on poetry by James Fenton (sung with intense conviction by Lucy Shelton), and some Josquin arrangements, is solid and musical. Naxos’ sound is very good, and Sarah Rothenberg’s notes are informative.
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Benjamin Lees Piano Music, 1947 – 2005
Toccata, Six Ornamental Etudes,
Three Preludes, Sonata Breve, Odyssey
Benjamin Lees’ piano music can be muscular and powerful, sweet and tender, or lilting and playful. Miriam Conti handily tackles each and every possible mood in the five pieces on this disc. The opening Toccata is brash and forceful with a surprising loss of energy towards the end. The Six Ornamental Etudes
are charming pieces that, while not as showy as other etude collections, still balance the fine line of chop-builder vs. showpiece. The Three Preludes follow a traditional fast-slow-fast structure and a large-scale narrative shape that makes the set feel more like a single multi-movement work than a collection of separate pieces. Sonata Breve
packs an awful lot of music and technique into a work containing the word breve
in the title. Each of the three Odyssey’s are mature, broad, and expansive works that showcase Miriam Conti’s talents quite well (the last two of the three were composed for her, after all).
Lees’ pitch language has that chromatic-yet-tonally-grounded sense of Prokofiev mixed with just a touch of the American Populists from the mid-20th century. In many ways, I think Lees’ music is what Elliott Carter’s music would sound like had he not gone all wonky in the 50s (disclaimer: I love wonky Carter). Each work has a strong rhythmic and narrative profile, and thunderous moments are well balanced by tender contemplation. Miriam Conti’s technique and musicality are mercurial and able to match the demands of each piece without question.
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The Music of Vítezslava Kaprí¡loví¡
Virginia Eskin, piano
Stephanie Chase, violin
Koch International Classics
April Preludes, Legend, Burlesque, Five Compositions for Piano, Elegy, Sonata Appassionata, Vriations sure le Carillon de L’Eglise Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Little Song
Czech composer Vítezslava Kaprí¡loví¡ lived only 25 years (1915 – 1940) yet her musical language is surprisingly mature and well crafted (much better than what I was doing when I was in my 20s, that is for sure). The works on this disc, all from the 1930s, show a variety of stylistic influences synthesized into a personal vibrant language. Her music sounds to be equal parts of early Bartok, pre-atonality Berg, and of course Janacek. Each piece is remarkably expressive (of course it helps that the performers here are so wonderfully expressive as well) with equal amounts of moribund and ponderous music balanced by spunky and fiery compositions.
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Piano Music of Ahmet Adnan Saygun
Zeynep Ucbasaran, piano
Anadolu’dan (From Anatolia), Aksak Tartilar íœzerine 12 Prelüd (12 Preludes on Aksak Rhythms), Inci’nin Kitabi (Inci’s Book), Aksak Tartilar íœzerine 10 Taslak (10 Sketches on Aksak Rhythms), Sonatina
Billed as the Bartí³k of Turkish folk music, this CD of piano compositions by Ahmet Saygun lives up to that reference. The pieces are playful, rhythmic, quirkily melodic, fun, and refreshing. I think connecting Saygun to Bartí³k is apt in the scope and source of Saygun’s material but it should by no means cast a shadow over Saygun’s own compositional voice. These pieces are not “Bartí³k-lite” but a wonderful set of miniatures (in length but not in spirit) written in a similar style. Rhythms are at times laid out like a groove and at other times abstracted into spiky punctuations. My favorite works on the disc are the 12 Preludes for their dramatic abstractions and sharp edges as well as the Sonatina since, for some reason, I just always seem to get a kick out of sonatinas. Saygun’s Sonatina expertly compresses bold gestures without making the listener feel short changed. Zeynep íœcbasaran’s technique and expression are perfectly matched to the material.
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CHOPIN: Barcarolle, Op. 60; Mazurkas; SIVAN/BELLINI: Concert Paraphrase on “Tutto í¨ giola” from La Sonnambula; SIVAN: Improvisations on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”; SCARLATTI: Sonatas; BACH: Presto; BACH-BUSONI: In dir ist Freude; BRAHMS-BUSONI: Herzlich tut mich erfreun; BEETHOVEN: Bagatelle, Op. 126, No.4; MOZART: Eine Kleine Gigue, K. 574; CHABRIER: Joyeuse Marche; PERSICHETTI: “Make Me Drunken With Deep Red Torrents of Joy”, from Poems, Vol. II; DAVICO: “”¦en écoutant la joyeuse pluie de mars”¦” from Impressions d’Intérieur; DEBUSSY: L’isle joyeuse. Yael Weiss, piano. KOCH 7651. 71 minutes.
