Achim Freyer meets Don Giovanni at Checkpoint Charlie: Alvin Curran’s Tribute


Achim Freyer (Photo from German Wikipedia)

Who? and Who? American composer Alvin Curran (1938- ) returns to his roots…well, some of his roots, in this streaming composition, a tribute to German dramaturge Achim Freyer (1934- ). Curran’s composition, a tribute to the dramatist/costume designer/stage director, is presented in streaming format via Deutschlandradio. and is available at the following link:

Streaming link: https://www.hoerspielundfeature.de/klangkunst-achim-freyer-trifft-100.html

I mention the link to allow my readers to access the program stream so as to be able to hear the work (obviously) but also because Maestro Curran has been at the forefront of adopting social media as both a medium for access and distribution for his compositions but also as a part of the the work (at least in the Mc Luhan-esque sense, “the medium is the message”). More details on Curran’s work can be found on his excellent website.

His Kristallnacht memorial work, “Crystal Psalms”, used multiple radio stations with performers in each location throughout northern Europe which Curran mixed live for the broadcast, the final mix released on CD format is a classic of the genre and a powerful sociopolitical statement. The point is that Curran continues to be at the forefront of integrating current technology in his art. His distinctly personal use of synthesizers, sampling keyboards, and other electronics continues to characterize his creative process.

Alvin Curran in San Francisco in 2016

Achim Freyer became known to me when I saw Michael Blackwood‘s film, “A Composer’s Notes…” (1985) which documented two simultaneous staging of Philip Glass’ opera “Akhnaten” by the geographically distant opera companies who co-commissioned the work. The Houston Opera production was designed by David Freeman, and the Stuttgart production by Achim Freyer. Freeman cast the work in a realistic historical tableau in ancient Egypt whereas Freyer’s designs evoked a sort of hallucinatory, dreamlike, mythical set of images. Both are beautiful and quite viable productions but they are very different visions. It is that very different vision that characterizes Freyer’s work and gets him the accolades that drive the commissioning of Curran’s tribute. This musical tribute now is added to the metaphorical mantle where Freyer’s accolades reside. You can also download an audio MP3 here.

When you listen to the streaming version or the conveniently downloadable MP3 you will be greeted by about 5 minutes of German language narration followed by approximately 35 minutes of Curran’s sound collage work incorporating the composer’s unique approach to the inclusion of digital sampling technologies along with his extensive knowledge of electronic sound production and manipulation.

Like any great work of art this work will have varying impacts and leave a variety of impressions. Beginning with the playful title it is doubtless full of referential quotes that probably rival Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” (1899) or the panoply of quotations in Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968-9). Don’t get me wrong, this streamed work is very different than either of these predecessors. Rather it appears to be a sonic portrait using concrete sounds alongside musical sounds to create an impressionistic tableau of Herr Freyer. The composition is reflective of Curran’s “New Common Practice” concept in which the composer is free to use whatever sounds and techniques he or she chooses to complete a musical piece.

Even a cursory look at Alvin Curran’s oeuvre reveals the incredible diversity of his compositional sound sources. From conversations, to creaking doors, footsteps, musical snippets, and the sound of the ethnic/mythic shofar (the ram’s horn has become a signature sound for the composer). They are all mixed carefully (this sounds like a carefully crafted collage) to create a non-linear narrative or sonic poem in tribute to an artist and a mutually beneficial friendship between Curran and Freyer. Please forgive my admittedly clumsy appropriation of Friedrich Schiller (in turn via Beethoven) when I say, in my limited German, a phrase which can be said to characterize both the composer’s work and that of its subject Achim Freyer: The final embrace, the feeling at the end of Beethoven’s 9th symphony as the chorus sings: “Diese Kunst umfasst die ganze Welt” (This Art embraces the entire World).

Everything You Wanted to Know About Javanese Gamelan But Were Afraid to Ask: John Pitts’ “Extreme Heterophony”


This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.

Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.

The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.

For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.

In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.

What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.

As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.

Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.

