Archive for the “Steve Hicken” Category

PACCIONE: Rhapsody; Stations–To Morton Feldman; Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Page for Will; Three Motets: Arabesques; Five Songs from Christina Rossetti; “Postlude,” from Planxty Cage. Molly Paccione, cl; Jenny Perron, p; Michael Campbell, p; Western Illinois University Singers/James Stegall; Nurit Tilles, p; Terry Chasteen, tenor; Moisés Molina, vcl; Andrea Molina, p. New World 80706-2. 57 minues.

[DISCLAIMER: I’ve known Paul Paccione and his music for many, many years. The following may be read with this in mind.]

Paul Paccione’s music has always been concerned with the manipulation of musical space/time. That is, Paccione reconceives musical geometry (x=time, y-space) as a canvas[1] on which musical objects are placed, like figures or brushstrokes in an abstract painting or drawing. These objects—chords and/or melodic gestures—retain their identity through repetition rather than development. Structure is projected through placement of objects at different coordinates on the musical canvas.

The result is a musical abstract expressionism that has developed over the years in surprising and gratifying ways. I first learned of Paccione and his music in the late ‘70s, when he was coming into his own as a disciple of Morton Feldman. His music at that time was quiet and sparse, with subtle melodic threads. His sense of color was (and is) so keen that a performance of his music gave a feeling of voluptuous austerity. In early pieces like Stations–To Morton Feldman (1987) the music is extremely spare—splashes of color on a blank temporal field, with a great deal of expressive silence.

In more recent years Paccione has embraced tonality, but his music still sounds like him. The Rhapsody for clarinet and piano (2005) is a good example. A lean piano part limns out a slow, non-dramatic chord progression in triplet eighth-note arpeggios while the clarinet plays lyrical melodic lines mostly above it. It’s as if the gentle triplets in the piano have replaced the blank canvas as a surface to be painted on.

The vocal or choral music Paccione composed early in his career was either wordless or was a setting of a short text that moved so slowly it may as well have been textless. In the pieces offered here, Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins (2007) and Five Songs from Christina Rossetti (2003), the non-dramatic but lyrical presentation of the texts serves as a vehicle for the composer’s characteristic tone explorations.

My favorite piece on this recording is the Three Motets: Arabesques (1999), for four prerecorded clarinets. These motets are simple—contrapuntal in the extreme, they are made of short, tonally-enigmatic melodic gestures that are imitated by subsequent instrumental entrances. The result is a haunting, subtly and constantly changing soundscape.

The performances and recording here are of the highest quality. Paccione teaches at Western Illinois University, and most of the performers are his colleagues there. Several pieces were written for clarinetist Molly Paccione, the composer’s wife, and her readings show deep understanding of the music.

Highly recommended.

[1] Not unlike Elliott Carter’s “time screen” in concept, but very different in practice.

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HerschHERSCH: Sonatas for Unaccompanied Cello 1 & 2. Daniel Gaisford, vcl. Vanguard Classics MCS-CD-104. 69 minutes.

I first became acquainted with Michael Hersch’s music through his monumental solo piano work The Vanishing Pavilions. The pieces recorded here  adjust Hersch’s large and large-hearted soundworld to the somewhat more intimate and introverted genre of the unaccompanied sonata for cello.

The genre has a long and distinguished history, characterized by big works that show off the expressive range of the instrument (an the player) as well as the virtuosic possibilities almost inherent in solo string playing. Hersch is solidly in that tradition here, with pieces that probe the nature of cello playing in the context of the composer’s very personal post 20th-century neo-modernism. The music is characterized by meditative lyricism or mysticism, punctuated by aggressively angular and rhythmically biting phrases.

Daniel Gaisford plays these difficult (in every sense of the word) and supremely rewarding pieces with seemingly limitless technique and a musical personality as strong as Hersch’s. Their collaboration makes for an exciting and provocative musical experience.

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9310RAKOWSKI: Études. Amy Briggs, piano. Bridge 9310. 78 minutes.

This is the third volume in Bridge’s set of David Rakowski’s Études for piano. The present disc, brilliantly performed by Amy Briggs, includes selections from Book V as well as Books VI and VII in their entirety.

 An étude (study) can explore many different subjects at once. It can be a technical exercise for the pianist, such as a fingering study, or an exercise for repeating notes, for example. For the composer these studies provide him or her with the challenge of making expressive musical sense out of the technical challenges the pieces present to the performer.

