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"New" Music Log

Discussion in 'classical' started by Todd A, Dec 27, 2008.

  1. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    [About the time I started winding down my Beethoven sonata collecting a year and a half ago, I started focusing a bit more on repertoire I've not heard at all. I'll post some of these from time to time to catch up to where I currently am in my listening pile. Alas, the discs will not have the images attached, but I will keep the links I used to originally embed the images on other sites.]

    New to me at least. As my journey through complete cycles of Beethoven’s piano sonatas winds down (though it may take months to get everything written, if I go that route), I began to wonder what will become my buying and listening focus. And no, it (probably) won’t be Beethoven’s symphonies. Debussy’s piano music would be good, I suppose, but I’ve been buying and listening to that in rather copious quantities over the last couple years as well, so that wouldn’t work. Then it occurred to me: I must listen to more “new” music, or in other words, music I’ve not heard before. While I’ve listened to a pretty wide variety of music over the decade or so that I’ve been seriously listening to classical music, I’ve not listened to anywhere near enough music. There are thousands upon thousands of works, and I’ve heard perhaps thousands. Not enough.

    So I’ve decided to listen to as much new music as I can over the next year or two or three or whatever. From time to time I’ll write about said new music. Keep in mind that this is music new to me, and so I may end up covering not only modern (ie, post-war) music, but also music going all the way back to the Baroque, or earlier. Mostly, though, I expect most of the music to come from my favorite century, musically speaking: the 20th Century. There’s so much variety that it seems the best place to start.


    Or not. I ended up selecting music from the 21st Century for my inaugural post. Specifically, I selected Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle from 2000-2002 on Naxos, as played by the International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Ruo himself. Ruo is a name completely new to me. He’s a young (born 1976) Chinese born, now American domiciled composer who, according to the liner notes, some of which were written by Ruo, has been influenced by just about everything. It shows. The four concertos are brief works for ensembles ranging from five to fifteen players, with a few more instruments than that as some players double (or more) instruments. They all blend Eastern influences and Western traditions, including jazz and everything avant garde. One can detect whiffs of Bach, most notably in a cello part in the third concerto; Lutoslawksi, in the more astringent, densely written instrumental parts; and gobs of Stravinsky. I thought I detected some transformed quotes from a work or two, and many portions sound like lost Stravinsky works from the 60s. Even the jazz infused elements remind me more of Stravinsky’s approach to this idiom than of the idiom itself. That may be bad or good, depending on one’s preferences.

    People who like percussion will love this music, because there’s a lot of it. All but the third concerto have parts for percussion, and it’s here where Ruo shines. The writing and playing are vibrant, physical, and visceral. Drums and cymbals and gongs (including one big old honkin’ “bass” gong, if there be such a thing) show up everywhere, in speedy, energetic, and nimble music. Winds and strings are plentiful too, often exploring their higher registers to good, tangy, dissonant effect. And there’s that whole “exotic” Eastern thing, too, sort of like adrenalized, mandarin Takemitsu. Ruo and company also include spoken and sung parts in the piece, all of which involve Chinese texts. Truth to tell, I find the instrumental writing more compelling than the vocal writing, and sometimes it doesn’t seem as well integrated as a Mozart aria or a Lutoslawski orchestral song. But I like it. Perhaps most promising is the fact that Ruo was only in his mid twenties when he wrote the music, so as he matures he may write something even better. As it is, this disc will receive multiple spins.

    Sound is close and clear and quite good, though some low frequency noise and rumble is audible through most of it.

    (A note: I anticipate many Naxos discs will be covered. Revisiting the Naxos catalog reveals many enticing titles. Too many, in fact.)
  2. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Rossini - Stabat Mater


    It’s new to me. It took me a while to get in to Italian opera, then a little more time to get into Gioacchino Rossini, and then a bit more time until I figured I might want to try his Stabat Mater. His comic operas, or at least some of them, are wonderful, and even Guillame Tell has some magnificent parts. But a Stabat Mater? I decided to try a “safe” conductor in the great Carlo Maria Giulini, well aware of what such a comparatively late recording means in terms of tempo (slow or slowish) and approach (devout). I selected at least reasonably wisely.

    The work very definitely sounds operatic in approach, at least when compared to liturgical works by, say, Haydn or Bach. Rossini’s music works splendidly for the soloists at all times, with just the right accompaniment for each of the members of the quartet. And the tenor, well, he gets some special music, even if it sounds more buoyant that I would have expected in such a work. The choral contribution is magnificent as well, never more so than in the last two movements. Alternatively delicate and enchanting and powerful and driven, it helps the work.

    The soloists all sound well, though since I’ve not heard any other versions, I can’t make any comparisons. Giulini leads the work much the way I though he would, and thus I was very pleased. I can’t really say that this is my favorite such work – not with works by Bach and Haydn and Szymanowski out there – and it certainly doesn’t strike me as particularly devout, but I’m glad I heard it, even if I’m not really compelled to collect too many (if any) other versions.

    The early digital sound is better than I anticipated – maybe it got a makeover – if it still displays patches of glassiness and congestion at times.
  3. nickl

    nickl pfm Member

    A few months ago Radio 3 ran a featurette on women composers and I picked up two gems as a result.

    Lili Boulanger

    Sister of Nadia, and who died very young, I heard Vieille Prière Bouddhique, for tenor, chorus & orchestra, fell in love and decided to go for a CD. In the end I plumped for this one:


    And I'm glad I did. Though Vieille Prière Bouddhique is probably the best bit, the rest, in a similar vein, are not very far behind and the whole CD is beautiful - eminently approachable without being anodyne. The only down side of discovering Lili is that there isn't a great deal of repertoire and the available CDs do overlap a lot - or you have to share with other composers.

