Posts Tagged “chamber music”
Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: Alex Waterman, California E.A.R. Unit, CD Review, chamber music, Either/Or, Jay Batzner, Keeril Makan, Laurie Rubin, postminimalism, Starkland
music of Keeril Makan
performed by Either/Or, Alex Waterman, Laurie Rubin and the California E.A.R. Unit, and David Shively
Keeril Makan’s music grabs hold of you right away with musical language that is simultaneously straightforward yet highly nuanced. The quartet of pieces on Target serve as excellent examples of what makes Makan’s compositions approachable and mesmerizing. 2 for violin and percussion, performed by members of Either/Or (Jennifer Choi, violin and David Shively, percussion) bursts out with simple regular repeated notes played with ferocity and urgency. The blend of low violin and chimes in these opening seconds is compelling and draws me in as a listener. Percussion writing can get out of hand with performers using almost every possible instrument under the sun. Throughout 2 Makan shows tremendous restraint by leaving the percussion on metallophones and using the two players as one hybrid synthetic instrument. Timbral choices are carefully managed to keep the duo sounding as one driving hyperinstrument, whether the music is bombastic or restrained. The closing scratch tones and super-ball driven tam tam textures are creepy and luscious. Makan makes the sound organic and necessary where other composers would sprinkle them in a piece for sheer effect. Either/Or’s timbral virtuosity is particularly stunning and they bring a perfect melding of energies to this exciting performance.
The very next track on the disc, Zones d’accord for solo cello and recorded by Alex Waterman, showcases Makan’s ability to do a lot with a little. Long single tones are given amazing life by carefully controlled bow placement making the cello sound like a variety of bowed percussion instruments, a trautonium, a balloon being rubbed, and any other sounds you could think of on the “brittle glass to rich full cello tone” spectrum. The virtuosity of Waterman’s right hand is truly stunning. While few of the sounds found in these nine minutes seem traditionally associated with the cello, Waterman (who is also a member of Either/Or) really connects with and draws out Makan’s ecstatic emotional arc throughout the performance.
Target, the title track of the disc, is song cycle performed here by Laurie Rubin (mezzo-soprano) and the California E.A.R. Unit. The text for the set is pieced together from Jena Osman’s poetry as well as propaganda leaflets which were dropped over Afghanistan after 9/11. Makan’s deft hand with timbre and breeding hyperinstruments from seeming simple combinations is once again all over the piece. Far more than accompanied voice, Rubin is simultaneously featured yet absorbed into a singular musical fabric. The images are disturbing and harrowing and the music dives straight towards a strong emotional connection with the listener.
Last and certainly not least (especially since it is the longest work on the CD) is the solo percussion piece Resonance Alloy performed by David Shively. The music again uses only metal percussion sounds and the motivation of the narrative is more through abstract timbral changes than motivic or melodic material. All of the spectralmorphological moves done in the earlier pieces are concentrated and inflated over the course of 30 minutes. Makan seems to channel Alvin Lucier and Eliane Radigue with his slow unfolding of waves of sound within a wholly obsessive framework. Resonance Alley is very much like hearing a single cymbal roll in excruciatingly slow aural motion. Yet again, Makan makes what should be simple and mundane captivating and engrossing.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Clarinet, electronics, Jay Batzner, Missy Mazzoli, New Amsterdam, Piano, postminimalism, strings, violin, women composers
music of Missy Mazzoli
New Amsterdam Records
Victoire is Missy Mazzoli: compositions, keyboards, piano, melodica, toys; Olivia De Prato: violin; Lorna Krier: keyboards; Eileen Mack: clarinet; Eleonore Oppenheim: double bass, electric bass
- A Door into the Dark
- i am coming for my things
- Cathedral City
- Like a Miracle
- The Diver
- A Song for Mick Kelly
- A Song for Arthur Russell
- India Whiskey
Victoire is an ensemble that is hard to categorize. On the one hand, this is an instrumental chamber group that (on this album) is championing the music of one of its members. Mazzoli’s compositional voice is clear and focused, she definitely has something to say. The textures of the music, the timbres in the ensemble, the use of synthesizers and electronics, though, make Victoire appear less like a conventional chamber ensemble and more like a “band.” Unlike Build, a similar genre-bending group on the same label, Victoire’s connection to either the “chamber music” or “popular music” worlds is much more fluid. You can love or hate this group based on whichever camp you find yourself.