 Rakowski, in his Études, has added stylistic exercise to this mix. Theses pieces are written in a dazzling array of compositional and performance styles. The titles (“Stutter Stab”, “Cell Division”, and “Killer B’s”, for example) give a hint of both the technical and stylistic/expressive problems addressed in each piece. The pop-sounding titles indirectly describe the sound of the music, which is “tonal” in the broadest sense of the word, with fugitive key centers banging up against each other.

 Amy Briggs plays this difficult music with precision and style. She makes it sound easy, and it certainly isn’t. Her playing is expressive and colorful. I look forward to going back to the earlier discs in the series.

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johncage8CAGE: Sculptures Musicales; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Nine; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Nine; Eighty. Christina Fong, violins, violas; Karen Krummel, cellos; Michael Crawford, basses; Glenn Freeman, percussion and bowed piano; Prague Winds; Chance Operations Collective of Kalamazoo. OgreOgress DVD 634479962141. 121 minutes.

The current disc is another in a remarkable series of first recordings of late works of John Cage on the OgreOgress label. For an introduction to the composer’s late style, see this review of an earlier disc in the series.

This disc is not going to win over anyone who is predisposed to disliking Cage’s music. The pieces (and their committed, perceptive realizations/performances) are uncompromising and direct expressions of the composer’s aesthetic. There’s a  hushed tension in these pieces, manifest in noisy, quiet sounds (as in Sculptures Musicales) or in the fugitive unisons and pregnant silences of Eighty.

The combination of repertoire, performances, and great 96kHz|24bit sound make this release indispensable for Cage students and admirers, and highly recommended for the adventurous listener.

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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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8_559363.gifCARTER: Quartets 2, 3 and 4. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559363. 74 minutes.

The first disc (Naxos 8.559362) of the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of Elliott Carter’s string quartets consisted of compelling performances of the First (1951) and Fifth (1996) Quartets, the bookends of the composer’s essays in the medium (so far). The current disc completes the cycle in fine form, and the two discs together document Carter’s development both as a quartet composer and as a composer in general.

These “middle” quartets track the composer’s journey through the explorations of the 1950s, the extremities of complexity of the 70s, to the cusp of his late late style at the end of the 80s. The Second Quartet (1959) marks a big step in the development of Carter’s musical discourse, in which the instruments embody individual expressive characters, delineated by unique musical vocabularies. The result is, to my ear, a kind of music that leans heavily on gesture rather than on theme. In this strong and expansive performance, the players of the Pacifica give the gestures of this piece the weight they need for the work to communicate its expressive content.

The Third Quartet (1971) remains one of Carter’s most complex structures, so much so that even some fans of the composer find it merely “complicated”. I like the piece quite a bit, and the performance here is a revelation””the players bring out the lines in each duo more clearly than I’ve ever heard before. I think this reading of the Quartet will cause some to take a new listen to it.

The Fourth Quartet (1986) is the most traditional piece in the cycle, at least in terms of its structure. The by-now-standard-for-Carter partitioning of musical materials between instruments is at the service of a Beethoven four movement structure. At first hearing, this is a far less vital work than the other quartets, but it grows on you, and there is much of value in it. The reading it is given by the Pacifica is strong and expressive.

There is so much for interpreters of these works to explore that I would be hardpressed to call any reading them definitive, but you could do worse than start with the Pacifica Quartet recordings of Carter’s string quartets.

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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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johncage7.jpgCAGE: Three; Twenty-Eight; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight; Twenty-Eight with Twenty-Nine. Prague Winds; Christina Fong, violin; Susanna Borsch, recorders; Karen Krummel, cello; Michael Crawford, bass; Glenn Freeman, percussion. OgreOgress DVD 634479754012. 122 minutes.

Most Sequenza21 readers have at least a passing familiarity with some of the “number pieces” of John Cage’s late period. With his fame at its height and the commissions coming in at an astonishing rate, the composer developed a new means of notation (the “time frame”) and a not-completely-unrelated titling system (the pieces are titled after the number of performers required to play them, with superscript numbers to designate works requiring an already-used number of players) to respond to the stream of commissions.

With these pieces, the master became the student. The soundworld of Cage’s number pieces bears the unmistakable stamp of Morton Feldman’s influence. They are quiet and slow, with lots of white space (silence). Unlike Feldman, Cage is not interested in patterns and their repetition””Cage’s quiet is in that way very different from Feldman’s.

