Contemporary Armenian Chamber Music


New Focus FCR 244

This welcome recording presents music by five contemporary Armenian composers: Artur Avanesov (1980- ), Ashot Zohrabyan (1945- ), Michel Petrossian (1973- ), Artashes Kartalyan (1961- ), and Ashot Kartalyan (1985- ). All of these are new names to this writer and, most likely, to the majority of listeners. That is what makes this disc such an exciting prospect. This post WW2 generation of composers are writing music from the perspective of their generations, one which is qualitatively different than that of previous generations but all owe a debt to the man who is arguably Armenia’s first truly modern composer, Tigran Mansurian (1939- ) whose brave integration of modern trends in western music distinguish him from previous generations of classical composers whose focus was either nationalistic (as Copland was to American music) or traditional religious music for the Armenian Orthodox Christian rites. Mansurian, in addition to embracing European modernism also returned to embrace the traditional religious compositions of Komitas. Spirituality is a frequent and revered aspect of Armenian classical music.

Tigran Mansurian in San Francisco at the Other Minds 20 concert in 2015

One must, of course, acknowledge the “elephant in the room” issue of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (only now in 2021 finally acknowledged by the United States) as a factor in some degree in the artistic output of this small nation. There are no obvious references as such in the compositions recorded here but the selection of texts which either inspire or are literally set to be sung are notably somber whether hat be the Latin title of the first work on the disc, Artur Avanesov’s “Quasi Harema Maris” taken from the Book of Job or the beautiful but lonely poetry of Vahan Tekayan set in Artashes Katalyan’s “Tekayan Triptych”. Horrors such as this affect generations after all.

Movses Pogossian performing the US premiere of Tigran Mansurian’s “Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) at the Other Minds Festival in 2015. The concert was in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

It was Maestro Movses Pogossian who kindly sent me a review copy of this album. He played a large role in the conceptualization and production of this album. He also plays violin on the first track. The Armenian born Pogossian, a world renowned violinist, is also the head of the Armenian Music Program at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also the artistic director of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series and artistic director of the VEM Ensemble, a group of graduate musicians in residence at UCLA. His involvement is yet another reason to get this disc. It is clearly a project close to his heart and one upon which he has invested a great deal of artistic energy.

This album was recorded in May, 2019 and released in 2020 where it ran up against the pandemic shutdowns which affected performing musicians and temporarily stifled this reviewer as well. So here is my very appreciative review perhaps a year later than intended.

There are 18 tracks containing pieces by five Armenian composers, all of whom took part in this production.

The first track contains a piece for piano quintet in one movement (Movses Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; Niall Ferguson, cello; and the composer Artur Avanesov at the piano). “Quasi Harena Maris” (2016) takes its Latin name from the Biblical Book of Job. The title in English reads, “Like the Sand of the Sea”. It is a metaphor spoken by Job as he compares his grief to the sand of the sea sinking in its heaviness. The piece is described by the composer as a set of variations. Microtonal gestures evoke a choir interacting in a sort of call and response strategy with the piano. This is a powerful piece sometimes meditative, sometimes declamatory, but always evoking pain and sadness such as that described by the Biblical Job. While embracing modernism in his compositional methods Avanesov embraces spirituality as well.

The second track contains another single movement work, Novelette (2010) by Ashot Zohrabyan. It is scored for piano quartet (Varty Manouelian, violin; Scott St. John, viola; Antonio Lysy, cello; and Artur Avanesov once again at the piano. This work seems to have much in common with the first in that it embraces modernist techniques with spiritual references to suggest longing and separation. It is another powerful expression which engages the listener with clever invention while evoking a post apocalyptic sadness.

Now we move from quintet through quartet and on to, of course, trio. This work, also in a single movement, is scored for piano trio (Varty Manouelian, violin; Charles Tyler, cello; and Artur Avanesov on piano. Michel Petrossian’s, “A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire” (2017), the title a contrasting of two different translations of the biblical event in which the Angel of God appears to Moses in a burning bush. The composer describes this piece as an investigation of identity (his own being variously of “Armenian by birth, Russian by education, and French by culture”). It is also an homage to Mr. Pogossian. More kinetic and varied than the previous two pieces, this tour de force nonetheless also knows pain.

