Archive for the “Symphony” Category

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Scottish National Orchestra
Neeme Járvi, conductor

Chandos

Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has never sounded better than in these 24-bit/96kHz remasterings of the recordings of Suites 1 thru 3, originally made for Chandos by Brian and Ralph Couzens between December 1984 and August 1986. The Scottish National Orchestra was in fine mettle on all these occasions, and Neeme Járvi got the most out of the composer’s music, bringing out the abundant warmth, intimacy and lyrical beauty in these scores and giving the grotesque, mechanistic and violent elements no more than their just due. The present remasterings of these superb performances bring out their finer details in even clearer perspective than did the originals.

As is well known, the management of the Kirov Ballet rejected Prokofiev’s masterpiece when he presented it to them in 1935 after a two years’ labor. The reasons, some of which may have been political, have never been made clear although the sheer effort and expense needed to stage the full three-act ballet may have been a deterrent. At this time, one-act ballets were the rule. Prokofiev was moving into an arena in which his only serious competitor had been dead some forty years, for the ghost of Peter Illich Tchaikovsky loomed large over the scene. The Bolshoi, to whom he next offered the score, added insult to injury, rejecting the composer’s music as “undanceable.” Prokofiev was not in the least discouraged. Endowed with a competitive instinct worthy of any capitalist nation, he soon produced not one, but two stunning suites in 1936, using the symphony hall to stimulate a public demand for his music that prepared its eventual triumph in the ballet theatre. And he came out with a third suite to coincide with its Bolshoi premiere in 1946. The work has been an accepted modern classic ever since.

But let’s not be too blithely accepting. How can we account for the work’s enduring popularity, for the undeniable hold it has on us as listeners? It’s easy enough to point to the sensual beauty of the famous Balcony Scene (Andante amoroso, Suite 1) and the recapitulation of its predominant mood, tinged with sadness and regret, in “Romeo and Juliet before Parting” (Andante – Adagio, Suite 2). This is “love music” at its most overwhelming and all encompassing, so full that we do not realize at first the degree to which the burden of the orchestration is borne solely by the strings. And how lush that sound is, how pregnant with shades of feeling and undertones of tragedy! We hear distant echoes of the music from both these great scenes in the final tragic moments of the ballet, as memories of lost happiness in the death of Romeo, whose dying heartbeats are captured in soft, low pizzicato (Suite 2) and Juliet, her resolution emboldened by the conviction that she will be reunited by death with her beloved (Suite 3).

And here we get to the heart of the matter, the psychological realism that makes the music of most ballets pale in comparison. Was there ever a more insightful portrait of a heroine than “Juliet the Young Girl” (Vivace, Suite 2), the fourteen year old dashing hurriedly back and forth, frightened even as she is compelled by inner drives and desires toward a destiny that she cannot comprehend, poised on the brink of adulthood and a happiness that we know will be tragically short lived?

In” Death of Tybalt” (Preciptiato, Suite 1) the shock waves of grief and alarm that accompany the climax of the scene are the perfect corollary for this particular moment, the turning point in a story that has played like a comedy up to now, but will henceforth hurtle inexorably towards tragedy. Or consider the way in which Prokofiev differentiates between the spontaneous gaiety of the street dances of the common folk in Suites 1 and 2 and the cold formality and cheerlessness of the dances (Minuet, Masks) at the House of the Capulets. Had Romeo comprehended the menacing tone beneath their cool austerity, he he would probably have taken to his heels – and left us without a story!

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Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 9
Jose Serebrier, Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Warner Classics & Jazz

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), like Jean Sibelius, was a figure whose creative juices dried up some years before the end of his life. In 1910 he left the piano score of the single movement of his unfinished Ninth Symphony with his friend Maximilian Steinberg when he emigrated from Russia and never returned to it, or any other symphonic score, in the years remaining to him. One may argue that in the case of Sibelius, the loss to the world of music was the greater, but, as Jose Sebrier and the RSNO demonstrate in the present 2-CD slimline, the last installment in their cycle of the Glazunov symphonies, the Russian had something to say, too.

The trouble with Glazunov was perhaps that he was too slick for his own good. All his symphonies are lushly orchestrated, particularly in his string scoring, and he was one of the first composers to consider the saxophone a serious member of the orchestra (witness his choice writing for the instrument in the Andante of Symphony No. 2 in F Minor, a work that was popular in its day, having made a hit at the 1899 Paris Exposition). He was great when it came to contrasting themes and heroic gestures, and he knew how to use the resources of the orchestra.

