The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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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.

 

 

 

Concertante Music for Flute and Clarinet


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This release is a fine example of a record label fulfilling its mission by highlighting local talent while also making very intelligent selections of repertoire.  Cedille is one of those labels whose every release is worthy of your attention.  Here is a good example of why that is so. We have here four works for the rather uncommon combination of flute and clarinet with orchestra.  Concerti for multiple instruments probably began with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti but this combination of flute and clarinet limits the repertoire choices considerably.  Nonetheless the folks at Cedille have gathered two 21st century pieces, one from the high romanticism of the late 19th century and a seldom heard gem from the late 18th century, all for these two instruments accompanied by orchestra.

Just for local interest let’s also add an opportunity for a local youth orchestra to show their considerable talents.  The Chicago Youth Symphony under conductor Allan Tinkham demonstrates the remarkably polished and mature sound of this local gem (Cedille is a Chicago label).  And Cedille, in its support of black musicians brings this marvelous pair of brothers with their expertise as soloists.  All in all a classic Cedille style release, intelligent choice of repertoire, promotion of young artists, promotion of artists of color, and quality recordings.

The disc opens with the world premiere recording of the eponymous single movement work, “Winged Creatures” (2018) by one Michael Abels (1962- ).  It is essentially a 12 minute concertante for the soloists with orchestra.  Abels is best known for having scored the brilliant horror genre film “Get Out” from 2017 (if you haven’t seen it, do make a note to yourself).

Winged Creatures is a well written mini concerto which, despite its recent vintage, tends toward a sort of neo-romantic sound.  The composer gives ample opportunity for the soloists to show their mettle and for the orchestra to demonstrate its facility with the music.  It is a delightful showpiece which seems to have a cinematic feel to it.

Next up, and this is typical of the acumen of the folks at Cedille, is a full blown, heretofore unknown (practically) Sinfonia Concertante from a lesser known contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Franz Danzi 1763-1826).  This double concerto for flute, clarinet, and orchestra was published in 1813 and sounds like Mozart and/or early Beethoven.  It is a highly entertaining piece, one which listeners will delight in hearing again.  Who knows this piece could become a sensation in the concert hall once again.  It’s about 22 minutes in length.

The third piece is an early work by French composer, pianist, organist, Charles Camille Saint-Saens (1836-1921).  Tarantella Op. 6 (1857) was written in when the composer was only 22 years old.  This is hardly one of his best works but it is a curiosity worthy of being heard and, like most of this composer’s work, it is eminently listenable.

Finally, we have another large scale concerto (and the second world premiere on the disc), “Concert Duo” (2012) by Joel Puckett (1977- ).  In gestures classical, jazzy, contemporary, but as listenable as anything on this release, Puckett’s work in three movements has tantalizing titles for each of the movements suggesting a wealth of non-musical references.

The ample liner notes provide the listener with a guide to the joys to be heard  on this collection and the recording, as usual with this label is lucid.  You can’t go wrong with this one.

A Brassy 75th Birthday Celebration for John Corigliano


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John Corigliano (1938- ) is one of America’s finest composers.  He is to classical music in New York what Woody Allen is to the movies.  Corigliano is musical royalty.  His father was concertmaster under Leonard Bernstein among others (in fact he apparently worked as assistant to the producer on several of the Young Peoples’ Concerts).  His own accomplishments musically are many including a the very first Grawemeyer Award for his first symphony and a Pulitzer Prize for his second.  One could hardly find another musician as deserving of being honored.

From the very New Yorker style cover art this album affirms this composer’s iconic status.  But the artists here are good Chicago Brass players.  As a native born Chicagoan I have become accustomed to assuming that one can find some of the world’s finest brass players there and this album lays testament to that.  Gaudete Brass is an ensemble that definitely deserves your attention.

This is a fine tribute album featuring mostly world premieres but also some nice transcriptions.  This is effective though not overwhelmingly modern music for brass.  It is intended as and functions very well as entertainment and, from the sound of it, is also fun to play.

The original works are welcome as are the transcriptions of Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances. by the long time Chicago musician/conductor Cliff Colnot.  (One transcription is by the composer).  There are a total of three Corigliano pieces here and 13 by others.  One can only imagine the joy the composer will feel on hearing these tributes and the joy that any number of brass players will experience hearing this fine album.  As usual the Cedille recording is lucid giving a clear sound image of some truly fine musicianship.

The pieces here are good middle of the road compositions which pose challenges on the players but manage to be entertaining and nothing here sounds like an academic exercise.  Rather this disc is about celebration exactly as it purports.  Very enjoyable disc.

