Elegant Affable Virtuosity, Hanzhi Wang at the Music Academy of the West


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Hanzhi Wang with her Pigini concert accordion (publicity photo from the internet)

On the first day of February, on a sunny day in Santa Barbara, rising star Hanzhi Wang presented a solo recital in Hahn Hall at the matinee hour of 4PM.  Despite the beautiful weather a substantial crowd gathered for this event which was part of the always notable UCSB Arts and Lectures series.

This young performer only recently came to this writer’s musical radar a few months ago.  Subsequent research revealed her to be a marvelously accomplished musician.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the China Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and her Master’s degree at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen as a student of Geir Draugsvoll.  First Prize Winner of the 2017 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Ms. Wang’s debut opened the Young Concert Artists Series in New York in The Peter Marino Concert at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and her Washington, DC debut opened the 40th Anniversary Young Concert Artists Series at the Kennedy Center.

Her interesting and rather eclectic program was artfully designed to showcase her strengths.  One of those strengths is certainly her ability to communicate with her audience both is her brief but lovely introductions to her performances using a microphone kept near her seat as well as in her radiant persona which communicates a humility and pleasant affability.  Of course the most important communication to be heard on this afternoon would be the musical.

She began with a couple of Bach pieces which, like most of his keyboard music, can be done equally well on harpsichord, piano, and now, accordion.  It is here that she showed her virtuosity and interpretive skills which reflected an obvious affection for the material.  Though scheduled to perform the famous Chaconne she chose instead to present these shorter, entertaining pieces.

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Her Pigini concert accordion echoed the pleats in the skirt of her tasteful outfit well suited to a recitalist performing these essential works of the western musical canon.  She followed these with three keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)(K. 9, 159, and 146).  This writer first encountered these little gems (the composer wrote over 500 of them) in the landmark recording Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos in the 1970s and they are a delight on any concert program (though not programmed often enough).  She handled these challengingly virtuosic works with seeming ease expertly adding dynamics to define these works to create a wonderfully entertaining concert experience.

Wang followed these with three pieces by another late baroque master, French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).  “L’ Egiptienne”, “La Livri”, and “Le Rappel des oiseau”.  Her obvious affection for these works have subsequently sent this listener to seek out more of Rameau’s works.  These works on the first half of the program were all characterized by her lovely playing, making a strong case for the role of this nineteenth century folk instrument’s role in the playing of classical music.

After a brief intermission Ms. Wang offered a twentieth century work by the late, great Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  Though not originally for the accordion the composer did utilize this instrument in some of his works.  Russian composers at least since Tchaikovsky have utilized the accordion to stunning effect.  And this performance was another demonstration of this young musician’s easy virtuosity and insight offering up these brief pieces inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s novel, “Dead Souls”.  The music is filled with both humor and passion with echoes of the dead souls (in Schnittke’s trademark “polytsylism”) of prior Russian composers.

The soloist’s clear understanding of the modern idiom was made very clear and one need only look to Wang’s website to see that her repertory ranges across 400 years of the western musical canon.  One wonders if there is anything she can’t play well.

Her last scheduled pieces came from the late nineteenth century by a composer which Wang humorously noted eschewed the accordion, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).  The Norwegian nationalist’s famed Holberg Suite (originally for string orchestra) sounded pleasantly familiar on Wang’s instrument.

After an enthusiastic standing ovation Ms. Wang presented three more pieces, two by the late Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and a piece by German composer and piano virtuoso, Moritz Moszkovsky (1854-1925).  These were like gifts to the audience which further demonstrated her facility with the tango inflected Piazzola and the playful, though difficult, pianism of Moszkowski.

This young woman is indeed a rising star who belongs on your radar.

 

Tantalizing Debut of Margaret Batjer in Four Violin and Orchestra Works


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BIS 2309 SACD

This is a helluva introduction to the wide ranging talents of violinist Margaret Batjer, currently the concert master of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.  OMG, why doesn’t this woman have her own web page?  Well this BIS recording is a sort of, “here’s what I can do across 300+ year of repertoire”.  BIS is a Swedish based record label with a well earned reputation both for quality sound recording as well as intelligent choice of repertoire.  This recording succeeds on both counts.

