Music of a Forgotten Master: Daniel Wnukowski Plays Karl Rathaus


The displacements of war, genocide, and oppressive politics has condemned legions of composers and their music to languish in obscurity until resurrected by later generations. I recall Aaron Copland opining in an interview that there are likely more than a few masterpieces to be found from the years between the great wars (about 1918 to 1945). This album is a shining example which seems to validate Copland’s assertion. 

Karl Rathaus (1895-1954) was born in the eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like many (primarily) Jewish composers. He emigrated to the United States to avoid the rising fascist regime. Not all such emigres were able to make a living in the Hollywood film industry and Rathaus labored in relative obscurity in the academy, namely Queens College.

Along comes the enterprising Polish-Canadian pianist Daniel Wnukowski whose knowledge of and affinity for Rathaus’ music brings us the present disc. This is virtuosic music that he seems born to play. The music seems to embody elements of Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism (of the Rudhyar and Cowell variety), and doubtless others not immediately apparent to your humble reviewer.Wnukowski breathes life into these heretofore forgotten works.  

Certainly this is a genre disc that takes its place alongside Decca/London’s “Entartete Musik” and their ilk but it also stands out with a distinctive, powerful, and entertaining voice which serves to illuminate the folly and destructiveness of fascist politics.This is music that deserves serious attention and would likely enthralling a recital audience. 

This is a loving set of interpretations that will probably have listeners anxiously awaiting the next volume in this important series.That is definitely true for this reviewer. 

The Apotheosis of Lenny, a New Recording of “Mass”


Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.

This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.

This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.

This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.

The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.

Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.

A Bernstein Masterpiece Deserves More Hearings


This is a spectacular recording of an unjustly lesser known Bernstein masterpiece. It doesn’t have the familiar Broadway inflections found in much of his work but it is a solidly serious symphony/concerto which demonstrates an aspect of the composer’s wide range of compositional ability.

Bernstein wrote only three symphonies (the third and last written in 1963 in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy) but all deserve attention and this may very well be the best of the three. Is is the only one without a vocal part.

In many ways it is similar to his “Plato’s Symposium” (1945) in that it has an obligato solo part but is not identified as a Concerto. That said, the solo part is substantial and the fine pianist Krystian Zimmerman needed to come to terms with this spectacular work. It is indeed not a Concerto. The piano solo is more like a character in dialogue with the instruments of the orchestra, an analogy for the events of Auden’s Pulitzer Prize winning long poem of 1947 from which it gets its title. It was dedicated to Bernstein’s teacher Serge Koussevitsky who conducted the premiere with the composer at the piano.

Simon Rattle clearly has a grasp of Bernstein’s early symphonic style (he also gets jazz and later Bernstein more readily than most European conductors. I must admit only a passing familiarity with this work but this recording has definitely rekindled my interest and it will likely have that effect on subsequent listeners.

Beautiful performance and recording. Seek this one out. You won’t be disappointed.

Perpetulum, a Double Album from Third Coast Percussion is a Triumph


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Third Coast Percussion is one of Chicago’s finest musical exports along with groups like Eighth Blackbird and doubtless others with whom I have less familiarity.  Their deservedly Grammy winning album of music by Steve Reich was reviewed here.  All percussion ensembles are somewhat the rage these days judging by the amount of such albums that come my way.  Percussion instruments are common in eastern cultures but only really made its way into western ensembles in a big way in the last 100 years or so largely due to composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison studying music of other cultures and writing new music for both existing and newly invented percussion instruments.

Percussion is like the junk drawer of the orchestra in that any instrument which does not fit into the categories of strings, winds, or brass is handled by the percussionist.  The taxi horns in Gershwin’s American in Paris are a good example.  However what we have here is an ensemble entirely comprised of percussion instruments with some seriously virtuosic players here performing music written for them.