But, it’s a funny thing: Glazunov’s symphonies don’t make a lasting impression on the listener. Like a holiday filled with excitement and colorful incidents that you can’t recall very distinctly afterwards, I found that a short time after auditioning any of the four symphonies on this disc, I was unable to recall any of the details.

A major problem with Glazunov is a failure to develop his themes. This was a weakness of The Mighty Five and the school of Russian composers who followed in their wake. They consciously rejected the principles of the classical symphony in favor of increased color and nationalistic concerns, and Glazunov followed suite. He was a great melodies and was quite adept at thematic transformation, but that is not the same as developing themes. And the strange thing about themes is, if you don’t develop them, you lose them.

An example of Glazunov at his best is the Andante of Symphony No. 3, with its Tristan-esque chromaticism and the intriguing way the composer re-starts the movement after what has apparently been a consoling ending, working his way instead to a somewhat darker conclusion. But, rather than follow up on the possibilities this slow movement has opened, Glazunov opts instead for an unrelated tour-de-force of thematic transformations in his finale.

Serebrier, taking his cue from indications of flexibility in Glazunov’s own performance scores that are not in the printed editions, has striven for a vibrant interpretation of these forgotten symphonies, rather than taking this music metronomically as too many others have done. As a result, these recordings present the candid listener with a fair, objective impression of the composer’s intentions.

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Kirill Petrenko, Berlin Comic Opera Orchestra

CPO

Josef Suk (1874-1935) is a remarkable example of something that doesn’t happen very often in life: a workmanlike minor composer who turns around and writes major symphonic masterpieces in the middle of his life. Greatness does not usually emerge suddenly in middle age. Without unduly stressing the autobiographical element with more than it can bear, there occurred a noticeable deepening of Suk’s musical vision after the deaths in 1904-1905 of his father-in-law and mentor, Antonin DvoÅ™í¡k and his beloved wife Otilke. Beginning with his Asrael (Angel of Death) Symphony of 1906, Suk, hitherto a composer content to write music of folksy, nationalistic inspiration in the manner of DvoÅ™í¡k, devoted himself to works of greater depth and artistic maturity. The high point of his career was The Ripening (1912-1917).

The “Ripening” of the title (perhaps the German translation Lebensreife would be more precise) is not a paean to nature. Rather, it refers to the maturity in a human life, a time for reflection and reconciling oneself to the past. Without pushing the analogy to Richard Strauss too far, we might look on The Ripening as Suk’s Ein Heldenleben, but conceived on a decidedly more intimate, personal, and less grandiose level. It is in six movements, identified by Suk’s editor Karel Å rom as Recognition, Youth, Love, Fate, Resolve, and Self-Moderation (maybe “Resignation” would be a better word). They are played without a break, and the music flows with amazing naturalness from one movement to the next, unified by the carry over and transformation of themes. The heightened theme of the scherzo in “Resolve,” for instance, bears a relationship to that of the slow movement, “Love.” Six trumpets brilliantly underscore the energetic outburst at the end of the fugue at the end. The sixth movement, described by Suk as a “birthday present” to himself, features the return of the solo violin playing a sublimely beautiful melody, backed by a trio of violins, that we first heard in “Youth.” The theme makes its way down to the double basses, and then, a masterful stroke, we hear a distant wordless chorus of women’s voices, concluding the work on a note of shimmering transcendence. Is this “modernity” suffused with romantic feeling, as has been claimed, or romantic music with a modernist tendency? Do we really care? I was too busy being delighted.

Kirill Petrenko, at the helm of the Berlin Comic Opera Orchestra, draws upon his experience as an operatic conductor to bring Suk’s luminous score to life and stress the continuity of a work that keeps our rapt attention throughout its 38-minute length. He is keenly attuned to Suk’s intricate rhythm notations, down to the tiniest 32nd interval, and the wonderfully natural flow of the narrative. The BCO Orchestra, belying its name a major organization of 112 pieces, has a glowing sound, particularly from the string section, that gives The Ripening its unique character.