    The other lady was Germaine Tailleferre, the lady memeber of Les Six.

    As you might expect she wrote (for a very long time it must be noted) in a style that will appeal to those who like the other members of Les Six, particularly Poulenc (though I wouldn't claim her to be of the same stature).

    I started with this mixed repertoire CD


    which includes a string quartet, a harp sonata, some songs and a couple of piano pieces. Everything is in miniature, with an atmosphere perfectly suited to a spring morning. A lovely introduction, and at its current price on of £5.96 a bargain.

    I've since recently got CDs of her solo piano work as well as for four hands. Both the latter are very good and growing.
  4. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Leonardo Balada - Guernica, et al


    Here’s a composer new to me. To the extent I’d even seen Leonardo Balada’s name before it was only in ads. That’s a shame. I picked up the Naxos disc devoted to his Guernica, Homage to Sarasate, Homage to Casals, Fourth Symphony, and a suite derived from his opera Zapata, appropriately entitled Zapata: Images for Orchestra.

    In many ways Balada is what I’m looking for in new music, and here that means music from as recent as 1992 (the symphony). He blends folk music a la Bartok and Ives, intense modernism, and avant garde elements calling to mind Ligeti, among others. The music on this disc never sounds academic or merely analytical; there’s the spark of life to all of it. Guernica, from 1966, opens the disc, and the piece is inspired by Picasso’s work of the same name, and both depict, rather gruesomely, the Spanish Civil War. The piece does about as good a job translating the image to music as I can imagine, though perhaps others can imagine a better visual-to-aural transcription. (If so, they should write it down.) It’s chaotic and violent and confused and ugly and vibrant, and has the musical equivalent of an explosion right in the middle. It’s a dense, short work of just over 11 minutes, and while it’s not easy listening, it’s immensely gripping.

    The two homages are more deliberately avant garde, what with spooky high string notes and tremolos and disjointed elements coming and going. They seem somewhat less focused than the first work, but they are likewise compelling. The Fourth Symphony is an interesting work in that it was written for Lausanne Chamber Orchestra (hence its title “Lausanne”), and contains, the excellent liner notes report, elements of Swiss folk music. Again, it’s a very modernist piece, but one informed by many moments of levity and textural lightness and even beauty. In some ways, the two homages and the symphony sound the same – a critique anti-modernists would no doubt level – but there’s much more than enough musical food for thought in each piece.

    The final work is the suite derived from Zapata. What a collection! The first movement, a Waltz, sounds just like a 19th Century waltz and falls beautifully on the ears, with delicate string writing. The piece slowly transmogrifies into grotesque, almost chaotic music meant to symbolize a firing squad. It’s very effective. The March starts and stays grotesque in the best Expressionist-cum-trippy-avant-garde fashion, at times sounding like (disturbed) cartoon music. The wonderful Elegy is apparently lifted straight from the opera, with a solo cello taking Zapata’s part and a solo violin his dying brother’s part. The work closes with a Wedding Dance using Jarabe Tapatio (which pretty much everyone knows) as its recurring theme, which Balada then spins out in different directions while weaving in his own music most expertly. It’s sort of like what Ives did, but more sophisticated.

    This is one heck of a disc, and I now know I must explore more of Balada’s music. Pronto.

    Excellent sound.
  5. Gerontius

    Gerontius Forever dreaming...

    In great contrast to Giulini's interpretation, that of Istvan Kertesz from the 60s is well worth hearing. He plays up the operatic nature at the expense of the religious. Because of this some people hate this performance. But what were Rossini's religious views? (I have not been able to find out on wikipedia) He was famous for his cynical attitudes, so was he agnostic and did he set out to satirise the religious texts? If that is the case, then a secular, "jolly" approach like Kertesz's is entirely appropriate.

    His last works include the "petite messe solennelle" which parodies the styles of a lot of other music, and is for the most part a humorous, secular piece. Whatever his beliefs, Rossini certainly intended his music to be fun.
  6. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    [Thanks for the info Gerontius.]

    Rawsthorne - String Quartets


    My experience with Alan Rawsthorne has been quite limited thus far. I’ve heard a Naxos disc dedicated to various chamber works by the composer, which includes the superb Viola Sonata among other fine works, as well as another Naxos disc of various concertos, which I find rather bland. Given that, I decided it couldn’t hurt to try more of his chamber music, so I opted for the Maggini Quartet’s recording of the three String Quartets and Theme and Variations for Two Violins, again on Naxos. It falls somewhere between the two other discs, though much closer to the prior chamber music disc.

    The disc opens with the Theme and Variations for Two Violins, and it’s a pretty nice work. It falls rather easily on the ear overall, though some spicy dissonant passages crop up, and the variations themselves are nicely varied stylistically and in emotional impact. It’s not a towering masterpiece perhaps, but it’s not bad. (Then again, it may be a towering masterpiece.)

    The core of the disc starts off with the first quartet, another theme and variations work. Compact and concise at about 10’, it moves along swiftly from idea to idea, never hovering over one idea too long. Even so, it doesn’t pack quite the wallop I’m looking for in music of the era (1939). Better is the second quartet from 1954. It’s likewise compact and concise at under 18’, but from the start it’s more intense and thorny and vital. Stinging and biting while still maintaining some lyricism and vigor, it really works. Not that it’s all that way; Rawsthorne let’s silence and extremely quiet playing add to the impact of the music. The third quartet (1965) goes a bit further down the same path and maintains tension throughout. I suppose one can detect hints of other great quartet writers, but Rawsthorne is distinctive enough. No, he can’t quite match up to, say, Bartok or Shostakovich, but I’m glad I got this disc nonetheless. Looks like Rawsthorne’s up my alley in smaller scale fare. Duly noted.