But enough about what Victoire is not. Mazzoli’s compositions are smooth and flowing with a aura of emotional detachment. Harmonies are comforting, long lyrical lines are abundant, and Mazzoli finds exciting ways to provide rhythmic propulsion without a dedicated percussionist. The music simmers. Distorted guitar in A Song for Mick Kelly could have plunged that track into some real spleen-venting thrash but Mazzoli shows excellent restraint and control. This isn’t minimalism, this isn’t pop, this is simply Mazzoli. Her compositional voice is distinct and highly listenable. Events unfold slowly, unhurried, but never lagging or taking too long.
Each player in Victoire blends extremely well with the various synth and electronic sounds that form the sound world of each track. I am especially drawn to the juxtaposition of bubbling synths and the lyrical line of the double bass in Like a Miracle. The various breathy and hollow synth sounds are well chosen for their blend.
Many vocal elements permeate the compositions but again, there is a distancing of those emotionally charged elements from the listener. i am coming for my things replicates an answering machine message rich with emotional potential. India Whiskey uses the same technique of distancing a vocal element by manipulating a “number station” recording of a male voice counting over radio static. This static becomes the rhythmic motivator of the track as well as a timbral touchstone for the synths and instruments. I fear that a lot of the discussion about Victoire is going to revolve around the “what are they/what aren’t they.” I would much rather put that conversation aside and focus on their product: Intriguing music of our time, expertly crafted, performed, and produced.
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American Modern Ensemble
American Modern Recordings
- The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind
- Star Crossing
- Embracing the Wind
The American Modern Ensemble gives splendid and vibrant recordings of these seven works by composer Robert Paterson. Paterson’s music is bright and shiny with a lot of timbral spectacle. Gestures are sparkling and bright and the AME balances the spiky rhythms and quick bursts of energy with fluidity. The pitch world is very much in line with the shiny timbres of the pieces; chords are based on extending tertian harmonies and traditional functions.
Most of the pieces are scored for the stereotypical grouping of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion (or a subset of that instrumentation). Paterson’s approach to pitch, rhythm, and timbre stays constant across pieces which, on a casual listening, can make it difficult to tell when one piece stops and another piece starts. The exceptions are Embracing the Wind which thins the ensemble to flute/alto flute, viola, and harp. This composition stands out with a thinner amount of activity but also the husky viola tone and the harp stepping in to the piano’s shoes. The following Elegy for two bassoons and piano refreshed my sonic palette, too. Nevertheless, the AME provides strong performances of Paterson’s signature sounds.
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music of Scott Johnson
- The Illusion of Guidance
- Bowery Haunt
- Anthem Hunt
performed by: Kermit Driscoll, electric bass; Scott Johnson, electric guitar; Michael Lowenstern, clarinets; Mary Rowell, viola; Greg Chudzik, bass; David Cossin, marimba, percussion; Mark Dancigers, electric guitar; John Ferrari, drums; Stephen Gosling, piano; Derek Johnson, electric guitar; Liviu Onchoi, sampled voice; Taimur Sullivan, saxophones; Ken Thomson, clarinet; Shekaiba Wakili, sampled voice; Alex Waterman, cello; Janet Xiong, sampled voice
Scott Johnson’s Americans is a large pseudo-rock ensemble work punctuated by the sampled voices of various American immigrants. The rhythmic cells found in the voices are woven into the ensemble for an effect that is best described as “Zappaesque.” The compositional techniques are similar to Johnson’s “How It Happens” featuring the sampled voice of I. F. Stone but ramped up with more aggressive and driving features. The ensemble playing is tight and at first listening I thought the composition was for fixed media a la Noah Creshevsky. I am much more impressed knowing that the ensemble is live and that only the voices are sampled. I found my own listening to gravitate towards the voices, which I think is natural, so I found some difficulty with the through-line of the second movement (the narrator of which speaks Romanian). The final movement, featuring the voice of an Afghan-American talking about her internal schism about going to war in Afghanistan, makes for a poignant and subdued ending.