Oh yes, there’s a companion piece! Suk’s overture, Tale of a Winter’s Evening, Op. 9. Suk based it on Shakespeare’s “bitter comedy” A winter’s Tale, in which a happy ending transpires instead of a tragic one only after the passage of some years. Avoiding the trap of strictly programme music, he wrote evocatively, in a way that captures the elements in the story of insane jealousy, revenge, flight, innocence, and ultimate happiness. Suk’s love of contrasted themes and thematic metamorphoses is present here, along with his unerring skill in instrumentation. With the greatest delicacy he uses oboe and English horn to conjure up the bucolic landscape of Bohemia (Yes, Shakespeare used Suk’s native country, complete with an imagined “seacoast,” for the denouement of his play), He then magically reintroduces a theme in the flute, heard inconspicuously much earlier amid storm and stress and symbolizing the heroine’s innocence, to bring the overture to a quiet, satisfying close.

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Red Silk Dance (1999)
Tibetan Swing (2002)
The Phoenix (2004)
H’un (Lacerations) In Memoriam: 1966-1976 (1988)
Shana Blake Hill, soprano; Bright Sheng, piano
Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz

Naxos

The scintillating performance by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz, a longtime champion of contemporary music, of four works by Bright Sheng (b. Shanghai, 1955) show clearly why this composer is a great favorite among present-day musicians. He has a penchant for treating traditional instruments of the orchestra in non-traditional ways that today’s generation of young musicians find stimulating and challenging. And his rhythmic vocabulary will keep everyone (the audience included) on their toes.

Red Silk Dance is a good introduction to Sheng’s heady exploration of inter-cultural connections. We envision a caravan slowly wending along the Silk Road that was the ancient link between East and West. A percussion duet between piano and timpani recalls the sound of male Tibetan dancers stamping their feet. Sheng has the performers use hard wooden mallets for the drums, contrasted to accented parallel octaves in the piano, played by Sheng himself as a percussive instrument. A slow interlude has the pianist playing a central Asian flute-inspired melody against a backdrop of muted strings. The only melodious music in the piece, it is interrupted by a miasma of blaring brass. The piano responds with angular leaps and more percussive sounds, culminating in sweeping glissandi.

The title Tibetan Swing refers not to swingtime rhythm, much less an evocation of a pretty girl in a swing, but to the dances of Tibetan women in flowing costumes with long sleeves that brush the ground and swing into the air, accentuating the dance with their swirling patterns of motion. Sheng, a percussionist himself, gives a major role to the sounds of congas, bongos and a bass drum struck with the hand alone. The power of the music increases as more families of the full orchestra become engaged. The composer calls for flutter-tonguing in the brass to add excitement. At the climax, sensational glissandi in the trombones evoke the awesome tones of Tibetan temple horns. The string reintroduce the basic dance motif, and the music swells to a sweeping close.

The Phoenix, for soprano and orchestra, recounts the legend of the fabulous bird that rises from its own ashes. Sheng uses the version in the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which he had first encountered in Chinese translation as a child. The work was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony to celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 2004, the year that also marked the 200th birthday of the beloved Danish writer. Sheng chose his story well.

Taking his cue from the suggestion given by Andersen himself, he sees the legend of the Phoenix as a metaphor for the ever-renewing power of music itself to lift up and inspire people in all places and all times. The emotionally charged vocal part is one of the most challenging in the soprano’s repertoire, with its great leaps and chromatic writing. Shana Blake Hill handles her part with composure and assurance, qualities that are especially important given the large sweep and luminous phrasing required by such key words as “bloomed,” “resplendent,” “arise,” “perfume,” and “soar.” Several places in the text provide for instrumental interludes. A reference to the bright eyes of a Hindu girl invites a sitar-like melody accompanied by a string drone. Likewise, Arabia, birthplace of the Phoenix, is conjured up by an octatonic scale and flowing melismas in the woodwinds.

Like Shostakovich, Bright Sheng has been influenced by the tragic events of his time. For the Russian, it was the Stalinist era, in particular the purge trials and the siege of Leningrad, that brought forth stirring musical responses. For Sheng, it was the “Cultural Revolution” in China, a time of upheavals that became seared in the consciousness of the Chinese. “I was one of the millions who were the witnesses, victims, and survivors,” writes Sheng. The title H’un (Lacerations) is a Chinese word with many meanings (wounds, scars, marks, vestiges), all of which are relevant here. Consciously rejecting melodies that he considered “too beautiful” for the context, Sheng based much of his music on the small, dissonant interval of a half-step. The music is often angry, malevolent, expressing both rage and (in a striking passage in which the upper and lower strings play fortissimo at the extreme limits of their range, but muted) the stifling of dissent like a strangled cry.