Eclipse of the Son: Mischa Zupko


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Mischa Zupko (1971- ) is a composer, a pianist, and a professor of music at Chicago’s De Paul University.  He is the son of avant garde composer Ramon Zupko (1932- ).  Mischa’s work featured on this Cedille release suggests that the proverbial apple has fallen quite a distance from the family musical tree.  That is neither bad nor good but it is striking.

The elder Zupko’s work, despite its significance, is too little known.  A few recordings exist on the old CRI recordings label and this writer recalls being impressed by them. According to the Chicago Reader article he really didn’t want his son to go into the music business but apparently what is in the blood is in the blood.  A curious note too is that one can find articles on both these composers on Wikipedia but not the English/American one, rather curiously both are to be found on the Dutch Wikipedia site.

The present disc is apparently the first dedicated entirely to this emerging composer’s work (now numbering some 50 pieces).  It is a disc of chamber music and from the first the listener is immediately aware that the younger Zupko is possessed of a sort of retro romantic bent.  Think of the great virtuoso composer/pianists of the 19th century like Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein.  He does gratefully acknowledge his father as inspiration but clearly follows a different path.

This music is about passion and virtuosity.  The composer defines this clearly in his liner notes.  The performers Mischa Zupko on piano, Wendy Warner on cello, and Sang Mee Lee on violin demonstrate both passion and virtuosity on this lucid recording.  They play very well together and they all have ample opportunities to show off their respective skills.

There are seven works on ten tracks dating from 2005 to 2015.  The first five tracks consist of “Rising” (violin and piano, 2009), “Fallen” (cello and piano, 2010), “From Twilight” (solo violin, 2015), “Eclipse” (violin and cello, 2014), and, “Nebula” (solo cello, 2015).

There then follows the four movement”Shades of Grey” (2005) for violin and piano.  This is the earliest work on the disc but stylistically it is consistent with the rest of the disc. Zupko certainly develops as a composer but his style seems pretty firmly established.

The last track seems to be the big feature here.  “Love Obsession” (cello, piano, 6 pre-recorded cello tracks; 2013) is perhaps the most adventurous and grand of the works on this recording.  As with the other works on the disc the composer cites various literary influences and inspirations consistent with the apparently romantic ethic which seems to drive his creativity.  And as with the other tracks we hear a tonal romantic idiom filled with passion.

My title for this review is not intended to suggest that the younger Zupko has surpassed his father in any way except perhaps in that his work has, whether by accident, timing, design, or whatever, gotten more attention.  This is not a case of Johann Strauss Jr. and Sr. in jealous competition, this is simply another generation responding to it’s muse and that is worth celebrating.

 

 

Unheard Piano Trios, Chicago’s Lincoln Trio Finds Neglected Wonders


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The Lincoln Trio is a Chicago based piano trio (founded in 2003) consisting of Desiree Rushtrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano. Their choice of repertoire is particularly wide ranging and includes basically the entire history of the piano trio including contemporary works.  

The present (already Grammy nominated for chamber music performance) offering, titled “Trios from the Homelands” gives us readings of piano trios by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), and Frank Martin (1890-1974).  All are described as being outsiders whose work is little known outside of their native lands of, respectively, England, Armenia, and Switzerland.  

In many ways this recording is representative of the strengths of the Cedille imprint.  Attention to fine local musicians, a unique ear for truly interesting repertoire from a variety of time periods (largely 20th century), and high quality recording.  Whether or not these selections become incorporated into the common performing repertoire for piano trios is secondary to the fact that these selections are eminently listenable and entertaining.  They may very well find a place in many listeners’ playlists.

The first selection by Rebecca Clarke was premiered in 1922 (the oldest piece here) with none other than Dame Myra Hess at the keyboard.  Clarke’s music is hampered by gender prejudice but not by depth or talent.  This is a substantial work which is highly entertaining and contains material that continues to reveal wonders with repeated listenings.  There are three movements and the style is basically tonal, perhaps post romantic.  

Next is the trio by Arno Babajanian.  Most listeners (this reviewer included) have little exposure to Armenian classical composers outside of the Armenian derived works by the fine American composer Alan Hovhaness and perhaps some exposure to the truly wonderful work of Tigran Mansurian, the living ambassador and dean of Armenian composers.  On hearing this substantial Chamber work from 1952 listeners are alerted to the fact that there is much quality music that has seldom been heard outside of a country whose best known attribute at the present moment may rest largely on the 2015 centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide perpetrated at the hands of the Turks.  

