Archive for the “Piano” Category

Christopher Hobbssudoku82

Sudoku 82

Cold Blue

Sudoku 82, a nineteen-minute work for 8 pianos, is best described in the words of the composer:

“Sudoku 82 is one of a series of pieces I have been working on since 2005. There are now over 125 of them that use Apple’s GarageBand software and random procedures culled from the numbers found initially in hexadecimal sudoku puzzles and latterly from online random number generators. I choose the sounds I want and the overall duration, but then let the numbers determine what goes where, how many times, how long, how much silence, and so on. Sudoku 82 used a number of piano loops played on eight pianos at an extremely slow tempo, the result being that the pianists seem to be frozen in time. It was Jim Fox who suggested that the piece might be performed ‘live’ rather than using samples as I had originally done. This is therefore the first of the series to come off the computer and into the recording studio, and I am delighted with the result, which is dedicated to Jim Fox, whose music and predisposition towards slow tempos I have admired for many years.” (taken from the CD notes)

There is almost little to say about this CD single that isn’t in that above paragraph.   Bryan Pezzone, the pianist, seems trapped in a beautiful glassy spiral of slowly drifting gestures.   The loops are by no means predictable nor have they worn out their welcome after a third of an hour.   Instead the loops provide the firmament of the composition and also the means by which Hobbs creates any sense of disruption.   A single loop pops up that provides a bit of harmonic zing! every so often.   It always seems to come at the right time.

I’ve been known to leave this disc on repeat for quite a while.   The ambient flow of the composition and performance lend itself to directionless listening.   You listen to this piece as if it was a bath you were taking.   Soak in it for as long as you’d like, until your ears are all pruney and you need to towel off.   The process that created the work may be random but Hobbs’ guiding ear still crafts a work of endless listenability.

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Richard Faria, clarinet
Ellen Jewett, violin
Xak Bjerken, piano
Los Angeles Piano Quintet

Chandos

This program of piano and chamber music by American composer Stephen Hartke (b.1952) was my first acquaintance with this composer. Though he titles one of these works “Post-Modern Images,” Hartke strikes me more as a modern-day Dadaist. In any typical piece, he takes one element of music – say irregular rhythms or severe dissonances – and playfully, maniacally, runs it into the ground. Now, there’s nothing wrong with irregular rhythm or dissonance, either. They’ve been part of the language of the composer for ages – the former since the notes inégales of the 17th century French Clavecinistes, the latter at least since the Agincourt Hymn and the Coventry Carol, way back in the 15th century. It’s just that it takes more than one element to make a satisfying work of art or a distinctive style in music.

I find Hartke’s music is just too eclectic for words (although I am perfectly aware that some listeners may respond very positively to this very trait of the composer that I find fault with). The title piece, Horse with the Lavender Eye (the significance of which is never explained; I suspect it is as meaningful, or meaningless, as “Un Chien andalou”) claims a play by Carlo Goldoni, ancient Japanese court music, the cartoons of Robert Crumb, 19th century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, and Looney Tunes among its bewildering array of influences. Perhaps the third piece, Waltzing at the Abyss, marked ” Gingerly but always moving along,” may serve as a metaphor for the composer’s art as he continually juggles heterogeneous elements and asks us to trust him that he won’t stumble and fall.

The selections from Post-Modern Images (1984-1992) are another odd assortment, the most successful of which I found to be “Gymnopédie No. 4″, a study in seventh chords that pays homage to Erik Satie, that grand-daddy of all musical eccentrics, in its lilting 3/4 metre and “the simultaneously fluid yet static harmony” (annotation by Xak Bjerken, who plays all the piano pieces with precision and style). “Template” (1985) audaciously transforms a zestful Estudio-Scherzo (1902) by Brazilian composer Henrique Oswald (which is played immediately after for comparison). Hartke takes the Oswald piece at its requisite rapid tempo but sounds only a handful of the notes, resulting in a piece of entirely different character. “Interesting, but why?” was my reaction. Sonata for Piano, Hartke’s other major work for the instrument, is in three movements. Bjerken describes the outer movements as “sometimes massive, sometimes light and birdlike.” The first description fits the Prelude. The second, “light and birdlike” presumably applies to the Postlude, although Hartke’s birds seem to have leaden wings from their hesitant movement. The most interesting movement is the middle one, a scherzo entitled “Epicycles” after its engaging use of rhythmic wheels within wheels (I was reminded of a Buster Keaton two-reeler I’d watched recently, in which the comedian is caught within the paddle-wheel of a ferry boat and valiantly tries to keep his balance by racing madly in the opposite direction to the wheel, finally giving up and accepting the inevitable dunking in typically stoic Keaton fashion).

The King of the Sun is the most ambitious work on the program, a suite in five movements plus Interlude that was commissioned in 1988 by the LA Piano Quartet, who perform it here. It derives a measure of cyclic unity from a medieval canon, heard most prominently in the second movement, “Dutch Interior” which was inspired by Spanish artist Joan Mirí³’s take on a 17th century Dutch genre painting by Jan Steen, and echoed elsewhere throughout the work. It appears in IV, “The Flames of the sun make the desert flower hysterical,” in which the violent chords and coruscating harmony vividly convey the essence of pain. Elsewhere, however, it’s probably unwise to take Hartke’s clever subtitles too seriously, as in 1, “Personages in the night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails,” where he is doubtless tongue-in-cheek.   (Snails, because of the dirty trick nature has played on them, are obliged to glide slowly through life; they positively do not jitterbug.)

