Transformations, Elizabeth Chang takes on mid-century masters


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Albany Records has demonstrated a commitment to lesser known composers of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the term “neglected composers” is more accurate. This disc, headed by an artist new to these ears, Elizabeth Chang is an exciting release for folks who appreciate post-Schoenbergian music. That is a limited audience for sure but the sheer quality of the works of the composers represented should entice hungry minds.

Three composers are represented: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), and Roger Sessions (1896-1985). Schoenberg is the only one adequately represented in recordings (if not in performances). The two American composers, Kirchner and Sessions, are both Pulitzer Prize winners and were respected as teachers as well as composers.

The recording opens with Kirchner’s Duo No.2 (2002) for violin and piano. I am familiar with Kirchner’s four string quartets, the third of which earned him his Pulitzer. His catalog of works is large and, sadly, most recordings are out of print. This late work compares favorably with the quartets. Clocking in at about 15 minutes, this work is decidedly very post-Schoenberg with an almost neo-romantic lyricism. The demands, met ably by the artists (Steven Beck, piano; Elizabeth Chang, violin), perform what is nearly a mini concerto.

The second piece, covering tracks 2-5, is the major standout here. Roger Sessions Sonata for Solo Violin (1953), can stand beside other twentieth century works in this genre such as Bela Bartok’s 1944 masterpiece. It has been recorded by Paul Zukofsky, Hyman Bress, Curtis Macomber, and, most recently, by Miranda Cuckson. While I have not heard any but Zukofsky’s rendition, it would seem that this performance is a welcome addition to the discography of this major masterpiece. I will leave it to the fine liner notes by David E. Schneider for more details on this rather complex work.

Sessions is given more exposure with a late work, the Duo for Violin and Cello (1978). The fact that this was found among the composer’s papers after his death with sketches for at least one more movement suggests that this was intended to be a much larger work. What does exist would make a fine companion to the (also too little performed) 1922 Maurice Ravel masterwork for this unusual combination of instruments.

The recording ends with Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment Op. 47 (1949). Both this and the previous work represent the last chamber music compositions by Sessions and Schoenberg. I am somewhat chagrined to admit that this is my first hearing of the Schoenberg piece. It is a thorny, almost pointillistic piece which is a very fine piece. and one that deserves more attention from this writer and

Even if this release may speak to a limited audience it is, nonetheless a significant and enjoyable contribution to the recorded legacy of this very significant western art music.

Wilhelmina Smith, a Revelatory Solo Cello Release


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I think I can say with assurance that the unaccompanied cello repertoire begins with the Bach solo cello suites. But the concept of this kind of music being worthy of public performance began with Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. Indeed the lovely Bach suites regularly get recorded and performed live pretty frequently with appreciative audiences.

What is generally lesser known is that there exists a large repertoire of unaccompanied cello music which was created in the post Bach era. That’s nearly 300 years and most of this repertory remains largely unknown and, in may cases, unperformed. Rather than attempting to list these I refer the interested listener to the list here on Wikipedia. The list is not exhaustive but it is a fair representation of the extant music.

Wilhelmina Smith, having already produced a fine recording of unaccompanied cello music by Finnish composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, now surveys works of this genre by Danish composers Per Nørgård (1932- ) and Poul Ruders (1949- ).

The quite excellent liner notes by Søren Schauser do a great job of providing a context and a basic analysis of what the listener is hearing in these works. He also provides some historical context and a fellow Dane’s impression of the deeper associations which might be felt by a Nordic audience. But these works are not insular in their intent or their presentation. Make no mistake that these are major works which will speak to all who care to hear.

I have made no secret of my personal love of the music from the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Faroe Islands, and Iceland). And this disc serves to bolster my enthusiasm further. These works span the years 1953 to 1976 and embody largely neoclassical and and post-romantic styles which are very friendly to the ear.

The sheer nakedness of a performance on an instrument usually embedded in a larger context (accompanied by piano or electronics, in a string quartet, or in a symphony orchestra) brings an intense intimacy to the performance. The performer is fully exposed and the music relies on exactly that intensity. Yes, this is a recording but it is not difficult to imagine these performances eliciting reverent silences, of breaths being held, of a level of engagement that elicits rapt attentions.