    Sound is generally excellent, though it can be just a tad bright at times.
  7. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Weber - Oberon


    Moving on to the next work finds an opera I’ve been meaning to hear for a while but have never gotten around to. I write of Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon. I rather like Der Freischutz, so it’s somewhat surprising to me that it took as long as it did to get to this one. But it did.

    I was able to pick up a used copy of Marek Janowski’s 1996 recording, so no more delays would be tolerated. First I’ll just comment on the SOTA sound: It’s glorious. Everything is clear and warm and presented in realistic perspective. Special mention must be made of the sound of the choral singing. The words they sing are usually clear, their placement easy to discern. That’s a bonus.

    The opera itself is pretty good, though not of Freischutz quality. The elf king and his love’s bet on the devotion of humans in love and Oberon’s machinations to help the heroes and heroines is opera-silly, and it doesn’t really seem meaty enough to support the proceedings at times, but it’ll do. (Really, Der Freischutz, is pretty silly, too.) The spoken dialogue is comparatively lame – at least when compared to the occasionally compelling dialogue in Der Freischutz – and it sure sounds like closely-miked actors do the speaking rather than the singers, but what ya gonna do? The singers generally do well. The late Deon van der Walt makes a fine elf king, Peter Seiffert a brave Huon, and Inga Nielsen makes a pleasant sounding Rezia. (Which is a good thing given how much she sings.) Vasselina Kassarova’s Fatime and Bo Skovhus’ Scherasmin are also pleasant enough to hear. Janowski leads a tightly controlled, rhythmically sprung, lively, and orchestrally transparent account of the music, though I can’t comment on how he (or the singers) compare to others.

    The music is good enough so that I will return to it. Weber’s inventive writing and orchestration – a flute melody flying above a string accompaniment, undulating clarinets with low strings supporting them, etc – and the general energy level make it a fun listen. I’ll probably program out the dialogue next time, but really, I have no complaints. Now I have to give Kubelik a try.
  8. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Balada - Cello Concerto, et al


    I figured it was about time to try another disc of Leonardo Balada’s music, so I opted for the Naxos disc with his second Cello Concerto, entitled New Orleans, along with his Concerto for Four Guitars and Orchestra, as well as two shorter orchestral works, Celebracio and a Passacaglia. Again, it was a good choice.

    The disc opens with the Cello Concerto (2001), which is heavily influenced by “folk” sources, here a combination of spirituals and jazz. The opening movement entitled Lament is influenced rather obviously by spirituals; it fairly oozes with the stuff. But it works. The music is still dense and layered and surprisingly modern while retaining an immediately accessible neo-romantic sound. One may even be able to detect very faint whiffs of American-era Dvorak in the mix, along with hints of jazz. The cello part is well written and superbly played by Michael Sanderling. The second movement, called Swinging swings! Here the obvious spiritual references are replaced by jazz elements that sound more than jazzy enough. It’s more a Gershwin or perhaps Schulhoff style of jazz than an Ellington or Davis style, and it appears in a strangely surreal, dream-like setting; the music flows along, with jazzy bits popping in and out at random, or seemingly so. (Of course it’s not really random.) So much sounds so familiar, but it’s all new invention. One can’t place the exact influence because it’s a blend of many, and it just jells. Another superb work.

    I approached the Concerto for Four Guitars and Orchestra (1976), with the Versailles Guitar Quartet doing the small ensemble honors, with some trepidation. Truth to tell, I’m not a big fan of acoustic guitar music, in its classical guise or any other guise. A little bit goes a long way. Electrify and amplify the instrument, and, well, the same holds true. But here I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. First things first: this is a decidedly “modern” work, all knotty and dense and avant garde, so some may run for cover just reading that. I almost did. But I stuck it out. When the guitars enter, they play with a nice degree of tension and simple repetitiveness, then something quite striking happens – they blend seamlessly into the pizzicato high strings that bring the orchestra in full bore. Throughout the work the transitions between orchestra and soloists sound perfect, and Balada never lets the orchestra overpower the four instruments, which could very easily happen. The second movement (the movements are titled I, II, and III) is slow and eerie, with some tangy and delicious high register playing on the guitars and various intriguing devices elsewhere. The nine minutes sail by, and then the final movement just appears, with more energy and bite and some satisfying tuttis sprinkled throughout. That makes yet another winner.

    Next up is Celebracio from 1992. It opens very slowly and quietly and has a distinctly baroque sensibility. It quickly expands into a denser, more modern sounding piece, with Balada’s writing highlighting different sections of the orchestra to spectacular effect. It takes a little time, but the piece develops into full, grand, celebratory music that works as both a thought-provoking musical essay and easily accessible public showpiece.

    The disc closes with a Passacaglia from 2002. It sounds spare and lovely to open, and it immediately evokes the same type of quasi-dream state that the Cello Concerto does. And that wind writing! I know I’ve heard something like it before. Or have I? Various musical ideas dance in and out of the piece fluidly, yet there’s an effortlessness and inevitability to how the music progresses. It starts off abstract and hard to pin down, but slowly turns into a folk passacalle. Another little gem.

