Bis Recordings Takes on Ben-Haim


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BIS 2398

Israeli composers are too little known so this album of the music of Paul Ben-Haim is particularly welcome.  BIS records is known for its quality recordings and its attention to neglected repertoire.  Hopefully this is only the first release and BIS will go on to record more of this man’s work as they have with so many other neglected masters.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich.  He moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933 as the Nazis took power.  He has become known, for better or worse, as the Israeli Aaron Copland.  Indeed there are parallels between the two composers in terms of their embrace of mid-twentieth century romanticism and, to some degree, nationalism.  He worked as an assistant to Bruno Walter at one point.

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Portrait of Paul Ben-Haim from Wikipedia

A quick glance at Wikipedia will reveal that he mentored many composers including Ben Zion-Orgad, Zvi Avni, Eliahu Inbal, Henri Lazarof, Shulamit Ran, and Ami Maayani among many others.  Leonard Bernstein recorded Ben-Haim’s “Sweet Psalmist of Israel” and was supportive of the composer’s work.  He was very influential during his lifetime and the neglect of his work is hard to fathom.

Much of Ben-Haim’s work has been recorded to be sure but it tends to get little airplay and few concert performances.  As is true for many countries it is difficult to get music by Israeli composers in the United States (Is this true in other countries?).  This release from the Swedish based BIS records with its distribution network may be a partial remedy to that problem.

The Violin Concerto of 1960 is the big work here.  It has been recorded previously, most notably by the wonderful Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman.  It is filled out with his 1942 Evocation “Yizkor” for violin and orchestra and some chamber pieces, the Three Songs Without Words (1951) and Berceuse Sfaradite (1945) both for violin and piano.  In addition there is an arrangement for violin and piano of the composer’s well known Toccata (1943) for piano.  And in keeping with the violin theme the world premiere recording of his Three Studies (1981) for solo violin rounds out this wonderful survey of the composer’s work.

Itamar Zorman is the soloist and this, not his first release, is a major statement in his career.  Zorman previously released a violin and piano album with more conventional repertoire but this is his first release playing with an orchestra.  Having demonstrated his facility with the conventional repertoire he seems to be blazing a path beyond.

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Portrait of the Artist from his website

The album opens with the highly romantic Evocation “Yizkor” (1942) reflecting the composer’s style as developed in his native Germany.  The disc basically follows the order of composition except for the last two tracks.  This gives some sense of the composer’s evolution over his substantial career and the album includes the composer’s last work.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is ably conducted by Philippe Bach in the Evocation and the Concerto and Amy Yang is the very busy accompanist in the violin and piano pieces.  Mr. Zorman himself contributed the lucid liner notes.

Having just reviewed another fine album which included a Ben-Haim piece it was particularly delightful to receive this recording.  It brings this important music to a new generation of listeners.  Also toward that goal the following link will take the interested reader to a comprehensive list of the the recordings of this composer’s work.  The link is here.

 

 

Mariel Roberts’ Cartography: New Cello Music


This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace.  Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.

Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition.  Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.

Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics.  The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.  Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.

Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.

This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.

 

Tim Brady’s Happiness Handbook, massed guitars, massed invention


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Starkland ST-232

This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland.  The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases.  You can find a listing on his web page here.  Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs.  Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham.  That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists.  Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.

In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016.  Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound.  It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here.  One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall.  All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet.  The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.

The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar.  If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well.  The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.

Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars.  This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.

And now the music.  The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic.  Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work.  This is practically a miniature symphony.  It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.

Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album.  It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work.  I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds.  Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.

Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope.  (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.)  Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example.  This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.

Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage.  This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy.  Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.

Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision.  The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are.  So much for happiness.

Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall.  Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again.  As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern.  There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony.  It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.

 

William Susman’s Scatter My Ashes


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I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung.  This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.  I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music.  William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.

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Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label.  It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work.  All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.

There are four pieces on 12 tracks.  The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work.  It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.

The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto.  There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child.  It is for piano with chamber ensemble.  Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly.  Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture.  Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part.  It works very well.

He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry.  Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.

 

Jane Antonia Cornish, Post Modern Calm


At first listen I thought I might have put an Arvo Part album. The familiar calming sounds of what sounds like “holy minimalism” seemed to be coming at me. But who is this young British composer? Well, let me tell you, you need to pay attention to this one.

While the Arvo Part comparison is apt it only describes a small part of this composer’s range. She does seem to fit some sort of incarnation of “minimalist” by virtue of her use of repetition, silences, etc. At times her music leans sweetly toward the romantic but this is hardly light fare. The music evokes a sort of timelessness and calm but there are moments of tension and sadness as well.