This two CD set from Orange Mountain Music contains five works by five composers.  The first CD is dedicated to the largest work on this release, “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by ensemble member David Skidmore.  It is, at about 35 minutes, the longest piece in this collection and is virtually a symphony for percussion and electronics.  It is in seven movements, each with a cryptic title no doubt related to the musical content.  It is an engaging work of some complexity with fascinating writing for percussion instruments. Multiple close listens will reward you with details not immediately apparent and reveal some of the structure of this large work.

The second CD begins with a shorter work by ensemble member Peter Martin called “Bend”.  It has the characteristics of an orchestral work using largely pitched percussion.  It presents themes, develops them, and has a detectable harmonic structure.  It is a showpiece for the musicians but it does communicate with the listener.

Next up is Philip Glass in his first all percussion work, “Perpetulum” (2018) has four movements and clocks in at about 25 minutes.  This is music by a seasoned composer, not the experimental music of his earlier years (which hooked this listener) but rather a recognizable and comfortably familiar style with some really nice writing for percussion.  Glass has frequently used percussion of various sorts in his works but this is the first thing he has written entirely for percussion ensemble.  It is an audience pleaser and a challenge to the musicians.

This is followed by a work by another member of the group Robert Dillon.  “Ordering-Instincts” (2018) is cast in one movement it is a relatively brief (7min approx) piece which successfully challenges the players and entertains the audience.  It also seems to provide a nice segue to the final cut.

The disc concludes with a major percussion work by British minimalist Gavin Bryars.  “The Other Side of the River” (2018) is a commission by Third Coast Percussion and is a valuable addition to Bryars gentle, pensive oeuvre.  For this listener this piece is the highlight of this collection.  Bryars is at his best in his meditative mood.  Sinking of the Titanic and Farewell to Philosophy come to mind as similarly relaxing and thoughtful.  This is a big piece and well worth the journey of listening.

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Bryars at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, 2016 (Creative Commons license by Allan J. Cronin)

This CD set is a massive undertaking and a fine production illustrating the range of compositional interests of Third Coast Percussion as well as their own compositional chops.  It is also a great sounding recording.  Very well done.

 

 

Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc


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Cameron Carpenter (1981- ) is a spectacular musician and showman.  But don’t let his showmanship fool you.  He is a brilliant and disciplined musician and arranger and belongs to a tradition of flashy virtuosos.  He is also not the first organist to have and use a portable organ either.  Prior to Carpenter people “of a certain age” (your reviewer qualifies) may remember one Virgil Fox (1912-1980) whose musicianship and showmanship delighted audiences of an earlier era.  He too sometimes worked with a portable organ.  In fact he did a show at, of all venues, The Fillmore East with his Rodgers Touring Organ.  This storied home to late 60s rock and rollers included a light show with Fox’s performance of Bach et al.

Another keyboard genius who took on a little flash at one time is Anthony Newman (1941- ) whose enthusiastic and authoritative presentations opened a whole new generation to music of Bach and others as well as introducing them to the organ and harpsichord.  Newman, also a composer of note continues to be a valued concert performer and interested listeners are encouraged to check out his website for more details about this man’s recordings and compositions.

One can’t look at Carpenter with his mod haircuts and stylish clothing without thinking of another wonderful flashy virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy (1956- ), a wonderful violinist with a powerful style and stage presence.  Once again the presence belies the genius just beneath the flash.  Surprisingly he does not have his own web page so I linked to his Wikipedia page.  The Guardian and at Warner Classics also maintain pages on him.  C’mon Nigel, get someone to set up a page for you, dude.

All this is just to put Mr. Carpenter in context (as much for myself as my readers).  So on to the main purpose of this review, the disc.  I don’t know off hand how many discs he has released so far but this one is a fine place to start if you don’t already know this musician’s work.  It includes his work as organist solo and with orchestra, and as arranger in the opening work, Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1943).  Originally, of course, the work is for Piano and Orchestra and is a piano concerto in all but name.  (And the disc is indexed so you can choose each variation separately if you wish.)