    All parties involved do a superb job, with Colman Pierce showing himself to be a fine conductor and the Barcelona orchestra a rather fine regional ensemble. Excellent sound rounds out a superb disc. At full price it would be worth every cent; at the Naxos price it’s a veritable steal. I need more Balada.
  9. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Schifrin, Schuller, Shapiro


    For years I planned on getting this disc, yet I only recently got around to doing so. I didn’t really miss a whole lot. Don’t get me wrong, the disc isn’t terrible or even bad – hell, it’s okay or better – but it doesn’t really offer anything that really catches the attention for long in two of the three works. The best of the lot is the trio by Gunther Schuller, which is dense and layered and rhythmically complex, all while being subtle. The Lalo Schifrin and Gerald Shapiro trios both bring to mind that famous Stravinsky quip: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” Both works are too long, and while both have some appealing elements, I just cannot get into them. It’s not that they’re especially difficult, “modernist” pieces, mind you, they just don’t hold my attention. Indeed, the Shapiro has some decidedly romantic aspects, including a creamy beautiful Adagio, but it still just doesn’t do it for me.

    Sound is generally excellent and spacious, especially with HDCD decoding.
  10. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Villa Lobos


    Heitor Villa-Lobos isn’t a composer new to me, but aside from The Baby’s Family and one other miniature played by Nelson Freire on an Audiofon recording of a 1984 recital, I’ve not listened to his piano music. So I figured why not give one of Sonia Rubinsky’s discs of the composer’s piano music a shot? Ms Rubinsky apparently is recording a complete set of Villa-Lobos’ piano music, so if one disc is good there may be more goodies to be heard. Plus the discs have been well-reviewed, so I figured the music and playing should be at least pretty good. They’re much more than that.

    If the third volume in the series is anything to go by, this is one heck of a series, and Villa-Lobos is one heck of a composer for solo piano. The disc opens with the Suite Floral, and it’s an absolutely lovely little work. Much of it sounds like a missing piece by Faure, though the third piece betrays its non-French heritage with some verve not often found in the piano works of the more famous French composer. Next up is Ciclo Brasileiro, which is another collection of miniatures that at times sounds like a modern-day Latinization of other composers: The third piece sounds like virtuosic, Latin Chopin; the fourth sounds very much like a tropical Prokofiev. That’s not to say that Villa-Lobos doesn’t have his own voice. He does. Indeed, the opening miniature is simply wonderful, with its ubiquitous right hand ostinato underpinning lyrical left hand playing, and the second piece sounds like a waltz-meets-tango dance. The next work is Brinquedo de Roda, which one can think of as Villa-Lobos’ version of Children’s Corner. It’s largely delightful, but such a suite invariably invites comparison to Debussy’s more famous, and better, work, and at times the material just doesn’t rise to the same level as the other music on the disc. The next work is a trio of pieces called Dancas Caracteristicas Africanas, and while there’s a “folk” element to it, it ultimately sounds abstract and rhythmically complex, and really invites the listener to listen carefully. The disc ends with four miniatures – Tristorosa and three Choros – and all of them display the same traits, to one degree or another, of the preceding works. On the basis of this music, I can’t quite say that Villa-Lobos should be considered alongside the very greatest composers for the keyboard, but he deserves far more attention, and I intend to here more discs in this series.

    To the pianist: she is quite fine indeed! Perhaps because she’s Brazilian, or perhaps because of her training and technique, or perhaps because of all of that and more, Ms Rubinsky really delivers the goods. She seems to understand the music well, and she masterfully handles the rhythmic aspects of the music and brings out delicate and varied tonal colors throughout the disc. I’d very much like to hear her in some standard rep – above all, Chopin and Schumann – and I know I must hear more of her Villa-Lobos.

    Sound is superb, though some pedaling is perhaps a little more noticeable than ideal.
    jandl100 likes this.
  11. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Mozart Camargo Guarnieri


    I figured it was time for two things: some new Mozart, and a brief Brazilian aside in my on-going journey. How to do both? Follow up new music by Heitor Villa-Lobos with music by Mozart Camargo Guarnieri. Guarnieri, who according to the Naxos notes is “universally recognized as the most important Brazilian composer after Villa-Lobos,” is entirely new to me. If I’d even seen his name before, I’d forgotten it. But this disc stuck out in the “G” rack, what with its bright, colorful cover and its unfamiliar name. That the disc contained a trio of piano concertos convinced me to buy.

    The disc contains the first three of Guarnieri’s six piano concertos. I decided to start with the first. The opening movement – Salvagem – bursts into being, with bright, colorful, dense and slightly opaque orchestral writing very much outside the standard European tradition. It’s infused with local folk music, or an intellectual abstraction of Brazilian folk music, and has a vital, swinging rhythm to it. The piano writing varies nicely between a bravura, virtuosic style and a more delicate, color-conscious approach. The slow movement, here called Saudosament, displays sparer writing for both band and soloist, and perhaps even a dash of despair. The closing Depressa is back to showy concerto mode, with especially appealing wind writing of the Latin variety. A fine opener.

    The second concerto opens with a Decidido that sounds more sophisticated musically as well as grander and more sweeping. Whereas the piano is largely integrated with the orchestra in the first concerto, here the piano is more prominent. Bright and substantial and showy, the piece shares definite stylistic similarities with the earlier work. The second movement Afetusoso is rich and complex and comparatively exotic. It sounds very much like a Latin piece in the style of, well, Villa-Lobos, with, again, the winds adding unique textures and vibrancy to the music. The piece closes with a Vivo that opens with rapid-fire piano playing and then moves along with an irresistible drive to the end.

