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Poul Ruders

The Music of Poul Ruders: Volume 6

Bridge Records #9336

Poul Ruders has been present on my listening radar for a couple years, but I hadn’t really dived into his music until I listened to this CD. From the album’s contents – Piano Concerto No. 2, Bel Canto for solo violin, Serenade On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean for string quartet and accordion – and the other works of Ruders I’m familiar with – Fairytale and the second Piano Sonata – it is clear he possesses a uniquely compelling musical sensibility. Both cumulatively and individually, the works on this CD demonstrated a Ruders’ flawless dramatic sense and his ability to convey his rhetoric with a wide and sincere range of musical expressions.

The album’s first composition, Piano Concerto No. 2, stood out to me so strongly, it has become one of my favorite piano concertos – at least as a knee-jerk reaction. This work seems particularly concerned with sonic color and does not attempt to develop a traditional soloist-ensemble dialogue. For example – instead of conversing with the orchestra – the piano pulls its accompaniment more and more quickly through time (in the first movement) and then uses the timbres of the orchestra to inflect intimate and bold passages (in the second movement). Beyond its world-class piano writing, the Piano Concerto No. 2 explores timbre in a clever and fresh way, namely in the second movement where Ruders melds the sounds of the piano and orchestra into a colorful monster of musical lyricism and force.

The remaining works on the CD are starkly subdued beside the scale of the Piano Concerto No. 2. Bel Canto, for solo violin, is the next composition on the album and is cut from the same cloth of musical intimacy as the primary material in the Piano Concerto No. 2’s second movement. The piece is deliberately beautiful and, as a result, drifts into the sound world of neo-romanticism yet it retains Ruders’ ineffable aural fingerprints. Bel Canto is unabashedly beautiful, but Ruders doesn’t abandon the melodic and textural spontaneity that is present in many of his more intense pieces. Here, in the place of the crashing brass chords or wild changes in orchestral colors we hear in Fairytale, Concerto in Pieces, and the second Piano Concerto, Ruders decorates Bel Canto’s folk-inspired melodies with dissonant double stops and left-hand pizzicati, transforming what could be trite or saccharine into pure Poul Ruders.

The CD’s final composition, Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, is similarly subdued in tone to Bel Canto but is much more earnest and even wild at times. The unusual instrumentation – accordion and string quartet – made my roommate cock and eyebrow when he saw the CD on our dining table, but it is an impressively compatible timbral marriage, at least in Ruders’ hands. According to the liner notes, Ruders based this work’s title on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and designed the music’s coloristic sphere to insinuate an upward gaze, perusing the night sky. Serenade summates the dense stylistic topography outlined in the CD’s first two compositions by mashing together frenetic chromaticism, dark amorphous harmonies and pure diatonicism. More the once, Ruders finds textures and techniques that meld the accordion and strings together, creating a unified ensemble sound I did not expect. Some moments bring the instruments back to reality, so to speak, like the fifth – dubbed “Stardust” – which gradually applies increasingly dissonant suspensions to an accordion background that starts out as a clear resemblance to a street corner organ grinder’s music, but slowly melts away into abstraction.

Despite sudden, brief explosions of instensity, Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean is mostly mysterious and subtle. With respect to this album’s entire contents, Ruders’ ability to produce such compelling yet clearly delineated musical imprints from one piece to another is undeniably laudable, particularly given the expansive musical palette on which he draws. I find it particularly respectable that – although he may drift towards widely  accepted musical categories – Ruders’ musical idiosyncrasy wards off all but the most indirect “-isms”.

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Alvin Lucier

Almost New York

Pogus Productions P21057-2

Almost New York represents the latest chapter in Alvin Lucier’s migration away from the world of experimental electronic music, a move he began in the 1980s. Mr. Lucier chronicles the challenges he faced achieving working with acoustic instruments in the CD’s liner notes, ultimately discussing the microtonal impulses at the heart of the music featured on this album. The four works on the recordings two discs – Twonings, Almost New York, Broken Line and Coda Variations – are thoughtful explorations in extreme subtlety. The slow transformation typifying these pieces comes as no surprise reading the end of Mr. Lucier’s prose introduction to the CD: one of his principal inspirations was the natural out-of-tune-ness symptomatic to performances of Morton Feldman’s protracted String Quartet #2, “by the end…the instruments have drifted a little out of tune – there being now time to re-tune during a live performance – acquiring a patina that comes with age.”

