by David Cleary
Naxos 8.559120 — Time: 73:59
Your reviewer had wanted very much to like this disc. A composer of sturdy reputation, a top-flight orchestra devoted to cutting-edge repertoire -- and all on a budget label! How can it miss? Sadly, this is not a release likely to be revisited here in future.
At his best, the late George Rochberg was an accomplished tonemeister able to hold his own with the finest in the business. These three works do not rank among his best, however. Both Black Sounds (1965) for wind/percussion ensemble and Phaedra: A Monodrama in Seven Scenes (1974) for soprano and orchestra are darkly intense, even bleak. But both items prove static and stodgy, achingly slow to unfold and numbingly repetitive. And neither entry speaks with a distinctive voice. Phaedra is heavily imbued with Stravinsky's sound world, the vocal portions strongly redolent of the Symphony of Psalms while the instrumental interludes owe plenty to Petrouchka and, to a lesser extent, Le Sacre . And Black Sounds resembles Varese 's mature oeuvre so closely that it comes across as a style study.
The remaining selection, Cantio Sacra (1953) is a faithful arrangement of an organ variation set composed by Samuel Scheidt . As transcriptions go, it's attractive enough, though no special insights are shed on the original such as those heard in Ravel's version of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Webern's rendition of the " Ricercar " from J.S. Bach's Musical Offering . And the Scheidt , while quite good, does not fit the profile of "Baroque composition most in need of a rescue from oblivion."
The performances at least are commendable. Gil Rose draws fervent, yet disciplined playing from his group, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger presents a strong sound and nimble technique, the better to put forth Rochberg's at times highly athletic vocal parts. Her high and middle ranges are solid, though her bottom register is forced at times; enunciation is good despite occasional vowel distortion. Editing and sound are okay.
MMC Recordings, MMC 2123 — Time: 65:32
This is one of several multi-composer releases on the MMC label. As these go, it's all right if not exactly essential.
Moon-Mirror, Denying the Abyss by Marc W. Rossi provides the disc's most satisfying listen. Despite the program notes' assertion of Indian raga and Latin flamenco influence, this single-movement tone poem is a thoroughly Western art music creation, chromatically modal and brooding in the manner of Shostakovich and some film scores. Its three primary ideas arise leisurely during the course of the piece between more developmental passages, the whole loosely outlining a narrative curve shape. It's earnestly pleasing. William Thomas McKinley's Symphony No. 6 (" Prague ") stylistically mirrors Rossi's opus. Like Mahler's fourth symphony, its finale includes a prominent vocal solo part, here a setting of Jaroslav Seifert's poem "A View from Charles Bridge ." While more focused and compelling in speech than the Rossi, this prolix, scattered work badly needs tightening in both its structure and material.
Festive in the manner of Edward Elgar , Salutation by John Biggs is a composition of expansive gestures and brief duration. New Tonalist in a highly chromatic way, it revels in big octave doublings and broad fanfare-style brass scoring. One can characterize it as attractive enough if not altogether distinctive. Scherzo for Orchestra shows Frank Graham Stewart writing bumptious music that wobbles between post-Neoclassic and late Romantic idioms -- plenty puckish, but much too disjunct in idea and unfolding.
The Czech Radio Symphony led by Vladimir Valek suffers from unsteady horn playing but is otherwise good. Baritone Roman Janal sings the last movement of McKinley's symphony quite well, featuring a rich low register, substantial midrange, somewhat strained high notes, and solid diction. Sound is fine and production is generally okay.
Albany Records, TROY 457 — Time: 73:12
Unlike some harpsichordists, Boston University 's Mark Kroll does not restrict himself to literature dating from Bach and before. This ambitious disc is devoted entirely to 20th century solo and ensemble music featuring this aristocratic instrument.
Nearly all the works included here have a strong Neoclassical feel, though only Walter Piston's Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord (1945) and Lester Trimble's Four Fragments from the Canterbury Tales (1967) are pure exemplars of the style. The former is brief but compelling, consisting of a surprisingly warm and evocative centerpiece surrounded by bubbly, athletic movements that betray jazz-tinged touches in harmony and gesture. Trimble's piece, scored for soprano and three players, pairs verse from Chaucer's Medieval classic with music of much warmth, charm, and agility. Passages of awkward text setting are its only flaw. Robert Starer's Yizkor and Anima Aeterna (1992) strays furthest from Neoclassic approaches. This flute/harpsichord duo revels in more improvisatory, though still solid, formats and a more chromatically dissonant sound world. Fetching and felicitous, it expresses itself well.
Lou Harrison's terrific Six Sonatas for Cembalo (1934-1943) amply demonstrates this composer's gift for melodic invention without ever seeming long-winded. But there's much variety in texture and approach here, including several passages of accomplished contrapuntal writing. Inspired by the binary edifices of Domenico Scarlatti, there's plenty of effective juggling of eclectic influences, ranging from French Baroque keyboard ornamentation to hints of flamenco, Far Eastern, and Amerind idioms. The remaining compositions, Fantasy for Harpsichord (1983) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Fantasy-Toccata for Solo Harpsichord (1992) by Gardner Read, are odd listens. The former opus proves more satisfying, starting off scattered in its ideas and unfolding but gradually seeing its disparate material coalesce into focused music caught in the upward, then downward sweep of narrative curve processes. Despite its lucid formats and clear-cut ideas, Reed's opus tends to wander and its material lacks distinction.
There's much to like in the execution as well. Kroll's playing, loaded with sensitive phrasing, pinpoint finger work, and turn-on-a-dime control, is absolutely marvelous. Soprano Nancy Armstrong's delightfully understated singing perfectly suits the low-key elegance of Trimble's music, while her diction copes well with that composer's sometimes inelegant word setting. Secure left hand technique and carefully channeled energy lend distinction to Carol Lieberman's violin performing, while flutist Alan Weiss can be positively cited for his sparkling sound and polished melodic shaping. Clarinetist Bruce Creditor assists well in Trimble's backing trio. Sound and production are fine.
A most enjoyable release, featuring several hard-to-find gems.
Newport Classic NPD 85672 — Time: 61:35
Founder/conductor of the Dinosaur Annex Ensemble and faculty at Emerson College , Scott Wheeler has also built a strong reputation as a composer over the years. As this CD of music for strings and piano demonstrates, his notoriety is well deserved.
Unlike that of several Boston-area tonemeisters , Wheeler's muse most comfortably nestles within a uniquely expressed post-Neoclassic ethos. Pitches are clearly scalar in origin, arrayed in a somewhat more dissonant version of pandiatonicism that still readily admits triadic configurations. With its older formats and stylized rhythms and phrasing, the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1985) most resembles music from the 1930s and 40s. But this is a substantial, not derivative listen thanks to its unusually clangorous harmonies and driven manner of speech.