Batjer opens with a new work by American composer Pierre Jalbert (1967- ) whose star is rising steadily on the reputation of his intense and engaging music.  This is the longest work on the disc and perhaps the most challenging technically.  It is a marvelous violin concerto of a modern but quite accessible composer. Jalbert’s fantastic Piano Quintet was reviewed here.

She follows this with a classic of the western canon, Bach’s A minor concerto, then an arrangement for violin and string orchestra with percussion of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” (it exists in an arrangement for nearly any ensemble one could imagine), a classic of so called “holy minimalism”.

And she concludes her program with a longer piece (his second violin concerto) by another holy minimalist, Peteris Vasks (1946- ), a composer who also needs a web page.  His Lonely Angel (2006) was written for Gidon Kremer and follows in the tradition of meditative consonance that characterizes the holy minimalist genre.

She plays with her familiar colleagues in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under conductor Jeffrey Kahane in an arrestingly beautiful recording of music spanning nearly 300 years.  The combination of technical skills and interpretive skills (by orchestra and soloist) along with a wonderful sound recording make this a welcome debut for this soloist and leaves this writer wanting to hear more from her and this wonderful little orchestra.

The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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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.

 

 

 

Channeling Casals’ Bach: Amit Peled


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It was in 1936 that the famed Catalan cellist and composer Pablo Casals performed and recorded the now familiar Bach Cello Suites.  Long thought to be intellectual and technical exercises not intended for public performance these works languished for nearly 200 years on manuscript alone.  Casals pretty much single handedly has made these masterworks a staple of the cellists repertory.  Since Casals there have been numerous readings of these works and no sign of any flagging interest.

It is difficult to imagine any really new perspectives on these works and, aside from Kim Kashkashian’s wonderful transcriptions for viola, one gets basically the musician’s take on the music.  So here comes the Israeli cellist Amit Peled who, since 2004 has had the honor (and attendant responsibilities) of playing Casals’ own cello, a 1730 Gofriller personally loaned to him by Casals’ widow.  So in this first volume (second one not out yet as far as I can tell) is the first time Bach’s masterful Cello Suites have been sung by this instrument since it was in Casals’ hands.

What we have here is a sensitive and committed performance that many will want to hear perhaps as “channeling Casals” but ultimately we have a gorgeous performance by a fine musician channeling his own talents and sensitivities to produce a quite viable performance (are those gut strings I hear?).  Perhaps there are nostalgic aspects here as well but whatever your preference, be it channeling, nostalgia, or simply a great performance of these masterpieces you will find all these here.  Can’t wait for volume II.

World Premieres and a Resurrection: Partch Vol. 3 on Bridge Records


Bridge Records is one of those labels whose every release is worth one’s attention. Their series of music of Elliott Carter, George Crumb, et al are definitive. And while this listener has yet to hear the first two volumes of the Harry Partch series this third volume suggests that Bridge continues to maintain a high standard as they do in all the releases that I’ve heard.

Harry Partch (1901-1974), like Philip Glass and Steve Reich would later do, formed his own group of musicians to perform his works. For Glass and Reich they could not find performers who understood and wanted to play their music. For Partch this issue was further complicated by the fact that he needed specially built instruments which musicians had to learn to play to perform the very notes he asked of them.  And keep in mind that Partch managed to do a significant portion of his work during the depression.  He is as important to the history of tonality as Bach, Wagner, and Schoenberg.

I will confess a long term fascination with Partch’s music.  Ever since hearing a snippet of Castor and Pollux on that little 7 inch vinyl sampler that came packaged with my prized copy of Switched on Bach I was hooked.  That little sampler also pointed this (then 13 year old) listener to Berio’s Sinfonia, Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.  And so it continues.  But it is not just nostalgia that recommends this disc, it is the definitive nature of the scholarship, the intelligence of the production, and the quality of both performances and recordings that make this an essential part of any serious collector of Partch, microtonal music, musicology, and good recordings in general.

With the aforementioned interest/fascination I reached a point where I had pretty much collected and listened to all I could find of Partch’s music.  Certainly everything of his had been recorded, right?  Well ain’t this a welcome kick in an old collector’s slats?  Not only have the folks at Bridge (read John Schneider) found and recorded a heretofore practically known composition but they’ve done it with a brand of reverence, scholarship, and quality of both recording and performances such that this is a collector’s dream and a major contribution to the history of microtonal musics and American music in general.