Twonings, the CD’s first track, exemplifies the techniques Mr. Lucier applies in the album’s other compositions. The work is written for cello and piano and explores the slight discrepancies in pitch between the piano’s equal temperament and the assigned just intonation in the cello part. The notes for this work specifically site the, “acoustic phenomena” and “audible beating” that should result from the music’s attempted unisons. Indeed, the performance serves this goal with loyalty: cellist Charles Curtis and pianist Joseph Kubera deliver the music in a disciplined manner devoid of traditional expressivity, which makes the friction between the two instrument’s tunings more dramatic.

The album’s title track, Almost New York, sadly seems like the kind of piece I wish I could witness in a concert. Written for one flutist rotating between five flutes, this piece uses pure wave oscillators to create a kind of synthetic drone against which the flutist plays long tones. After each note, the performer is supposed to switch to a different type of flute, walking around the performance space as he or she cycles through instruments. Clearly, this is the kind of thing you want to be in the room for, but sound engineer Tom Hamilton simulates the spatial effects very well with panning. Like Twonings before it, Almost New York focuses on the microtonal differences between multiple voices, in this case the flute and slowly sliding up and down oscillators. Flutist Robert Dick delivers a performance similar in its sparse character to that of the previous track. As we have seen, of course, this style is important to Mr. Lucier’s compositions given the subtle ideas he transforms over the course of each work.

The third tack, Broken Line, is the most rhythmically active of the whole album and is scored for Vibraphone, piano and Flute. Rhetorically, however, the work is a duo inasmuch as Joseph Kubera’s piano and percussionist Danny Tunick‘s vibraphone are used in tandem as a fixed-pitch wall against which the extended glissandi Robert Dick’s modified flute constantly abrades. Broken Line essentially represents a role-reversal from Almost New York as the flute challenges the fixed intonation of the piano and vibraphone. The most concise work on the CD at 12:21, Broken Line’s instrumentation alludes to Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns?. Though it possesses a different process than Mr. Feldman’s work, Broken Line is a similarly persuasive advocate for moment-form music and – thanks to its rhythmic activity – is the most accessible representative of this compositional style on the album.

Mr. Lucier’s connection to Morton Feldman’s music and philosophy coalesces in Almost New York’s final track, Coda Variations, which is based on the solo tuba coda from Mr. Feldman’s Durations 3. Mr. Lucier’s Variations takes the eight notes and double fermata from Durations and, “[subjects them] to seven sets of permutations of sixty three notes each.” The variations incorporate special microtonal fingerings on the tuba developed by the performer, Robin Hayward, and composer Marc Sabat. As you can see, Coda Variations plays on the same subtle theme of intonation as the rest of the album, but presents the changes in a slowly unfolding melodic line, not in the vertical dissonances of the earlier tracks. This makes listening to Coda Variations an exercise in concentration, much like it must be performing a composition that develops so subtly over such a long period of time.

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Kris Becker

Inventions

Frozen Heat #FH1001

Houston-based Composer/Pianist Kris Becker’s recently released album Inventions presents an overwhelmingly wide spectrum of musical genres, it is hard to believe one mind is responsible for all of it. Within, listeners will find rock songs, jazz ballads, and finely crafted style studies of J.S. Bach surrounding the over-arching jazz-infused neo-romanticism that seems to be at the heart of Mr. Becker’s musical personality. Proudly fusing popular idioms with beloved sounds from art music’s past, Inventions is a daring cross-genre musical endeavor; and, though it may overload your ears with variety, Inventions is a pleasantly memorable, moving and successful achievement.