Dmitri Klebanov: Music from Exile


Chandos CHAN 20231

A wonderful trend was begun by London/Decca in the early 1990s with the release of their “Entartete Musik” series. It featured music by composers whose work had been suppressed by the dictates of the Nazi regime. It brought to light a great deal of wonderful music by mostly but not entirely Jewish composers many of whom died in concentration camps or were forced to live in exile. These recordings sparked a trend which continues today and this time the Chandos label hosts the efforts of the Toronto based ARC Ensemble whose scholarship and performance skills bring this, the fifth album in this important series. It is saddening to see the sheer volume of these oppressed works evidenced by the seemingly endless flow of new releases in this genre but there is some joy to be had in the fact that this music is slowly getting performances and recognition.

Previous releases featured premiere recordings by Jerzy Fitelberg, Szymon Laks, Walter Kaufmann, and Paul Ben-Haim. Haven’t heard these names? Well, maybe you’ve heard of Paul Ben-Haim, the Jewish/German composer who changed his name (Paul Frankenberger) when he emigrated to Palestine in 1933. The importance of projects like this one is to bring to light the art of composers lost to history and unknown in concert halls due to political oppression and/or outright murder.

This release features music by Jewish/Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1987), a composer whose work displeased the Stalinist regime. He wasn’t put in a concentration camp, he wasn’t killed, he wasn’t even sent into exile in the Gulag. Rather he was forced into a sort of intellectual exile in which he produced music which pleased the regime. But he had been cast as a sort of “whipping boy” by the regime and used as an example in the hopes of preventing others from straying to more liberal and outspoken paths such as those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.Fortunately he outlived Stalin and was able to return to his own personal style of composition. It is this music which is presented here.

The three works from 1946, 1958, and 1965 respectively seem to have been chosen to reflect three fairly distinct eras in Klebanov’s artistic development. Whether these are ultimately representative of those chosen eras seems beside the point which is, I believe, to present a representative sampling of his work to give listeners a taste of his work and to help guide interesting performers and record companies to decide what to record next.

These works will serve to represent this neglected composer for now. There do exist some recordings of this music but these are mostly on small labels and very difficult to find. The hope for this recording and for a project like this is to provide good recordings with authoritative performances which may inspire musicians to explore the remainder of the composer’s work and, hopefully, bring these gems to audiences.

The disc begins with the nearly classical sounding fourth quartet from 1946. Cast in the classical four movements it’s difficult, in 2021, to imagine how this very accessible music could offend Soviet leaders but that is another issue entirely. All music ultimately exists within a variety of contexts but it is only possible to hear this music as it is today, listening with ears that did not exist at the time the music was written. Suffice it to say that this is eminently listenable music played with insight and dedication by the wonderful ARC Ensemble (Erika Raum, violin; Marie Berard, violin; Steven Dann, viola; Thomas Wiebe, cello; and Kevin Ahfat, piano).

The second selection is the Second Piano Trio of 1958. It is cast in three movements, some of which will remind listeners of Shostakovich whose fame and mastery loomed brightly at this time. But neither the rather conservative classical form of a piano trio nor the basically tonal idiom is likely to have charmed Kremlin leaders of the time. This is intelligent music that show the composer at the height of his powers and this, generally speaking, was not appreciated by the powers that be at the time of the work’s genesis.

The last work on the disc is the composer’s fifth string quartet from 1965. Like the two works that precede it in this recording this is music of both substance and charm. It is as listenable as the other two works and would doubtless entertain the average concert goer. It bears comparisons to Shostakovich, yes, but also to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Completists, such as your reviewer here, will wonder at the music not included on this disc: the first three string quartets, the first piano trio, the other chamber music, nine symphonies, and various concerti along with five operas and two ballets. It is both fitting and sad that this overdue review be published at at this moment in history when, as I write, the Russian army advances into the Ukraine leaving death and destruction in their wake. There is doubtless much more music yet to be uncovered/discovered, rescued from oblivion but the sad fact is that the forces which suppressed this Ukrainian composer’s works continue to oppress artists today.

My End of the Year Personal Best Choices and Other Blather That May Interest My Readers


Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.

My home base is in California, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles though I sometimes travel for work

First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.

Since February of 2021 I have worked periodically in Washington State, not in a cabin in Mt. Rainier National Park but in Tacoma, just south of Seattle.

COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.

My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!

So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):

The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.

Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.

As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.

New Music Buff’s Best of 2021

As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.

Me with my listening buddy, Clyde

Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:

Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.