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John Schneider from a You Tube screen capture

Let me start with the liner notes by producer John Schneider.  As one who is given to complain about the lack of liner notes I am so pleased to encounter such as these.  They alone are worth the price of the CD and read at times like the adventure they describe, to wit, this recording.  The tasteful and well designed (by one Casey Siu) booklet provides an intelligent guide to the music which enhances the listening experience.  Schneider’s web site also provides a wealth of information and references for further research.  Many would think that these liner notes are comprehensive as they are and there should be no need for anything more…so the link provided to even more info on the web site of the performing group on this disc, PARTCH.   These folks are Grammy winners and they perform on scholarly copies of the original Partch instruments executed by Schneider and his associates.  This release is solidly built from the ground up.

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PARTCH performing at RedCat copyright Redcat

PARTCH includes: Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Cymbal, Bass), Alison Bjorkedal (Canons, Kitharas), Matt Cook (Canon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Spoils of War), Vicki Ray (Canons, Chromelodeon, Surrogate Kithara), John Schneider (Adapted Guitars, Bowls, Canons, Spoils, Surrogate Kithara, Adapted Viols, Voice), Nick Terry (Boo, Hypobass), T.J. Troy (Adapted Guitar II, Bass Marimba, Voice), Alex Wand (Adapted Guitar III, Canons, Surrogate Kithara)

The 21 tracks contain five Partch compositions.  It opens with one of Partch’s more unusual pieces (for him), Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962).  This piece was written for Chet Baker but Baker never got to play it.  It kind of sits a bit outside of Partch’s work and is his most direct use of the medium of “jazz”.  The piece has been recorded twice before.  For this recording two fine new music/jazz musicians were chosen, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and trumpet player extraordinaire Daniel Rosenboom.  Excellent choices for this too little performed piece.

Tracks 2-13 contain the Twelve Intrusions (1950) which is basically an accompanied song cycle with instrumental pieces placed at the beginning.  These are great vintage Partch works but do read the liner notes on the evolution of Partch as he was writing these.  They describe some of Partch’s evolution during that time.

Next is another discovery (or restoration if you will).  Partch’s scores exist in various versions for various reasons.  Windsong (1958) was written as a film score for the Madeline Tourtelot film of that name.  It was later reworked into a dance drama (Daphne of the Dunes, 1967).  Here we have a live performance of the entire score which (read them notes) includes things not heard before, not to mention the most lucid sound of this recording.

Now to the putative star of this release, the Sonata Dementia (1950).  It too comes with some nice detective work allowing listeners to hear substantially what Partch intended but neither recorded nor rejected.  There are three movements and let me just say that they are captivating and substantial.  This deserves to be heard again and again.

Now two little bonus tracks (reminiscent in nature but not in content of the sampler I mentioned earlier) add significantly to Partch and his place in music history.  First is a Edison cylinder recording from 1904 of a traditional Isleta Indian chant which Partch, who had been hired to transcribe these songs, later incorporated into his music.  It’s early date and the nature of that old recording method provide a picture of early ethnomusicological work.

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Photo of Partch with adapted guitar found on web

The second bonus is a real gem.  Again, read the liner notes for more fascinating details.This is an important find, an acetate recording made of Partch performing his Barstow (1941) for an appreciative audience at the Eastman School of Music from November 3, 1942.  This early version (of at least three) for adapted guitar and voice was reconstructed by John Schneider and released on the Just West Coast album of 1993 (Bridge BCD 9041) and later performed so beautifully at Other Minds 14 in 2009.  But I believe that Schneider’s reconstruction predated the discovery of this recording.  Pretty validating to hear this now I would think.

It is this reviewer’s fondest hope that this wonderful Partch project will continue with its definitive survey of Partch’s work.  Bravo!!

 

 

 

Other Minds 24, Concert Three, Reviving the Music of a Forgotten Master


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Photo: Ebbe Yovino-Smith

The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series.  Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex.  The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.

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But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event).  When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step.  When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”

If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music.  A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key.  Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought.  1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.

Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris.  It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work.  This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.

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Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.

While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music.  That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive.  One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.

The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs.  You can download a PDF file of the program here.  It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.

One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers.  Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music.  Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann.  His extensive information on the subject can be found here.

The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos.  It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals.  The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett.  This was a US premiere.

Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days).  This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.

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Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.

Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere).  The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”.  It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers.  What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive.  Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.

Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works.  She would appear in the second half of the program.