Both Piano Trio No. 2: Camera Dances (1996/1999) and the string trio Shadow Bands (1991) prominently feature pointillist textures, though neither piece is a clone of the other. The intensely stuttering material that opens Camera Dances initially contrasts with a section of expressive counterpoint -- the opening movement outlines this dichotomy clearly -- and in subsequent movements finds clever ways to have the two concepts interact. The single-movement Shadow Bands treats the fractured music at its outset in a bouncy, genial fashion suggesting syncopated jazz, then proceeds to flesh this bare-bones basis out with ingenious elaborations of varying kinds -- in essence being a subtly etched variation set.
The piano quartet Dragon Mountain (1992/93) has the most tonally focused sound of all these selections, at times notably recalling Celtic idioms. This is rootsy , evocative stuff which, despite remarkably attractive colorist writing, has its share of gutsy energy.
Performances are first-rate. The Gramercy Trio ( Sharan Leventhal on violin, Jonathan Miller on cello, and Randall Hodgkinson on piano) features wonderfully balanced and nuanced ensemble abilities as well as accomplished individual prowess of technique and tone quality. Pianist Donald Berman and violists James Dunham and Edward Gazouleas match their colleagues stride for stride. Production values are top-shelf good. Sonics are cavernous on Dragon Mountain but fine otherwise. An excellent release well worth obtaining.
Innova 566 — Time: 56:04
When folks consider the tuba at all, they likely think of the unwieldy metal monster that furnishes ponderous platforms for Oktoberfest combos, marching bands, and symphony orchestras. But the tuba is Los Angeles based composer Tom Heasley's instrument, one that he uses to produce striking, unique music.
His On the Sensations of Tone (2001) consists of two tracks, one of moderate length and the other gargantuan, both improvised live without overdubs or splicing. The sound world is West Coast ambient, but with an unusual frequency range staying pretty much south of Middle C. Heasley adds loops, digital processing, and throat singing to his instrument of choice to produce plush, layered, soothing textures that are drop-dead beautiful -- one might not even guess there's a tuba involved in the sonic fabric, in fact.
Like much music of this sort, everything unfolds at a glacial pace. Those with the patience to stick with it will likely find this release rewarding for the fascinating timbres alone.
Sound quality is very good. Program notes and a bio would have been useful to include. Here is a CD that's a must for anyone who likes music in this style.
BRIDGE 9121 — Time: 65:27
David Rakowski : Etudes, vol. 2
BRIDGE 9157 — Time: 76:00
You're sitting at the piano with pen in hand working on a large opus and have suddenly hit a dry patch. So what do you do? If you're Brandeis University faculty member David Rakowski , you reach for another notebook and write one or more etudes for piano as a palate clearing exercise. This unusual tactic has in fact paid sizable dividends for both this composer and the piano literature. Numbered currently at six books of ten etudes each plus a few extra, Rakowski has created the most important collection of such pieces yet produced by an American tonemeister .
This pair of CDs contains the complete Books I to IV of these items and over half of Book V, presenting a side of this composer hitherto unencountered . Rakowski's oeuvre commonly shows predilection for an Atlantic Seaboard ethos, but here we experience him as a scalar if non-triadic stateside eclectic, able to directly quote snippets from Ludwig van Beethoven to Hayes Biggs and filch from popular idioms ranging from boogie to bop, swing to stride. The only bows to a Northeast oriented approach are found in Rakowski's impeccable craftsmanship and Babbitt-like punning titles ("You Dirty Rag" and "A Gliss is Just a Gliss ," for two).
Most of these miniatures are based on a specific sonority, gestural idea, or piano technique. All are concise, yet brimming with personality. And despite nods to composers as diverse as Debussy, Prokofiev, Berg, Nancarrow , and Messiaen , Rakowski creates a distinctive, highly varied sound world. For example, the ten or so etudes employing a perpetual motion approach carve out their own unique niches -- none copy each other in terms of harmony, texture, or dramatic unfolding. And while some of the larger entries are cast in clear palindromic forms, even those showcasing a more intuitive formal approach satisfy greatly. These splendid little gems are worthy of any keyboardist's attention.
Pianist Amy Dissanayake's performance here is superb. A rich tone quality, impeccable finger work, scintillating voice delineation, and tasteful pedaling contribute to some of the most beautifully musical keyboard playing this critic has heard in some time. Editing and sound quality are wonderfully good. Both releases are a definite must-hear.
Albany Records, TROY 675 — Time: 49:26
Beth Wiemann , faculty at the University of Maine , has composed works in several media over the years. This release focuses on a narrow slice of that oeuvre: pieces for solo bass clarinet, an electronic music offering, and songs for soprano accompanied by one or two players -- all brief in duration and mostly economic in speech.
The vocal compositions make up the bulk of this CD, and despite their fairly low-key approach, demonstrate a good bit of variety. All are cast in a scalar, if not usually tonal, harmonic language mildly suggestive of Ives or Stravinsky; there are also subtle nods to Broadway show tunes in the declamatory approach to word setting. Textures and ideas are clearly delineated. Certain songs, such as "Post Office," "Queen Anne," and "A Fixture," (this last unusual in having clarinet instead of piano backing for the singer), put forth a quietly charming sense of humor. Others such as " Italy " and "A Soul Selects" possess seriousness leavened with engaging warmth. The most thoroughgoing entity, Four Ambitions , is a cycle setting verses by Lola Haskins that obliquely reference musical subjects; clarinet and violin combine to accompany the singer here.
Poem and Postlude Revisited goes beyond the aforementioned idiom into electronic territory. Here, a recorded performance of Wiemann's clarinet-voice duet "Poem and Postlude" sits atop a carpet of digital enhancement. The highlighting, however, amounts to little more than reverb embellishment and similar unobtrusive effects, making minimal difference in the overall aural experience. It's best to experience this enjoyable song straight, without interference.
Wiemann is also an accomplished clarinetist, so it's not surprising that Waver and Rustle are wonderfully idiomatic utterances for bass clarinet. The latter, busy but genial, first contrasts and then combines fragmented scalar material with jumping motifs. Waver begins with tremolos and trills both regular and enharmonic, first gradually and then more extensively interpolating linear figuration.
Performances are excellent throughout. Strong singing is provided by soprano Susan Narucki ; an attractively full sound, felicitous execution, and solid diction are her chief attributes. Pianist Christopher Oldfather furnishes accompaniments that are supportive, yet personable. And Wiemann's first-class clarinet/bass clarinet playing boasts supple technique, mellifluous tone, and clearheaded interpretive skills. Sound quality is fine. Editing is generally good, though a few splices remain audible. Much recommended.
ECM New Series 1861 — Time: 60:28
This release showcases a little-encountered corner of the University of Southern California professor Stephen Hartke's oeuvre: music for small men's vocal ensemble. While this is not necessarily essential listening, it's intriguing to encounter.
The larger of the two selections, Tituli , is scored for five male singers backed unobtrusively by a violinist and two percussionists. Texts are in Latin and Etruscan. But rather than setting poetry, the words employed are inscriptions from everyday life ranging from the mundane to the touching that adorn everything from shop signs to triumphal columns to lamps and other portable objects. Ironically, the music provided is evocative, if fairly straightforward -- tonal/modal with a deliberately archaic feel hinting at chant and other hoary vocal genres.
Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain is cast in a similar aesthetic, here often suggestive of mannerist madrigals by Gesualdo and Marenzio . It reduces performer forces to vocal quartet alone, setting a sizable poem by Takamura Kotaro that addresses Paris 's Notre Dame Cathedral. Both are pleasing, if prolix listens that demonstrate surprisingly little contrast given their scope.
Performances are very good. The Hilliard Ensemble (countertenor Daniel James, baritone Gordon Jones, and tenors Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold , and Andreas Hirtreiter ) exhibits a felicitous blend of voices that possesses a smooth, straightforward tone quality ideally suiting Hartke's ersatz-ancient music. Their diction is mushy, though. Violinist Michelle Makarski and percussionists Javier Diaz and Lynn Vartan furnish able backing.
XI Records, XI 127 — Time: 158:36
New York-based composer Michael J. Schumacher is clearly an aesthetic devotee of Lou Reed's album Metal Machine Music and its ilk. This two-disc release can be described as Downtown ambient stuff of not-so-heavenly length that's enamored of drones and similar procedures.
Both Untitled (1999) and the first composition labeled Still (2002) -- confusingly, there are two tracks so listed here -- most classically adhere to this approach, incrementally altering a held basis sound with barely noticeable changes. The other Still (also 2002) utilizes a bevy of tiny skittering noises reminiscent of manic, ultra-soft bird cheeping as the static platform, further festooned with barely audible snatches of piano clinks, guitar strums, and the occasional piercing electronic shriek.
Piece for 3 Parts (2002) comes closest to actually going somewhere. Here, one first encounters a chaotic thicket of sampled violin timbres which gradually gives way to overlaid sampled gong events. Over the latter, gurgling music, which in retrospect is seen to be related to the violin textures, gradually gains prominence. Essentially, it's a rudimentary ternary. Regrettably, these four tracks mentioned above take an awfully long time to do what they must, about 20 minutes per item.
But this is still less sizeable than the CD's magnum opus, Room Piece XI (2002), which clocks in at a stun-level 75 minutes. This is an installation entry, built from mostly very soft sampled events which are generated randomly by computer and liberally surrounded by silence. Several instruments as well as sine tones, synthesizers, voice, and environmental sonics provide the basis for these samples. There's deliberately no sense of beginning, ending, progression, or structure imposed here -- and it sounds that way.
Sorry to say, your reviewer found it all deadly dull.
Sound quality is fine, at least.
Innova 609 — Time: 32:24
One complaint your reviewer has against some Downtown music is its excruciating length. Coupled with obsessive, often undeveloped material, the result can be numbing to brain and posterior alike. Credit New York-based composer Bill Ryan with penning fare in this vein that combines polished workmanship with knowing when enough's enough.
The four selections on this release, Original Blend, Capacity 49, Blurred, and Drive are scored for modified jazz combo and are built from brief gestures presented in patterns that are often subtly varied in length and phrasing. With its static repeated single-pitch platform and somewhat more process style concert music feel, Blurred recalls Terry Riley's In C and Steve Reich's 1970s oeuvre. Its sound world is fetchingly atmospheric. The other items here are more bubbly, extroverted, and jagged with extended sections of drum kit backing, all helping demonstrate a more obvious kinship to jazz; mainly because of the prominent percussion, all have an infectious toe-tapping immediacy that imparts immense surface appeal to crafty inner workings. All four tracks contain plenty of dynamic shading, strongly varied textures, and a somewhat loose yet highly convincing feel for architecture. And all have a good sense of when to stop -- Ryan never outstays his welcome.
Performances are terrific. Billband , consisting of David Cossin (drums), Wayne DuMaine (trumpet), Steve Gosling (piano), Michael Lowenstern (bass clarinet), Todd Reynolds (violin), and Taimur Sullivan (saxophones) play with a bright, compelling sound and exhibit machine precision tightness. Editing is flawless and sonics are wonderfully vibrant. Some listeners may object to this CD's comparatively short duration, coming in at slightly more than half an hour -- but this critic was left happy yet hungry for more, not feeling cheated. Here is a disc that is a must for everyone, especially lovers of Downtown styles.
New Voice Singles CNVS 001 — Time: 25:18
This release is comparatively brief in duration, the first in a projected series of "singles" issued by the Chiara String Quartet. The term "single" is used loosely here, as the disc is devoted to a 25 minute composition.
Triptych (2002) by Peabody Institute faculty member Robert Sirota reflects upon the September 11th terrorist tragedy, inspired by a visual art entity with the same title painted by Philadelphia artist Deborah Patterson. Sirota's piece employs a gritty language derived from scales that noticeably evokes Bartok, though its finale contains numerous frankly triadic passages. Triptych speaks in a raw, wrenching manner that invariably proves evocative. Sorry to say, the work also lacks tightness in material and architecture, but its riveting way of moving from moment to moment nearly manages to trump these shortcomings.
The Chiara String Quartet (Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon on violin, Jonah Sirota on viola, and Greg Beaver on cello) perform with conspicuous skill and heart. Editing and sound are fine.
Opus One CD 189 — Time: 58:49
This disc presents several new concerti featuring the Northern Plains flute. Of Native American origin, it's played like a recorder and sounds like a throatier version of that instrument.
Given the works heard here, one wonders if this flute is capable of expression beyond a doleful wail. But then again, this may be a function of the music it's been furnished. Regrettably, all the selections sound pretty much the same. Whether inspired by vernacular idioms that are Tibetan (Michael Mauldin's Dream of the Child of Light ), Armenian (Hayg Boyadjian's Sevan), Amerind (David Yeagley's Clouds of an Evening Sun and Randall Snyder's Journey), or Amerind via jazz (Mary Jeanne Van Appledorn's Music of Enchantment), all the solo lines have a slowly unfolding folksy feel. Give Boyadjian and Van Appledorn a little credit here: they try hardest to provide some contrasting fare for this instrument.
Unfortunately, none of these composers think structurally, either -- everything here is either rhapsodically long-spun and lacks direction or (in the Boyadjian) scattered and episodic. Nothing on this release merits much attention.
Performances are very good. James Pellerite's playing on the Northern Plains flute features able technique, carefully thoughtful phrasing, and a soulful, woody tone. Conducted by David Oberg, the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra furnishes evocative backing that never swamps its guest. Editing and sound are fine.
Centaur CRC 2593 — Time: 66:37
The death of Arthur Berger in 2003 at age 91 brought the multifaceted and fruitful career of this accomplished Boston-based composer, teacher, and writer to a close. This CD collects up his rarely-encountered oeuvre for piano solo. In many ways, it's a microcosm of the intriguing twists and turns in Berger's stylistic evolution.