Top Ten Most Read of 2021

The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.

Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.

Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.

Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.

Centaur CRC 3836

Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.

Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.

The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.

Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.

Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.

Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.

“Dreams of a New Day”, a Landmark Recording Project from Cedille is a virtual manifesto/survey of art song by black composers. Liverman is an amazing singer and the recording by my favorite Chicago record company is pure beauty. This 2021 release ranks ninth among my most read blogs from the past 12 months.

As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:

Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.

Primous Fountain arrives in Moldova to oversee the performances of his music.

I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.

My “comeback blog”, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger was written to sort of reintroduce myself to the blogosphere and provide some background (excuses?) for my absence. I guess it was a decent read.

And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.

The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten

I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:

Solo Artist Pamela Z releases “a secret code”. This is another Neuma release, one of a truly original and interesting artist who pretty much defies categories but the territory she explores will amaze you.

Lou Harrison: Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, a very special performance of an underappreciated masterpiece is just unabashedly excellent. It is a recording of a 2017 performance (in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday anniversary) in Cleveland by performers who have had a close relationship with this major American composer. I love the music. I love the performers. It’s a digital only release but you can get a download of the album and the fine liner notes from Bandcamp.

Fixing a Hole to Keep the Music Playing: Starkland brings back Guy Klucevsek’s “Citrus, My Love” is also a digital only release, also available on Bandcamp of an album long out of print but essential to the oeuvre of Guy Klucevsek. Like Philip Blackburn, Tom Steenland (who heads Starkland records) is a musical visionary who has released some of my personal favorite albums. If Tom (or Philip) likes it I will at least give it a listen.

Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.

Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.

Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.

Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.

Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.

Only the Lonely, Frank Horvat’s “Music for Self Isolation” is yet another release from this emerging Canadian composer. This is one of my favorite COVID Isolation albums, a unique response to this pandemic from an eminently listenable and endlessly creative composer.

OUR 6.220674

New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.

The Bewitched in Berlin, Kenneth Gaburo does Harry Partch for your head (phones). This is another “save” by Philip Blackburn. This performance in Berlin of Harry Partch’s “The Bewitched” is a binaural recording of a very fine performance directed by Kenneth Gaburo. If you’re a Partch fan this is a must have.

Neuma 123

Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.

My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.

Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH”


Sony Classical 19439809212

I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).

Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.

Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.

Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.

The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.

He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.

Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.

This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.

No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.

Political Classical: Dai Fujikura’s Piano Concerto No. 4 “Akiko’s Piano”


As it happens the digital file of the performance of Dai Fujikura‘s Piano Concerto No. 4, “Akiko’s Piano” (2020) was kindly sent to me by the composer. As is clear from the album photo the CD release also contains other music performed at the concert which contained this work. So this review is focused only on the concerto.

It is worthy of noting the musical pairings on the disc which add to the melancholy of the concerto, the lovely but somber Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. The music is said to reflect Beethoven’s sadness over his unsuccessful love life. That is followed by a true classic of beauty and melancholy, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The last piece is an arrangement (by Hideo Saito) of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo violin Partita. This ethereal music presumably providing some abstract solace in this sad concert which also happened to occur during the height of the global Covid Pandemic which continues to exert a pall on life in these times.

This is the fourth of Fujikura’s concerti for piano and the first this writer has heard. The recording here is of the world premiere and the composer did the mastering. The pianist is Mami Hagiwara playing both the concert grand and the upright piano (Akiko’s piano). The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is led by Tatsuya Shimono. The piece is dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich.

The appellation, “Political Classical” is this writer’s own proposed genre and one which identifies a series of articles and reviews of music on this blog which I believe fits this definition. And this work fits nicely in that it memorializes a tragedy in the hopes of raising awareness and, hopefully, conveying a lesson and expressing a hope that this little story from history might not be repeated.

What story, you ask? Well the composer’s brief notes tell us that the upright Baldwin piano used only in the final coda of the work was the one used by a then 19 year old girl named Akiko. She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents and she and her family moved to Hiroshima when she was six years old. This upright piano was the instrument in her home upon which she practiced her lessons.

On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Though injured, Akiko did make it back from her school to her parents’ home where she died in their arms from acute radiation poisoning. The piano survived but the budding young artist did not.