All the music on Inventions is expertly performed, elegantly produced and solidly composed, making is undeniably evident that Kris Becker is a uniquely talented musician. There is very little to criticize in terms of pure content: nearly every track, regardless of genre, succeeded both as a representative of its given style and an isolated musical object. The two rock songs, “Feel the Truth” and “Try”, were well done and absolutely convincing on a musical level: they sounded like rock songs written by rock musicians, not a composer’s vain attempt at rock music. More impressive were the two alternate recordings of the song “If Ever Two Were One”, the first of which was done in a sultry, slow jazz style and the second was totally transformed into an art song a la Ned Rorem. Both Mr. Becker and his vocalist Sarah Welch amazed me with their fully persuasive metamorphosis from one style to another, which made these two tracks among the hallmarks of the entire album.

The rest of the tracks on the CD are solo piano compositions performed by Mr. Becker. Though not highly chromatic or modernist in any way, these works reflect a variety of influences and allude to a deep love of 19th-Century classicism, all types of Jazz and niche popular styles, such as musical theater. To this end, these compositions almost act as a commentary on the rock and jazz songs that start the album, almost like Mr. Becker has chosen to distill and abstract those formalized styles through his virtuosity at the piano.

The first of these pieces is Fanfare for Life, a highly rhythmic, moto-perpetuo work with sweeping harmonies and a step-wise melody set against blurry pan-diatonic ostinati. Both in content and form, Fanfare for Life typifies the pseudo-improvisatory, neo-tonal style I think is very close to Mr. Becker’s heart. Though allusions to jazz and neo-classicism are strongly present themes on this album, it is undeniable after that the mood and character of Fanfare for Life are closely tied to Mr. Becker’s truest impulses. In fact, the next work on the CD, Four Curiosities, ‘composes out’ many of the musical ideas set forth in Fanfare for Life, whether a focus of poppy syncopated rhythms in the first and last movements Anticipation and Groovin’ or melding a love of Baroque and Jazz music in the bluesy second movement Passacaglia.

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It is apparent from the beginning of Composer Bruce Wolosoff’s new NAXOS recording with the Carpe Diem QuartetSongs without Words – that Mr. Wolosoff’s music fits into the fringe of a larger trend in contemporary American music: the fusion of popular and traditional idioms. Whereas one player in this movement, Bang-On-A-Can, attempts to distill the visceral dynamism of punk rock with instrumental amplification and driving rhythms, Mr. Wolosoff  is more transparent, and explicitly references jazz, blues and pop styles. What is also clear within the first couple tracks of this album is the genre of Songs without Words: divertimento. Mr. Wolosoff’s sentimental melodies, circular harmonic progressions and repetitive structures update a brand of crowd-pleasing music dating back to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Along these lines, the liner notes describe Songs without Words as “amiably crossing musical borders”, and there are two principal musical regions Mr. Wolosoff explores through the prism of the Carpe Diem Quartet: blues and classic pop rock.

The first of these allusions is communicated through pentatonic and blues-based melodies and the typifying inflections one would expect from a blues guitarist or bluegreass fiddle player. The movement “Dancing on my Grave” is probably the best example of this in the whole set, and is a traditional blues jam with a rocking bass line with improvisatory melodies above it, culminating with a classic blues bass progression. In contrast, “The Letter” is the purest rock ‘n’ roll movement, and uses the I – vi – IV – V harmonic progression common to 1950s bubblegum pop ballads to exemplify the other category of Mr. Wolosoff’s musical references.

The remaining 16 movements in Songs without Words are somewhere in between these stylistic extremes. For example, “Cat Scratch Fever” references 1970s hard rock with its title and its use of parallel fifth ‘power chords’ in the cello’s ostinato bass line. Similarly, “Creepalicious” has much more abstract musical material than the other movements of the set but employs the same simple phrase structures, maintaining a strong connection to Mr. Wolosoff’s popular influences while distinguishing the movement’s content from its neighbors.