The earliest of these works, Episodes (1933), is an utterance from his student days. It contains the polytonality and atonality then preferred by ultra-progressives as diverse as Aaron Copland, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Arnold Schoenberg -- though it's likely Berger only knew the output of the first of these composers at that point. It would be his last piece in some time, too, as Neoclassicism was becoming a dominant force and Berger understandably wished to find a way to come to terms with this more accessible aesthetic.
Berger's acceptance of that style was grudging at first, as the Fantasy (1942) demonstrates. It's his largest single movement written for keyboard -- though still lasting less than five minutes -- and employs widely spaced intervals and fractured unfolding while still sporting a pandiatonic pitch focus. The Rondo (1945), Partita (1947), and Four Two-Part Inventions (1948-49) show his most thoroughgoing embrace of Neoclassic conventions. Despite this, Berger's structural borrowings never go so far as to include dance related formats; less prescribed genres such as the aria, capriccio, intermezzo, and serenade predominate here, allowing for a more absolute-music oriented interpretation of this mid-century approach.
Three One-Part Inventions (1954) overlays Webern's fingerprints onto Berger's earlier writing style, pushing the music toward an Atlantic Seaboard avant-garde ethos. Here, he began to dabble in the twelve-tone vein. This would ultimately come to keyboard fruition in the Five Pieces for Piano (1969) and the Birthday Cards (1980-94), the latter a compilation of individual pieces d'occasion assembled by this recording's pianist, Geoffrey Burleson. Five Pieces epitomizes pointillist East Coast serialism, though its clean vocal delineation and scattered use of inside-the-piano techniques steer the collection well short of dullness. The Birthday Cards are slightly less spiky and possess a genial warmth not always encountered in such music.
There are a few common threads running through all this work, though, including careful craftsmanship, motivic economy, and concise speech.
Pianist Burleson presents this music with lovingly discerning perception. His playing is unimpeachably accurate, loaded with exquisitely sculpted linear sensitivity, judicious pedaling, sparkling technique, and a clean, bracing tone that never becomes dry or ugly. Editing is excellent and sonics are fine. Highly recommended.
Albany TROY 773 — Time 72:50
This release gathers up a generous helping of Vassar College professor Richard Wilson's chamber output, all of it scored for strings with or without piano or clarinet. His music, scalar though not tonal sounding, demonstrates a masterfully broad range of approaches while never falling below the highest quality.
When Wilson decides to utilize older formats, he does so without slavish toadying. The Piano Trio (2002) is laid out in a standard four-part structure. It even has a slow ternary second movement, a following scherzo, an intense opener, and a sizable variation set finale. But the scherzo is more through-composed instead of tripartite, and the sonata aspects of the first movement are expressed obliquely. Baroque suites of the sort written by J.S. Bach prove inspirational to the seven brief entities comprising Lord Chesterfield to His Son (1987) for cello solo. There's no trace of stylized dance, however, in spite of the busy figuration mildly reminiscent of bourees and gigues in its four fast movements.
The other composition for solo performer, Diablerie (2004), takes its violinist through a wide gamut of moods and approaches. Figuration (1980) for clarinet, cello, and piano is similarly fashioned. Fortunately, neither piece seems scattered, thanks to Wilson's insistence on economy of material.
The two duets for string instrument and piano found here are quite different in feel. Three Interludes (1996) gives its violin and piano tight, concentrated music to play while not once aping the master of tiny gems, Anton Webern. Despite a relatively active finale midsection and first movement, the predominant feel to the cello/piano opus Motivations (2000) is one of lyricism -- if a somewhat eccentric expression of that manner of speech.
Performances are first-rate. Alan Blustein (clarinet), Rolf Schulte (violin), and Sophie Shao (cello) demonstrate finely developed chamber music smarts, felicitous tone, and natty technique. In the case of the two string players, riveting solo execution that combines perfect pacing and sensitive melodic sculpting is the rule. Wilson runs step for step with his accomplished colleagues at the piano. Sound is excellent in the solo works, a little distant in the chamber selections. Editing is very good. Highest recommendation.
Quindecim Recordings QP 071 — Time: 63:28
Mexican flautist and tonemeister Alejandro Escuer is a legitimate talent in both aspects of his career. This enjoyable release features several worthy pieces and lots of remarkable playing.
Several entries by Mexican composers can be found here, the best being Mario Lavista's Danza de las Bailarianas de Degas (1992) for flute and piano. The work traces a clear ABA structure, outer sections loaded with busy patterned material (though the recapitulation is a bit more laid-back and fragmented) flanking a slow center that incorporates snatches from what surrounds it. It's energetic and compelling. Escuer's two solo flute compositions also please greatly. The title track (1998), which traces a narrative curve schema, is by and large slow, hushed, and atmospheric, subtly rousing itself to a climax by incorporating filigree rather than delivering a knockout blow. There's a distinctly Oriental hue to the fabric here. Two narrative curve shapes delineate the architecture of Templos (1993), the first one small-scale and peppered with key clicks, the latter more forcefully etched and involving full-on playing. Special effects are extensively used. De Pronto (1987) for alto flute, cello, and harp by Arturo Marquez is a sinuous bauble that discovers an attractive midpoint between Latin American and Impressionist styles. The problems inherent to writing a lengthy solo woodwind entry surface in Graciela Agudelo's multi-movement Meditaciones sobra Abra Yala (1995) for flute alone. Like Templos, there's no shortage of imaginative extended techniques use, but without intriguing formats to distinguish these movements or a larger overview to harness them, this opus becomes a labyrinth of colors and straight flute tone with no context to justify its 16-plus minutes.
The non-Hispanic tonemeisters mostly hold their own well. For flute and piano, Soaring (1986) by Joseph Schwantner packs a colorful, information-filled wallop within its two minutes, employing a binary outline to good effect. There's an appealing primitivism afoot in Yuzuru Sadashige's Third Tribe (1997). The composer nearly outfoxes himself by making his interpenetration of rhapsodic and toccata-like material too complicated, but in the end, this flute/piano/djembe (a West African drum) item proves a winner. Unfortunately, Color and Velocity (1996) by Robert Rowe makes rather bland and shapeless use of its interactive flute and synthesizer writing, allowing the former to dominate the largely reticent electronics.
Escuer's flute playing is sensational, attributes including excellent phrase delineation, sparkling finger work, remarkable control of extended techniques, and a huge, buttery sound with just the right amount of vibrato. Alvaro Bitran (cello), Juan Carlos Cirujeda (djembe), Mauricio Nader (piano), and Lidia Tamayo (harp) prove to be top-flight chamber associates. Sound is excellent except in the Sadashige, where sonics are more distant and distortion occurs. Production values are fine. Much recommended.
New World Records 80614-2 — Time: 53:36
Your reviewer has heard the three works on this disc live and it's a pleasure to encounter them now in this format. New England Conservatory faculty member Lee Hyla is arguably our country's most significant mid-career composer, and recorded documentation of these orchestral pieces is long overdue.