This OgreOgress audio-DVD (96kHz|24bit) of several of Cage’s number pieces for winds stands as a great introduction to this important body of music and a wonderful musical experience.

Three is scored for three recorder players, playing a large number of recorders. Susanna Borsch plays all three parts in this recording. All of these pieces require a steady tone and rigorous intonation, and Ms. Borsch has both to spare, as do all of the performers on the program. Three is cast in sections: a first and last section required, and any (or none) of eight three-minute segments that may be played between them. In this recording the listener is invited to make that decision, potentially resulting a different piece every time  one listens to it.

The other three pieces on the program, Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight, and Twenty-Eight with Twenty-Nine illustrate another aspect of Cage’s musical world-view, one that is seen throughout his career””the combining of different pieces to make a new musical experience. (He also occasionally sanctioned the separate performance of parts of larger pieces, such as the orchestral parts of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra.) These larger pieces are still quiet and built of long tones, but the result is a teeming, democratic quietude that is as compelling as the more empty spaces of the smaller ensemble and solo number pieces.

The performances here are all that you could ask for. The intonation and even tones are mesmerizing, and the subtly changing chords and textures that result when players enter and exit make for a novel kind of musical narrative. The high-resolution sound puts you in the middle of the music, which seems especially apt given Cage’s aesthetic. This is a must-have DVD.

Finally, this disc is one of several that should put to rest the argument about Cage””he is a profound philosopher and an “inventor of genius”, but he was also a great composer.

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PC_cover_drop-shadow.jpgSZABí“/KASTNING: Parallel Crossings. Sí¡ndor Szabí³, Kevin Kastning, baritone guitars. Greydisc 3504. 56 minutes.

This new disc of improvised duets by guitarists Sí¡ndor Szabí³ and Kevin Kastning picks up where last year’s Resonance left off. Everything I said in that review applies equally well to Parallel Crossings. These guys can really play, and the recording sounds very good, indeed.

If you liked/loved Resonance, you’ll feel the same way about Parallel Crossings.


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Jaffe.jpgJAFFE: Cut-Time; Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra; Poetry of the Piedmont; Homage to the Breath. North Carolina Symphony/Grant Llewellyn; David Hardy, cello; Odense Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann; Milagro Vargas, mezzo-soprano; 21st Century Consort/Christopher Kendall. BRIDGE 9255. 64 minutes.

Stephen Jaffe provides a tour of the music that has influenced him in a brief and engaging introductory essay to this Bridge release. Jaffe was born in 1954, and the list of influences will be familiar to anyone who has followed the careers of composers of that generation, which is, by the way, my generation. The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Tin Pan Alley, “˜60s avant-garde””this music (the list is by no means comprehensive) has found its way into the DNA of the composers and other musicians of the generation in question in ways both obvious and subtle.

Jaffe (on the evidence of the music on this disc) wears his influences clearly but lightly. The orchestral piece Cut-Time includes direct references to a number of older pop styles, including gospel and rag, but it comes off neither as a nostalgia trip nor as musical anthropology. And at a running time of about two minutes, it is very efficient.

In the Cello Concerto (2003) the influences are buried in the music and Mr. Jaffe’s own voice carries the day. His vision of the cello soloist as an individual voice is sympathetic and expressive. Jaffe solves the acoustic problem of making the cello sound well against the orchestra with a solution out of Elliott Carter’s toolbox””the cello is aided and abetted by changing groups supporting instruments. Cellist David Hardy gives a strong and expressive performance of the demanding solo part, and Paul Mann and the Odense Symphony provide eloquent accompaniment.

The last two pieces on the disc, Poetry of the Piedmont and Homage to the Breath don’t work quite as well for me as the Cello Concerto. They are both more concrete in their eclecticism than the Concerto and their expressive content seems more on and of the surface. That said they are both very attractive pieces and the performers (the North Carolina Symphony under Grant Llewellyn in Poetry and Milagro Argas and the 21st Century Consort under Christopher Kendall in Homage) give them dedicated readings

Jaffe’s music is made from a flexible vocabulary””references to tonal centers are frequent and freely deployed, and the composer is not afraid to let his atonal side show itself when the expressive occasion demands it. The result is a style that is both new and familiar. His music deserves a wide hearing. This release should help.


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