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Tangled Pipes

Consortium5, Recorder Quintet

Nonclassical #nonclss008

Kathryn Corrigan, Inga Maria Klauke, Oonagh Lee, Gail Macleod, Roselyn Maynard, recorders



I’ll admit my initially skeptical reaction to receiving English recorder quintet Consortium5’s album Tangled Pipes was parochial. After all, is there a more stigmatized instrument in the American musical conscience than the recorder? Well before I listened to the CD, I was fearful of its tracks recalling horrifying memories of the ignorant squeaks that filled my elementary school music class. However, I was quickly rebuffed by Consortium5’s otherworldly sound. Listening to Tangled Pipes was one of the most pleasantly surprising audience experiences I’ve had in a long time. Not only did the new recorder quintet music on Tangled Pipes reveal an uncharted world of timbre wavering between acoustic and electronic sounds, but the inclusion of hip and well produced track remixes also made the album a unique musical object I’m happy to own.

It is really hard for me to describe the different sounds you’ll encounter when you listen to Tangled Pipes. True, the instruments are all recorders, just like you would hear on an authentically performed concert of baroque or renaissance music; however, Consortium5 uses them in ways I could have never imagined. Many of the tracks, such as Darren Bloom’s Consorts and Richard Lannoy’s Tangled Pipes use percussive sounds akin to tongue rams and concise over-blowing on a flute. Mr. Bloom’s piece also uses remarkable glissandi and double-tongued licks that transport these ostensibly humble instruments to a vibrant and relevant sound world. Along the same lines, Brian Inglis uses overblowing, multiphonics, key clicks and flutter-tonguing to create contrasting ritornellos against the traditional counterpoint and folksy chorale around which his work, Burmese Pictures, rotates.

The four remaining pieces I have to discuss seem less like they hoped to show off the well kept secret of the recorder’s flexibility in terms of extended techniques and timbre. Rather, they are artfully crafted musical works enlivened by their unique instrumentation. Kathryn Butler’s Chanterelle, Brooks Frederickson’s ironically titled Quintet for Fifteen Recorders and Kim Ashton’s Dots harkened to the sound mass trends of the late 1960s and 1970s. Yet, the distinctive and beautiful freshness of Consortium5’s sound prevented these three compositions from sounding cliché, which may have happened had they been written for strings or another more commonplace ensemble. The final original work of the album – Luke StylesThree Stages – was a perfect capstone to the commissioned music featured on Tangled Pipes. Elegantly through-composed, Three Stages unwittingly refers to all the sounds and textures of the preceding tracks in a long-form exploration of contrasting musical images.

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Glint

Timothy McAllister, saxophone

Innova 764

Lucia Unrau, piano; Robert Spring, clarinet

I knew Timothy McAllister’s recently released CD, Glint, was a hit when it grabbed me through my Jeep’s speakers as I drove down the highway. An athletic, delicate and powerful performance, Glint showcases Mr. McAllister’s command of the full sonic potential of his instrument. Along these lines, the works featured on the album cast a wide net over the landscape of contemporary music, making Glint a must-listen for any composer with plans of working with saxophone, regardless of aesthetic preferences.

The CD plays like a recital one would never forget, and samples a wide variety of instrumental combinations, soloistic colors and modern musical styles. For example, Caleb BurhansEscape Wisconsin (2006), Roshanne Etehazy’s Glint (2006) and Gregory Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata (2002) represent the kind of groove-oriented saxophone music I’ve observe to be very popular for saxophones, though, each of the three are very different. Escape Wisconsin is heavily rooted in repeated rhythms and melodic figures, as is the first movement of Mr. Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata, though this piece quickly departs to explore beautiful two-part counterpoint and – ultimately – the blues. Ms. Etehazy’s Glint is a tightly wound composing-out of an opening string of triplets, and presents – much like Mr. Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata – the nearly identical sounds of clarinet, played by Robert Spring, and saxophone in varied combinations.