If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique.  Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning.  So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.

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Shot of the two piano stage set up.  Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.

It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket.  As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo.  The link to their work in that area can provide more information,

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Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo

They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives.  It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.

Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.

Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn.  As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus.  This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.

The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963).  This time they performed without a conductor.  Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically.  This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently.  And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.

Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38:  Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959).  Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance.  The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present.  What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.

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The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two.  Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion.  This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight.  It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony.  The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.

This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”.  Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.

Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it.  With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement.  This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.

On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer.  The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Bach Art of Fugue


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New Focus Recordings FCR 181

One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance.  Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.

There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra.  It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few.  In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice.  Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.

Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript.  In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity.  Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision.  They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon.  As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.

Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer.  However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art.  Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way.  This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.

Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music.  The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate.  Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work.  And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era.  Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.

Reiko Füting: names Erased


names erased

Reiko Füting (1970- ) is the chair of the music department at the Manhattan School of music.  The present album is actually my introduction to this man and his work.  It consists of a series of 15 works written between 2000 and 2014.

These works tend to emphasize brevity especially the solo vocal pieces (tracks 2, 4, 6, 8,  and 10).  These, originally for baritone and piano are here rendered very effectively as solo vocal pieces.  They are used as a sort of punctuation in this recording of mostly brief pieces which remind this listener of Webern at times.  They are in fact the movements of a collection called, “…gesammeltes Schweigen”  (2004/2011, translated as Collected Silence).  It is worth the trouble to listen to these in order as a complete set.

The first track here is also the longest piece on the album at 15:43.  Kaddish: The Art of Losing (2014) for cello and piano is an elegiac piece inspired by several people and seems to be about both loss and remembrance.  The writing in this powerful and affecting piece is of an almost symphonic quality in which both instruments are completely interdependent as they share notes and phrases.  The cello is called upon to use a variety of extended techniques and the piano part is so fully integrated as to make this seem like a single instrument rather than solo with accompaniment.  It has a nostalgic quality and is a stunning start to this collection of highly original compositions.

tanz, tanz (dance, dance) (2010) is a sort of Bachian exegesis of the Chaconne from the D minor violin partita.  This sort of homage is not uncommon especially in the 20th/21st century and this is a fascinating example of this genre.  The writing is similar to what was heard in the cello writing in the first track.  This piece is challenging and highly demanding of the performer.  It is a delicate though complex piece but those complexities do not make for difficult listening.

leaving without/palimpsest (2006) for clarinet and piano begins with a piano introduction after which the clarinet enters in almost pointillistic fashion as it becomes integrated to the structure initiated by the piano.  Again the composer is fond of delicate sounds and a very close relationship between the musicians.

names erased (Prelude, 2012) is for solo cello and is, similar to the solo violin piece “tanz, tanz”, a Bach homage.  The performer executes the composer’s signature delicate textures which utilize quotes from various sources including the composer himself.  And again the complexities and extended techniques challenge the performer far more than the listener in this lovely piece.

Track 9 contains two pieces: “ist-Mensch-geworden” (was-made-man, 2014) for flute and piano and “land-haus-berg” (land-house-mountain, 2008) for piano.  Both pieces involve quotation from other music in this composer’s compact and unique style. Here he includes references to Morton Feldman, J.S. Bach, Alban Berg, Gyorgy Ligeti, Schumann, Debussy, Nils Vigeland, Beat Furrer, Jo Kondo and Tristan Murail.

light, asleep (2002/2010) for violin and piano apparently began its life as a piece based on quotation but, as the liner notes say, lost those actual quotes in the process of revision.

finden-suchen (to find-to search, 2003/2011) for alto flute, cello and piano is a lyrical piece with the same interdependent writing that seems to be characteristic of this composer’s style.

…und ich bin Dein Spiegel (…and I am Your Reflection, 2000/2012) is a setting of fragments by a medieval mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg for mezzo soprano and string quartet.  This is deeply introspective music.

All of Fùting’s compositions have a very personal quality with deeply embedded references.  His aesthetic seems to be derived from his roots in the German Democratic Republic having been born into that unique nation state both separate from the West German state and still deeply connected to it.  He is of a generation distant from the historical events that gave birth to that artificially separate German nation but, no doubt, affected by its atmosphere.

