Archive for the “Steve Hicken” Category

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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concertopourvioloncelle.jpgTANGUY: Violoncello Concertos 1, 2. Anne Gastinel, cello; Orchestre national de France/Alain Altinoglu. Naí¯ve V5078. 57 minutes.

í‰ric Tanguy’s cello concertos blend elements of the genre’s rich conventions””mulitple, contrasting movements; conflict and cooperation between soloist and orchestra; virtuosic solo writing; and passages of singing lyricism””with an up-to-date musical outlook. The materials of these pieces range from dissonant harmonies to passages of almost chorale-like tonal progressions. The solo part, which stays in the cello’s intense upper register for much of its course, is made of gestures more than themes, but they are highly expressive gestures and clearly identifiable.

Tanguy’s orchestration is fairly traditional, in that the choirs work as choirs, but there is far more brass and percussion than you normally get in string concertos. His rhythmic style is very flexible, with some passages tied to perceptible pulses and others not.

Cellist Anne Gastinal plays these pieces as if they were first nature to her (the Second Concerto was written for her.) with ravishing technique and a big, singing sound. Alain Altinoglu leads the Orchestre national de France in committed and assured performances.

Recommended for those who like contemporary Modernism and essential for cello fans.  

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karenparks.jpeBURLEIGH: Spirituals and Art Songs. Karen Parks, soprano; Wayne Sanders, piano; ALIAS Chamber Ensemble. Ottimavoce. 46 minutes.

Harry T. Burleigh was a pioneering force in African-American music and in American music in general. His art songs were among the first American efforts in the genre to be widely performed by the most famous singers of his time (He lived from 1866-1949). His arrangements (for voice and piano) of traditional Negro spirituals were a significant musicological achievement as well as an important addition to the song repertoire.

Nobody Knows: Songs of Harry T. Burleigh is a representative sampling of the composer’s songs and spirituals, sung with style and expression by soprano Karen Parks in her debut recital recording. Ms Parks has a rich and creamy voice, strong intonation and diction, and a highly developed sense of drama and phrasing.

These performances communicate a clear understanding of the relationship between text and music in both the spirituals and the songs. She also illuminates the differences between the genres without erecting an artificial aesthetic wall between them.

Wayne Sanders offers solid and musical support for Ms Parks, and the ALIAS Chember Ensemble does the same in an arrangement of “Weepin’ Mary”. The recorded sound is clear and well-balanced, and David Macias’ liner notes are informative. This is a debut that reveals Karen Parks as an artist to keep an eye on.


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Gerber.gifGERBER: Symphony 6; Variations. Electronic realizations by the composer. Ottava 07-009. 51 minutes.

Jerry Gerber’s music is written for “virtual orchestra” and is “realized” rather than performed. Gerber spends a lot of space in the program notes for this disc on the value of the technology that allows composers to hear even works for full orchestra in almost real time, as they are composed. At the end, then, this:

Nevertheless, the age-old artistic problem for composers remains: What do I want to say and what kind of music must I write? This compact disc is a consequence of trying to answer those questions one more time.

Gerber’s answer (from the evidence of this disc) is to write splashy mid-century style music of gestures and themes that remain for the most part undeveloped. The combination of his style and the technology would seem to be ideal for a certain kind of film composition.

Fortunately, for the sake of working musicians, the virtual orchestra doesn’t sound enough like a real orchestra to replace it. On the other hand, film producers looking to cut costs will be all over it.  

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coates.gifCOATES: Symphony 15; Cantata da Requiem; Transitions. Teri Dunn, soprano; Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Michael Boder; Talisker Players; Ars Nova Nuremberg/Werner Heider. Naxos 8. 559371. 59 minutes.

Originality is no longer the coin of the realm in music composition. It’s been over forty years since Charles Wuorinen wonder how you could have a revolution when the revolution before last declared “anything goes”. However, there are still many ways a composer can produce works whose hallmark is a striking originality. Given that anything goes, one avenue towards originality is in the striking juxtaposition of disparate musical elements.

Gloria Coates is a master of this juxtaposition. In his informative notes to this recording, Kyle Gann describes the signature elements of her music:

. . . slow string glissandos. Another is wavery textures of faster glissandos, at varying rates. Another is conventionally tonal chorale writing, often quoting previous music. Another is simple, even marchlike rhythmic patterns, sometimes offset within her favorite 5/4 meter.

What makes this music so compelling is the way these simple, clearly identifiable gestures are put together. Actually, they are often forced together, and it’s the strain of the disparate elements coming together that gives Coates’ music its dark, expressive power.

A fine example of this power is the second movement of the Fifteenth Symphony (“Homage to Mozart”). A wind chorale is gradually overcome by massive, slow glissandos in the strings. Simplicity itself, but indelible nonetheless.

All of the performances on this remarkable program are top notch. Soprano Teri Dunn gives a moving reading of the soprano part in the Cantata da Requiem, a setting of texts by American and German women written during the Second World War. The instrumental ensembles all play Coates’ difficult-sounding music with apparent ease, born of commitment and understanding.

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hartway.gifHARTWAY: 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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