Archive for the “Symphony” Category

Erkki-Sven Tüür
ECM Records New Series 2040 CD

In his recent music, Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür has dispensed with some of the polystylistic juxtapositions of his earlier works in favor of a methodical, mathematically devised approach he calls “vectorial writing.” While this approach does seem to create a more unified sensibility to his harmonic language, the results never seem mechanical. Rather, Tüür’s recent music is capable of a passionate immediacy that’s often quite refreshing. Yet at the same time, he’s unafraid of employing swaths of dissonance and creating intricate formal designs.

Strata, Tüür’s Sixth Symphony, is an intense work, brimming with dynamic power. Emerging from icy verticals and bustling counterpoint are myriad swells of knotty cluster chords and fierce, angular melodies, which gradually build to explosive orchestral climaxes. Strict constructionists may quibble with calling a single-movement work a symphony; but then again, they’d have to argue with Lutoslawski on that score too! Strata certainly tends to favor the heft and developmental formal trajectory of a large-scale symphonic work rather than the episodic/programmatic elements of a tone poem. In a confident and detailed performance, the Nordic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anu Tali, makes a strong impression here in their debut for the ECM imprint.

Strata is paired with Noesis, a double concerto for the sibling duo of violinist Carolin Widmann and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. Their solo lines emerge from a slowly evolving, prevailingly ominous orchestral backdrop, which is only occasionally brightened by shimmering chords from pitched percussion. The Widmanns are given numerous dovetailing duets and ebullient solo turns which contrast with their stark accompaniment. Eventually, the orchestra gives chase, adding propulsive countermelodies, jagged repeated string chords, sustained dissonant wind clusters, and eruptive brass and drums to the proceedings. Once again, Tüür has fashioned a labyrinthine journey in a single formidable and fascinating movement. Recommended.

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In Media Res / Roam / Double Violin Concerto / Synopses 1-15

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose
With Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Lisa Bielawa, soprano

BMOP Sound

Lisa Bielawa is a phenomenon. The perky San Francisco native who, judging from her booklet photo, appears to be very much on the sunny side of life, first gained fame as a singer, touring with the Philip Glass ensemble from 1992, although she had concurrently been a composer since her earliest years and had received several performances when she was in her teens.  She founded in 1997 the MATA Festival to promote the work of new composers, and began concentrating on her own compositions. Right from the beginning, she has shown a decided preference for the larger forms of music. Her dense, robust symphonic style is not at all what you would expect of a vocalist turned composer, although she does not ignore the lyrical element in her music.

Roam (2001), one of the earlier works on this program, already reveals Bielawa’s gift for perusasive, moody orchestration and her passionate love of literature. The inspiration in this case was a quote from Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin: “I roam above the sea, / I wait for the right weather, / I beckon to the sails of ships. / … / When shall I start on my free course?” In keeping with the verse, which has more to say about the inner state of the speaker than it is a tone picture of the sea, Bielawa focuses on the tension between the exhileration of freedom, like a ship moving freely on the sea, and the danger that freedom entails.

Double Violin Concerto (2008) was dedicated “to Colin, Carla, Gill, and BMOP” and reflects Bielawa’s close personal and professional relations to three key figures in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (see above). It represents a further step beyond Roam in its great melodic and tonal warmth. After the contrapuntal solemnity of the opening movement, “Portico,” we are in for a surprise in “Song,” as violinist Kihlstedt sings an English translation of a passge from Gorthe’s Faust accompanied by her own scordatura violin and Jacobsen’s deft arpeggios in support of the vocal line. The text is appropriate, too, a tribute to the transformative power of the imagination: “Leave the great world, let it run riot, / And let us stay where it is quiet. / It’s something that has long been done, / To fashion little worlds within the bigger one.” Jacobsen takes the center stage in the final movement, Play with a Play,” which begins in deeply moving music inspired by Gregorian settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, grows more intense, and almost imperceptibly metamorphoses into, first, a stately dance episode, and then an evocation of gypsy fiddling with an improvided cadenza.

Bielawa herself is the vocalist in Unfinish’d, Sent (2000), inspired by a line from Richard III in which the protagonist excuses his evil proclivities by blaming them it on his physical deformity: “Unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” In the first half of the piece, which is all orchestra, a gesture struggles mightily to no avail, to coalesce into a melody. When the singer enters with an eery setting of Shaespeare’s verse, it reinforces the sense of something (such as a work of music?) striving to be born. Sound echoes sense again in an unsettling, rhythmically-recast, quote from Vivaldi’s Winter, emphasizing the play’s opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.”