Completists will be thrilled to have all three of Per Nørgård’s three Solo Cello Sonatas. Nørgård, an internationally regarded master, is better known for this large orchestral works and concertos but here we get to experience him at his most intimate. The first so called “sonatas” appears to take a more classical approach. Even the naming of the three movements (Lento ma espansivo – Allegro non troppo, Tranquillo, Allegro con brio) suggest a more classical approach. This largely tonal piece has both romantic and neoclassical aspects with soaring melodies and classical developments. The second sonata, subtitled “In due tempi” is unusual in that its two movements are separated by compositional dates separated by 27 years. One thinks of Felix Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture separated by 17 years from the subsequent incidental music. So we have a first movement form 1953 followed by a second movement from 1980. This second sonata has much in common with the sound world of the first but the second movement does hint at a more mature style in kind with other works from that historical period. The third sonata, in three movements as was the first, is from 1999 and it is most clearly of a later style. It carries the subtitle, “What – is the Word!”. The movement titles (Prayer, Outcry, Prayer II) are clues to the more deeply existential mood of this piece. Still using basically tonal language, this sonata seems to describe more painful and introspective moods.

Now we come to a work by Poul Ruders (1949- ), “Bravourstudien” (L’Homme Armé Variations) (1976). This is essentially a set of variations on the medieval tune, “L’Homme Armé” (The Armed Man). It is cast in 10 movements (Overture, Recitative, Serenade 1, Potpourri, Etude, Intermezzo, Fantasia, Serenade 2, Finale: Variation classique, L’Homme armé). It is perhaps more deconstruction than classical variation but one need know nothing of the composer’s compositional techniques to appreciate the results.

This is not the first recordings of these works but these performances and the clean Ondine records sound make this release a welcome addition to the ever expanding discography of solo cello repertory and the music of Nordic master composers. You must hear this.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Santa Barbara


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Shot of the stage of Hahn Hall at Santa Barbara’s historic Music Academy of the West (Photo by author)

The beautiful and acoustically excellent Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara was the venue for a powerful chamber music concert on Saturday, January 25th.  The not too common combination of violin and cello played respectively by violinist extraordinaire Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the equally matched musicianship of cellist Jay Campbell delighted a near full house with a carefully chosen set of pieces from the 642 CE to the present.  Who knew that there was so much music for this combination of instruments and that it would be so marvelously engaging?

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Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Massachusetts (Photo from Patricia’s web site)

This concert was part of the UC Santa Barbara’s always excellent Arts and Lectures series.  Kopatchinskaja was clearly the big name on the marquee for this event but Campbell was clearly a match both in skill and enthusiasm for this night’s event.

A slight change in the program was announced at the beginning which, if this reviewer heard correctly placed a piece originally slated for the second half of the program in the number two slot on the first half.

The concert opened with an anonymous “Alleluia” from a collection of works only recently (the past 50 years or so) deciphered by scholars.  The slow melismatic voice lines transcribed here for these string instruments was played with the sort of approximate intonation common to so called “period performances” which attempt to provide as much as possible some sense of how the music may have sounded in its time.  It was a slow piece rich in harmonics and reverent in execution.

The next piece, a clearly modern piece from the look of the oversized score on the music stand, was (again if this reviewer heard this correctly) by Hungarian composer Márton Illés (1975- ).  It was the world premiere of “Én-kör III”, a piece that brought us nearly 1500 years forward and evoked the modernist sound world of Darmstadt and the sort of modernism that dominated the 1950s in Europe.  It was a challenging piece for both listeners and players involving special techniques of playing that doubtless made for a fascinating looking score.  On sheer virtuosity and powerful performance alone the piece was well received.  It is complex music that doubtless benefits from repeated hearings and this premiere suggests that that will be the case.  The interested listener would do well to explore the web site of this fascinating composer whose name and music was new to this writer’s ears.

Next up, music by another modernist composer, the German, Jörg Widmann (1973- ).  Two selections (numbers 21 and 24) from his 24 duos for violin and cello (2008) were also of the Darmstadt style modernism mentioned earlier.  The Valse Bavaroise (Bavarian Waltz) had echoes of the 19th century Viennese traditions while the Toccatina all’inglese which followed it was a finger busting virtuosic showpiece, another audience pleaser actually.

Then, as if to cleanse our aural pallets the duo played Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) Fantasia a 2, No. 4 for two “viols”.  As in the opening piece these are transcriptions since the violin and cello as we know them today did not exist.  This little instrumental miniature was a charming and relaxing interlude.

The final piece on the first half of this concert was the too seldom heard Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).  This again set the mood to virtuosic modernism.  Even people in the audience familiar with Ravel’s better known works were astounded at the modern sound.  According to the program notes this work was written in the shadow of both the death of his esteemed fellow French luminary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the end of the First World War (also 1918).  Indeed there were angry dissonances to be heard but this four movement sonata remains an astounding work and this performance was a powerful and forceful reading conveying the respect that this masterpiece deserves.  It is filled with both jazz influences as well as gypsy music (no doubt dear to the Moldovan born Kopatchinskaja).  And were it not for the visual cues that only two instruments were actually playing one might guess that there were certainly more.  At this point we all needed an intermission just to breathe.

