Archive for the “Steve Hicken” Category

Earnest.jpgEARNEST: Winter Dances; The Blue Estuaries; Trois Morceaux. Judith Kellock, soprano; Mariam Adam, clarinet; Peter Sanders, cello; Evelyn Ulex, piano; Hrabba Atladottir, violin; Ensemble X/Sebastian Gottschalk. Koch 7555. 53 minutes.

John David Earnest has devoted most of his long compositional career to music for orchestra, song cycles, and choral music. The current disc contains about half of his chamber music. The music here is accessible, but not without some harmonic and (especially) rhythmic bite.

All of this music is exceptionally well-written. The instruments sound great””in fact, the music is probably easier to play than it sounds, and performers love that. The forms are simple, direct, and clearly-articulated. In fact, Earnest’s skill as a composer raises the craft itself to an expressive element of the music. It’s a case where the technique so identifies with the content that quality of the work translates into expression. Earnest’s harmony is tonal, but not diatonic, and his rhythmic style is flexibly pulse-y, with shifting accents and changing meters.

The performances are very good, with the players responding to their parts with style and skill. Soprano Judith Kellock delivers the vocal part in The Blue Estuaries in a rich, full soprano voice and with solid diction and a good sense of phrase. Koch’s production is very clean, with good balance.


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wheeler.gifWHEELER: The Construction of Boston. William Hite, Charles Blandy, tenor; Krista River, mezzo-soprano; Marcus DeLoach, Christí²pheren Nomura, baritone; Christine Swistro, Sharla Nafziger, soprano; Elizabeth Anker, contralto; Chorus & Orchestra of The Boston Cecilia/ Donald Teeters. Naxos 8.669018. 60 minutes.

Scott Wheeler’s The Construction of Boston (libretto by Kenneth Koch; 1989, r. 2002) is a delightful one-act allegory on, well, the building of the city of Boston. As is the case with many recent American operas, it is stylistically eclectic, but there is no feeling of pastiche, and the composer’s musical personality is evident throughout.

The music is accessible, edgily tonal most of the time, with a feeling of Bernstein-style Broadway in some of the choruses. The vocal writing is idiomatic and the words come through very clearly. Wheeler’s rhythmic style is beat-oriented but also free and striking. His orchestration is inventive””bright and arresting.

The vocal performances are solid to excellent, with standout performances by tenor William Hite (as “The Opera” and Jean Tinguely), soprano Sharla Nafziger (as Niki de St Phalle), and baritone Christí²pheren Nomura (as Robert Rauschenberg; I told you it was an allegory). The chorus and orchestra of The Boston Cecilia, led by Donald Teeters, give very good accountings of themselves. The sound in this concert performance is very good. Everything is audible and the balance is as good as you would find in a studio recording.

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend an hour.

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88 Keys.jpgCHOPIN: 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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product149462image.jpgBRYARS: And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world; Pí„RT: The Beatitudes; LOMON: “Transport”, from Testimony of Witnesses; DUCKWORTH: Selections from Southern Harmony; WALKER: Selections from The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Boston Secession/Jane Ring Frank. Brave 720. 52 minutes.
The house of minimalism has many mansions. In fact, minimalism itself moved out (probably in order to sublet) around the time of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a piece whose relatively spritely harmonic rhythm (the pace at which the chords change) indicates a break with “pure” minimalism. Since then, the label of “minimalist” has been accepted and rejected by composers of a wide range of musical attitudes and attributes.
The music on Surprised by Beauty: Minimalism in Choral Music shows that the choral and instrumental group Boston Secession takes a broad view of minimalism. The common characteristic among the pieces is a certain level of simplicity on the surface and a commitment to tonality in one form or another.

Gavin Bryars’ And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is a meditative setting of a brief prose description of the last, minor occurrence in the philosopher’s life. The text is from Thomas de Quincey’s biography, and Bryars sets it in straightforward speech rhythms, with no counterpoint and only occasional harmony. The expressive power in the piece comes from Bryars’ use of melodic dissonances, which usually consist in lowering scale degrees and lengthening the syllable. And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is an almost perfect match of subject/text and technique.
Arvo Pí¤rt’s Beatitudes is even more austere than the Bryars, in some ways. It is scored for chorus and organ, and the organ supplies volume, counterpoint, and drama. On the other hand, the text is given a ritualistic setting, letting the words speak for themselves free of expressive ornament. The result is a piece both lean and haunting.
Ruth Lomon’s Testimony of Witnesses is an evening-long oratorio based on poetry by victims of the Holocaust. The “Transport” section is a setting of short verses about the trains that carried people to the concentration camps. Lomon uses the considerable resources of the Boston Secession instrumental contingent (Testimony of Witnesses was written for them) to paint a harrowing sound picture of these events. The music is tonal and directly expressive. It’s powerful and deeply moving.
The program proper concludes with selections from William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony, a reworking of hymn-tunes from William Walker’s 1835 The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Duckworth is one of the founders of post-minimalism, which employs minimalist techniques (repetition of notes, motives, or phrases and clear, usually relatively fast pulsation) along with techniques from both more traditional and more Modernist techniques. Walker’s original hymn-tunes provide excellent grist for Duckworth’s mill. The result is an exultant updating and deepening of music that already was part of America’s artistic DNA when Duckworth got hold of it. The disc closes with “bonus tracks”, lively readings of some of Walker’s hymn-tunes that Duckworth used as source material.
The performances, led by Boston Secession Artistic Director Jane Ring Frank, are uniformly outstanding and sound very good””you can hear everything. Highly recommended for those interested in recent trends in choral writing and performing.