Lisa Bielawa saves the best for last on CD1. Titled In Media Res, the 2009 work is perhaps the most exacting of all genres, the concerto for orchestra. Bielawa wrote it to commemorate her tenure with BMOP and her friendships with its members. She based it, in turn, on her 15 Synopses, pithy, aphoristic pieces lasting on the average about five minutes that typically develop out of small kernels and crystallize to give a distinct impression of the personality and prowess of each musical artist. The individual Synopses are further distinguished with whimsical 6-word titles, such as “In The Eye Of The Beholder,” “It Takes One To Know One,” “No-No-No, Put That Down” and “Two days after you left, I,” further underscoring the orchestral concerto genre itself as a species of serious play. (The 15 Synopses are collected together on CD2, which, at 68:45, cannot exactly be considered an “extra” on this program.)

What Bielawa did, amazingly, was to fashion her Concerto for Orchestra (which truly deserves the name: it is not by any means a pastiche) by assembling the various Synopses like a skilled lapidary into a very impressive and solidly cohesive whole that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Like the major work of symphonic music that it is, it ranges over all the emotions, from rising excitement mounting to terror at the very opening, to sadness, pensiveness, hope, and even joyous affirmation. Add the glowing, luminous orchestration, revealing a composer who understands well the range and expressive capability of every instrument, and you have a concerto for orchestra that will stand up with the most distinguished achievements in this genre of the past hundred years. Seriously, I urge every aficionado of 20/21 music to give full attention to this rising star.

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Red Garuda / Rilke Songs / Bagatelles /

Piano Quintet

Peter Serkin, James Conlon, New York Philharmonic, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Orion String Quartet

Bridge Records
First, a clarification: “Red Garuda” is not the name of  a gangster, a professional wrestler, or a rodeo cowboy. Garudas are colossal bird-like creatures that exist in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. A golden Garuda is the symbol of Indonesia and the name of its national airline. A red Garuda is the national symbol of Thailand. More to the point of why contemporary American composer Peter Lieberson (b.1946) chose this title for his work for piano and orchestra, the Garuda is said to be capable of flying vast distances without tiring and of changing its shape and size. Thus, the creature can be taken as an emblem of absolute freedom, of a life unrestricted by conventional limitations. The inspiration for the creative artist is clear. As Lieberson explains it, “Before I began composing the piece, I had a dream vision of sitting on the back of a huge Garuda flying over different kinds of landcapes.” The work premiered, significantly, in 1999, the year the composer married his wife, the late, beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The wonderful upsurge of powerful emotion one encounters in the 25 minute work may well reflect the joy he felt at this time.

 Red Garuda is listed as Lieberson’s second piano concerto, but is really more a symphonic poem with a piano soloist, much in the way that Scriabin’s Poem of Fire is. The analogy is not an idle one, as Lieberson employs Scriabinesque pulsating chords, tubular bells, and powerful contributions from the lower strings and bass drum to portray the Garuda’s emergence from the darkness and the apprehensive atmosphere of a pre-dawn world. This striking introduction, powerfully realized by pianist Peter Serkin and by the New York Philharmonic under James Conlon, gives way to variations symbolizing the ancient elements of Fire, Water, and Earth combined with Wind, as the Garuda soars over continents and oceans.

Eastern mythology is one thing. But when it comes to the verse of German language Austro-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), that’s something else! I must confess I’m beyond my depth when it comes to explicating lines such as “Oh be inspired for the flame, in which a Thing disppears and bursts into something else; the spirit of re-creation which masters this earthly form, loves most the pivoting point where you are no longer yourself.” While even Lieberson admits there are lines in Rilke that defy exact explanation, the sense one gets in Rilke of continual transformation, of becomings rather than endings, obviously appeals strongly to him as a composer. That he could draw on the interpretive insights of his wife and of his frequent collaborator Peter Serkin in his settings of five of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” was definitely to his advantage. I was especially impressed with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s considerable prowess as a song interpreter, which is essential in re-creating the sense of a very difficult and often paradoxical poet, and then expressing it in terms of pure lyricism.