The attributes of Hyla's oeuvre are many, among them gestural economy, compelling architecture, and a dissonant harmonic language that is simultaneously consistent and multi-faceted. His slow music is ethereal, deep, and timeless in feel, while his busier moments pack a punch and a half -- raw, intense, and seething with energy. The full-throttle works of Jason Eckardt, Ken Ueno, Curtis K. Hughes, and other notable younger composers testify to his music's persuasive influence.
The Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra (1988) clearly points up the most important progenitors of Hyla's style, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Economic in speech and duration, it's grouchy, spiky stuff that demands virtuosic solo playing. Triads and otherwise more consonant sonorities (among other things, a quote from Alban Berg's Violin Concerto ) permeate the fabric of Hyla's Violin Concerto (2001). But this is no indication of softening soloist demands -- the fiddle part proves incredibly challenging, though still idiomatic -- or a lessening of intensity. Trans (1996) lacks the prominent percussion, piano, and bass clarinet parts this composer often relies on to point up his gripping, demonstrative manner of speech. Here, Hyla shows he doesn't need them. It's all a bit like looking at Picasso's "Guernica" through blue tinted lenses, still wonderful but now cast in an unfamiliar context.
Sonics and editing are excellent and performances are splendid. Tim Smith's punchy bass clarinet playing features excellent technique and solid tone with just the right dollop of grit. Violinist Laura Frautschi puts forth sparkling bow and digital work, spot-on interpretive instincts, and a substantial sound that cuts through the ensemble beautifully. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, directed by Gil Rose, sounds first-rate whether alone or backing its guests. A top-shelf CD that should have a place on everyone's shelf.
Albany TROY 646 — Time: 75:22
This release presents five orchestral pieces by recently retired Bowdoin College faculty member Elliott Schwartz. Despite an omnivorous writing approach, all these selections manifest personal fingerprints.
Eclecticism is the single-word qualifier that most accurately describes this composer's ethos. Akin to Charles Ives, Schwartz relies heavily on a wide ranging palette of pre-existing music to generate material; quotes come from sources as varied as John Dowland, Josquin des Prez, Jacques Offenbach, William Billings, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Victorian parlor pieces, Icelandic and Japanese folk tunes, and the "Rocky Horror Picture Show." Spatial placement of performers, aleatoric procedures, lighting cues, unusual ensemble instruments such as metronomes, and special effects such as shouting and foot stomping appear. Scoring is colorful and the music often has a showy, dramatic feel. Structures tend to be loose and episodic, but material unfolds fetchingly and proportions generally seem right. And despite harmonies that veer from dense atonality to functional triads, pitches are not haphazardly chosen; for example, Celebration/Reflections: a Time Warp for Orchestra (1985), an opus that cannibalizes several of Schwartz's earlier works in best Heldenleben manner, employs melodic snippets consistently spotlighting ascending sixths.
The three latest compositions, Jack O' Lantern for Chamber Orchestra and Lights (2000), the alto saxophone concerto Mehitabel's Serenade (2001), and the title track (2002) please especially. All exude a vibrant sense of self that sets them apart from each other. Jack O' Lantern conveys its Halloween prankster feel with jittery, puckish figuration that morphs from mood to mood at lightning speed. The sax soloist's line in Mehitabel's Serenade is appropriately suave and eloquent, surrounded by orchestral backing of much variety that nevertheless allows its guest to shine through. Like Equinox, yet another of Schwartz's orchestral compositions not found on this release, Voyager has a strikingly felicitous film score sheen -- an appropriate approach for a work that quotes from Sinfonia Antarctica composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others. And borrowed snatches in this composition are integrated with particularly seamless skill.
Both Celebration/Reflections (this presentation originally appearing on a 1992 Vienna Modern Masters CD release) and Timepiece 1794 for Chamber Orchestra (1994) exude numerous attributes and are pleasing enough listens, though they interpolate snitched items somewhat less elegantly and show a little less resonant personality.
Performances range from okay to excellent. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava (Szymon Kawalla, conductor), Cleveland Chamber Symphony (Edwin London, conductor), and New England Conservatory Honors Orchestra (Richard Hoenich , conductor) do a first-rate job. Intonation shakiness and somewhat less secure execution blemish the work by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra (Toshiyuki Shimada, conductor) at times. Saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky demonstrates polished finger work, nicely carved phrasing, and a penetrating yet luscious tone quality. Sound is fine and production values are good. Performer bios would have been nice to see in the CD booklet. Well worth hearing.
Oxingale Records OX2003 — Time: 64:54
Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty member Tod Machover has long been fascinated with electronic based procedures in his unusual oeuvre. This release finds him creating digital analogs to standard string instruments: electric violins, violas, and cellos that have their output fed into a computer and then manipulated, adding sound enhancements. They're used here to project a style that's eclectic, sporting varied degrees of tonality but having a moderately dissonant scalar norm.
Both Song of Penance (1992) and Forever and Ever (1993) front chamber orchestras with hyperviola and hyperviolin respectively. Regrettably, neither piece satisfies. The former opus sinks its soloist into a busy texture including not only a 17 player ensemble but also a computer-altered voice track (basis supplied by soprano Karol Bennett), and it's the last of these that's usually audible. Forever and Ever is more of a true concerto, though its hyperviolin is invariably kept busy playing obbligato type lines. Both works have attractive codas—that of Song of Penance demonstrates a poignancy that recalls Richard Strauss at his best—but what leads up to them generally consists of carpets of amorphous material.
By far the best listen here is the hypercello solo entry Begin Again Again . . Here, there's no large group or competing tape to interfere with the imaginative sounds. The composition's series of short variation segments keeps Machover from overusing a texture—there is much more contrast here. Furthermore, the variations are arranged in a large binary mold that's both readily apparent and highly convincing. It's an excellent piece.
Performances are fine. Cellist Matt Haimovitz , violinists Ani Kavafian , and (on the very rare moments one can hear her) violist Kim Kashkashian play with technical control and musical savvy. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project led by Gil Rose provides yeoman support. Sound and production are excellent.
L'empreinte digitale ED13164 — Time: 60:42
Despite a sizable oeuvre, Elliott Carter's solo piano output is not large, easily contained on one CD. This French label compilation collects up all of his music for this medium, including everything produced through the year 2000. In that sense, it supersedes Charles Rosen's then-complete cycle dating from the mid-1990s.
One of the most significant stateside keyboard sonatas of the 20th century, the Piano Sonata (1945-46, revised 1982) is an important transitional opus bridging Carter's early Neoclassical period and the initial experimental pieces dating from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. Older formats are cleverly reinvented here, laden with compelling music of much gravity and invention crafted with a master's touch.
Produced near the close of his later experimental era, one characterized by sizable multilayered compositions, Night Fantasies (1980) is a substantive patchwork quilt demonstrating a huge variety of figuration and textures; it's Carter's response to the kaleidoscopic character piece sets of Robert Schumann. The music primarily comes off as an alternation of busy and sparse passages, with the sections becoming larger and more focused as this single-movement opus unfolds. Challenging yet rewarding to listen to, the work repays multiple hearings.