Offering a more aggressive and abstract sound are Kristin Kuster’s Jellyfish (2004), Kati AgócsAs Biddeth Thy Tongue (2006) and Daniel Asia’s The Alex Set (1995). Ms Agócs’ and Mr. Asia’s works are perfect large-scale solo works, particularly As Biddeth Thy Tongue which feels like a dramatic soliloquy and possesses a wide expressive range thanks to is juxtaposition of great lyricism and extended techniques. The Alex Set similarly opposes the saxophone’s sweetness and rhythmic facility within a more rigid structure of expository set pieces separated by contemplative interludes. Ms. Kuster’s Jellyfish is one of two works on the CD that pairs Mr. McAllister with piano, played by Lucia Urnau. The work flows smoothly through three movements, and the first – “medusa” – is compellingly indecisive, vacillating between capricious, fast gestures and slower, recitative-esque passages. This is followed by the sincere and elegiac aria, “blob” –some of the most profound music on the CD – and then closes with the piano and saxophone working almost as one line on the light and mecurial, “thimbles”.

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GVSU live at LPR

In C
Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble
Ghostly International + Wordless Music

Irrespective of genre, GVSU NME’s latest rendition of Terry Riley’s In C is one of the best live albums released in 2010. Recorded at a November, 2009 gig at Le Poisson Rouge, the group presents a 65-minute rendition of the piece: by no means as long as many performances, but far more luxurious than their taut rendition on the In C Remixed CD (Innova, 2009).

Unlike some postmodern interpretators, such as Acid Mother’s Temple, who do violence to the form of In C in an indulgent  misunderstanding of the open spirit of its performance instructions, GVSU NME have provided a thoughtful take on Riley’s intentions. It’s a reasonably faithful interpretation of the score’s flexible notation garbed in innovative instrumentation choices.

Though GVSU NME is, at its core, a 16-person group of contemporary classical musicians, there’s more than a bit of genre-bending going on here. The concert starts off with a skronk-filled free jazz introduction; perhaps a bit of an overstep, but a fascinating one! The performance also features an electronica component: the beats and effects of laptop performer Dennis DeSantis. Yet all of these disparate elements cohere into a rendition of In C that’s both impeccably prepared and frequently thrilling. It suggests that Riley’s mutable minimalist declaration still has the capacity to sound surprisingly fresh and eminently vital.

MP3: In C Live (excerpt)

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Music for Saxophone and Piano by Rueff, Anderson, Heiden, Davis, Feld

Kenneth Fischer, saxophone
Martha Thomas, piano

Aca Digital Recording

Surprising to think at this late date that the saxophone should still be looking for respectability as a solo classical instrument, at least in some circles. You would certainly have gotten an argument on that score from the late Kenneth Fischer (d. December 9, 2009) whose masterful, virtuosic performances on the present program make the strongest possible case for the instrument. Together with his frequent recital partner Martha Thomas, Fischer gives a veritable clinic in the extraordinary things that all his saxophones – alto, soprano, and Eb – can be made to do.

Chanson et Passepied by French composer Jeanine Rueff (b.1922) leads off the program in fine style with its charming, arching melody that is re-cast in dance time in the second half by changing the meter and tempo. It’s followed by the two Sonatas for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Tommy Joe Anderson (b.1947), both characterized by pithy expression and a wise economy of means. No. 1 is basically a serial composition based on the hexachord Eb-G-E-A-D-Bb. My favorite section of this rhythmically alert piece is the third, marked “Fast, with a jazzy feeling.” Sonata No. 2 is marked by confrontation between the two instruments, in which sax and piano react to each other’s points of contention, with some scope allowed for controlled aleatoric measures. (If you think I’m going to define “aleatoric,” you’re nuts: look it up!)

The oldest work on the program, and the one that most consistently has the “feel” of a modern classic, is the 1937 Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000). The composer studied with Paul Hindemith, and this was one of his first compositions after leaving Germany. The jaunty, bluesy mood of this music reminds us what a hotbed Berlin was for creative modernism in all the arts just prior to the rise of the Third Reich. Highly melodic and flavorfully dissonant, with its remote tone centers and richly chromatic melodies, this engaging work has a nice swing to it that Fischer and Thomas never fail to communicate.