Tracks 4-6 contain the “Tekeyan Triptych” by Artashes Kartalyan showcases the poetry of Vahan Tekeyan in an English translation by Vatsche Barsoumian. The UCLA VEM Ensemble (Danielle Segen, mezzo-soprano; Ji Eun Hwang and Aiko Richter, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; and Jason Pegis, cello). This is a beautifully lyric setting of some mighty somber poetry which is very much in keeping with the tone of this recording. The VEM Ensemble handles this lyricism with ease and professionalism.

We now move on to music for something other than strings and piano, namely the “Suite for Saxophone and Percussion” (2015) by Ashot Kartalyan. This five movement suite puts this writer in the mind of similar works by American composer Alan Hovhaness, the composer whose immersion in Armenian culture introduced many (this writer included) to the splendors of Armenian art music. This piece uses instrumental choices similar to Hovhaness and utilizes contrapuntal writing as well. but one cannot miss the jazz inflections doubtless gleaned from Kartalyan’s exposure to the work of his jazz musician father. This suite is also a more animated piece providing relief from the intense and somber music on the first half of the disc.

The final seven tracks are given to a selection from a series of works by the hard working pianist/composer who performed in the first three works on the disc. And it is here that we can solve the mystery of the title of the album as well. These brief works seem to be etudes, experimental compositional efforts which doubtless become material in some way for later works. The third piece presented here is titled “Modulation Necklace”. This selection comes from what the composers says are some seventy similar works under the title “Feux Follets” (frenzied flames in English). They are said to have no singe unifying aspect but it appears that these are an insight to some of the composer’s compositional methods. They provide a calm and curiously speculative little journey which leaves the listener wanting more.

This is a delightful disc made with serious scholarship and dedication which introduces audiences to the splendors of contemporary Armenian art music. One hopes that this well lead to more and larger works being recorded.

Unheard Hovhaness


KALAN 773

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.

First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.

I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.

That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.

Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.

Sahan Arzruni with composer Alan Hovhaness

There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.

The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.

Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.

Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.

The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.

Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.

Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.

Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.

The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.

Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.

The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.

This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.

This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.

The Bewitched in Berlin, Kenneth Gaburo does Harry Partch for your head (phones)


Neuma 126

As far as I can tell this is only the second recording of Harry Partch’s 1958 dance theater masterpiece. The recording that most folks know is likely the CRI release which used that awful simulated stereo (which is rather unpleasant heard on headphones). That recording (thankfully remastered in the original mono for New World Records) is of the 1958 premiere of this inventive and groundbreaking work originally released on the composer’s Gate 5 label.

Neumann KU100 microphone used to record binaural sound (Photo from Wikipedia)

This release of the 1980 (six years after the composer’s death) Berlin performance is here released for the first time on Neuma records under Philip Blackburn’s new tenure. Neuma’s tagline, “Food for the Mind’s Ear” is curiously reflected in the recording method used here. Binaural recording was pioneered in the late 1960s using two microphones facing away from each other inside a dummy head with anatomically accurate human inner and outer ears. The idea was to produce recordings which, when heard on headphones, simulated the experience of being present in the audience. Of course one can listen on conventional speakers but it is truly worth one’s time and money to get a good set of headphones to appreciate this amazing performance.

This is the second Neuma release which embraces Kenneth Gaburo’s legacy. The above recording (reviewed in an earlier blog post) is of a 1967 choral concert curated and conducted by Kenneth Gaburo at the University of Illinois at Champaign where, nearly ten years before that event, the premiere of Partch’s Bewitched was first imposed on a audience. It is Gaburo’s skills as a musical theater director that come into play in the 1980 Berlin production which features the Harry Partch Ensemble conducted by Danlee Mitchell, a long time Partch collaborator and performer.