I wasn’t as taken with Lieberson’s three Bagatelles (1985), partly because the titles puzzled me. My notion of a “bagatelle” is that of a trifle or an amusing anecdote, something lighter in mood than these somber piano pieces. “Proclamation” bears out its name musically well enough, but “Spontaneous Songs” seems a misnomer for a group of short subjects that strike me as rather hesitant and not terribly lyrical at all, and “Nocturne” might have been a better title for the restlessly probing third movement that Lieberson calls “The Dance.”

I’m more sanguine about Lieberson’s Piano Quintet (2003), an energetic work that further benefits from an outstanding performance by Serkin and the Orion String Quartet (Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violins; Steve Tenenbom, viola; and Timothy Eddy, cello). By this time, Serkin had been performing with the Orions for years, going back to the old days at Marlboro, and its shows in the solid mutual support these musicans give one another. The spirit of Cape Breton folk fiddling permeates the mood and rhtyhms of this music, evoking a place with strong associations for the composer. Part I of the work is in the form of a fantasy based on a four-note motif heard early-on. There is a brief interlude, the theme of which becomes the subject of a finely wrought fugue in Part II which builds to a vigorous climax. We have a recolection of earlier material, including a terse quotation of the four-note motif that we heard at the beginning, and then it all ends suddenly, good night and good luck!

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Music of Viktor Kalabis

Zuzana Růžičková, piano & harpsichord
Josef Suk, violin; The Suk Trio
Vlach String Quartet
Prague Chamber Soloists
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by
Jiří Bělohlávek, Zdeněk Košler, Václav Neumann, and Karel Šejna

MSR Classics

Czech composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006) was an unknown name to me when this 3-CD jewel box arrived in the mail. As I began scanning the Internet for basic research in writing this review, I was astonished to find that only two Kalabis works were listed on, both buried in recordings of works by other composers. My wonder increased as I actually began listening to the composer’s music. Here was a distinctive, major voice of the 20th century, one who by rights should have a place in modern music near to Bartók or Kodály, two older contemporaries whom he admired, or Stravinsky, of whom he wrote a thesis. (I will leave it to others more qualified than I, and to time, which reveals all things, to determine the exact niche.) Why had I never encountered this striking figure before, in concert or on record?

The answer lies in the fact that Kalabis spent his most creative years in a time when his country was under a Communist regime. That he fell in love with and married a Jewish woman (the great keyboard artist Zuzana Růžičková) probably did not endear him to the authrorities. That they both steadfastly refused to join the Party met with petty retribution. For Růžičková, the first harpsichordist to record all the works for her instrument by J.S. Bach, it meant confiscation of all her fees from foreign concerts. For Kalabis, it meant denial of every visa application to travel abroad and promote his own music in the concert hall. It was a conspiracy of utter silence, in its effect more damning than anything that even Shostakovich experienced under the Soviet regime in Russia.

But there were some unexpected plusses. If Viktor Kalabis was denied a visa to travel, so were other artists. Thus he benefitted from the opportunity to develop professional and personal relationships with a number of great musicians in Prague in the four decades before the Party was overthrown in 1987. The work of many of these artists, as well as the contributions of outstanding sound engineers, is heard in the present program. Further, he had the advantage of being married to a world-class musician who might be expected to critique and perform his music. (Has anyone , other than Robert Schumann, ever been in that situation?) And just as he devoted his energies to the Bohuslav Martinu Foundation and Institute at a time when that composer’s work was a cause to fight for, so he himself has had the benefit of a similar foundation that continues to promote his work after his death (for information on its activities, visit ). The story of how the present MSR release became a reality is no doubt involved, but I note that the secretary of the international Viktor Kalabis and Zuzana Růžičková Foundation, the distinguished American flutist and educator John Solum, is credited here as executive producer. Providing further aid in the transatlantic effort were MSR’s Robert LaPorta for product management, unnamed engineers at Supraphon, Prague who provided superb digital transfers, and Richard Price of Candlewood Digital, who did the final digital mastering. It was a quality job all around, right down to the cover art and package design by Tim Schwartz of Orion Productions.