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From the composer’s web site.

Jane Antonia Cornish (1975- ) is a British composer and, looking at her education and training she appears to come almost out of nowhere. Her music clearly draws on aspects of minimalism but her teachers are not the “usual suspects”. Like a lot of people from her generation she seems to draw on a rather comprehensive training in the ever expanding language of new music and uses what works for her. (Doubtless she is quite capable of writing thorny serial music should she find that useful to her expression.)  She currently lives and works in New York City.  Her web page can be found here.

Cornish is originally from London, England and she studied composition with Dr. Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music, and completed her master’s degree at the Royal College of Music. She is a recipient of the Edward Hecht Composition Prize, the RNCM Composition Prize and the Associated Board Prize for the Most Outstanding Scholar of the Year. Cornish was also made a Major Scholar of the RNCM.  She is also the recipient of a 2005 BAFTA award for her film and television work.

This emerging composer has been quite prolific.  The present album is her third and she has also done film scores.  Her style seems to be influenced by the post minimalist/holy minimalist school but with a touch of melancholy.  Of course it will be necessary to hear more of her work to get a good overall impression but that will be a labor of love.  This is really listenable.

This is chamber music, violin, cellos, piano but what a big and warm sound!  I liked this album immediately and subsequent listenings have failed to diminish my enthusiasm.  This is engaging and substantive music that has enough depth that allows the listener to get past the pretty surface to the complexities and subtleties that lie beneath the surface.

The musicians include: Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Caitlin Sullivan, Claire Bryant, Hamilton Berry, cellos; Anna Elashvili, violin; Vicky Chow, piano.  All are fined dedicated musicians and they seem to be enjoying themselves here.  You would be doing yourself a favor to got to their respective web sites (linked from here) to see the breadth of these fine young musicians’ activities and interests.  

Thank you Innova for the wisdom of recording this composer’s works (Innova has also released her albums Continuum, and Silence).  And thank you for sharing your artistic talents Ms. Cornish.

 

Other Minds 24 Revives the Quartets of Ivan Wyschnegradsky in San Francisco


I admit to some trepidation as I proceeded to the beautiful War Memorial Opera House in downtown San Francisco.  While I had heard of this composer, Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), it was only through one work which was contained on a disc with other microtonal works by John Cage and Harry Partch performed variously by Joshua Pierce, Dorothy Jonas, and Johnny Reinhard (among others).  And microtonal music can be tedious in some hands.

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This helpful sign in the elevator directed concert goers to the 4th floor recital room known as the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater

Adding to the sense of obscurity, the concert was in a small chamber music hall on the fourth floor.  Other events ran concurrently on this night.  The hall was nearly filled to its capacity of just under 300 people most of whom I would guess have never heard of this composer.  But they likely had heard of the Arditti Quartet and clearly put their trust in the amazing ear and mind of executive and artistic director Charles Amirkhanian to deliver a satisfying musical experience which he does most reliably.  This concert was no exception.

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The stage awaits the performers with that OM logo projected on the floor.

The Arditti Quartet was formed in 1974 and quickly became known as one of the finest interpreters of contemporary string quartet music.  Their repertoire is vast and they do not shy away from technical difficulty or other artistic challenges.  In fact they had recorded the Wyschnegradsky Quartets but, sadly, that recording is out of print.  Even more interesting is the fact that tonight’s performance constitutes U.S. premieres for all the works on this concert except for the Haas Quartet (included at the suggestion of Mr. Arditti to fill out the program).  Another astonishing fact shared by Amirkhanian is that this is the only time that the quartet has been asked to play this music in concert.  There are plans to release those recordings in the near future pending negotiations with record companies.

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Amirkhanian reminded the audience to silence those pesky cell phones.

Mention needs to be made of the talents of OM’s graphic designer (and stage manager among other duties), Mark Abramson.  His work on this and last year’s program booklets take things to a new level of excellence.  The program notes by Charles Amirkhanian, Randall Wong, and Blaine Todd are both lucid and comprehensive (a very necessary thing in dealing with new and obscure music).  And the photos of the composer and the performers along with some of the composer’s own art work make this another true collector’s item.  Previous programs were certainly well done but this is a step up.

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The Arditti Quartet

I chose to just listen and to read the notes later rather than get caught up in details.  Indeed that was a good choice.  Wyschnegradsky’s approach to the use of microtones seems more focused on the possibilities of extending melodic language than the harmonic and my understanding of complex harmony is admittedly limited anyway.  Of course the harmony is necessarily different than the western models of the 18th and 19th centuries but the music, at least in the hands of such talented interpreter’s such as the Arditti speaks rather directly to the listener.