    The third piano concerto opens with an Allegro deciso that is frenetic and propulsive out of the gate, but which slows up a bit to allow exceedingly colorful orchestral writing to shine through, and also some dazzling asides for various instruments and exhilarating exchanges between soloist and orchestra. The slow movement – here labeled Magoado – is slow a sparse with chamber music-like textures and a lovely duo involving the piano and flute. The work closes with a Festivo that’s tangy and robust, with, yet again, especially attractive wind writing. The piano part is again relatively integrated into the whole, but it also displays nice virtuosic flashes. The music occasionally sounds languid and humid, if you will, but mostly it’s vibrant and celebratory.

    So, here’s a disc filled with vibrant, exciting music making. In some ways, I guess one could draw parallels to Bartok’s three piano concertos, though any such action would do justice to neither composer. It would also point out one weakness in the music on this disc: it’s almost all about show. These are largely virtuosic showpieces and lack the depth of the greatest (or even greater) piano concertos. Since Deep and Heavy music isn’t always needed, I do know I’ll come back to these pieces again, and I’d even like to hear not only the remaining piano concertos, but also some other music by this composer. The pianist, Max Barros, acquits himself quite nicely here, playing with flair and panache, and Thomas Conlin and the Warsaw Philharmonic support him very well indeed. Excellent sound. A winner.
  12. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Peter Lieberson - performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson


    How does one approach a recording like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s final recording of orchestral love songs written for her by her husband? There’s certainly the potential for hagiography and exaggeration given the tragic circumstances, but I opted just to listen and gauge whether I like the music for what it is. Previously I’d only heard the late Mrs Lieberson in two other works: Handel’s Theodora under William Christie, and Mahler’s Second under Michael Tilson Thomas. In both cases she more or less made the recording, the former especially. In this disc she is the recording. Everything about it is very clearly meant for her and she delivers the goods. The disc contains settings of five love poems penned by Pablo Neruda, which the Liebersons selected together. The great care I imagine they devoted to the project pays off.

    The first two names that jumped immediately into my mind within the first few notes are Mahler and Berg. Since I like Mahler and Berg, that’s quite alright with me. My first overall impression of the music and performance, and one that stayed as I listened to the whole work, was one of intense, personal music. These are not necessarily grand orchestral songs, but rather are intimate selections, and Mrs Lieberson nails every song with such delicate nuance and subtle inflection and communicative power that one just sits and revels in the music. The close miking helps bring out every last expressive gesture in her voice. The orchestral writing is mostly “modern,” in an early-20th Century kind of way, though there are more than a few moments of exquisite beauty. All of the songs work well, with the absolutely wonderful My love, if I die and you don’t that closes the disc a rather obvious and moving farewell, which brings to mind Strauss’ closer to the Four Last Songs. And this song is as good as that one. For me, though, the highlight is the third song – Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because – which is a perfect synthesis of text, music, and interpretation. The winding, gripping music and lyrics set the stage for singing of a very high order indeed. At times throughout the disc it may be possible to hear hints of excess or self-indulgence, but if there is any subject that not only withstands but benefits from such things, it’s love, especially in the circumstances here.

    I very much like this disc. When it comes to orchestral songs I still prefer some other works – by the three other composers mentioned here for starters – but this disc is superb. For me it serves as a primer to explore more of Peter Lieberson’s music, and it also obviously stands as a monument to the late Mrs Lieberson. Here’s a work where it may be fine if no other recordings are ever made. Really, what would be the point, and who could ever compare?
  13. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Stephen Hartke


    Something entirely new seemed warranted. You know, music by a composer I’d never so much as read a sentence about. Stephen Hartke fit the bill. I’d seen the name, but knew nothing beyond how to spell his name. When I stumbled upon this disc at a local store I decided to buy based on two things: the fact that it was so new to me, and the fact that no less than Richard Stolzman plays the solo part in the main work on the disc, the Clarinet Concerto from 2001.

    And that seems a good place to start. The work is apparently influenced not only by jazz and blues, but also by the music that was the root of much jazz and blues, western African music. Since I’m not an ethnomusicologist, I can’t really vouch for how significantly this piece resembles said music, but I can report than the opening movement, Senegambia, is bright and vibrant and has a pulsating energy to it, all premised on a five-note ostinato bass-line. It has a very groovy, dance-like feel to it, and it reminds me of proto-jazz rather than proto-blues. (An exploration of the roots of the blues is what it’s about.) Stolzman, well, as I expected, he handles all with panache and ease, infusing his part with life. Now, the second movement, Delta Nights, it’s something different. It’s slower and darker, but still relatively bright and lively for something trying to evoke night. Or is it? (Sorta depends on what type of night life one has in mind, I guess.) The clarinet adds a drowsy, decidedly bluesy feel to the music. At times the playing and the music brought Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonata to mind. It has that same composed spontaneity and directness that the earlier work does. There’s nice, light, transparent support from the small orchestra, too, with luxuriant string writing, and at times, for a slow movement, the whole thing is a bit dazzling. The final movement, Philamayork, opens with muscular playing from the orchestra, and slinky and groovy playing from the soloist. The music picks up in both speed and energy, and becomes a bit denser along the way. After a while it seems rather like a more modern, more vital Gershwin. It’s just plain dandy, too. A definite winner.

    The rest of the disc is given over to shorter works. The Rose of the Winds, a string octet from 1998, is a darker hued though not dark toned work, with rich, lush low strings supporting shimmering high strings in a sort of abstract musical journey. There are of course lighter parts that have the buoyancy from the first work, and the whole thing unfolds effortlessly as idea after idea comes forth. Gradūs, a sextet from 1999, sounds surprisingly “big”, and the up-close recording brings the piece to vibrant life. The double bass provides the springy rhythm, and the rest of the ensemble add tight, bright playing over that, with the bass clarinet adding some most welcome texture. Pacific Rim, from 1988, is an orchestral work that is rather obvious in showing its eastern influences (a comment, not a criticism), and it sounds bright and crisp and snappy, with a sure rhythmic sense – something Hartke seems intent on imbuing every work with. The orchestration is diverse and novel, and some combos work very well, and when one considers all the textural changes and even the fugue, one can only conclude that is a fine work.