Having said all that, let’s get around to discussing the music. Viktor Kalabis’ style is distinctive. His music is economical, honest and direct. Right from the opening of any of the works in this program you get a clear impression of its purpose and specific weight. He is clearly a modernist with little of the romantic heritage in the forefront of his music, and yet his music has a distinctly Czech flavor that separates it from the modern mainstream in which it flows. The modernist features in his music compel, rather than repel, the listener, in particular his compelling rhythms, to which he frequently interjects boldly contrasted elements, his occasional use of bitonality and tone clusters, as he does in the Sonata for Trombone and Piano (1970), and most of all his wonderful color palette, especially at the dark end of the spectrum. His music is pure, with no implied program – the exception being The Two Worlds: Ballet Music, which he wrote for a staging of Alice in Wonderland by the Children’s Music department of Czech Television. Though his music is serious, it is never depressive.

Due to Kalabis’ concise style, we have the advantage of hearing eleven major works in this 3-disc package. Beginning with his Piano Concerto no. 1 (1956), which he wrote as a wdding present for his wife (Růžičková performs it here in a delightful performance with the Czech PO under Karel Šejna). Intended partly as a tribute to Mozart in his bicentennial year, it is a modern work that is very Mozartean in its formal design, its clarity, and its gentle humor. Listening to it, I kept recalling Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in the seriousness of its opening movement and the wonderful way the piano leavens that severity with the warmth and intimacy of its solo in the slow movement, an Andante marked molto quieto e semplice. Two symphonies are included. Symphony No. 4 in two movements (1972) is highly dramatic, with sensational use of the percussion as an integral element. No. 5 (1976) is subtitled “Fragment,” not because it is incomplete (it is in fact a unified work in a single movement), but in honor of Michelangelo’s famous unfinished sculptures, which it emulates in its highly condensed content and emotion. Chamber Music for Strings (1963), written for the Prague Chamber Soloists, shows a striving for all the rich tonality and expression of which a string orchestra is capable.

The chamber works bear further evidence to Kalabis’ concise expression and dramatic power. String Quartet No. 2 (of seven), which Kalabis wrote in 1962-63 in the shadow of his father’s impending death, reveals these qualities. So do the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord (1967), here performed by the artists for whom it was written, Suk and Růžičková, and the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (1974), likewise performed by the Suk Trio, to whom it is dedicated. In both we have distinguished ensemble playing and a central slow movement in which the final word is left to Suk’s violin, magically trailing off its final phrase into ultimate silence. In its mastery of harmony and counterpoint in a modern context, Kalabis’ six 2-voice Canonic Inventions for Harpsichord (1962, played here by Zuzana) pays handsome, scintillating homage to both Bach and Scarlatti. And even the Divertimento for Wind Quintet, perhaps the lightest work on the program, reflects Kalabis’ concerns for concision and pithy expression as it pays its respects to a golden past era from the perspective of a more problematical modern one in which it is still possible to find meaning and even elusive happiness.

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Leoš Janáček

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Breiner


Peter Breiner, music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, has done us a service in arranging and recording a series of suites from the operas of Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), with the object of making some of the composer’s most vibrant music accessible to a wider public outside the opera house. To judge from what I hear in these suites from Jenufa and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Breiner has succeeded admirably as both arranger and conductor. (Even as we speak, a second volume of Janáček suites, consisting of Katya Kabanova and The Makropoulos Affair, has been released by Naxos.)

Janáček has been called “the first minimalist composer,” but the analogy is misleading. Much of the effectiveness of his writing is due to his assimilation of the natural pitch, rhythm, and inflections of the Czech language. From this study, he derived what he called “speech tunes.”  These he applied as as short, repeated motifs to build his unique dramatic style. The repetition of these motifs has a powerful cumulative effect. It is, however, quite different from the way repetition is often used by our present-day Minimalists, which to my mind can be quite boring compared with the result Janáček achieved.

In terms of his orchestrations, on the other hand, you’d have to consider Janáček a “Maximalist,” if there is such a word (if not, coin it at once!) His scores are continuously busy, involving every family of the orchestra. Symphonic players must really love Janáček. No matter what your instrument, he doesn’t keep you sawing away in the background on some boring accompaniment for long; sooner or later, you will have your moment in the sun. In particular, his distinctive writing for the brass is highly imaginative and is often used for expressive purposes. In Jenufa, a dark, troubled tale of passion and jealousy in which, among other things, the heroine’s love child is drowned in a mill race by her envious stepmother, the sounds of the brass are often blurred as in a miasma, psychologically reflecting the internal turmoil of the characters. The mill itself is characterized by the ceaseless tapping of the xylophone, to be replaced later by the smoother, undulating sound of the harp, when the sinister crisis has been resolved and Jenufa has at last found happiness.