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Carpenter posing with his touring instrument

Cameron’s arrangement is effective and entertaining.  I will not give up my love for the original but this arrangement does what a good arrangement should by providing insight to the music.  I can only imagine the difficulties encountered trying to make this piece playable on an organ and balancing the sound with the orchestra.  Fortunately Cameron has a valuable partner in crime here.  The Konzerthausorchester Berlin is led by the brilliant conductor Christoph Eschenbach.  And he uses his portable touring organ which sounds as good as any I’ve heard.  They sound fabulous together and the recording is top notch.

How do you follow the Rachmaninoff?  Well, how about the Francis Poulenc Organ Concerto (1934-8)?  Yes, this concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani may be a discovery for many folks.  It is a piece which hooks the listener from the very beginning with a crashing fortissimo chord from the organ.  It goes on to an almost baroque sounding development with modern harmonies throughout.  It is a fitting companion on this disc to the opening piece.

And, finally, the final allegro from the Organ Symphony No. 1 Op. 14 (1898-99) by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) who was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 to 1937.  Vierne (who wrote six grand symphonies for solo organ) studied with another grand master of the organ Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937).  He wrote ten organ symphonies and a host of other music as well.  Also worthy of note is the fact that the man who first performed the Poulenc concerto was another grand organist/composer named Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) who was Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame for a time.

If you like organ music you will love this album.  And if you like flashy virtuosos then by all means check out Carpenter’s website and YouTube channels.  Enjoy, and play it loudly.

Because Isaac Schankler


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aerocade music

Isaac Schankler billed on their own website as “composer, etc.” clearly has a sense of humor but that characterization is as good as any to describe this composer, performer, teacher, writer.  Suffice it to say it is worth your time to check out that web site.

Schankler’s name and music are new to this writer’s eyes/ears bit it is delightful to make the acquaintance of this artist via the present release.  Three electroacoustic works are presented.  Schankler does the electronics and an array of musicians play the acoustic instruments.

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Isaac Schankler (from the composer’s web site)

The combination of acoustic instruments with electronics (fixed and/or interactive) goes back at least to Edgar Varese and has practitioners which include Mario Davidovsky, David Behrman, Milton Babbitt, and a host of others too numerous to discuss within the scope of this review.  The point is that Schankler seems to be a part of these traditions and has developed a personal way to work with this hybrid medium.

One of the problems this writer has experienced while trying to understand and write meaningfully about electronic music (with or without acoustic instruments) is that textbooks on such music seem to end their surveys in about 1990.  Add to that the fact that electronic music, once a category banished to a sort of appendix in the days of the Schwann Catalog, has now acquired multiple meanings.  Electronic music now apparently includes dance music, dark ambient musings reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, individual experiments typified by artists like David Lee Myers and Kim Cascone, and the original meaning with work by pioneers like Subotnick, Luening, Babbitt, etc.

This disc would have been listed in that little appendix I mentioned earlier if it had been released in the 70s or so.  It is, in this listener’s mind, classical electronic music.  Perhaps one could dance to it but it seems to be written with the intent of presenting musical ideas and highlighting the musical skills of performers on their acoustic instruments.  This one is best heard with headphones and serious attention.

The first track is Because Patterns/Deep State (2019) is a sort of reworking of two earlier pieces Because Patterns (2015) for prepared piano duo (Ray/Kallay Duo) and The Deep State (2017) for double bass and electronics.  There is an interview on Schankler’s website that discusses the composer’s processes in each piece and the reasons for combining the two into the present form.  The solo parts, such as they are, are performed by Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray on keyboards and Scott Worthington on double bass (curiously the soloists were recorded in different studios).

From a listener’s perspective one of the most striking things was how deeply embedded the solo performers are.  This is like a concerto grosso in which the instruments are more embedded in the texture.  It is a complex piece which demands the listener’s attention but ultimately rewards said listener in a musically satisfying way.  In short, your reviewer has only the faintest grasp of the processes involved but appreciates the end product.  At about 25 minutes this is a commitment but one worth tackling.