Pianist Yael Weiss’ disc is called 88 Keys to Joy, because, as you can probably tell by the selections, all of the music takes “joy” as a theme. Her playing has depth, even within the relatively narrow expressive range given here, and her technique is impeccable.
Among the newer pieces, Vincent Persichetti’s “Make Me Drunken With Deep Red Torrents of Joy” stands out, with its delicate figurations and sometimes surprising harmonic and melodic turns. Ms. Weiss’ reading of Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse is light on its feet and idiomatically atmospheric.
This fine disc is another example of the kind innovative, thematic programming that I hope to continue to see in concerts and on recordings.
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STRAVINSKY: Piano Music. Victor Sangiorgio. Naxos 8.570377. 72 minutes.
Victor Sangiorgio’s traversal of Igor Stravinsky’s music for piano solo is engaging on several levels, not the least of which is how the early compositions show the composer struggling to find a voice.
The Sonata in f-sharp minor (1903-04) finds Stravinsky trying (and truth be told, pretty much failing) to stretch his materials out into traditional Sonata length and form. There is a wealth of attractive thematic material in the Sonata, but the form is ill-suited for them.
Much more characteristic and successful are his 1924 Sonata and 1926 Serenade. These well-known pieces, both of which are excellent exemplars of the composer in his neoclassical mode, are given energetic and idiomatic readings by Mr. Sangiorgio. To my ears the best performance on the disc is of the Four Etudes (Op. 7, 1908), where the composer is well on his way to finding himself.
The program is rounded out with the composer’s riffs on more-or-less popular music””Piano-Rag-Music (1919), Tango (1940), and Circus Polka (1941-42). While not all of this music shows Stravinsky at his best or most characteristic, it’s good to have performances of this quality all in one place.
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BRí˜DSGAARD: in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Rolf Hind, piano; Esbjerg Ensemble/Christopher Austin. Dacapo 226514. 62 minutes.
Anders Brí¸dsgaard’s in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (“we enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire”) is a cycle of seven solo piano pieces and a piano concerto written between 1990 and 1995. The pieces were composed using the composer’s own personal “system” that derives rhythmic relationships from the frequency ratios of the harmonic series.
That’s not as schematic as it might sound. Given that some of the frequency ratios at the lower end of the harmonic series are very simple (the perfect fifth is 3:2 for example) and easily translated into cross-pulses, the music itself is often effervescent and quite accessible. The more ratios used the denser and more complex the harmony.
Brí¸dsgaard operates with a great deal of flexibility, layering intervals and their associated pulses according to immediate expressive needs. The first piece in the cycle, Joker (1990), is a rhythmically alive, harmonically static machine ride. Other pieces are more contemplative, like Requiem (1992) and Hymn (1994).The concluding Piano Concerto (1994-95) includes material from each of the preceding seven pieces of the cycle, and was written, in part, as an experiment to see if the procedures could work on a larger scale, which it does in this piece.
Rolf Hind gives passionate performances of all the pieces, and the Esbjerg Ensemble, led by Christopher Austin, provides skillful and sympathetic accompaniment. Dacapo’s sound feels a little small, without the detail we’ve come to expect from digital recordings of piano music. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone otherwise interested in this colorful music.
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HARTWAY: Three Myths; Imaginary Creatures; Images of Mogador; Scenes from a Marriage. Pauline Martin, piano; Pamela Schiffer, soprano; Imaginary Creatures String Quartet; Woodland Trio; Catherine Wilson/Robert Conway Piano Duo. Naxos 8.559346. 59 minutes.
James Hartway’s music is accessible, open, and directly expressive. It is extremely well written, revealing Hartway’s sure command of mid-20th century tonal vocabularies. (Some of the richest passages on the disc remind me of Samuel Barber in their harmonic flavor.)
No new aesthetic ground is broken here””you won’t hear anything you haven’t heard before, but that may or may not matter to you. What is here is very well done. The musicians clearly get the music and enjoy performing it.
For what it’s worth, my favorite piece on the program is Three Myths for solo piano. Pauline Martin gives an authoritative account of this rhythmically alive and very listenable suite. The disc as a whole is recommended for those whose taste in the new runs towards the accessible.
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