The recording has a refreshingly superior sound to the 1958 mono premiere but the crucial significance of this release is of Kenneth Gaburo’s holistic theatrical vision which draws upon world music theater conventions such as Japanese Noh, Hindu Mahabharata performances, Gamelan accompanied Balinese Shadow Puppet theater, and the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow as well as ancient Greek theater. Gaburo rehearsed the musicians and dancers to channel Partch’s grand vision in this, the first of his three major dance/theater works (the others being Revelations in the Courthouse Park, 1960; and Delusion of the Fury, 1965-66). It is a masterpiece of American music.

back cover

The Harry Partch Ensemble in this recording consisted of Isabella Tercero (The Witch), Peter Hamlin (Adapted Koto), Phil Keeney (Spoils of War), Cris Forster (Marimba Eroica), Randy Hoffman (Cloud Chamber Bowls), Francis Thumm (Chromelodeon I), John Szanto (New Boo I), Dan Maureen (Bass Clarinet), Donna Caruso (Piccolo and Flute), Robert Paredes (Clarinet), David Dunn (Adapted Viola), Robin Gillette and Anna Mitchell (Kithara II), Ron Caruso (Diamond Marimba), Gary Irvine (Bass Marimba), David Savage and Paul William Simons (Harmonic Canon II), Ron Engel (Surrogate Kithara). Lou Blankenburg (choreographer/associate director) and Kenneth Gaburo (director). The Partch instruments are as much characters in this piece as the musicians and dancers.

The original recording done by RIAS (Radio In the American Sector) was restored and mastered by David Dunn. The booklet includes commentary from clarinetist Bob Paredes as well as Partch’s original scenario taken from the published score.

The Bewitched is a visionary politically progressive music/dance theatrical satire that parallels the work of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater and presages theatrical and musical trends that would later characterize the 1960s and beyond. This recording is a very significant historical document and a great sounding CD, an essential recording for fanciers of Partch’s work, and a performance that sets a standard for the future.

If you don’t already have a good pair of headphones get one and buy this CD. You won’t regret it.

Devonte Hynes’ Fields, Another Triumph for Third Coast Percussion and Cedille


fields1

Cedille CDR 90000 192

This recent release by Cedille Records (which turned 30 this year) is a fitting example of their vision as well as daring.  It is in some ways characteristic of Third Coast Percussion whose albums range widely in their creative explorations ranging from definitive performances of accepted masterpieces as well as of works written for them and/or co-created by them with their own compositional and improvisational skills.  Their Steve Reich disc, Perpetulum, and Book of Keyboards CDs have been reviewed here and can be seen to represent the range about which I speak.

The present disc is by an English musician, composer, and producer Devonte Hynes.  He is better known by his pseudonym Blood Orange under which he has released several albums whose style might be described as electronic dance music.  One might think it unusual that someone who works in a sort of “Pop” genre would have his work appear on a basically “classical” label.  And one would be wrong.  One need only think of David Byrne’s on The Knee Plays and his work written for string quartet or the incursions into modern classical by Brian Eno on albums like Music for Airports.

fields2

So here we have three works by Mr. Hynes played by one of Chicago’s finest musical exports, Third Coast Percussion.  The music was entirely written by Hynes on a digital work station, not on score paper (goodbye 20th Century) and transcribed (on to score paper) for the percussion quartet by the musicians.  One of the difficulties in writing for an instrument you don’t play is learning exactly how to write for a given instrument.  That is where the members of the percussion quartet add their expertise to this collaborative effort.  The results will likely surprise many listeners.  There are echoes (or homages) to Philip Glass and likely other such echoes as well.  The bottom line is that this music will not fail to engage.