The concerto is modern but lyrical, a challenge to the soloist, and a fine display of the soloist’s virtuosity. It is cast in one movement with generally identifiable fast and slow sections. The orchestra is kept quite busy throughout until the end. The soloist plays on the concert grand until the last few minutes before the end when she plays on Akiko’s piano, a somber coda, leaving the orchestra and the grand piano behind with their tasks complete. The solo upright brings the work to a rather devastating ending sounding alone, evoking the memory of Akiko.

This is a new twist on the many pieces which have been written decrying the devastation of war and of the atomic bombings which ostensibly brought an end to the war. As the composer notes, there are many “Akikos” in many wars and this work is concerned with the hope that there will be no more.

It is a beautiful concerto, a major addition to Fujikura’s oeuvre and one that moves this writer to want to hear more of this modern Japanese master composer. The music does not appear to have any other obvious references other than the story and the metaphorical use of the upright piano. It is a serious work but one that will forever represent grief at the injustices children suffer at the hands of world politics.

Ludwig van Pritsker


Composers Concordance COMCON0062

Oh, no! Not another Beethoven tribute. Up til now I’ve successfully avoided the avalanche of Beethoven tributes. Those old enough (as is this writer) will recall a similar avalanche from 1970, Beethoven’s 200th birthday. That year gave us countless new recordings of everything Beethoven wrote or almost wrote (the reconstruction of the Beethoven 10th for example. It also gave us some clever contemporary works influenced by the master, most notably perhaps, Mauricio Kagel’s “Ludwig van”.

2020 saw an overwhelming fattenning of the volume of new recordings of Beethoven’s works by yet another generation of appreciative artists. This blogger has declined to review these because these new readings become matters of personal preference and it I think these preferences are best left to water cooler (or social media) discussions. It is curious, though, that no one (as far as I know) has attempted to record the re-orchestrations of Beethoven’s work by the likes of Felix Weingartner but that is a matter for another blog perhaps.

Track List:
1 Ludwig’s Night Out
(for guitar, keys, bass and drums)
EroicAnization
(for Di.J. and chamber ensemble)
2 Eroica Erupted
3 Eroica Extracted
4 Erotic Eroica
5 Eulogy Eroica
feat. Chanda Rule
6 Erroneous Eroica
7 Eka Tala Eroica
8 Für Elise Charleston
(for chamber ensemble)

So along comes ensemble KONTRASTE who chose to commission Gene Pritsker to write a piece for said anniversary. Pritsker continues to be both prolific and interesting in his blending of classical, jazz, klezmer, rap, and hip-hop into a coherent musical style. And the result is the six movement EroicAnization written for the ensemble. In the time of Covid the recording was done in studio in Nuremberg by the ensemble with Pritsker recording the guitar parts in New York.

The work is bookended by two shorter works, “Ludwig’s Night Out”, a humorous deconstruction of Beethoven’s Violin and Piano Sonata No. 7. The work is described by the composer as an imaginary trip to town by the elder composer where he visits various night clubs. It is all in good fun and provides a nice introduction to the more complex six movement EroicAnization where he uses sampling alongside the ensemble in a wild humorous ride. He includes the sweet voice of Chandra Rule in the Elegy section. It is in many ways a summation of musical styles up to this moment as he embraces the genres mentioned above.

The ending bookend piece is another less complex but no less entertaining short tribute which embraces klezmer and jazz, something one could imagine having existed during the brief Weimar Republic before toxic takeover of National Socialism, the doomed to failure Nazi regime. In many ways this album is an island of manic joy in these peculiarly apocalyptic times.

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.

 

 

 

Beethoven, Bartok, and Davidovsky with the Julliard Quartet


The Julliard Quartet is a hallowed name in classical music. This release reflecting its current generation of musicians is consistent with their practice of playing established classics alongside the modern. These are interesting choices of string quartets from the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Many will likely speculate on the motivations for these choices but it is a typical set of choices for a Juilliard Quartet recital, an intelligent mix of standard repertoire, not the “usual suspects” or most popular but musically solid pieces. And, of course, there is their all important embrace of the modern.

The Beethoven and the Barton are lovely choices intelligently played but the real draw, at least for this reviewer is the Davidovsky. Mario Davidovsky (1934- ) is a major American composer who deserves more performances and documentation of his work. Fortunately Bridge Records has taken on this task.