The remaining three selections, 90+ (1994), Two Diversions (1999), and Retrouvailles (2000) epitomize this tonemeister's often succinct recent utterances. The first and last of these, while birthday salutes, are not fluffy throw-ways; both are jam-packed with information, tightly woven and energetic. Two Diversions, like 90+, consists of one or more anchoring lines around which contrasting material swirls. All make for bracing, compelling listening.
Pianist Winston Choi's playing is hale and dramatic, zealous to communicate yet extremely accurate in score realization and never overwrought. Flawless in technique and perceptive in voicing, Choi puts forth all the variety of dynamics, touch, and texture inherent in the music. Sound and editing are excellent. A must for aficionados of this important composer, or for anyone searching for prime quality East Coast piano literature.
Opus One CD 187 — Time: 50:25
This CD contains orchestral fare by John Donald Robb and Hayg Boyadjian. Both pieces are attractive and worth a listen.
Robb's Piano Concerto was composed in the middle of the 20th century at a time when cutting-edge music was turning away from such charming, tail-wagging Neoclassicism. Harmonies range from lucid polytonal verticals to frankly functional tonality; there are even hints of Gershwin in the finale. Its uniqueness lies in the filching of New Mexican folksong for its source material (like Bartok and Kodaly , Robb was an avid collector and cataloger of vernacular fare). While not the great undiscovered piano concerto of the last century, it's an attractive, earnest opus that deserves better than sheer oblivion.
Dating from better than fifty years after, the Second Symphony of Hayg Boyadjian takes its traditional label with a large enough grain of salt to keep the listener piqued. Cast in two movements, it straddles its sonata form procedure across them both, the exposition reduced to two contrasting gestures at the first movement's outset and the recapitulation holding off until the finale's closing bars. Regrettably, large-scale organization seems absent beyond this, but the sizable “development” takes the basis motifs on a colorful, compelling ride.
Performances are good. The National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra led by David Oberg has occasional slip-ups in ensemble and intonation, but generally does well. Piano soloist Tatiana Vetrinskaya provides a full, singing tone, good voicing instincts, and solid finger work. Editing has its share of noticeable splices. Sound is fine.
Albany, TROY 601 — Time: 79:28
Beethoven was able to coax a staggering amount of mileage from the sonata genre. Like that great tonemeister, San Francisco State University faculty member Wayne Peterson shows on this CD that he too can create music of remarkable variety from limited means.
The first three selections encountered here, Peregrinations (1997) for solo clarinet, Diatribe (1975) for paired violin and piano, and Colloquy (1999) for flute/harp duo, are single movements generated similarly. All contrast slower material with more athletic fast music, establishing one as a basis while interspersing the other. All reach busy climaxes, then gradually fall back into the more leisurely of the two ideas. And all employ a forthright Atlantic Seaboard style of writing not unlike that of Donald Martino. But it's the details that keep each work unique; Diatribe commences with busier textures while the other compositions are more laid back initially. Musical ideas are different from piece to piece. And proportions vary greatly in side-by-side comparisons, Colloquy for example containing a larger plateau of active high-point textures than the others do. This flute and harp entry also features a good bit of extended techniques writing, mostly absent from the other two. The soprano/piano entity Ceremony after a Fire Raid (1969) also utilizes a narrative curve shape, but contains more uniform moods throughout.
The Duo (1993) for violin and piano shows Peterson's mastery of other formats. Here, one encounters a three-part construct in fast-slow-fast schema, each movement inspired by character genres such as the toccata and scherzo. There's also overt infusion of jazz stylings in the finale. But the busy material of the opening worms its way into later siblings, ultimately hijacking them into more brusque territory.
Composed in 1983, the String Quartet No. 1 also allows earlier music to infiltrate later passage work. Here, the beginning section contrasts Allegro and Moderato figuration. But despite Allegro material intrusion into the Adagio second half, the languid idea wins out. All six pieces on this release are extremely well-crafted, hugely enjoyable listens.
Some of New York 's and San Francisco 's finest new music specialists come together to give top-flight performances here. Allen Blustein (clarinet), Tod Brody (flute), Elizabeth Farnum (soprano), Karen Gottlieb (harp), Curtis Macomber (violin), James Winn (piano), and members of the Group for Contemporary Music acquit themselves handsomely. Editing is excellent. Sound is very good except on String Quartet No. 1; taken from an earlier recording issued on the Koch label, the sonics on this piece are comparatively tinny. Very strongly recommended.
Innova 588 — Time: 54:21
Indiana University faculty member David Dzubay presents examples of his chamber output here, with special emphasis on voice collections with ensemble backing.
Dzubay's oeuvre is post-modernist, demonstrating harmonies that are relatively dissonant—if scalar—that aren't shy about wandering into more tonal realms. There's modest use of special effects such as massed whispered speech and string glissandi on harmonics. It's eclectic fare, if not to the extent of two of his primary teachers, Donald Erb and Lukas Foss. The two largest items here are drawn from a series of song cycles scored for singer (or in the case of one example, singer and reciter ) backed by Pierrot ensemble plus percussion. Life Songs, Book I: dancesing in a green bay sets poems by e.e. cummings, while a host of poets ranging from Blake to Sappho furnish texts for Life Songs, Book II: Singing the Sun. Both are attractive entities, containing especially felicitous instrumental accompaniments that never inundate the soloist.
Threnody for string quartet deconstructs Josquin des Prez's Mille Regrets , interweaving snatches of this chanson with decidedly non-modal contrasting material, the whole running like quicksilver from moment to moment. The violin and piano duet Capriccio harnesses its equally malleable moods, cast in alternating duo sections and violin cadenzas, to loosely articulated variation thinking. Both pieces seem a bit scattered, however. And while Dzubay's writing is clever and polished, there is a naggingly facile feel to a fair bit of the music here.
Performances are generally strong. Members of the group Voices of Change (Jo Boatright, artistic director) give this challenging fare excellently. The two singers are varying degrees of okay. Mezzo-soprano Heidi Dietrich Klein has a focused and lucid tone quality, commendable vocal flexibility, and decent diction. Although she possesses solid technique, good pitch sense, and respectable enunciation, Christine Schadeberg's soprano instrument lacks sonic focus and labors under a wobbly vibrato. Dzubay conducts both song cycles evocatively. Editing and sound are fine.
Mode 105 — Time: 72:55
Please see our forthcoming end of year 2006 issue (Vol. 14#2) for this review.
XI Records, XI 128 — Time: 123:27
This two-disc release by New Yorker Alan Licht, former member of the alternative rock bands Blue Humans and Love Child turned minimalist composer/performer, epitomizes Downtown music at its least engaging. The first platter presents four studio-prepared tracks while the second contains a pair of live improvisations without overdubs.