    I’m definitely glad I got this disc. It’s fresh-air contemporary music, by which I mean it’s decidedly modern in its use of disparate influences and techniques, but it’s also as un-stodgy as can be, and is immediately accessible. No deep-thought is necessary to enjoy this work – in contrast to, say Charles Wourinen – but listening with an analytical ear only increases one’s appreciation of the music. I look forward to hearing more from this composer.
  14. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Leonardo Balada - Violin Concerto, et al


    I’d had two positive experiences with discs of Leonardo Balada’s music, so I decided to try a third disc. I’ve had three positive experiences with discs of Leonardo Balada’s music. This new disc is of his first Violin Concerto (1982) and three smaller works, Folk Dreams (1994-98), Sardana (1979), and Fantasías Sonoras (1987). I’ll just dive right in,

    The Violin Concerto is the meat of the disc. The very modernist sounding work opens with an almost quasi-Messiaen orchestra-sounds-like-an-organ sound with blocks of music thrown out, though the sound is harder and darker than the Frenchman’s music. The violinist enters with slashing playing to meet the challenge of the orchestra, but soon the soloist is truly going solo, and the music is involving and suits the instrument well. It also takes on a dance-like character. The orchestral writing largely alternates between big blocks of sound and tingly, spiky, but always intriguing and inviting and novel little spurts of sound. The music becomes lighter as the movement progresses. The second movement – II – is the standard slow movement, and here the violin gets some gloriously gorgeous melodies to play. I thought more than once of Samuel Barber here. As the movement progresses, the music gets tangier, and the soloist still keeps one riveted. The music bleeds attacca right into the final movement, which is a suitably conventional fast ending, complete with a jaunty, saucy dance-like feel for the violin, and groovy and beefy orchestral music, with some nice thundering right before the humorous little end. All involved do a swell job, but Andrés Cárdenes is worthy of special praise for his fine fiddlin’. I wouldn’t mind at all hearing him play something else. So, another winner from the Spaniard.

    The next work, Folk Dreams, is a collection of three work written throughout the 90s for different conductors and orchestras (rather like Elliot Carter’s Symphonia), and all are inspired by folk music (whodda guessed?), though put through the surrealist treatment. The first piece, Line and Thunder, based on a Latvian theme, has a reasonably attractive melody coursing through the work, with heavier, more rhythmically syncopated music interrupting the flow to good effect. Shadows, based on a Catalan theme, is slower and darker and richer, with at times eerie high strings put to good use. The music is varied and layered and falls invitingly on the ears. Echoes, based rather obviously on an Irish theme, is vigorous and jaunty and has slightly sinister overtones to it. All told, another fine work. Not Symphonia good perhaps, but good all the same.

    The next work, Sardana, is yet another folk music inspired, dance-like piece. It takes a traditionally small ensemble piece and fleshes it out with nice wind writing, nice rhythmic flair, and a generally light though sometimes sharp sound. That written, it does sound a bit too long. Fantasías Sonoras is a brief work where one cell is continually transmogrified throughout the work. Generous textural and dynamic contrasts, copious orchestral colors, and an at times boisterous sound all lend themselves to a good time.

    Balada is three-for-three for me.

    Excellent sound.
  15. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Conlon Nancarrow - Player Piano Studies


    I was so impressed by the Naxos “sampler” of various works by Conlon Nancarrow that I determined I should hear more of his music as soon as possible. With this composer that means one thing: his Studies for Player Piano. Now, at first glance, the idea of listening to dozens of studies for a comparatively poor sounding instrument that, by its very nature, lacks any intimate, human artistic element in its utilization may seem a bit daunting or even downright uninteresting. (The problem regarding sound can probably be overcome by recordings on MDG, which use a customized Bösendorfer.) Where’s the emotion in such music to be found? It’s all so mechanical, right?

    Not so right. From the outset it’s clear that Nancarrow’s works for player piano are almost certainly as good as can be written for that instrument. It’s also clear that the music is anything but mechanical. It’s funny and probing and invigorating and challenging. It’s so human. It has been freed of the limitations of human digital dexterity. The only limit is the imagination of the composer. And that seems almost boundless. Through the course of the dozens of studies, Nancarrow displays an amazing range. He throws in so many ideas, tries so many things, explores rhythmic patterns that cannot otherwise be realized, and so expertly probes the possibilities of aleatoric music, that by the end the listener is left more than a little dazed. How to assimilate all the music? One can’t, at least not in a few sittings, or perhaps many sittings. There’s so much on offer. Indeed, one can’t possibly cover the highlights of five discs of nothing but highlights. Whether one considers the seemingly simple repeated patterns in some works, or the impossibly insistent and steady notes that flow through entire works (think one note repeated permanently at exactly the right tempo even though literally thousands of notes flurry around it), or the dizzying paths some of the music takes, it’s all so much. And then when one ends up listening to the third “movement” of the three part study 41, for two player pianos, where thousands upon thousands of notes per minute (perhaps an exaggeration, but only slightly) come hurling out of the speakers in a precise yet potentially random fashion (depending on just how one syncs up the two pianos), one can only marvel at such creative genius. Yes, genius.