Hynes’ style might be described as post minimal (as might a lot of dance music) with an eclectic spectrum.  The first work, For All Its Fury is a sequence of 11 distinct sections ranging from just over a minute to just over six minutes for a total of just over 35 minutes of music.  One hear the variety of musical ideas that comprise the composer’s style (s).  Rather than try to describe or identify these styles I will only say that the music is a journey which is designed to be experienced as a whole.  As such it is a very listenable and engaging piece.  It is followed by two single movement works titled respectively Perfectly Voiceless and There Was Nothing, each coming in at around 12 minutes.

While there are some clues to the meaning or intent of the music and titles the listener is basically left with the sound object to contemplate.  But wait, and this is perhaps one of my tired “memes” but the design and artwork of the album and accompanying booklet are themselves a joy to behold as visual objects (oh, for the 12 inch by 12 inch format).  Perhaps there are clues one might glean from this packaging as meanings underlying the sounds therein but I would be seriously remiss to fail to credit Sonnenzimmer, the collective output of artists Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi.  And the photographers Stephanie Bassos and Timothy Burkhart of People vs. Places, another collaborative.  These images are strikingly beautiful and they serve to augment this release in a way that can’t be done on radio or any of the streaming services.  What we have here is closer to an art object with sound.  Congrats to Cedille, Third Coast Percussion and Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Happy New Year to all!

Jason Vieaux with the Escher Quartet


 

vieauxdance

Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire.  I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.

The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).  The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references.  The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener.  It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.

The second work here also deserves more hearings.  Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly.  Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience.  It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name.  And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era.  Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work.  This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style.  The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known.  The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement.  In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).

The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber.  If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.

 

 

The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


isbinpacqr

Cedille CDR 9000 190

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Sharon Isbin (1956-) about this fine album.  She appeared to be in the midst of a queue of interviewers set up by her press corps but she came across as a confident, relaxed, and skilled interviewee and a gracious person with a palpable passion for music.  Listening to this latest release and having a more than passing interest in this fine musician it is a joy to see her getting recognition.

Originally from the Midwest, Isbin actually began her studies in Italy where her nuclear scientist father was working as a consultant.  Her studies in Varese, Italy began at age 9 with Aldo Minella.  She also counts among her teachers Andre Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Oscar Ghiglia among her many teachers.

Most curiously she spent time studying Bach with none other than pianist Rosalyn Tureck during the time she was working on her landmark recording of the Bach Lute Suites.  Isbin stated, “I don’t play piano and Tureck doesn’t play guitar but I wanted her insights into the preparation of this music.”  Apparently this collaborative scholarship resulted in the publication (by G. Schirmer) of two of these suites originally written for lute.

As an academic, Isbin is all about research, fact checking, and collaboration and this clearly pays off as listeners will be delighted to find.  But she is also the founder of the Guitar Department at the venerable Julliard School, a department which this year celebrates 30 years hosting students from 20 countries and, this year, establishing a DMA in guitar performance.  Her first graduate, Australian guitarist Alberta Khoury, is the first recipient of this degree.

Asked about being THE musician to start the guitar department at Julliard she related that Segovia had proposed the idea some years ago and was rejected but that she was actually asked to start the department.  An example, perhaps, of the student transcending the teacher.

Isbin plays a great deal of guitar music but, unlike many in her field, she has shown interest and devotion to music of our time as well.  In fact she estimates having at least 80 scores and arrangements either commissioned by her or dedicated to her.  It was with her recording “American Landscapes” featuring concerti commissioned from Lukas Foss, John Corigliano, and Tan Dun that first brought this artist to this reviewer’s attention.  She is the recipient of three Grammys (and this album may very well earn her a fourth).

Regarding the present release, Isbin spoke of the process of preparation involved with this music.  The Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago and this was the connection (Cedille is a Chicago based, Chicago friendly label) that allowed her collaboration to appear of this fine record label.

She also spoke of the serendipitous discovery of finding that the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, actually lived near her in New York.  They began discussions and Isbin was able to view and work directly with the manuscript of the Quintet which opens the disc.  Asked about the fact that this very quintet had been recorded about a year ago by Jason Vieaux, Isbin replied that it was pure coincidence but that this piece was considered by the composer to be his finest work of chamber music.

The Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born in Italy but was forced to flee the Nazis and was able, with the sponsorship of Jascha Heifetz (then a recently minted citizen himself), to come to the United States in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII.  In fact, his family suffered a similar indignity in 1492 when they were forced from their native Spain when the Alhambra Edict forced the expulsion of Jews from the country.  The composer’s curious hyphenated name, according to Isbin, resulted when a dying friend who had no progeny asked that the composer somehow incorporate his name.  This is both sweetly romantic and evocative of the sensitivities of the man himself.

The Guitar Quintet Op. 143 (1950) is a grand romantic and virtuosic work that deserves to be heard.  It is difficult to imagine an audience not being thrilled by this music.  It is cast in four movements like a classical work (allegro, andante, scherzo, finale).  From the beginning the listener is carried along by beautiful melodies and clever collaborations between the strings and the guitar.  Isbin related that superscriptions on the score saying, “Souvenir of Spain” gave the idea for the title of this album.

This is followed by one of the most recognizable guitar concertos, the Concerto in D Major for guitar and strings by Antonio Vivaldi written about 1730.  The original is written for lute and Isbin uses an edition for guitar by Emilio Pujol with gorgeous ornamentation consistent with late baroque practice added by the present performer.  This performance is with guitar, violin, viola, and cello (no second violin) but manages to make a big sound.  This work is a personal favorite and, unlike the other works on the album, extremely well known and loved by this reviewer.  My baseline favorite recording of this piece will probably always be Julian Bream’s performance on this RCA recording but Isbin’s scholarship provides a fascinating perspective on this work.  So basically I now have two favorite recordings.

Next up is the only piece on the album where the Pacifica Quartet plays without guitar.  Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) is more or less a contemporary of Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  Offered here is Oración del Torero Op. 34 (1925).  Curiously this work was written originally for four lutes or string quartet.  Only the quartet version seems to get much play though the lute version might be interesting as well.  This work, which translates into English as “Bullfighter’s Prayer” is essentially a miniature tone poem whose drama takes on almost cinematic dimensions in its just over 7 minutes.  The Pacifica Quartet does a potent job of delivering an engaging performance.  The Pacifica consists of Simin Ganatra, first violin; Austin Hartman, second violin; Mark Holloway, viola; and Brandon Vamos, cello.  They are based at Indiana University.

Last and certainly not least is another major Quintet by an Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).  His dates make him a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, though he was born in Italy, many of his productive years were spent in Spain where he enjoyed royal patronage.  He was a prolific composer who has experienced a significant interest in the 20th century.

He wrote no less than 9 Quintets for guitar and string quartet and this one, in D Major G. 448 dates from about 1798 and is the best known of his works for this combination.  It has the rather unusual attribute of having a percussionist (one Eduardo Leandro) improvise on castanets and tambourine in the last movement, fandango.

The work is cast in three movements (pastorale, allegro, grave assai-fandango) and will remind the listener of Haydn, Mozart, and/or early Beethoven.  The music is both familiar and very entertaining.  The castanets do not appear to be included in the original score and one can find recordings without them but they really rock that last movement.

This is another triumph for Ms. Isbin and a feather in the caps of the Pacifica Quartet.  It is sonically spectacular album as well having employed the producer/engineer team of Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone.  They achieve a lucid and warm sound field with an appropriately dry resonance that makes for an intimate listening experience which reveals the details the musicians coax from the score.  Get this one, you’ll play it often.

 

 

 

Philippe Manoury’s Book of Keyboards, Third Coast Percussion’s Masterful Rendition


3rdcoastbookofkey

Philippe Manoury (1952- ) is a French composer who worked at IRCAM and is professor emeritus at UCSD.  Knowing just these facts I must admit that I let this one languish a bit before giving it a good listen.  I was just not ready for some obtuse Boulez-oriented complexity.  But Manoury is nothing if not original and even if his music has complexities it does not fail to communicate very well to the listenter.  My apologies to Third Coast Percussion and the ever interesting New Focus recordings for the delay now that I’ve put my fears to rest and given the music a chance.