All but unnoticed amid the dissonance, a brief scrap of melody in the clarinet, amounting to a full step, offers a ray of hope for solace and redemption through music. Composed in 1988 (shortly after Bright Sheng became an American citizen), H’un looks both backward and forward.

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Petrenko

Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Naxos

Recordings of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony tend to fall into two categories: the bad ones strike the listener as being a full quarter of an hour too long, the good ones as being only 5 to 10 minutes too long. Vasily Petrenko’s account with the Royal Liverpool PO is of the latter persuasion. Actually, the longeurs in this work proceed naturally from Shostakovich’s thematic material and the procedures through which he develops it. (You see, composers can’t just hit us with a smart melody right off the bat and then run with it. They feel guilty if they do.) Seriously, the Eleventh Symphony, dealing more thematically than program-wise with the events that touched off the 1905 Revolution in Russia, needs some space to develop its ideas and build its climaxes. Petrenko, one of the finest young conductors to come of Russia in recent years, gives it just the right amount of breathing room.

The touchstone is the opening movement, “The Palace Square.” The music incorporates several Russian folk songs, “The Convict,” “Listen,” and “O Tsar, Our Little Father.” The first two are combined and heard in the flutes above ominous triplets in the timpani, the latter in unison low woodwinds. All these are set against a low, glacial, almost static theme that is heard at the beginning and end of the movement and then again, very forcefully, in the second. It connotes more than simply the wintry weather; it is the cold insensitivity of autocrats everywhere (in this instance, Tsar Nicholas ll) to the needs of their people. It moves at glacial speed, too. Most of this opening movement is taken at a level that seldom rises above pianissimo and is given to a buildup of tensions that it is not the composer’s purpose to resolve just yet. If the conductor has kept his listener’s attention up to this point (and Petrenko has been quite careful to do just that), then he has passed the Eleventh’s most formidable challenge.

The succeeding movements are all taken attaca, without breaks, a procedure that stresses the overall trajectory of context-event-aftermath-conclusion. The second movement, “The Ninth of January,” vividly dramatizes the incident in which the Tsar’s guards ruthlessly murdered several hundred peaceful demonstrators in the square before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (an event we have seen portrayed in cinema a number of times, including David Lean’s 1962 classic Doctor Zhivago). It opens with subdued but restless activity in the strings, a sure sign that something is about to happen. The climax builds in intensity through several stages with a fugato in between and then we hear the pounding of the side drum as a prelude to the actual slaughter. At the height of the frenzy, the glacial theme from the first movement is blared forth in unison by the whole orchestra. The meaning could not be clearer. The rest of the movement is devoted to the fateful aftermath. First we hear an eerie, spectral recounting of the glacial theme, then the gradual building of anger, understated at first but inexorable, that culminated in the 1905 Revolution.

In Movement 3, “Eternal Memory,” Petrenko does a superior job marshaling the large forces that Shostakovich requires for this symphony, including triple woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, a full percussion battery, celesta and strings. These forces are used sparingly, but to maximum effect. The melody of the revolutionary song “We fell as martyrs” is used here in a striking context, first heard in the violas and then transferred to the other strings. The mood ranges from funereal to strongly assertive and defiant. The intensity subsides, the viola melody is heard as a distant recessional, and then Movement 4, “The Tocsin,” begins. The reference is to the alarm bell in the coda that summons us to be eternally vigilant against oppression and the soul-corroding influence of tyranny. The rapid build-up incorporates themes from the earlier movements, leading to an aggressive transformation of that glacial theme that we know all-too well by now. The movement adds other themes, eventually reaching its climax with a melody in the English horn (cor d’anglais) that places everything we have heard up until now in a fine perspective. Then the coda.