The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is an opera in a different mood, based on a fictional Czech hero who rivals Baron Münchhausen as a shameless liar. As befits a drunken hero who lives in a wine vat and is at one point sentenced to die in a beer barrel, the music associated with Broucek is highly colored. In the opening movement of the suite, our hero’s name, Mataj Broucek, is blared out for us by the horns and trumpets. When one of his imaginary “excursions” takes him to the moon, we hear mystic strings and harp glissandi. In the last excursion, when Broucek finds himself in 15 th century Prague, the savior of his country against the onslaughts of the Austrian Emperor, the scoring becomes more robust as Janáček invokes the same Hussite chorale that Smetana had previously used in Ma Vlast (My Homeland), and for much the same nationalistic purpose.

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Northern Lights
Cheremissian Fantasy
Kalevala Suite

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgårds, conductor
Samuli Peltonen, cello


Conductor John Storgårds leads an ear-opening account of music by Uuno Klami with the Helsinki Philharmonic, the very orchestra that premiered all the works found on this program. Klami (1900-1961) was, we are told, very much a cosmopolitan in his outlook, and was influenced by the new music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and the Russians from Rimsky-Korsakov on. You couldn’t tell it from the present CD offering by Ondine. The music here is highly nationalistic, Romantic in mood and orchestration, and inevitably redolent of Jean Sibelius, who maintained his resolute silence during most of Klami’s active career as a composer. Thereby hangs a tale.

The catalyst for the older style to which Klami reverted in the trio of symphonic masterworks heard here was none other than Robert Kajanus, founder and chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and the figure most responsible for making it a world class orchestra. An ardent patriot at a time when Finland had wrested its long-sought independence from Russia following the downfall of the Romanovs and was ever vigilant to keep that freedom, Kajanus used all his persuasive powers to convince Klami that the inspiration Sibelius had derived from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, was far from spent, and that it was still possible to “score a victory on the old fields of glory.”

That is what we hear on this program, the nationalistic and discretely romantic side of Uuno Klami, rather than the international and modernist. Beginning historically with the Cheremissian Fantasy (1931) for solo cello and orchestra, in which Klami used two alleged folk melodies of the Cheremis, a people distantly related to the Finns who lived in the northern reaches of the Volga. Klami expanded the ranges of the fixed-length pentatonic melodies to give himself more flexibility, and he wrote scintillating music for the solo cello. It is played here by Samuli Peltonen, one of Finland’s finest young musicians, who really shines when the cello breaks out with a mighty burst into the final, most virtuosic section of the piece.

Revontulet (Northern Lights, 1946) is a beautiful example of less=more scoring in an elegantly conceived celebration of the well-known phenomena in the Nordic sky. Some critics at the time of its premiere expressed disappointment that the orchestration wasn’t more colorful, which ignored Klami’s purpose in depicting, in his own words, “an expression of the infinite loneliness of the human spirit.” The oscillation of the orchestral colors in this piece, trailing off into silence at the end, achieves the purpose admirably.

Klami’s masterpiece, The Kalevala (1943) unfolds as a series of tableaux celebrating the origin of the cosmos and the assertion of the human element, as depicted in the Finnish folk epic. The masterfully scored first tableau, Creation of the Earth, moves from the inertia of the cold, primeval void to the glorious moment when the planet comes into being. The Sprout of Spring (couldn’t someone have come up with a better translation for Keväan oras?) is more lushly scored, as befits the subject, while Terhenniemi is a fleet-footed scherzo that captures the mood of folk dancing in a meadow on a summer’s day. Cradle Song for Lemminkäinen is a lullaby for the infant child. Its dignified but austerely melancholy mood clearly tells us (a) that Lemminkäinen is destined to become a great hero and (b) he would be well advised not to invest in the futures market. Finally, in The Forging of the Sampo, Klami brought all the power of the orchestra (and in particular, the sensational hammer-strokes from the percussion section) to bear on themes derived from old Finnish runo tunes as he celebrated the decisive moment when man’s creative energy and resourcefulness made its impact on the world. The Sampo of the title is a cornucopia, and its forging is emblematic of what archaeologists call the “Neolithic revolution,” when advances in agriculture and technology made permanent human communities possible. Thus we end a long journey from initial twilight to bold physical action.