I’m not nearly as fond of Declaration for Soprano Saxophone and Piano by William Davis (b.1948) with its strangulated sounds resulting from such compositional techniques as timbre alternation on a single note, quarter notes, and, especially, saxophone multiphonics. The latter can be very hard to listen to, particularly in the repeated references to the motif BACH (that is, Bb-A-C-B) that, in the context, sound more satirical than reverential. (Come to think of it, J.S. Bach, who was known in his day for his hot temper, once challenged a bassoonist to a swordfight for playing his instrument like a “nanny goat.” One shudders to think what he might have done to Davis, were he still living!) At least we can say that Fischer’s technique here is really impressive, and Thomas has some fine moments with inside-the-piano multiphonics. Still, one has to wonder what Davis had in mind with this 15-minute rhapsody in a single movement.

I’ve never warmed up to the music of Czech composer Jindrich Feld (1925-2007) whose unique way with 12-tone composition, used here in a non-conventional way that eschews the use of strict tone rows, other listeners have found engaging. His Élégie for Soprano Saxophone and Piano struck me, on the contrary, as rather hesitant in its terse expression. Still, I found four of six works on this program to be attractive and engaging, at least as Kenneth Fischer and Martha Thomas present them. At the end of the day, that’s not a bad average.

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The Complete Songs, Volumes I and II

The Florestan Recital Project

Florestan Records

“I found [composing with and for electronics] boring and predictable – speakers cannot stand up to acknowledge applause. In electronic music everything is fixed, permanently. I missed presenting a score to a creative performer with the hope that he would take the piece into his own personality.”

One of the unexpected pleasures of reviewing the songs of the late Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) was discovering his candid and engaging personality. That’s always a boon for the writer desperately in search of a “lead” to begin his review. Pinkham provides the critic numerous literary gems of that sort. In his long career he set his hand at it all: symphonies, cantatas, concertos, oratorios, and chamber music for a great variety of instrumental combinations, embracing means as diverse as medieval modes and plainchant, dodecaphony, serialism, and electronic music. One gets the feeling from listening to Volumes I and II of the Florestan Project’s Complete Songs project that song had a special significance for Pinkham, something to which he returned time and again over the years. It all fits in with his love of writing with a specific occasion and his love of contact with the singers and instrumentalists: “I have no unperformered music.”

Volume I of the present series embraces settings of poems by such as A E Houseman, Emily Dickinson, and particularly James Wright (1927-1980), with whose poetry Pinkham’s music formed a close, personal correlative. Wright was influenced by both Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy, both of whom he resembled in the denseness and exuberance of his imagery. We find this quality particularly in Pinkham’s settings from The Green Wall and Where Love Has Gone, both sung here by Joe Dan Harper, accompanied by guitarist Jim Piorkowski in the former and pianist Anne Kissel Harper in the latter. I normally don’t like settings of free verse (which Frost once compared to playing tennis without the net) because they tend to result in too much sameness resulting from the heightened declamation that is inevitable when the composer doesn’t have meter or rhyme to relate to. These are more palatable than most, owing largely to the imagination residing in Wright’s images: “The kind of poetry I want is my love / who comes back with the rain. Oh, I / would love to lie down long days long, / the long / down slipping the gown from her / shoulders.”

The handful of Dickinson poems in Called Home require, and receive, more cadenced settings in keeping with the poet’s use of liturgical cadence and clipped expression: “Promise this – When you be Dying – / Some shall summon Me – / Mine belong your latest Sighing – / Mine – / to Belt your Eye – / Not with Coins – though they be Minted / From an Emperor’s Hand – / Be My Lips – the only Buckle – / Your low eyes demand.” And of course, Dickinson’s preoccupation with death finds expression in all five poems in the series, providing a rare degree of unity: “Some, too fragile for winter winds / The thoughtful grave encloses – / Tenderly tucking them in from frost / Before their feet are cold.”

Tenor Joe Dan Harper and baritone Aaron Engebreth alternate the vocal assignments in Volume II, which consist of settings of Psalms, other Scriptural Sources, and poems with religious significance in their imagery by such olden poets as Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Thomas Campion, George Wither and Sir Philip Sydney, with Emily Dickinson’s whimsical “Angels at Play” and the robust exuberance of Gerard Manley Hopkins thrown in for a change of pace: “Bring hither pearl, opal, sard; / Reck not what the poor have lost; / Upon Christ throw all away; / Know ye this is Easter Day.” The various Psalms, wisdom literature Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Letters of St. Paul and St. Ambrose in this Volume find perfect sound=sense correlation in Pinkham’s settings, which can be lyrical, meditative, or dramatic as the text requires. He captures to perfection the intimacy in so many of these texts. And the organ accompaniment by Heinrich Christensen is always sensitive to the mood and ambience of the song.