Throughout the performance, Vasily Petrenko has expertly guided the orchestra through a work characterized by slow, quiet build-ups to moments of anarchic frenzy. The dynamic range of this work is enormous. It has the emotional vocabulary of film music (an activity in which Shostakovich was also distinguished) and a uniquely Russian character that was probably what the composer meant when he described it as his most “Mussorgskyan” symphony. (Significantly, he had recently completed his magnificently re-orchestrated performance version of the older composer’s opera Boris Godunov when he began work on the Eleventh Symphony). At a running time of 57:37, Petrenko’s comparatively tauter performance comes in almost eleven minutes shorter than my treasured Delos recording by James DePreist and the Helsinki PO (68:17). And he keeps our rapt attention to the end. What more could we ask?

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Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Antoni Wit

Naxos

Antoni Wit, artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, continues his splendid survey of the major works of Poland’s Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) with the much-neglected ballet-pantomime Harnasie. This tale of a brigand chief who storms his way into a rustic wedding and abducts the bride gave the composer the opportunity to employ rhythms and harmonies based on the folk music of the Gorals, the natives of the Tatra Mountains. With its angular melodies and irregular accents, plus its characteristic vigor, this was just the sort of tonic Szymanowski needed to bring the nationalistic agenda of the Young Poland movement to fruition in music. His personal artistic journey, beginning at the turn of the century and wandering through Chopin, Wagner, Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, with excursions into the Sufi mystics Hafiz and Rumi, had reached its climax. Harnasie became a part of the Polish ballet repertoire after successful stagings in in 1937-1938. Sadly it was too late for the composer, who died of Tuberculosis at Lausanne in March 1937.

Harnasie represents Szymanowski’s apex. He throws some unusual instruments, including blocks, snare drum, whip and xylophone into an orchestral mix already characterized by his unique feeling for rich, complex harmony. The rhapsodic nature of his music is much in evidence in the tableau “The Harnas and the Girl.” Which brings to mind: just what does the title signify? At first blush, we might have taken it for the name of the girl. Actually, a Harnas is a brigand chief, and the Harnasie are his followers. Why not just translate the title? And while we’re at it, why not eliminate the brief vocals for tenor and even the stirring march of the of brigands, sung by the Warsaw Philharmonic Chorus in Tableau 3. The vocal solos add little or nothing, and the chorus could easily be re-scored for the orchestra. My rationale is this: Harnasie needs to be heard more often in our symphony halls in order to secure its place in Szymanowski’s opus. But its opportunities are limited by the vocal requirements and the fact that they are sung in a language not widely spoken outside of Poland.

The other works on this Naxos release are the pantomime Mandragora and the incidental music for the play Prince Potemkin. The former, designed for inclusion in Act 3 of Molií¨re’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, is surprisingly witty and imaginative for a composer in whom I had not previously noticed a sense of humor. As a sparkling neo-classical work, it begs comparison with Richard Strauss’ Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Antoni Wit and the WPO really seem to enjoy this scintillatingly scored music that engages all the resources of the orchestra and includes darker sounding music for a change of pace, possibly referring to the ancient association of the Mandrake root (Mandragora) with black magic.

The Prince Potemkin music did not engage me at first, possibly because I was expecting choice satirical writing. (Evidently, this is not the Potemkin who pulled the wool over Czarina Catherine’s eyes with his pre-fabricated model villages, giving rise to the expression “Potemkinize.”) This music, wholly serious in character, impressed me upon further auditions by Szymanowski’s characteristically luminous writing for the strings, a plangent oboe solo, and an eloquent choral section that is very much an essential part of this score.

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Vuori SymphoniesHarri Vuori

Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2

Tocata Classics


Hyvinkí¤í¤ Orchestra; Tuomas Pirilí¤, conductor

I was not familiar with the name Harri Vuori prior to hearing this CD, but I find the Finnish composer’s music to be a logical extension of that countries symphonic tradition. Symphony No. 1, from 2003, is a colorful sustained work covering four discreet movements. The opening grumbles in the brass and percussion are pitted against eerie drooping string gestures until all forces join in a nexus moment. While this symphony does have four distinct movements, there are enough orchestral techniques and gestural ideas to make the work seem continuous.

Symphony No. 2 is a continuous arch spanning five movements. This particular symphony comes only 4 years after the first but I find the rise in maturity level quite striking. Symphony No. 1 felt a little disjunct, even though there are ideas that permeate each of the movements. To my ears, that symphony lacked an internal trajectory that Symphony No. 2 has in spades. The orchestra radiates and shines under Vuori’s music and there is a palpable sense of direction present that was missing in the earlier composition. Most of the orchestrational gestures in Symphony No. 2 are from the same vocabulary as Symphony No. 1, but the later work is far more propulsive and engaging.