The two live items, 14, Second, Fifth and Remington Khan , feature Licht playing guitar, adding and subtracting slow-moving material around persistent drone figures as he goes along. Freaky Friday and Another Sky pretty much echo this concept while thickening or thinning out the basis pitches; organ is utilized in the latter instead of guitar. Muhammed Ali & the Crickets is more of the same, with insect chirping as the platform and electronically altered sparring sounds and chanting the variables. In all cases, the biggest problem here is that the source material is not interesting in and of itself , nor is anything clever done with it as happens in the work of someone like Ellen Band. In the improvised selections, the music takes forever and a day to make its none-too-compelling point. Perhaps all one needs to know about its composer's ill-developed sense of what listeners will tolerate is that Remington Khan has a slow fade-in which takes almost four minutes to produce an audible sound.
The title track is even less commendable, consisting of approximately twelve minutes worth of dull radio newscasts following one after the other, closed by a coda of feedback-drenched small-crowd eavesdropping. Aside from a few commentator stumbles and a humorous reference to the weather prognosticating groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, there's nothing worth listening to.
Sound quality is tinny and gritty, though a little bit better in the improvised selections.
One of the two CD booklet note writers makes the following observation: ".when I come to power, Alan Licht will be mandatory on all public sound systems in all gyms worldwide.." If this release is any indication, your reviewer believes the world has enough problems already.
BRIDGE 9134 — Time: 67:41
Please see our forthcoming end of year 2006 issue (Vol. 14#2) for this review.
Symsonic 1001—Time: 62:04
In a time when it seems every composer has lofty ambitions, it's rare to hear music from someone who purposely eschews lapel-grabbing statements. David Olen Baird, resident of Kansas City and a visible presence in music-based usenet newsgroups, seems wedded to keeping things low-key.
The Garden Suite (1999) is an hour-long twelve movement quartet for flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, bassoon, and piano. This is guileless, melody-driven fare, essentially a jazz-pop updating of Neoclassicism that nevertheless is able to unobtrusively employ serial procedures on occasion. It's not akin to an arrangement of pop songs for traditional instruments however -- Baird has craft enough to develop material and build formats beyond verse/chorus. For example, the movement labeled "December," is a rudimentary set of variations on the Christmas tune "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." Don't expect any major epiphanies here, but for simple, unassuming listening, this sweet little release has some merit.
Flautist Shannon Finney, clarinetist Elena Lence Talley, bassoonist Ann Bilderback , and pianist Robert Pherigo perform quite well. Sound is acceptable and production is okay. For those who play this disc at a computer, there are accompanying photos, poetry, and the like.
Capstone CPS 8705 — Time: 67:18
Based at Texas Southern University in Houston, Daniel Adams has skills as a composer, percussionist, and writer on music. This release features his oeuvre for percussion with and without accompanying instruments.
As one might expect from someone with such a background, Adams possesses a keen ear for combining percussion colors. Selections such as Alloy (1990) for vibraphone, chimes, and glockenspiel; Lignumvitae (1995) for trio playing myriad wooden instruments; Stratum (1981) for marimba quartet; and Ambience (1988) for septet performing on conch shells and various wind chimes are luscious timbral soundscapes. There's much variety, more than in most compositions for this medium, in the Three Movements for Unaccompanied Marimba (1979). Both the title track (1999) for flautist and five percussionists as well as the wind ensemble backed percussion soloist entry Isorhythmic Concerto (1998) show Adams able to successfully meld timbres from inside and outside the family, while the Two Antiphonal Portraits (2000) mixes battery instruments of different types fluently.
But one needs more than orchestration mastery to create a successful listen, and little else about this music impresses. Work and movement endings here do not compel. Harmonies lack distinction, direction, and consistency beyond a generic clangorous atonality. And forms simply don't convince; Adams here stitches together snatches of material, often patterned in nature, without regard for overall architecture or at times even gestural relation.
Performances are of high quality. Percussionist Robert McCormick features excellent stick control, substantive tone quality, and thoughtful pacing. Kim McCormick, playing alto flute and piccolo in addition to the more generic variety flute, can be cited positively for her delicious low-register sound, though phrasing is a bit craggy. The McCormick Percussion Ensemble is top-notch, while the New Music Tampa Symphonic Wind Ensemble led by William Wiedrich provides sturdy concerto backing. Sound is wan and flat in Stratum, Two Antiphonal Portraits, and the live-recorded Isorhythmic Concerto, excellent otherwise. Editing is very good.
Innova 603 — Time: 77:06
The title of this CD is "Harmony for a New World." After hearing this release, your reviewer fervently hopes it's not a harbinger of things to come.
None of the music impresses. David Crumb's two offerings may prove tough listening, but they're better than anything else here. Both The Whisperer (1999), scored for two pianos, and Harmonia Mundi (2001), which adds two percussionists to the former's orchestration, do possess some measure of professionalism regardless of other shortcomings. Despite some very attractive textures and a felicitous ear for antiphonal writing, the material (usually baldly triadic though occasionally polytonal a la Stravinsky or Impressionist like Debussy) moves arbitrarily from here to there -- and often seems in no hurry to get anywhere. The latter of these two works capriciously inserts lengthy silences into the overall fabric. And even though narrative curve shapes are utilized, there's no harmonic grounding to provide anchorage.
Organum : from Canto LXXXI (Ezra Pound) (1976) by Carleton Gamer is a brief tape entry that digitally synthesizes Pound's voice during a reading of the title poem; it comes across as a forgettable clone of Charles Dodge's Speech Songs . This incongruously serves as an introduction to the piano/percussion duet New Beginnings (1987). Non-triadic East Coast angular if a bit more colorist than most of its type, the piece seems like a largely unrelated series of events rather than a coherent statement.
But it's still more enjoyable than Robert G. Patterson's two-piano opus New World Landscapes (1989, revised 1998). Generally dissonant in its harmonic language, though awkwardly incorporating triadic passages as well as extended techniques at times, it is regrettably neither crafty nor compelling nor well constructed. And it's staggeringly too lengthy and pretentious in speech to boot.
Sound quality lacks definition except in the loudest frequencies, though production values are generally fine. Performances are the only major redeeming feature of this release. The piano duo Quattro Mani (Susan Grace and Alice Rybak ) demonstrates well honed ensemble precision, sparkling digital work, seasoned control of special effects, and a splendid ear for putting across colorful textures. David Colson and John Kinzie furnish solid percussion support. Too bad they couldn't find better literature to present.
Innova 584 — Time: 63:10
A longtime Cleveland resident who was recently appointed to a faculty position at Cambridge 's Longy School of Music, John Howell Morrison's oeuvre is unusual and remarkable. Unlike most other composers, he's willing to lay himself painfully open in his works, confronting private demons head on for all to see. The result is edgy, strange, and engrossing.