The musicians on this recording include David Broome, piano; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Nani Füting (the composer’s wife), mezzo soprano; Luna Cholong Kang, flutes; Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinet; John Popham, cello; Yegor Shevtsov, piano; Jing Yang, piano; and the Mivos Quartet.  All are dedicated and thoughtful performances executed effortlessly.

The recording is the composer’s production engineered by Ryan Streber.  This is a very original set of compositions which benefit from multiple hearings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classical Protest Music: Frederic Rzewski- The People United Will Never Be Defeated


In an earlier post (Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries, posted on March 20, 2013) I discussed a project in which I would identify what I have deemed significant works in this genre.  I have decided to narrow the topic to those works which are inspired by or are intended to express dissatisfaction with given sociopolitical issues.  This will then leave out works which are friendly to the political situation such as Aaron Copland‘s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. These are both great pieces of music but their presentation is more celebratory than critical.

Dag in de Branding 11 - Frederic Rzewski

Dag in de Branding 11 – Frederic Rzewski (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

So without further discussion (a proposed taxonomy of classical political music will be discussed in a future blog post) I wish to present another blog in that series.  The work up for discussion is the large set of piano variations composed in 1976 for the pianist Ursula Oppens.  Rzewski is well known for his virtuosity and for his support of and definitive performances of new music.  He is also known for quite a bit of music with political themes.  Some of those other works  will likely be the subjects of future posts in this series.

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rzewski took as his starting point a popular song by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), a Chilean composer and pianist.  He wrote the song in 1973 with lyrics written by members of the musical group Quilapayún who subsequently recorded it.  Quilapayún recorded no less than 26 studio albums from 1966-2009 along with several live albums.  They are a part of the Nueva Canción Chilena which sought political change through new songs defining those changes.  The Nueva Canción movement became a subset of Latin American and Iberian folk-inspired protest music which saw groups form worldwide producing songs which became part of the soundtrack of political protests in those various countries.

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo ...

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo Inti-Illimani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the 1973 coup which deposed and likely assassinated Salvador Allende the song was popularized also by another Chilean group, Inti-Illimani.  Both groups along with many political dissidents sought and found asylum in other countries.  Inti-Illimani found refuge in Italy, Ortega and Quilapayún settled in France.

This major opus was written on commission for Ursula Oppens who asked for a companion to the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, certainly a tall order.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 no doubt inspired at least in part by the 1973 coup which deposed Salvador Allende and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet.  The piece consists of 36 variations grouped in 6 sets of 6 variations each.  In a nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations the final variation is a restatement of the theme.  In addition to the main theme there are quotations from an Italian socialist song, “Bandiera Rossa” and “Solidarity Song” with words by Bertold Brecht and music by Rzewski’s former teacher, Hanns Eisler.

Oppens premiered the piece on February 7, 1976 at the Bicentennial Piano Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington, D.C.  She made a grammy nominated recording of the work in 1979 and the piece has enjoyed numerous subsequent performances and recordings.

The piece is structured symmetrically in six sets of six variations each.  It also allows for a bit of improvisation.  But this is an eminently listeninable piece which seems rightfully to be gaining its place in the repertoire.  This is evidenced most recently in Sony’s decision to include this set of variations along with those of Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) in a boxed set which I reviewed here.

Rzewski himself has recorded the piece four times (1977, 1990, 1999 and 2007).  The last recording is a video of the performance. Having seen Rzewski perform this piece live in 1989 I can tell you that his performance is a pleasure to behold.

Several other pianists have released recordings (not counting several good ones on You Tube) including Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Drury, Kai Schumacher,  I look forward to other recordings hoping to hear interpretations from Sarah Cahill, Bruce Brubaker, Lisa Moore, R. Andrew Lee and Nicolas Horvath to name a few.

Whether this work had any impact on the atrocities of the repressive Pinochet regime is certainly doubtful but the fact that this piece has essentially entered the repertoire for virtuoso pianists and stands as a monumental achievement in the variation form will pretty much guarantee that the atrocities and their perpetrators will be recalled and hopefully reviled at each and every performance.

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Next Gen Steve Reich: Two Great New Recordings


One of the hurdles on the way to long-term historical recognition is finding the next generation of interpreters for whom the music itself is not new but whose interpretation is needed anew in light of the music’s place in the canon of performed and recorded music. So Mr. Reich has now arrived in two fantastic new recordings.