There are two works on this disc, Le livre des claviers, Six pieces for 6 percussionists (1987) and Métal for sixxens sextett (1995).  The first piece, which translates as, “Book of Keyboards” invites connotations of monolithic masterpieces such as Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Boulez’ Livre pour Quatuor, or any of a number of pieces with such aspirations that have the word “book/livre” in the title. The second piece is strikingly similar in sound to the first and is a fitting companion on the recording.

Indeed the 6 movement Livres is a monumental work but its aspirations are to produce a lovely and complex set of pieces for percussion sextet.  Third Coast handles this work, as they do with all they approach, with thought and virtuosity.  This is not a grandiose attempt to create a landmark of western music but rather to add to the oeuvre.  The same can be said for the later work which follows it.

While Manoury has worked with electronics and computers, none of that is in evidence here.  This is purely acoustic, just six virtuoso percussionists and the music is well crafted and shows off the composer’s inventiveness as well as giving these fine young musicians something to show off their considerable skills.  It is absolute music (ie music for the sake of music) and if there are metaphorical aspects they are not immediately evident.

Doubtless there are complexities here, most of which lay beyond the ken of the average listener (your humble reviewer included) but the joys of the sounds and the lucidity of the writing make for an enjoyable experience.  It’s not the minimalism of Philip Glass, nor the complexities of Boulez, nor the dissonances of Xenakis.  This is intelligent, approachable chamber music that will speak to the listener who allows it to unfold.

The first piece has six movements which are named simply for the instruments called for in the score:

  1. 6 Thai Gongs and 2 Marimbas
  2. Marimba Duo
  3. Sixxen
  4. Vibraphone solo
  5. 6 Thai Gongs and 2 Marimbas
  6. Sixxen

As you can see, not all six percussionists are kept equally busy throughout.  Each movement seems to have its own character and probably a great deal of  complexity which will entertain and perhaps frustrate musicologists.  All in all a very entertaining work.

The second work coming in at just over 22 minutes is cast in a single movement and has a more pensive quality.  It does require attention and, like all good music, reveals more on repeated listens.

The recording is, as always with New Focus, lucid and complementary.  This recording also serves to demonstrate the incredible range of this rapidly rising star in the percussion players universe.

Be not afraid, this is great stuff.

Thomas Kozumplik’s Percussion Symphony, “Child of the Earth”


This is a big work written expressly for these musicians and commissioned by conductor Jonathan Haas. It is titled percussion “symphony” which suggests a grand undertaking. It is the only work on the disc.

The composer, Tomas Kozumplik is an American composer unfamiliar to this writer and most likely to most listeners. Kozumplik is a percussionist and composer based in Brooklyn.  He is perhaps best known as a film composer but his interests and his collaborations reveal him to be embracing a wide variety of musical interests.His website is definitely worth your time as it describes this artist’s range.

This work is neither noisy modernism nor “lite classical”. It is almost neo-romantic at times as it lives up to the grand promise of its title. It is a great example of how to write for percussion. Indeed the genesis of this work lies partly in the collaborative. Kozumplik worked closely with the musicians to mold this work into its final form. Multiple listens reveal more of the structure and unity of this work.  It is not, strictly speaking, difficult music but it is also not simple either.

Indeed, as the titles suggest this piece has a sort of external program, “Child of the Earth” and the subtitle, “Un nino busca a Dios” (which my limited Spanish means, “A child looks to God”) are referred to in greater detail in each track. It’s not clear how these ideas are integrated musically it does couch this work in a sociopolitical genre. The music certainly works well by itself but astute listeners will want to be aware of the meaning these ideas have had for the composer’s and, doubtless, the performers whose intimate investment here is ultimately the joy in this release.

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


perpetulum

Orange Mountain Music OMM 0132

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.

bryarsOM

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.