The music was presented chronologically in order of the years these pieces were composed (String Quartet No.1, 1923-4, rev. 1953-4), (String Quartet No. 2, 1930-1), (String Quartet No. 3, 1945, rev. 1958-9), and (Composition for string quartet, 1960, rev. 1966-70) completed the first half of the program.  There was surprisingly little in the way of dissonance and the quartet played with a palpable intensity and concentration creating very convincing performances.

 

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Blaine Todd holds the OM bag (a Carol Law design) as Amirkhanian picks two raffle winners after intermission.

The second half began with Wyschnegradsky’s last composition, a String Trio (1978-9).  Incomplete at the time of his death the trio was revised completed by Claude Ballif.  Again what one hears is not what you might expect from microtonality.  The composer has realized a uniquely effective way to use microtones.  Hearing this survey makes the composer’s vision clear and places him in the company of such as Alois Hába (1893-1973), Harry Partch (1901-1974), and Ben Johnston (1926- ) to name a few.  

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The Arditti Quartet sans second violin Asot Sarkissjian on stage to play the Wyschnegradsky Trio

The revelation for this listener was hearing a good sampling of the composer’s vision and a creative way to use microtones unlike any other composer really.  And it became clear too why Charles chose to revive this unique voice in the musical world.  This is beautiful music.

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As mentioned earlier Mr. Arditti had remarked that the Wyschnegradsky Quartet and Trio music would not quite fill an evening and he suggested they play the Second String Quartet (of about 6 now I believe) by Austrian born composer Georg Friedrich Haas (1953- ).  It was the only work which was not a U.S. premiere.

Arditti’s ear for programming was finely as tuned as ever and this quartet provided a very satisfying finale to the evening filled with wonderful discoveries.  While this particular quartet uses some microtones the style is denser and more dissonant overall than the preceding music.  This is not to say that it was not entertaining, rather it is illustrative of the rich possibilities of microtonal composition.  The Arditti again shows itself to be at the forefront of the finest interpreters of the modern string quartet and clearly Haas is a name worth knowing as well.  Bravo!

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The musicians acknowledge the standing ovation and warm applause

Save the dates June 15 and 16 for the last two concerts in this year’s Other Minds 24 program.

Blue Violet Duo: American Souvenirs


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Blue Violet Records



This release actually makes a nice companion to the just recently reviewed Rachel Barton-Pine album. Both feature the classic chamber music combo of violin and piano and both bring life to American music that has languished for want of skilled and interested performers.  Let’s consider this release to be another selection in celebration of Women’s History Month.  Of course the only women here are the performers.  Alas no women made it into the mix this time.  But this is, after all, only their first release.
The Blue Violet Duo is just what is needed here.  These young artists make their recording debut with this fine selection of mid-twentieth to early twenty first century American music for violin and piano.  Included here are less familiar names such as Norman Dello Joio, Paul Schoenfeld, William Bolcom, and John Adams (if you know any names here you know this last one).  All are highly accomplished composers who work in basically a tonal language incorporating elements of blues and jazz.  Kate Carter plays violin and Louise Chan handles the keyboard in this interesting selection of lesser known but really entertaining and substantive music.  
The earliest work is the Variations and Capriccio (1948) by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008). It sets the tone for this album of jazz influenced violin and piano music.  The two movements go through a variety of moods and demand a high level of virtuosity.
Next up is the wonderful Second Violin Sonata (1978) by William Bolcom (1938- ) who is known as much as a ragtime composer as well as classical.  His embrace of so called vernacular music is characteristic of much of his work. Carter and Chan appear to have a solid grasp of vernacular styles which they incorporate seamlessly as though they belonged (which, of course they do).John Adams (1947- ) is represented by his playful, Road Movies (1995). Adams’ take on pop and vernacular musical is somehow different and the listener will realize that one of the joys here is hearing the way in which these composers respond to their encounters with popular musics.  Adams also demands much of his musicians in terms of technical expertise but his music here always remains playful.
For the last selection Paul Schoenfeld (1947- ) was chosen and he is one that deserves more attention.  Like Adams he works as a classical composer who incorporates other styles into his work. Four Souvenirs (1990) makes a fitting finale to this collection.The real joy here is having such fine renditions of lesser known repertoire.  On hearing these pieces listeners will likely want to hear them again.  The hope is that these pieces will become more regularly performed.  The Blue Violet Duo has given this repertoire a boost in that direction.  Brava!