I think I’ve given my personal impression here of Stephen Hartke as a composer who doesn’t always play with a full deck of cards. On the other hand, I’ve provided enough clues so that those who are into this sort of thing will find much to intrigue them.

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pondlife__Ann Southam

Pond Life

Centrediscs CMCCD 14109

On Pond Life, Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico presents a double disc dose of solo music by fellow Toronto resident, composer Ann Southam. Southam takes the image of a pond scene, with its Impressionist associations, to heart. Thus, the music emphasizes delicate shadings of harmony and soft dynamics in a group of placid, slowly evolving pieces.

The harmonic language of these pieces gravitates toward pandiatonicism. But Southam’s brand of harmony eschews a thoroughly straightforward trajectory. Often, she uses artfully placed “wrong notes” to dispel familiarity, sending a well-trod progression into unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the occasional judiciously-introduced dissonance acts like a raindrop disturbing the surface of a pond, creating a restructuring ripple effect.

Occasional moments of greater rhythmic activity, such as the considerably charming pair of “Fidget Creek” pieces, are welcome respites from the prevailing stillness. Petrowska Quilico is sensitive to the delicate balance of Southam’s compositional ecosystem, playing with assured pacing and nuanced phrasing.

Pond Life is a recording that, while primarily gentle on the surface, is consistently attention-grabbing.

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carter-nonesuch-retrospective.jpgCARTER: Selected Works. Various Artists. Nonesuch 510893-2 [4 cd]. 269 minutes.

 

This four disc set, titled “A Nonesuch Retrospective”, was released in honor of Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. It is an outstanding (and bargain-priced!) introduction to the composer, covering the majority of his work between the Piano Sonata (1945) to the Robert Lowell song cycle In Sleep, In Thunder (1983).

The music is arranged in chronological order on the four discs, so Carter’s development in these crucial years is audible. We almost never listen to concert music this way””in the order in which it was composed. We usually listen to groups of pieces by genre and/or instrumentation, and the unusual order is quite telling. At times, it feels like one large piece with different sections having different instrumentations.

An important and welcome addition is the inclusion of a titanic reading of the Variations for Orchestra (1955) by the Chicago Symphony, led by Carter champion James Levine, previously released by DG. Less welcome is the omission of the Paul Zukovsky/Gilbert Kalish premiere recording of the Duo for Violin and Piano (1974), which is one of Carter’s most personal compositions. (Does anyone know if that performance is available on CD?)

Most enthusiastic Carter fans will have most, if not all, of these recordings; highly recommended if you don’t.

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Carter Naxos.gifCARTER: Mosaic; Scrivo in Vento; Gra; Enchanted Preludes; Steep Steps; Figments I & II; Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi; Rhapsodic Musings; Dialogues. New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert Aitken. NAXOS 8.559614. CD 65 minutes; DVD 50 minutes.

 In addition to an increase in performances marking Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday last December, there were a few new recordings of a substantial amount of the peripatetic centenarian’s recent music.

This Naxos set (already ably reviewed by Jay Batzner[1]) is a valuable addition to the Carter discography, for at least a couple of reasons. It provides high-quality second (and in some cases more) recordings of several works, it’s a very good introduction to Carter’s music of the last 20 years or so, and not least, it includes the first recording of Mosaic (2005, harp and mixed ensemble), one of Carter’s most colorful and directly approachable scores.  

The composer’s late[2] style is characterized by a stronger emphasis on instrumental color for its own expressive value and relative textural clarity (which in many pieces goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on color). These traits are presented in a new (for Carter) structural looseness that is often manifest in collage-like forms made up of short, overlapping episodes of contrasting music.

“Gorgeous” is not a word one often associates with Carter, but it applies to Mosaic. The solo harp part, played here with great style and flair by Erica Goodman, swoops and dances voluptuously over the range of the instrument. The accompanying ensemble sings and rasps its support and commentary.

The bulk of the program consists of new performances of a handful of the character pieces that are a staple of Carter’s recent career. These are the second (and sometimes third or fourth) recordings of these pieces, which are becoming standard repertoire for their instruments, at least amongst a certain type of performer.

The disc closes with a bright and lively reading of Dialogues (2004, piano and chamber orchestra) another exemplar of the composer’s late approach. David Swan gives a deft and expressive performance of the daunting solo part, and Robert Aitken leads a strong reading by the New Music Concerts Ensemble.

The bonus DVD includes film versions of the performances of Mosaic and Dialogues, as well as a post-concert interview of the composer conducted by Mr. Aitken. The films included some very amateurish effects shots and are unimaginatively shot, but they are valuable in that they show the under-commented-on physicality of Carter performance. The interview includes some of Carter’s more familiar ideas, and is valuable for the newbie in that respect.

 


[1] Jay also reviewed Ursula Oppens’ recent traversal of Carter’s then-complete piano music, and we pretty much had the same reaction to it.          

[2] Or is it “late late” by now?

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In Two WorldsSusan Fancher

In Two Worlds
music for saxophone with electronics

Innova Records


In Two Worlds, Morton Subotnick
Jovian Images, Reginald Brain
SaxMax, Mark Engebretson
Corail, Edmund Campion
Penelope’s Song, Judith Shatin
Slammed, James Paul Sain
Aeterna, 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 CarterOppens Plays Carter

The Complete Piano Music

Cedille Records


90+
Retrouvailles
Night Fantasies
Two Diversions
Matribute
– World Premiere Recording
Piano Sonata
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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Wuorinen1.gifWUORINEN: 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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Lees Piano MusicMirian Conti

Benjamin Lees Piano Music, 1947 – 2005

Toccata Classics


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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KapralovaThe 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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