He is best known for his “Synchronisms” series pairing electronics with various acoustic instruments. This won him a Pulitzer Prize. But his music sans electronics is just as substantial and this 2016 String Quartet, his sixth, provides ample evidence of that substance.

Near as I can tell this is only the second recording of any of his quartets but it is sufficiently intriguing to whet the appetite for the other 5.

As a recital disc this one is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s inclusion of the Davidovsky is gloriously consistent with the overall image of the hallowed name of the Juilliard Quartet.

Jeremy Gill: Before the Wresting Tides


gill

BMOP 1055

In this writer’s mind there are two types of releases on the BMOP label. Discs with music or at least composers that have some familiarity to these ears and discs of unfamiliar composers.  This disc fits into the latter category.  Jeremy Gill is a new name to these ears but he is hardly new on the scene with at least 3 or 4 CDs already out devoted mostly to his chamber music.

This disc then will give the listener an idea of how well Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project choose and subsequently perform less familiar new music.  There is a lot of music out there and it takes a special ear to choose wisely such that one can expect a given release to keep its place among the other well chosen music that makes up the BMOP label’s catalog.  It would appear that this was and will remain a wise choice.  Three works are presented in chronological order of their composition.

The first is the title work, Before the Wresting Tides (2012), a choral fantasy setting a poem by American poet Hart Crane (1899-1932).  This was written specifically to function as a companion piece for Beethoven’s rarely performed Choral Fantasy Op. 80 (ca. 1808).  This work shares a similar orchestration and formal plan.  There is an obligatto piano solo written for Gill’s friend and colleague Ching-Yun Hu, a large orchestra, chorus, and vocal solos.  All of this fits into a compact 16 minutes or so.  It is decidedly more modern in orchestration and harmony than Beethoven’s work but it shares a virtuosic piano part, lyrical melodies, and marvelously efficient setting of the text handled beautifully by the Marsh Chapel Choir under Scott Allen Jarrett.  There is a lot going on here but I can’t imagine an audience being anything but entertained by this rather bombastic companion which one hopes will continue to be performed alongside the Beethoven model bringing both works to modern ears.

The second work is titled Serenada Concertante (2013) for oboe and orchestra.  It is sort of an enlarged oboe concerto.  The soloist, Erin Hannigan demonstrates the virtuosic and lyric skills that seem to be endemic to this entire orchestra.  Gill’s writing makes large romantic gestures with plenty of painfully virtuosic opportunities (handled beautifully) for the soloist and the various soli and duettini which occur in the course of this full blown concerto.  The composer’s ability to utilize such a large orchestra yet still produce lucid textures is a mark of genius and, no doubt, one of the reasons that Gill’s music was chosen for this series of recordings.

Our finale is another concerto of sorts, the Notturno Concertante (2014) for clarinet and orchestra.  Again we hear an amazing soloist, Chris Grymes, on clarinet.  Again we hear amazing virtuosity and lyricism played against a large and lucid orchestral fabric.  Very satisfying music for both audience and orchestra.  It is clearly a workout for orchestra, soloist, and conductor but the energies expended produce a very satisfying result.

Whether or not Jeremy Gill winds up being a household name, one of the brightest lights of the 21st century remains to be seen but this is an auspicious release.  This largely romantic sounding composer also seems to have a curiously “American” sound which harkens to the likes of William Schuman, David Diamond, and, well choose your own favorite mid-twentieth century American master after you hear this.  Well done.

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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


 

71Dr+79MpxL._SL1200_

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.

Music by Gerhard Schedl, a New Recording by the Walden Chamber Players


Suicide, the artificial ending to a life is an inscrutable act, especially so when it takes the life of a talented individual.  So it is with Austrian composer Gerhard Schedl whose life was ended by his own hand in 2001.  I had never heard of this man and his work and I always welcome the opportunity to hear music new to my ears and such an opportunity presented itself recently.