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Per Nørgård 

Symphonies 3 and 7

Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir

Thomas Dausgaard, conductor

DaCapo Records

DaCapo has released a new recording of Per Nørgård’s Symphony #3, a masterpiece of color and structure to say the least.  The only other recording of this work that I have ever encountered (and perhaps the only other recording) is the Chandos release paired with Nørgård’s piano concerto.  The Chandos recording has served me well over the years and was a major contributor to me becoming a fan of Nørgård’s music.  This new recording, however, is sonically superior in almost every respect.  The sounds are sharper, crisper, and more detailed.

From the opening piano notes, through the glistening high-pitch descending lines, to the rich full brass and vibrant flexatone in the first three minutes, I felt like I was hearing this work for the first time again.  The sonic clarity and crispness of the performance is perfectly stunning.  The orchestra and voices perform with an infectious sense of joy and tranquility.  I can’t listen to the piece without my stomach fluttering.

There are moments in the piece that I think are best left to recording, dare I say, instead of a live performance.  This symphony is a work in which anything can and will happen.  The organ’s entrance is a moment of musical perfection, especially when you don’t know it is going to happen (sorry to spoil the surprise).  The same goes for the choir’s entrance 10 minutes into the second movement.  You didn’t know that you wanted to hear voices until they emerge.  Ulla Munch’s solo is buttery and lovely.

The disc also presents the world premiere recording of Nørgård’s Symphony #7.  This composition is an excellent pairing to Nørgård’s Symphony #3 as there are many similar sonic elements but the overall tone is much darker with more drive.  Instead of languishing in transcendant lush harmonies and colors from the symphony from the 70s, Nørgård’s most recent symphony (completed 2006) is full of agitation and motoric contraptions.  The first movement’s molto agitato looses its steam for just a moment in the middle before winding back up again.  Simple melodic paths and sprawling chords form the second movement but still placed together in a disquieted way.  The ending movement is a jagged and dance-like romp that sounds like it could serve as a contemporary Petrouchka ballet.  The same high-quality recording and performance holds true in this symphony.  You hear everything that happens and everyone is performing on their highest level.

Per Nørgård

String Quartets 7, 8, 9, 10

The Kroger Quartet

DaCapo Records

The same coloristic worlds that are explored in Nørgård’s symphonies are still at work in the more intimate genre of the string quartet and the Kroger Quartet sounds to be the perfect vessel for these four works.  Each of the quartets on this recording were written in collaboration with the Kroger Quartet and these later quartets span the early 90s to the mid 2000s (Quartet 10 is from 2005).

Quartet 7 is a very extroverted display of Nørgård’s colorful style in an approachable harmonic and gestural language.  Quartet 8, subtitled Night Descending Like Smoke, spans 5 short movements and captures moods and materials from Nørgård’s chamber opera Nuit des Hommes. The Kroger quartet nails the tense sound, terse language, and microtonality.  This quartet is my personal favorite on the disc, even though all four quartets are given rich and nuanced performances and once again display DaCapo’s knack for a transparent capturing of sound.

Quartet 9, Into the Source, tracks the notion of moving against the flow of things.  The gestures are energetic and driving throughout, even in the calmer second movement.  There is a sense of disquiet that I find foreshadows much of what I hear in the depths of Nørgård’s Symphony #7.

Quartet 10, Harvest Timeless, is the only quartet in a single movement and the long lyrical line that laces the whole movement together feels deeply personal.  This might sound strange, but I feel like this quartet is like eavesdropping.  I hear the joy and serenity from Nørgård’s Symphony #3 doing battle with the darker tone of Symphony #7 throughout this quartet.  Throughout it all, The Kroger Quartet has chameleon-like powers of color shifting and timbral transformation.  If you are into Nørgård in any capacity, neither of these discs should escape your ears.

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Nino Rota: Symphonies 1 & 2

Filarmonica “˜900 del Teatro Regio di Torino
Marzio Conti, conductor


It’s a funny thing, but people usually classify the output of composers who write for the cinema into two categories: film music and “serious” music, a distinction that shows scant respect for the former. This despite the fact that numerous composers (Villa-Lobos, Vaughn Williams, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Walton, Korngold) have been glad to refurbish material they originally composed for the movies and bring it out again, to great applause, in the symphony hall.