    This set cements Conlon Nancarrow’s standing for me: he’s among the greats of the 20th Century. His music is unique, and there’s just so much there. Were I a musicologist, I could probably devote years to analyzing the music. I’d rather listen to it, though. I’d rather listen to the myriad ideas bursting out of the archaic, almost silly instrument. Nothing else is like it. This is an amazing set, certainly one of the best purchases of the year for me, and one I shall return to time and again. If you are even remotely adventurous, do consider some of this music. The set is available in separate volumes, and as referred to before, MDG is recording a “competing” cycle played on a Bösendorfer. I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting that, too.

    Sound is close and dry and analytical and reveals everything. While I was able to listen to two discs straight through, I usually had to split up listening sessions to allow for some aural relaxation. But I always came back for more.

    Amazing stuff.
    jandl100 likes this.
  16. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Villa Lobos again


    I so enjoyed the third volume of Sonia Rubinsky’s ongoing series dedicated to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ piano music that I figured I ought to try another disc. I opted to back up one and try volume 2. A wise choice.

    The disc opens with three small pieces – A Lenda do Caboclo, Ondulando, and Valsa da Dor – all of which make fine if short representations of the composer’s style. The first and last pieces are lovely but somber, the third even more so. (When it’s not a fine waltz, that is.) The second work is a fine little etude.

    Moving to the meat of the disc finds the second of Villa-Lobos’ suites entitled A Prole do Bebê, or The Baby’s Family. This longer of the two suites encompasses musical evocations of children’s toys, but only at an abstract level. There’s nothing child-like about the music. It’s sophisticated indeed, replete with myriad textural, tempo, dynamic, and coloristic effects. One can hear, at times, a sense of wonder at the musical images of the critters, much like what one might assume a child might think about the fanciful traits his or her imagination bestows on said fake critters. The music is widely and deliciously varied, and it sounds sort of like Debussy and Falla mashed together, combined with a New World flair. It’s quite something.

    The last work is yet another work given over to children’s themes. Cirandinhas is a collection of twelve works based on children’s songs. Again, the music far transcends the child-like. While generally lighter and more fun, and even truly delightful, the more somber final two pieces aside, the music is also more rhythmically challenging and exciting. One can detect a few hints of Prokofiev without listening very hard. Nothing wrong with that!

    As in the previous disc, Ms Rubinsky plays positively splendidly, with subtle (or not so subtle as necessary!) gradations of tempo and dynamics, and here tonal palette is quite impressive. Superb sound. A peach of a disc.
  17. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Martinu - Chamber Music


    I’ve always found Bohuslav Martinů to be a reliable composer. His works may not always be of Great Composer quality – though some certainly are – but his works always have some interesting ideas and usually sound quite appealing. So I figured the new Naxos release of his piano quintets would be a safe bet. So it proved to be.

    The disc opens with the first Piano Quintet from 1933. Despite being labeled a neo-classical work, as played here it’s big, sweeping, and more neo-romantic sounding, at least at times. The opening Poco allegro just carries one along, though it has some mildly jarring dissonances common to the time. The Andante sounds downright beautiful most of the time, with only milder dissonant music occasionally thrown in. The Allegretto is quicker and quite forceful, though it remains energetic and upbeat. The work closes with an Allegro moderato that that maintains the same style to the end, with a few darker moments thrown in. A very fine piece.

    The second piano quintet also opens with a Poco allegro, but this one’s even more sweeping than before. It’s also more astringent and larger in scale. It sounds almost quasi-orchestral, rather like some of Brahms’ chamber music, though the music doesn’t sound at all like Brahms. For contrast, some ripe, romantic melodies are thrown in to counter the harsher (though not harsh!) modernity of much of the writing. The Adagio is simply lovely, with light string writing that almost glows at times. The Scherzo has a vigorous, fun chase flanking a relaxed middle section, and the final movement alternates between a slow, rich Largo and vibrant Allegro. Another very fine piece.

    The disc closes with the Sonata for Two Violins and Piano from 1932. This little ditty opens with a carefree and fun Allegro poco moderato, moves on to a darker, somewhat sad, texturally rich Andante, and ends with a vibrant, strongly voiced Allegro. That makes three fine works.

    The artists – the Martinů Quartet with Karel Košárek at the piano – all play positively splendidly, and the sound is top notch. In short: An outstanding disc of 20th Century chamber music.
  18. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Aaron Copland - Piano Music


    I’m the first to confess that I’m not much of an Aaron Copland fan. His “Americana” or “Populist” or at least popular works (whatever you want to call them), in particular, just don’t do it for me. I have heard some of his less popular music, and found that more to my liking, and his opera The Tender Land as conducted by erstwhile local conductor Murry Sidlin at a venue I know is worth a listen or two. When I saw that Robert Silverman’s 1970s recordings of four of Copland’s piano works had been reissued at Naxos price by Marquis Classics, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give old Aaron a shot.

    The disc opens with Copland’s piano sonata from 1941, and this work falls squarely into Copland’s modernist compositions. The piece opens with some nicely appealing, if it’s your thing, angular (or spiky or jagged) music played with crisp, hard staccato by Silverman, something he’s adept at. The music and playing eases up a bit after a while, but it doesn’t exactly become Rach-like. It remains dense and difficult. And that’s just the Molto moderato opening section. (The work is one long movement.) The Vivace section sounds a bit lighter, at least for a time, but it remains spiky, and the louder passages come across nicely as Silverman hits them keys hard. The piece closes with a long Andante sostenuto that manages a very complex trick, and one I’ve heard very rarely: it stays resolutely modern and abstract and difficult, but it also sounds beautiful, at least at times. Much credit must be given to Silverman for this, of course, but the music does sound attractive and supremely serene. The music almost pulls off that time-suspension trick, and in some ways it sounds like a modern equivalent of the second movement of LvB’s 111. I still prefer the Bonn master’s work – it is, after all, one of the supreme masterpieces of all music – but this work exceeded expectations. It’s quite good and will earn repeated listens.