The second half of the concert consisted of (with one exception) music from the region of Kopatchinskaja’s birth.  The Romanian born Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) produced a great deal of music in the high modernism and experimental traditions but the work which opened the second half of this concert was an early work “Dhipli Zyia” (1951) which sounded much like the work of (also Romanian born) Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) with whom Xenakis had familiarity and, apparently, affection.

The program continued without the punctuation of applause into the 14th century with a work by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377), his Ballade 4.  This is apparently originally a vocal work and was played in transcription for tonight’s soloists.

Again without the transition signal of applause the duo launched into another work which, like the Xenakis, is atypical of his largely modernist oeuvre.  György Ligeti (1923-2006) is perhaps best know for his music’s (unapproved) inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The work played on this night was “Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg” (1982).  Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) was among the earliest Swedish modernist composers and this work was written on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  The piece echoed Ligeti’s affection for the aforementioned Bela Bartok and folk tunes predominated this brief but lovely score.

The duo launched with little pause into a piece by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967).  His “Duo for Violin and Cello” Op. 7 (1914) sounded almost like a model for the later Ravel piece heard at the conclusion of the first half of the concert.  This three movement work is unusual in this composer’s catalog in that it is more aggressively modern than much of his more folk inflected pieces (Bartok and Kodaly were early pioneers in ethnomusicology and they collected and recorded a great deal of folk music from the region of Hungary, Romania, etc.)  It was a fantastic finale which garnered the artists an enthusiastic standing ovation.  The smiling and obviously satisfied performers received the traditional bouquets of flowers and returned for a brief little piece (didn’t catch the name) which was a little token of thanks to the equally satisfied and smiling audience.

Azrieli Music Prizes Volume II: Jewish Music from Canada


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So you read “New Jewish Music” and you think, well, Israel.  At least I did at first.  But the richness of the Canadian musical landscape embraces a wide range of excellent music both pop and classical and this disc (I haven’t heard volume I) serves to illustrate my point. These three works, two for instrumental soloist and orchestra and one for soprano and orchestra are indeed imbued with music that takes its inspiration from the folk traditions common to Jewry around the world.

The musical radar of Canadian producers is truly astounding.  One need only peruse the wonderfully organized Canadian Music Centre web site to get a flavor of which I speak.  You will find classical music by many composers, not just Canadians.  And the range of styles runs the gamut from the experimental (in traditions largely unheard in the United States) to more traditional sounding pieces all of which sound quite substantive to these ears.  Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying” made my “best of 2019” list for example.

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So back to the disc at hand.  More about the amazing Azrieli Foundation and their various projects is worth your attention.  Their efforts are indeed wide ranging and include the arts most prominently along with their other humanistic endeavors.  The disc includes the 2018 prize winning works by Kelly-Marie Murphy and Avner Dorman along with an arrangement by François Vallieres of the late elder statesman of Canadian music, Srul Irving Glick (1934-2002).

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Photo from composer’s website

Murphy’s “En el Oscuro es Todo Uno” (2018) is for cello, harp and orchestra.  The soloists are the duo Couloir whose album was reviewed previously in these pages.  Its four movements comprise essentially a double concerto (has anyone else done a double concerto for this combo?).  The varied moods in this tonal and melodic work draw the listener in and beg to be heard again.  The piece won the 2018 Azrieli Music Prize.  It is a major work by an established composer whose star continues to rise.

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Avner Dorman photo from the composer’s web site

The second work is Avner Dorman’s “Nigunim” (Violin Concerto No. 2) (2017) with the great Lara St. John on violin.  Winner of the 2018 Azrieli Prize for New Jewish Music, this concerto is a delight to the listener as well as a showcase for a talented soloist.  Imbued with references to Jewish folk music, this piece is a melodic delight.  Like the previous work, the listener will likely find themselves returning for another hearing.

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Srul Irving Glick photo from the composer’s web site.

The disc concludes with a lovely setting of some of the much beloved texts from the biblical Song of Songs titled, “Seven Tableaux from the Song of Songs” (1992).  It was originally scored for soprano and piano trio and arranged for this recording for soprano, piano, and string orchestra by François Vallieres.  Glick was known both for his concert and his liturgical works.  These texts have inspired countless composers and will doubtless inspire many more with the beauty of the words.  Soprano Sharon Azrieli is very much up to the task and delivers a heartfelt and lyrical performance.

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Photo of Boris Brott form the orchestra’s web site

Last but not least the Orchestre Classique de Montréal under the direction of (too little known conductor) Boris Brott deliver a sensitive and nuanced approach to these works.  All in all an extremely entertaining disc that will likely appeal to a wide audience regardless of religious or political affiliations.  This is just great music making.