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Schoenberg of NaxosChamber Symphony #2 and more

Robert Craft Collection

Naxos


Chamber Symphony No. 2, Philharmonia Orchestra, Robert Craft
Die glückliche Hand, Mark Beesley, bass; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra, Robert Craft
Wind Quintet, New York Woodwind Quintet

The overall quality of the Robert Craft Collection on Naxos continues with this Schoenberg disc. What interests me are some of the notes included that talk about how Chamber Symphony No. 2 “ought to be the most popular of Schoenberg’s later masterpieces.” The piece gets a wonderful and sultry performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra but I must say I still prefer the first Chamber Symphony. I think the overall maturity of Chamber Symphony No. 2, both in composition and performance, is something that is lost on me. I still prefer the “Richard Strauss on meth” energy of the earlier work. In time, I’m sure that will change.

Die glückliche Hand gets a great and powerful, and overly creepy, performance. Mark Beesley is clearly comfortable in The Man’s overall discomfort and his voice is well tuned to the wacky expressionist angst that surrounds him. The Wind Quintet, a work that is not often performed nor recorded, also gets great treatment for this CD. The notes talk mainly about the speed at which the New York Wind Quintet plays the work (being one of the only recordings or performances lasting under an hour). This is a beefy and thorny work which commands virtuosity on all levels from every performer all the time. The ensemble has a terrific mastery of the piece and they do not make the quintet sound as hard and laborious as it really is. The Wind Quintet could be as hard to listen to as it is to play (and I’m a fan of Schoenberg’s music) but the New York Wind Quintet really takes control and delivers a great performance. At some point, I know that these Craft Collection discs will stop. I hope it isn’t soon…

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Penderecki Symphony No. 8Krzysztof Penderecki

Symphony No. 8

Naxos Records


Symphony No. 8 ‘Lieder der Vergí¤nglichkeit’, Dies irae, Aus den Psalmen Davids Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, Antoni Wit, conductor

Just to get all prejudices out in the open, I prefer the earlier coloristic works of Penderecki to the more recent and more conservative symphonies. I fully expected to pop in the Symphony No. 8 (from 2005) and think that Bartok threw away better music. I’m sorry, I try to be tabula rasa regarding reviews, but I can’t help myself sometimes.

Here is the thing: I like the symphony. It functions more as an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, (thank you Das Lied von der Erde!) and is the most compelling synthesis of the “wiggedy-weird” experimental colorist and the neo-romantic symphonist that I have heard. At first, you might think that this was a long lost Berg cycle. As the twelve songs travel by, though, you hear orchestral colorings that make the ears perk up and really listen to what is going on. Very effective stuff.

In contrast, the Dies irae from 1967 sounds dated to me. The gestures and colors aren’t as compelling as some of the other Penderecki works from this time. In many ways, this disc helped me rectify the journey and progression of Penderecki as a composer. Many of the timbral and gestural ideas in Dies irae fall flat or are generally not compelling. I can’t help but be put in Penderecki’s place as a composer and start to think “this style isn’t working for me anymore, I need something else.” Hearing the masterful orchestration and lyrical writing of Symphony No. 8 highlights how Penderecki synthesized his previous experiences into an individual style.

Aus den Psalmen Davids, coming from 1958, stands on the opposite end of the timeline. Here I find the musical ideas and colors more convincing and captivating. The a cappella settings of Psalm 30 and 143 are achingly beautiful (143 has some accompaniment, but not much). The colors swirl, the emotions gush forth, driving percussion and spiky pianos chug along. In many ways, I think this is a Penderecki disc for everyone. Those who love the neo-romantic Penderecki will adore the Symphony No. 8. Those who love the earlier experimental Penderecki will dig the Aus den Psalmen Davids. Both camps may or may not like the Dies irae, which makes it a good central piece on the disc. No matter which Penderecki you like, you will find stuff to enjoy on this disc.

It usually goes without saying that Antoni Wit and the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir give powerful and definitive performances whenever they perform, but I say it here anyway. Their interpretations and offerings of Penderecki (and the earlier Lutoslawski series) are truly exceptional performances.

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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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