The first CD here is the Cedille (Cedille 90000 161) label debut by Third Coast Percussion, a young Chicago based group.  The label itself is reason enough to pay attention with their intelligently selected and well-recorded releases.  But even so this one stands out for a couple of reasons.

As  Reich reaches his 80th birthday (as are many composers whose work informed my listening life since the 70s) we are seeing the next generation (or so)  of performers, musicians for whom this music is not new.  (Third Coast Percussion is Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore. They were founded in Chicago in 2005.). As these dedicated musicians traverse this repertoire they see it from a different perspective and they acknowledge this in the accompanying notes by Robert Dillon.  No doubt they are familiar with the music and have heard some if not all previous recordings. This music is no longer new and novel the way it was to those who first heard it.  And that is what we have here, a new take on music already familiar giving us the perspective of another generation.

The second reason to get this recording is the sheer beauty of the sound.  It is a masterpiece of recorded sound which does justice to the work of these fine musicians as well as the music.  The album was recorded at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (where Third Coast is in residency).  Dan Nichols was the engineer assisted by Matt Ponio.  It was mastered by Jessie Lewis and Kyle Pyke.
The CD opens with the recent Mallett Quartet (2009) which has been recorded only once before.  The piece is in three sections fast-slow-fast split over the first three tracks.  It is one of Reich’s finest compositions showing him as a still vital artist and it will no doubt receive many more performances but it would be hard to imagine a better recording.

The second selection is, for this writer, one of Reich’s more unusual pieces.  The Sextet (1984) is scored for two keyboards (pianos doubling synthesizers used for long held tones) and percussion.  David Friend and Oliver Hagen lend their formidable keyboard skills to this work and help it to swing.

I must admit that this performance has resulted in me giving this work some serious close listening again and I am liking it better.  Some of these movements seem like precursors to some of the writing in Reich’s wonderful The Four Sections (1987), another work that deserves more attention.

The brief but lovely Nagoya Marimbas (1994) is pretty much an accepted staple of the classical marimba repertoire and has also been transcribed and performed on guitars as well.  As with the preceding the performance is faithful and lively.

For the final track a decision was made to go back to early in Reich’s output with Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).  As with much of his early work we see his experimental side focusing as much as possible on a single process.  It uses the same rhythmic pattern as the 1972 Clapping Music but uses additive rather than phasing techniques (I believe), a great example of the roots of minimalism.  The group does some toying with the choice of percussion but, as in the preceding tracks, manage to create a performance worthy of the best interpreters in their generation.  Happy Birthday Mr. Reich!!


This second CD (New Focus fcr 165) is another aspect of crafting a legitimate new interpretation of a given piece of music.  Guitarist Daniel Lippel goes back to some of the roots of Reich’s mature style, Ghanaian drumming.  Reich seems to have achieved his personal artistic synthesis after his encounter and study with the master drummers of Ghana.  It is here that he was finally able to synthesize the gifts received from his study of jazz (Reich was/is a jazz drummer) and his tape music experiments into the larger forms for which he is now known through these studies with West African musicians.  And it is here that Lippel goes, with an assist from musicologist Martin Scherzinger, to create his (re)vision of this classic Reich composition.

Electric Counterpoint (1987) was written for and first recorded by the still wonderful jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.  His recording is certainly definitive but, as with all music performance, hardly the last word.  Several artists have presented their versions (David Tanenbaum’s acoustic guitar version deserves more attention by the way).  It is a very appealing and interesting piece cast in a classic fast-slow-fast format that presents formidable challenges for the musician but not for the listener.

It is difficult (and certainly beyond the scope of this review) to say specifically what Mr. Lippel has done differently but there is clearly a difference (further notes can be found here).  I am loathe to find adjectives to describe this recording except to say that it is well worth your time to hear it.  It provides a different way of hearing much as Glenn Gould has done for Bach.  Just sit back and enjoy.

The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski


 

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Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection.  To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.

Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one  of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes.  A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance.  The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.

So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia.  The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request.  The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.

It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public.  The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.

Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten.  Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.

Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety.  Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists.  It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.

In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations.  Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976.  Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven.  He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.

Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende.  Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.

There are  36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times.  Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.

This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th.  Bravo, Sony!

The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.

I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps.  His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire.  What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances.  There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.

In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general.  Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent  their composers as well as any I’ve heard.