By good fortune and the kindness of cellist and current artistic director Ashima Scripp I received a copy of the Walden Chamber Players latest CD: ‘A Voice Gone Silent too Soon: The Music of Gerhard Schedl.  The disc contains 4 chamber works for various combinations of strings, piano and clarinet.schedl

As it happens I had not been familiar with this ensemble before either so a word about them would seem to be appropriate.  Founded in 1997 this flexible sized ensemble consists of eleven musicians including strings, piano, harp and woodwinds.  The musicians are all highly accomplished and most are on faculty at area Universities.  Their choice of repertoire distinguishes them as they seem to choose new and/or lesser known music that the musicians feel deserve a hearing and hopefully a wider audience.  Their fascinating catalog at the time of this writing consists of 6 discs and includes music by Beethoven, Debussy, Vaughn Williams, Francaix, Gubaidulina and Reger to name a few.

When they choose Beethoven they choose the seldom played string trios and their other choices seem to involve late romantic and early 20th Century composers with a focus on pieces that are little known and rarely played.  From what I have heard they bring a real passion to their performances.  In addition they have a variety of educational and outreach programs that serve to increase interest in chamber music and support new artists in playing this repertoire.

Now to the disc at hand.  At first I did what I usually do after a quick read of the liner notes.  I put the CD in my car stereo to begin some relatively casual listening so I can begin to form some initial impressions.  However this is music of wide dynamic range and some of the most beautiful moments are the quieter ones so I found that it is best heard in a quiet environment and preferably with headphones.  Most of the gestures in this music are the familiar sounds of chamber music.  The music is sometimes melodic, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic.  Schedl seems to be a sort of modern post-romantic who is well-schooled in what a chamber ensemble can do and is apparently influenced by the expressionism of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as well as by Mahler, Debussy and perhaps Messiaen.  This being said his music does not actually resemble any of these influences too strongly.  The music is rarely dissonant but there are grand fortissimo gestures as well as glissandi and what sounds like some playing inside the piano and some extended techniques which my ears could not identify with certainty.  But this is not what I would call “experimental music”.  Indeed the music sounds very well planned with an ear for subtleties that the ensemble lovingly interprets.  It sounds like this music is as enjoyable to play as it is to hear.  Though virtuosic it is also expressive if agonized at times and the recording is fantastic.

The first piece, String Trio (1991) for violin, viola and cello is in three movements.  I did not find the tempi descriptions particularly useful as a listener since this composer’s music seems to sustain a variety of tempi and expression within each movement.  Inevitably comparisons to Schoenberg, Webern and perhaps Ernst Krenek will come to mind and it is difficult to predict this piece to stand with those models but it definitely bears additional hearings and would be welcome on any good chamber music program.

The next piece, “A Due”, a Duo for Violin and Cello (2000) is from the last year of the composer’s life.  It is in four movements and is the most angst ridden of the pieces on the disc.  This combination of instruments is relatively rare.  I personally know only the Ravel duo which resembles this piece though that is largely due to the instrumentation, not the style.  This is a concentrated and deeply felt piece which seems to reflect some painful emotions.  Here I am reminded more of Webern and perhaps Wolfgang Rihm with their spare textures and emphatic fortissimi amidst the quieter moments.   As with all the pieces on this disc the execution reflects the intense concentration and dedication of the musicians.

The five movement, “A Tre” for clarinet, violin and piano of 1984 is the earliest composition here.  It comes as a welcome relief emotionally from the previous “A Due”.  This is by far the most whimsical of the pieces featured on this album.  It has an almost orchestral feel to it at times.  Multiple techniques (and, no doubt, careful execution) result in textures that are sometimes rather expansive.  Shades of Messiaen appear to be present sometimes.  They contrast with the more chamber music like gestures familiar from the previous works.

The disc concludes with the 1996-7 “A Cinque” for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano.  It is a very serious post-romantic, even neo-classical take on the quintet format.  The piece consists of three movements.  The first two are serious but not terribly dark and showcase the ensemble well.  The last, an adagio, has a sadness mixed with nostalgia that reminds this listener of Mahler. There are none of the abrupt dynamic changes heard in the previous works on this CD, only a soft and gentle ending.

If you enjoy well-performed and recorded chamber music and are interested in exploring something besides the old war horses of the standard repertoire then this disc is for you.  Multiple listenings reveal more detail about the pieces and make this writer curious about this man’s work for larger ensembles as well.

Thank you Walden Chamber Players for a wonderful CD.  I look forward to hearing more from this fine and adventurous ensemble.