The last three compositions are all pure instrumental chamber works featuring electric guitar is some way, shape, or form. The Illusion of Guidance keeps a tight reign on its motivic materials. The clarinet often comes across as the primary melodic voice but Johnson uses the blend between the electric guitar and the high clarinet register to keep the timbres alive and kicking. Rhythms are spiky, driving, but never devolve into a frivolous groove. Bowery Haunt and Anthem Hunt are two excellent examples for what composers can and should be doing with their rock heritage. Each piece uses steady rhythms, electric guitar timbres, and power chords but neither piece does anything trite or cliched with these elements. If I were to describe these as a sommelier, I’d say something like “Delightfully post-minimalist/totalist, still lyrical, with notes of King Crimson.” These works, and the disc as a whole, are prime examples of well-crafted music that speaks to the moment. Scott Johnson isn’t creating pieces that use contemporary flavors simply on the surface. There is compositional craft knitting each piece together and some fantastic performances to boot.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Piano, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Ensemble CMN, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Laganella, Marilyn Nonken, Prism Quartet, saxophone
The Calls of Gravity
music of David Laganella
The Prism Quartet, Marilyn Nonken, Ensemble CMN
New Focus Recordings
- Leafless Trees – The Prism Quartet
- The Hidden River – Marilyn Nonken
- Unattainable Spaces – Ensemble CMN
- The Persistence of Light – Marilyn Nonken
- Sundarananda – Ensemble CMN
These recent works by composer David Laganella feature a constant nattering of activity full of motion and gestures and with very little stability or repose. Leafless Trees is an energetic and coloristic set of miniature toccatas for saxophone quartet. The Prism Quartet are clearly at home here as they make the acrobatics and difficult timbral shifts sound fluid and organic. The quartet is a showy virtuosic piece and I found that I wanted to listen to the individual sound worlds of each movement for a greater amount of time that Laganella had composed.
Marilyn Nonken’s two performances (The Hidden River and The Persistence of Light) features almost constant activity and flow as is fitting to the compositions’ inspirations. Both pieces function with their own internal logic through a linear form that eschews repetition for constant development. These pieces are based on textures instead of gestures with broad dramatic shapes to guide the listener. Harmonies are dense clusters which occasionally relax into softer sounds. As a whole, Laganella uses the piano as a single voice with very little use of large-scale polyphony. The smaller gestures that make up the whole composition are again appropriate given his inspirations of water and light.
Unattainable Spaces stays true to the sound world that Laganella has presented thus far. Tight dissonances are the glue that bind this ensemble (string trio, clarinet, and percussion) into a single unified instrument. The language is equally sinewy and slippery as it progresses from one moment to the next. In a refreshing change of pace, the final composition played by Ensemble CMN has smooth edges and a more tender touch. Sundarananda for flute, cello, and guitar, is a compellingly understated piece built of slower moving lyrical lines sometimes punctuated by more hectic activity. The trio waxes and wanes and is full of breath. Short spiky gestures that become the mainstay of Laganella’s later compositions (this work is the earliest on the disc – 2004) are given resonant space. A tight control over the dramatic arch is still maintained. I’m not sure what has happened in the past 7 years to move Laganella’s music into a more hectic and manic direction but I hope he will still draw upon the serene contemplations he had when composing Sundarananda.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Piano, tags: Canada, CD Review, cello, chamber music, Jay Batzner, Montreal, Piano, piano trio, strings, violin
5 x 3
- Ana Sokolovic – Portrait parle
- Paul Frehner – Quarks Tropes
- Jean Lesage – Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres
- Analia Llugdar – Tricycle
- Chris Paul Harman – Piano Trio
Julie-Anne Derome, violin; Gabriel Prynn, violoncello; Anna D’Errico, piano
Trio Fibonacci is quite a group. I first heard them on their recording of Jonathan Harvey works a few years back and I am astounded at their ability to program and perform Old Warhorses alongside cutting-edge contemporary music. This recent release, 5 x 3, plays to the trio’s strengths in technique and interpretation providing an end result of excellent music making. All of the composers represented have some connection to the Montreal new music scene but beyond that, the five compositions provide unique experiences. Ana Sokolovic’s Portrait parle, inspired by 19th century French phrenology practices, is reminiscent of the sparkling colors and shifting hazes found in Jonathan Harvey. The trio is made of many small vignettes which are woven together in a compelling and kaleidoscopic narrative. Paul Frehner’s Quarks Tropes is about as different as it could be: long, stoic melodic lines and dark harmonic tones in the first movement and aggressive energies in the second. The more conservative harmonic language is still fresh and inviting as both movements traverse satisfying emotional arcs.
Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres (The Mozart Project, where the author questions himself on the complexity of styles and mixing of genres), other than winning long title competitions, shines a wondrous magnifying lens on the music of Mozart and watches it melt and subsequently catch fire. Jean Lesage treats the Mozart as an elusive figure, slipping in and out of recognizability with remarkable skill. The music could, and does, go anywhere at any time. Analia Llugdar’s Tricycle brings back the coloristic sound world of the Sokolovic trio but with an emphasis on pointalistic moments and slowly developing shapes. Energies ebb and flow throughout the piece but the overall vibe projected is one of almost serene detachment.
The final composition on this disc is Chris Paul Harman’s Piano Trio, set in six brief movements. This composition gives Trio Fibonacci yet another chance to shine since it contains some of the most intricate and quickly orchestrated material on the entire disc. Trio Fibonacci is adept at sounding as a singular unit as well as three separate virtuosi but this Piano Trio gives Trio Fibonacci the presence of 9 people. The overall rough and rugged language (pitch and rhythm) is a great contrast to the delicate works which proceeded it and its closing position on the disc is a good choice. The silky smooth and poignant ending in movements 5 and 6 (attaca) is a surprise (which I’ve ruined for you now but it is still worth hearing).
In general, there is hardly anything left that you should want from this disc. The excellent music, fabulous performances, and great programming have kept this disc in my regular rotation for quite some time.
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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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Red Garuda / Rilke Songs / Bagatelles /
Peter Serkin, James Conlon, New York Philharmonic, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Orion String Quartet
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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String Quartets 2 & 3
Ida Kavafian, Violin I
Mark O’Connor, Violin II
Paul Neubauer, Viola
Matt Haimovitz, Cello
With credentials as both a folk/bluegrass fiddler on one hand and a classical violinist on the other, Mark O’Connor’s journey through the world of music has been unique. So don’t expect anything ordinary about this offering on his own OMAC label. String Quartets 2 and 3, subtitled “Bluegrass” and “Old-Time,” respectively, are clear signposts on that journey as well as O’Connor’s tribute to his own early American family roots, which include New Amsterdam Dutch and Mohawk Indian strains. (And come of think of it, when have you last heard a classical composer talk about “hot licks” in describing his music?)
With the aid of three collaborators who are all well known to conoisseurs of string music in America, O’Connor launches us, in his “Bluegrass” Quartet, on a thrilling ride that will have many listeners unable to resist the urge to toe-tap and move in time to the music. The authentic whine and twang of bluegrass is present here, as well as the soulful harmonies and (of course) those hot licks we spoke of. That includes a lot of rhythmic “bow chopping” in the fast movements. A highlight of the slow movement is the down to earth somber melody with ”gospel yearnings” (O’Connor) taken by the first violin to sublime lengths. In the third movement (there are no descriptive markings) Bluegrass makes its closest approach to the four A’s of modernism: A-tonal, A-symmetrical, A-stringent, and A-tomic. The finale builds to almost unconscionable lengths, dying to a fall and rising again at several points, until we end with a well-deserved flourish.
Quartet 3, commissioned by the Hudson River Quadricentennial Music Project, pays its respects to old-time folk fiddling such as O’Connor’s ancestors found when they migrated from the Hudson Valley down the Appalachians to the south in the early 1800’s. The fast movements here are even more condensed and tightly wound than those in the “Bluegrass” Quartet and there is no real slow movement as such, and so the playing time is appreciably shorter, about 25 minutes compared with 35. As in the earlier quartet, O’Connor’s music is not as simple as it might at first appear, since he employs techniques such as canonic variation and re-harmonization to bring original but authentic-sounding folk phrases in line with the sound of contemporary music. One may question whether it represents a new direction in American music, based as it is on this composer’s unique history and keen personal interests, but it’s all tremendously exciting. The finale builds to a peak, and then ends suddenly and dramatically.
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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
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 Arkivmusic.com, 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 www.kalabismusic.org ). 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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