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Stravinsky piano.gifSTRAVINSKY: 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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Elgar Songs.gifELGAR: Part-Songs. Cambridge University Chamber Choir/Christopher Robinson; Iain Farrington, piano. Naxos 8.570541. 76 minutes.

This lovely album highlights one of the many great things about the Naxos label””the release of collections of specific slices of literature at popular prices. Edward Elgar’s music for small, usually unaccompanied, choir makes a great addition to the Naxos catalog.

If I don’t have much to say about this collection, and I don’t, it’s not as dismissal or an indication of disapproval or aesthetic rejection, but only that the music is purely pleasurable to me in a way that makes analysis completely beside the point. Some of my favorite pieces and moments are the whole of “There is a Sweet Music” (No. 1 of Four Choral Songs, Op. 53) and the ravishing upward sweep at the beginning of “The Shower” (No. 1 of Two Choral Songs, Op. 71).

The performances here are expert and expressive, as one would expect of performances of English music by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. There sound is warm and balanced, and their diction excellent.

Highly recommended to fans of Elgar and to fans choral music.

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Carter Quartets.gifCARTER: Quartets 1 and 5. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559362. 61 minutes.

I think it is safe to say that most Sequenza21 readers have at least a passing familiarity with the music of Elliott Carter. It’s probably not a stretch to say that most S21 readers (and certainly the writers) have strong feelings about it.

The current disc is the first of a two part traversal of the composer’s string quartets, by the Pacifica Quartet. The Quartet has made a splash with their Carter performances, playing all five quartets in single sittings as well as including them in regular programs.

The two Quartets on this disc were written 45 years apart, and they illustrate two distinct modes of their composer. The First (1951) is in Carter’s expansive, high rhetorical mode. It is a very public statement in what is usually a private medium. (Think the Beethoven of the Rasumovsky quartets, for example.) Its phrases are often long and over-lapping, the sections clearly articulated and the instruments usually reinforcing each other, rather than the oppositional strategies of the Second and Third Quartets.

The Pacifica performance of the piece is long-limbed and taut. The emphasis throughout is on rhythm, and the drama created by the combinations of unison rhythms and starkly contrasted counterpoint. The intensity with which the Pacifica players push the driving rhythms of the Fantasia and Allegro scorevole movements makes the tranquil chords of the Adagio that much more tellingly expressive.

The Fifth Quartet (1995) is an example of Carter’s recent brand of meta-musical postmodernism (the Clarinet Concerto is another example). It is “about” how a string quartet rehearses, with phrases being tried out, passed around, and put aside. In contrast with the First Quartet, it is fragmentary and gestural, with thin textures and hints at ensemble playing. It’s far more condensed, with 12 sections in 21 minutes, as opposed to the 4 sections in 40 minutes of the First.

The Pacifica reading of the Fifth is intimate and shapely, with the fragmentary gestures carrying their full meaning the way people who know each other extremely well can communicate in mere phrases or with a single word. The performance underlines the shape of Carter’s musical gestures and their relationship to each other.

Naxos has provided a fine sonic design for these performances””every detail is clear and audible. The relationships between the instruments are always comprehensible. This disc is an excellent introduction to Carter’s quartets, in part because of the budget price. Highly recommended for fans and newcomers.

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TRUEMAN: Five (and-a-half) Gardens. So Percussion; Trollstilt; Rinde Eckert, Jennifer Trueman. Shhh 001 [CD and DVD-ROM]. 55 minutes.

Five (and-a-half) Gardens is a multi-media performance piece for percussion, folk-tradition string instruments, speaking voice, and animated paintings (by Judy Trueman, available on the DVD-ROM). It is a very relaxed, pleasant piece, drawing on a tremendous variety of sounds and musical traditions.

My favorite section is one called “Murphy’s Garden”, which is built on an infectious calliope-style groove that reminds me of Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love.

The performers are all quite good””the piece gives off a strong sense of community, of shared endeavor. The recorded sound is very good, which is not always the case in percussion music.

NOTE: I couldn’t find an image of the CD cover online, but images from the disc and samples of the music may be found here.

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8-226514.jpgBRí˜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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kernis.jpgKERNIS: Simple Songs; Valentines; Songs of Innocents, Books 1 and 2. Susan Narucki, soprano, Donald Berman, piano; Chamber Ensemble/Aaron Jay Kernis. Koch 7667. 77 minutes.

Aaron Jay Kernis has steadily built an imposing catalogue of well-made, expressive pieces that reside well inside the compositional mainstream. He has a firm grasp on the technical and expressive possibilities that are available through essentially tonal means. He has a really good ear for instrumental and vocal color, and a keen sense of scale and form.

This disc of songs is a good introduction to Kernis’ work. The Simple Songs are scored for soprano and chamber ensemble, and they show off the composer’s orchestrational skills, as well as his rhythmic vitality. The composer leads a pick-up ensemble in this bright and engaging work.

The other two cycles on the program are for voice and piano. Kernis successful treats the voice as a vehicle for the text and as a “purely” musical partner for the piano. His text setting is clear, with the words always coming through.

That latter is also due to the fine singing of Susab Narucki. She has a fine voice and projects an understanding of the poems that brings out their relationship to the music. Donald Berman is a skilled and expressive accompanist.

The sound on this recording is very good. Every detail comes through clearly. Highly recommended, especially for fans of new vocal music.


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