    The rest of the disc isn’t up the same standard. The Passacaglia from 1922 sound very formal and serious and never really offers the type of musical nourishment I hunger for. It’s rather plain. The Four Piano Blues, written between 1926 and 1948 for four different pianists including Andor Foldes and William Kapell, are better. The first is heavy, probing, and deliberate; the second lighter, more lyrical, and more playful; the third sounds beefy yet warm and glowing, while retaining a serious formality; the fourth is rhythmically spry and angular. All have jazzy elements. The disc rounds out with The Cat and the Mouse from 1920, which is jaunty, scampering, fun, and fresh, with a broad dynamic range.

    This very short disc (46’ or so) is thus mostly about the sonata, which is quite a work. The younger Robert Silverman trumps the older Robert Silverman in terms of technique, and his musical sensibility is assured. The only problem with the disc is the sound. Extraneous noises interrupt the music throughout. I can’t tell if it’s someone breathing really heavy, or something scraping along the ground or a wall, or just tape distortion or deterioration, or all that and more, but it does become a bit bothersome at times. So does the occasional post-echo from the analog tapes. Those caveats aside, this disc proved to be a nice, ear opening experience.
  19. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Bax - String Quartets


    After a few moments I fumbled around my CD pile to make sure I hadn’t put in a disc of Dvorak’s string quartets rather than Bax’s. The opening Allegretto semplice of the first quartet sounds like nothing if not a lost Dvorak gem, one written while the Czech was on a secret sojourn to the British Isles. It sounds rhythmically lively, buoyant, fresh, and “rustic,” if you will. Okay, on to the less Dvorakian Lento e molto expressivo: it sounds beautiful and mushy romantic, with a somewhat forlorn air, a feeling the quieter moments only reinforce. The concluding Rondo is sunny and rustic like the opener, but here it’s more Irish, with some of the music purportedly premised on an Irish folk tune. The work is quite splendid, even if it sounds like something of an anachronism for its own time.

    The second quartet is more of its time. The opening Allegro opens with the solo cello immediately establishing a tense, serious mood, a feeling only intensified when the viola enters. As the movement unwinds, a few lyrical passages offer a rest from the somewhat darker, more dissonant music around it. (Though one couldn’t really call it too intense.) The Lento, molto espressivo (with espressivo spelled properly) reveals that a proclivity for romantic music hadn’t fled Bax by the time he wrote this. The music is richly layered and sounds achingly beautiful and emotive at times. The work closes with an Allegro vivace that opens with a transformed take on the first movement, with the whole ensemble going full bore for good sections of the movement. The movement does alternate between robust, thrusting music, and relaxed, lyrical music, and caps off a fine work.

    I really enjoy this disc. Arnold Bax’s first two string quartets are wonderful little works. If they don’t rise to the same level as the greatest examples in this genre, they still deserve to be better known, and are accomplished. The Maggini Quartet plays splendidly.

    SOTA sound.
  20. Todd A

    Todd A pfm Member

    Arriaga - String Quartets


    Poor us! I’ve read a number of laments on the net about how much music fans have lost because Juan Arriaga died at the terribly young age of 19. He was, or could have been, the next Mozart! Or something like that. Since I like string quartets, and since I’d never heard Mr Arriaga’s music before, and since he is apparently all that and then some, I figured the Naxos disc of his string quartets was worth investigating.

    It certainly was (and is). The three quartets all share certain traits in common. They all, on the whole, sound lively, wonderfully melodic, and energetic. One could never say they possess the depth of Beethoven’s late quartets, or the sophistication of Haydn’s quartets from around Op 20 on. (Or maybe even Op 9 on.) Nor do they display the absolute melodic mastery displayed by Schubert. But they do have enough there to warrant further listens.

    A bit more detail seems warranted. The first quartet shows some nice range. The opening Allegro starts off slightly dark before moving onto more sparkling music, with a beautiful slow movement and jaunty Menuetto to follow. The closing movement opens with forceful chords reminiscent of Beethoven and, especially, Schubert. The second quartet is generally lighter and sunnier. At times, one might get the feeling that the musical development isn’t meaty enough, but the effortless lyricism pretty much compensates. The final quartet is the most substantive of the three. The opening movement is much the same as other swifter movements on the disc, but in the second movement Pastorale one hears something new. Or maybe not so new. It seems a tribute to the rather famous symphony sharing the same name, with it’s stormy tremolos. There’s no explosive tutti here, of course, but the effect is quite nice. The Menuetto sounds quite pleasant, and the concluding Presto agitato displays a certain compositional density that some of the other movements display.

    It’s not at all hard to really enjoy this disc. The Camerata Boccherini play splendidly, the sound is superb, and the music is delightful. I’m not sure I can say that Arriaga could have been the next Mozart or anything like that, but then how could one make such a claim? I can say that other composers wrote more compelling music while as young or younger. Mendelssohn’s great String Octet, for instance, is superior to these three works, and Mozart wrote a number of better works. Same for Schubert. So I guess I can’t join the vocal enthusiasts prone to exaggeration. I can say that I like this disc, will listen to it again, and may even try more of Arriaga’s music. He strikes me as a lightweight Mendelssohn, with all that implies, good and bad.

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