Mobile I (2009) is written for violin and electronics (interactive) and is described by the composer as an audio analogue of mobile sculpture.  Think Calder set to music perhaps.  Again regardless of the process the main concern for the listener is whether the result actually entertains. Here, where the soloist (Sakura Tsai) is more at the forefront, it is easier to hear the interactive nature of the music as the gestures of the violin are responded to by the electronics.  It is a form of call and response with the soloist in the lead and the electronics answering.

The third and final track is Future Feelings (2018) commissioned and premiered by Nadia Shpachenko and, according to the composer’s website was the result of experiments seeking pleasing sounds for the composer’s first child.  This is not a lullaby but rather a working out of ideas.  It works as a concert piece as intended but is probably not going to make its way onto a “soothing sounds for babies” CD any time soon.

This digital and vinyl release semis to have precious little in the way of notes to guide the listener but this label aerocade can be forgiven on the strength of their choices in repertoire and quality of recorded sound and the composer’s website is nicely designed and informative. Their release of the Post-Haste Duo was reviewed most favorably in these pages earlier and a quick scan of the label’s website suggests that this label (established by Meerenai Shim , who also did the lovely design of the cover, this is the 11th release of a label that deserves the attention of new music fanciers).  Links are provided for the interested listener, all of which will lead to a better understanding and will serve as a guide to find similarly interesting and creative music.

Fantastic New Music for Piano and Strings, The Jupiter Quartet with Bernadette Harvey


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There is no small irony for this reviewer in the title of this offering.  As soon as it was removed from its packaging I, much as Alice was implored by the comestibles in Wonderland, felt compelled by joyous expectation to consume it with eyes and ears.  And I was not disappointed.

Three composers are represented with one work each (two by Mr. Jalbert) in an album of recent compositions in modern but essentially tonal chamber music for highly skilled musicians. All But one (Secret Alchemy) are world premiere recordings commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and all contribute most handsomely to the piano and strings literature.

The highly skilled musicians are the extraordinary Australian Bernadette Harvey on piano with the Jupiter Quartet (Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins; Liz Freivogel, viola; and Daniel McDonough, cello).  They play extremely well together despite having to navigate all new and challenging material.  Harvey, in addition to traditional repertoire is a major advocate for living Australian composers.

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Pierre Jalbert

The album opens with Piano Quintet (2017) by Pierre Jalbert (1967-  ) which draws as much on the romantic tradition (can one hear the ensemble name “piano quintet” without thinking of Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann?) of that ensemble’s configuration as on his more modernist sense of rhythm and harmony.  It is cast in four movements titled, Mannheim Rocket, Kyrie, Scherzo, and Pulse.  This is a major work by a composer new to these ears and apparently very substantial.  This is highly engaging music with romantic leanings perhaps but there is nothing derivative here.  This composer is a voice that deserves an ear or two.

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Steven Stucky

Next up is music by the late lamented Steven Stucky (1949-2016).  While I regret not having gotten to know a lot of his music during his lifetime I find myself enthralled at the power and lyricism of each work I hear (the man was prolific too so I have much listening to catch up on).  This one is no exception, Piano Quartet (2004-5) is in a single movement with multiple sections of varied character.  Anyone who has heard any of Stucky’s music will find this piece both exciting and accessible.

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Carl Vine

Carl Vine (1954- ) is a prolific Australian composer (the only non-American composer represented) whose work certainly deserves to be better known outside of his native country.  He does appear to get recognition and respect there and with Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) we can see why.  This one movement work is (like the Stucky piece) divided into sections played without pause.  This is another work of both power and virtuosity which holds the listener’s interest and, ultimately, provides a satisfying concert experience.

The program ends with another substantial work from Mr. Jalbert, a piano quintet in all but name.  Secret Alchemy (2012) allows us to hear some earlier chamber music writing by this composer.  Again each movement is given a title but this time they are more like expression markings and less poetic.  They are: Mystical, Agitated, Timeless, and With Great Energy.  Why that’s practically a program note!  And like the piece that opened this disc it indeed has great energy and will engage the listener.

This album exceeded my enthusiastic expectations and I will listen again, probably many times.  Well done.