Stylistically, Morrison shows an unusual take on Downtown aesthetics. The music has a strong folk and pop feel and readily traffics in patterned figuration, but easily accommodates avant-garde elements such as microtones, glissandi, clusters, and extended techniques. While material often unfolds slowly, it doesn't take eons to make its point. And best of all, here's a tonemeister in this style who isn't averse to thinking architecturally. For example, the seven short divisions of the solo harpsichord selection My Love Lives Down That Long Dirt Road (1992) do not co-exist haphazardly in the same nest; movements one, three, and five are variants of each other, giving this character piece set a modified rondo overlay. And the title track (1999) allows its nervous string quartet music to be swamped on three occasions by an aggressive, sludgy tape backing; each time, the quartet regroups and comes back more assured -- on the last occurrence providing a clear recapitulation of opening material.
The Heart Poems (2001) is the best example of the aforementioned personal quality of Morrison's ethos. Here, he sets low-key yet wrenching poetry written by his mother-in-law that unflinchingly addresses her own bout with open-heart surgery. Despite a somewhat more New Tonalist approach here that owes something to Broadway stylings, this is evocative and simple yet respectful stuff. In fact, his artless composing more acutely points up these desirable qualities.
The violin and tape selection Rising Blue (1997) is the least naked of these entities, though there's no shortage of evocative personality. Its large concluding section, for example, exudes a thudding, elephantine sense of fun.
Performances are excellent. Members of the Minnesota-based Intergalactic Contemporary Ensemble do a strong job with these deceptively challenging compositions. Soprano Maria Jette's solid yet uncluttered singing and able diction suit The Heart Poems well. And My Love benefits strongly from Vivian S. Montgomery's clean technique and nicely-paced phrasing. Sound and production are fine.
There's a huge risk in writing such fare, as it's all too easy to produce embarrassing, solipsistic music this way. Rest assured, that's not the case here. Very highly recommended.
ECM New Series 1830 — Time: 61:09
Judging from this release, the prolific and remarkable mid-career Estonian composer Erkki -Sven Tuur is eminently worth discovering.
The three selections here, all for orchestra, show oblique traces of other tonemeisters while fashioning a style that easily transcends anybody else's oeuvre to project a distinctive and compelling voice. Berio's and Ligeti's virtuosic large ensemble compositions are in Tuur's ear as is minimalism from both sides of the Atlantic. Touches of Schnittke and Ades can also be discerned, but this Estonian's technical facility outpaces either of them. The music is not tonal, but does bear scalar fingerprints.
The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1998) consists of a lengthy and intense scherzo, essentially a variation set on its opening violin arpeggio figure; a still and slow midsection, built from cluster harmonies and describing a narrative curve shape; and a brash and busy toccata finale. The violin writing is showy and challenging, yet idiomatic and telling. Here, as in the other selections on the CD, scoring is colorful and splendidly balanced, even at its most dense. It's a first-rate listen.
Both Aditus (2000, revised 2002) and Exodus (1999) are stun-level gripping pieces, full-throated and brimming with ferocious visceral energy. The former builds a vibrant edifice from pyramid stacked cluster ideas that faintly recall those of Arvo Part's massed cello opus Fratres . But it's not a strictly minimalist opus; these clusters are expressed in more varied ways than anyone might think possible. Exodus gets closest to the minimalist aesthetic, but even here the persistent repeated note patterns restlessly shift pitch, are surrounded by myriad elaborations, and endure all manner of interruptions in their headlong rush to climax. This work's quiet, ecstatic close surprises and really convinces. Structures in both compositions seem intuitive, but satisfying. And the scoring is virtuoso-caliber vibrant and multi-hued.
Performances are terrific. Led by Paavo Jarvi, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra tackles this challenging fare with conspicuous success. Violin soloist Isabelle van Keulen puts forth a big, penetrating tone and technique to burn in both hands. Sound is top-flight. Except for one bad splice a little over halfway through the violin concerto's first movement, production is excellent. Run, do not walk, to obtain a copy of this splendid CD.
SDG CD 011 — Time: 51:16
All but one of the twelve tracks on this CD by Omaha resident and former Mannheim Steamroller keyboardist Jackson Berkey prove to be selections that are equal parts arrangement and fantasia on old Christmas standards.
In addition to supplying harmonizations that are anything but typical (often employing off-kilter meters at cross purposes with the original), Berkey cleverly deconstructs the tunes, spinning out material based on motifs or somewhat longer segments. Stylistically, these entries are an eclectic fusion of classical, pop, and jazz idioms which fortunately don't come across as jarring or inconsistent. Tonal, polytonal, and cluster-derived verticals coexist surprisingly well here. Some stuffy sorts may have their wince factor kick in when hearing this release, but your reviewer finds it attractive, charming, and tasteful.
Most of these items are scored for a duet of harpsichord and harp, though a few call for solo forces encompassing piano or one of the above two instruments. Both Berkey (keyboards) and Kathy Bundock Moore (harp) perform with skill and sensitivity. Sound and editing are exemplary.
Surely there's no other holiday release quite like it.
ECM New Series 1817 — Time: 52:08
Unique among composers, Elliott Carter decided to take his initial plunge into opera just short of age 90. What Next? (1997-98), with libretto by Paul Griffiths based on a scenario created specially for this work, concerns an auto accident and the resultant behavior of its six seemingly unhurt victims.
What Next? is in one act, constructed from 38 segments that flow uninterruptedly into each other. These segments are organized into two scenes, each cadenced by a chaotic ensemble of voices which attains a climactic point. Each half is prefaced by a sizable instrumental passage; perhaps the most striking moment in the opera is the first of these non-vocal introductions, an energetically clangorous section heavy with clattering percussion meant to suggest the opening car wreck.
The characters all seem consumed by their own self-serving agendas, to the point where they talk past each other (at times in Theater of the Absurd language recalling Beckett or Ionesco ) and remain mired at the crash site, unable to attend the wedding they were apparently traveling to.
Music here is cast in Carter's usual Atlantic Coast ethos, featuring angular vocal writing, an active yet unobtrusive orchestral backing, and a rapidly unfolding dissonant harmonic language. It pleases much as a concert piece, though how it may work on stage is hard to predict. On first hearing, one may understandably wonder if this opera presents strong opportunities for dramatic action. We'll have to see it staged to find out.
This release concludes with Carter's Asko Concerto (2000). Scored for large mixed chamber ensemble of sixteen players, it updates the Baroque era concerto grosso. Full ensemble ritornelli alternate with small groupings consisting of a solo, two duets, two trios, and a quintet. Despite its clangorous sound world, this offering is surprisingly light on its feet -- bubbly, felicitous, and loaded with high-spirited charm.
What Next? appears here as a recorded live presentation, but sound in both this entry and the concerto is excellent, as is editing in the latter composition. Performances are first-rate. The six singers ( Valdine Anderson, Dean Elzinga, Emanuel Hoogeveen, William Joyner, Sarah Leonard, and Hilary Summers) manage Carter's virtuoso-caliber vocal parts well. The Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, led by Peter Eotvos, plays both works with flair and accuracy. Well worth hearing.