In the case of Nino Rota (1911-1979), the disparity in his public reputation is acute. His great success writing scores for the post-war Italian cinema (La Strada, 8 1/2, Amarcord, The Leopard, La Dolce Vita, Rocco and His Brothers) and Hollywood (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Godfather) led to the perception that he was “only” a film composer. His respectable body of music in other genres, including four symphonies, at least a half-dozen concertos for various instruments, ten operas and five ballets, works for string orchestra and chamber music, went unnoticed.

Until fairly recently, that is. The present offering – the fourth on the Chandos label alone, part of a modest wave of rediscovery – presents a composer who is very easy to like and enjoy. Symphonies 1 & 2, products of his twenties, show Rota as a 20th century romantic, not entirely unaware of modernist trends (and they really proliferated in Rome during the period between wars, so much so that he moved to the quiet of rural Puglia to avoid the intellectual confusion). Both these symphonies reveal his very Italian way of writing vocally inspired material, his mature ability to handle woodwinds and cut them into the orchestration for best effect in naturally interesting and striking ways, and his way with the various layers of string writing. They also reveal, as annotator Michele René Mannucci points out, the influence of someone we might not have thought, a figure he met in Sunday soirées at Arturo Toscanini’s apartment in New York during his sojourn in America in 1930-32. It was the Englishman, Ralph Vaughn Williams.

The Vaughn Williams connection is most evident in the love of landscape painting in music, a trait both composers shared, and in Rota’s scherzo movements, highly rhythmic, rhapsodic, and not at all concerned with sounding a trifle bumptious in their expression of the sheer joy of life. (He once said, famously, “I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness.”) Annotator Mannucci sees a marine setting in the opening movement of Symphony No. 1, incredibly tender and rich in melodic motifs – though this is a typically Mediterranean seascape, not as menacing or of such profound compass as Debussy’s La Mer. Nor should we view the mood of the second movement, where woodwinds give way to the darker brass, as foreshadowing the imminent world war in this 1935-39 symphony. Contrast it to the corresponding movement in William Walton’s own First Symphony if you want to hear a real expression of “˜tween-wars anxiety and a harbinger of bad news! Actually, Rota’s Andante provides a point of balance between two happy, life-affirming movements.

Symphony No. 2 (1937-39) is scored for a slightly smaller orchestra than its predecessor. Conductor Marzio Conti seems to really enjoy the spirit of this neo-romantic work with the dancing woodwinds and the bucolic quality of its opening movement, marked Allegro tranquillo, the rhythms of the Tarantella in the scherzo, Allegro molto vivace, and the nocturnal atmosphere imparted by strings and brass in the slow movement, ending in a flute passage that seems to herald the break of day. The finale, like that of Symphony No. 1 (but even more so), is an expression of the joy of living, pulsating beneath its dotted rhythms. Too much joy, in fact, for the times (1939). Rota shelved it, and the work was not premiered until 1975.

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Doctor Atomic SymphonyDoctor Atomic Symphony

John Adams

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra

conducted by David Robertson

Nonesuch Records

I’ve been excited about this music for several years, ever since I heard about the opera project on NPR back in maybe 2005.   When reviews starting coming in, well, everyone reading this probably already knows what the reviews said.   Any failings in the libretto were usually balanced by praise for the music.   My experience with the opera itself lasted all of 30 minutes.   I was watching it on PBS, bored out of my skull, and fell asleep before the end of the first act.   My wife stuck it out for half of the second act at which point she gave up, too.

So again, I was excited to hear the music and not be distracted by a story which seemed to be about physics and the dietary intake of military officers.   In general, I like the music of the Doctor Atomic Symphony but it does suffer away from its dramatic context.   The brief opening movement, “The Laboratory” is quite an ear-catcher.   The two and a half minutes are driving, engaging, and my favorite part of the symphony.   The long center movement, “Panic,” languishes a bit too much for my tastes.   The form revolves around recurring brass solos, all very well played, but I never get the feeling that the movement is leading anywhere.   “Panic” kind of sprawls around for fourteen and a half minutes.   Divorced from what drama was in the opera, the music can’t seem to find its own internal trajectory.   At times, it ends up sounding like a soundtrack for a movie I haven’t seen.   Strangely enough, I’ll write about this very thing in my next review.   The final movement, “Trinity” pulls things together nicely.   Fast and driving, much more filled with a sense of urgency than the previous “Panic” movement, “Trinity” has a satisfying dramatic formal arc and a wider range of expressed emotional content.