In short, the present 2-CD package is an ideal introduction to a composer who was to claim, “The single event that changed my life was a concert [at Andover] by the Trapp Family Singers in 1939, right after they had escaped from the Nazis. They had virginals, recorders, a gamba, and I had never heard anything like that in my life … Here, suddenly, I was hearing clarity, simplicity.” Coming at a time in history when the basic sound of western music, like it or not, was post-Wagnerian, it shaped Pinkham’s whole outlook on life and music.

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Giancinto Scelsi  CD Cover art

Tre Canti Popolari

Due Componimenti Impetuosi

Sub Rosa record

  • Tre Canti Popolari: Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto, Vincent Bouchot – baritone, Paul Gérimon – bass
  • Duo:  Georg-Alexander Van Dam – violin, Jean-Paul Dessy – cello
  • Wo Ma: Paul Gérimon – bass
  • Sauh:  Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto
  • Aitsi:   Jean-Luc Fafchamps – piano
  • Sonate #4:  Johan Bossers – piano
  • Suite #11:  Johan Bossers – piano

Vocal chamber music and solo piano works form the bulk of this two disc assortment of Scelsi’s music on Sub Rosa.  Being mostly familiar with Scelsi’s instrumental chamber music, I was anxious to hear how he wrote for unaccompanied voices.  Tre Canti Popolari does not disappoint at all.  All of the focus and dramatic tension from Scelsi’s string quartets is transfered beautifully into the vocal medium.  The four performers sound tremendously good.  The blend is sublime but there is never a sense of monochromaticism.  The vocalists’ sensitivity and balance between independence and ensemble elevate this already stunning composition.  I am also a big fan of the male voice selections, specifically the choice of baritone and bass instead of tenor/bass or tenor/baritone.  Sclesi’s natural darkness gets accentuated by the darker vocal colors.  As enamored as I am with the quartet’s performance, I am equally enamored with Paul Gérimon’s interpretation of Wo Ma and Marianne Pousseur’s and Lucy Grauman’s performance of Sauh. These soulful performances wring every note for its full amount of nuance and emotion.  The only thing better would be hearing it live.

The Duo for violin and cello is a bit of an outlier on this disc being the only work that involves strings.  The piece is well executed and serves as a great sonic break for the vocal pieces.  The composition is lithe and intense, disquieting and expressive.  The first disc closes with the solo piano work Aitsi and Scelsi’s piano music, once again, has the ability to captivate with extremely little surface activity.  The opening punctuations of Aitsi are sudden and harsh, at first obscuring the delicious amplified distortion.  After several thwacks, though, the vibrant electronic sounds nourish the chords into longer and richer lifespans.

Disc two of this set is comprised of solo piano works composed about a decade before anything on the first CD (with the exception of the short 2 years between Suite #11 and Tre Canti Popolari).  In Piano Sonata #4, from 1942, I can hear the aural conflict between the musical language of the time and the language Scelsi would later develop.  The first movement is thorny and jagged but the low register melody meanders in an unusually drunken-yet-focused way.  Movement two, with its open harmonies and tenderly dark melody, hints at the expressive power of his later compositions while the final movement is spastic and rough with a singular trajectory.

Suite #11 is a real trip.  To my ears, I hear Scelsi experimenting with alternate ways of organizing and expressing his musical nature.  Each of the nine movements contains a stream-of-consciousness feel that keeps the piece, however loosely, from breaking apart into musical atoms.  The energies present in the piece reminds me of the rugged atonal expressionist American composers from the early 20th century such as Ruggles and Ornstein – the time when free atonality was brash and expansive instead of smug and superior (but maybe I’m romanticizing that a bit).  Suite #11 is wild, unhinged, and Johan Bossers plays it with the right amount of control and furor.

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