Perhaps I am judging the work too harshly since I had such high expectations.   I have found Adams’ more recent work to be a bit on the unfocused and sprawling side of the spectrum which is a far cry from the tightly focused and forward moving pieces that I have enjoyed so much.   Perhaps I need to spend more time with the opera but, as a wise man once said, “A bad libretto is like bone disease.”

It should probably come as little surprise that I think Guide to Strange Places is the real sleeper hit on this CD.   From 2001 (the year, not the movie), THIS is the kind of music that I like from Adams.   The energy rolls right along with Adams’ characteristic orchestrational tricks but around 4 minutes in the air gets let out and we go into a “strange place.”   Transitions into foreign areas abound as a formal technique in this piece but I found each transition effective and engaging as well as each of the musical vignettes that they connect.   I’m especially a fan of the low brass and woodwind groan/grunt section around the 13 minute mark.   THIS piece, to my ears, is a Symphony.   The music is varied yet coherent, engaging yet new, and extremely well performed.

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James MacMillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Thomas Adí¨s: Chamber Symphony
Jennifer Higdon: Percussion Concerto

Colin Currie, percussionist
Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic

Marin Alsop leads the LPO in a program of three of today’s most important new composers, James MacMillan (b.1959), Jennifer Higdon (b.1962) and Thomas Adés (b.1971). MacMillan is heard from first, in a treatment of an historical event that is very close to this composer as a Scot, a Socialist and a Catholic, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. The work describes, as painfully as is well nigh possible in music, the persecution for witchcraft of the title figure, who in 1662 was induced to “confess” following the most horrible tortures and afterwards strangled and burned at the stake. The music is appropriately brutal, violent and dissonant, utilizing some of the most rasping, rattling, tortured and strangulated sounds that can be produced by percussion, brass and woodwinds, involving a massive chord for full orchestra, repeated thirteen times in the middle of the piece, and then building gradually to a final crescendo on middle C. Running counter to all this calculated anarchy is a theme, first heard on the lower strings and then running throughout the string section, that evokes a plainchant Lux Aeterna from the Requiem Mass. MacMillan’s purpose could not be clearer: it is to remind us to be vigilant against the hysterical outbreaks of intolerance that periodically infect our species. Have we not seen in our own supposedly enlightened time the re-emergence of the ancient benighted belief that one can obtain good results by torturing people?

London native Thomas Adés also writes some ugly-sounding music in his Chamber Symphony, but without MacMillan’s higher purpose. The 12-minute work with allusions to jazz, utilizes a bass clarinet, whose low timbre influences the coloring of the piece. It replaces the usual bassoon in the woodwind quartet, to which Adés adds three brass, five strings, two percussionists, a piano employed percussively, and an accordion. The texture is spare and spikey, with a rather undistinguished motto of a turning semitone running through the entire work. I found the whole thing tremendously uninvolving. If you like the so-called “Ash-Can” school of dramatic art, you will probably like Adés, too. They say every composer has an identifiable “thumb print” running throughout his work; Adés’ should be kept on file at Scotland Yard.

The Percussion Concerto (2005) of American composer Jennifer Higdon provides a change of pace and a satisfying conclusion to the program. Here, Colin Currie has the opportunity to realize a percussionist’s life ambition, in a program placing the artist front and center, showcasing all the sounds the artist’s battery can produce, from the loudest and most aggressive to the softest twinkling tintinnabulation. The array of instruments available to Currie ranges from marimba, vibraphone and crotales (tiny antique cymbals) to bongos, a resonating bowl, and a small Peking opera gong. The large orchestra includes harp, piano, celesta, tympani and three percussionists, with whom the soloist sometimes joins to make a single unit or to play in opposition to the orchestra. Later, a cadenza involving all the percussionists opens a window, similar to the common procedure in a jazz ensemble, allowing for the soloist to do an imaginative improvisation on the drums. The orchestra re-enters, and enlarges on earlier ideas, including the two-bar riff that has largely propelled the work. Things build to a zestful conclusion, followed by well-deserved applause at the end of this live recording, made at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

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