The last piece is by the most familiar composer, Frank Martin.  Though not exactly a household name his oeuvre is the best documented in recordings even if his presence in the performing repertoire is still somewhat limited.  Martin is best known for some of his orchestral and choral music.  This “Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises” (1925) is described as a significant early example of the composer’s chamber music and the only work for piano trio.

As with the first two trios this is a substantial work whose three movements provide both technical challenges and very effective musical development.  This is not simply a pastiche of Irish tunes.  It is a very accomplished use of so called “popular” melodies to fashion major piece of chamber music.  

This disc is another fine entry into the Lincoln Trio’s recordings of lesser known repertoire that deserves at least a second hearing if not a promotion to more common live performances.  Their previous releases have included music by Joaquin Turina and a disc of music by women composers.  It would seem they are an ensemble that bears watching/listening.

Jennifer Koh, Putting Tchaikovsky in Context


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Let me start here with a confession:  I have never been a real big fan of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  However I am a huge fan of Jennifer Koh and of Cedille Records in their intelligent productions which place music like this in a more proper context.  The usual pairings of this concerto with Brahms or Beethoven only seem to highlight the distinct difference in style rather than a context more conducive to the appreciation of the music. Another problem with Tchaikovsky is that his reputation tends to hang on the 1812 Overture, the Violin Concerto, the first Piano Concerto and the last three Symphonies.  He wrote a lot more than that (including ten operas and three string quartets).

Now with that bit of whining out of the way let’s take a look at the recording at hand.  Jennifer Koh is one of the shining lights of contemporary violin soloists and that alone should be sufficient recommendation to listen to any of her recordings or performances. She holds a special place in this reviewer’s heart for her attention and expertise with contemporary music and for having performed the solo violin part in the most recent production of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.  In costume with a shaggy wig she brought new and highly virtuosic life to that obbligato violin part.

It is her virtuosity and her perspective as one of the more recent generations of artists to wield this classic string instrument that holds the main interest here.  The Tchaikovsky concerto has been the darling of all the great violinists from Heifetz and Kreisler to Milstein and Stern. I suppose that every violinist must confront this work at some point and it is a genuine challenge as well as a showpiece for virtuosity.

The other works on this disc (which are presented chronologically) are the Serenade Melancolique Op. 26 (1875), the Valse-Scherzo Op. 34 (1877) followed by the Concerto Op. 35 (1878) and finally the Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op. 42 (1878, originally for violin and piano orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov and published in 1896).  Hearing this concerto in the context of the composer’s other works for violin and orchestra does more clearly delineate the composer’s process.

In addition to providing a complete accounting of Tchaikovsky’s violin and orchestra music listeners are able to hear the interpretation by this wonderful artist.  Indeed she does truly grasp the grand romantic sweep of the concerto and the more intimate shorter works. Let me say too that if you like the concerto you will also find much delight in the shorter works which frame it on this disc.  Her virtuosity shines and Koh’s ability to handle romantic as well as modern repertoire certainly mark her as a versatile modern master.

Of course one can’t miss the powerful contribution of the orchestra in considering these performances.  The Odense Symphony Orchestra (Denmark) is absolutely stunning in its clarity and drive.  The conductor Alexander Vedernikov is of Russian musical royalty (both his parents were accomplished musicians) and was the conductor of the Bolshoi from 2001-2009.  He is definitely a name to follow and his feel for this music of his homeland is most genuine and exciting.

This truly excellent recording is produced by Grammy winning veteran producer Judith Sherman.  Session engineering is by Viggo Mangor with post-production and editing respectively by Bill Maylone and Jeanne Velonis.  Audiophiles might even want to have this disc for the sound alone.  It’s that good.

In Celebration of a Lost Culture: Sephardic Journey by the Cavatina Duo


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This tasty little disc of world premieres commissioned through grants to Cedille Records in Chicago consists of new works which celebrate the culture of the Sephardim, the Jews of southwestern Europe, primarily Spain.  It both memorializes and resurrects the rich music of this all but lost culture.  In the last few years we have seen a growing interest in this culture through settings of texts in the original Ladino language as well as in the melodies which sprang from their folk traditions.

The Cavatina Duo consists of Eugenia Moliner, flute and Denis Agabagic, guitar.  Moliner is originally from Spain and Agabagic is originally from Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) and they are husband and wife.  Both have a strong interest in the folk musics of their respective cultures and in exploring other folk music cultures.  Their previous album for Cedille, The Balkan Project, similarly demonstrates their affection and scholarship for the cultures of that region of the world.

Five composers were commissioned for this project: Alan Thomas (1967- ), Joseph V. Williams II (1979- ), Carlos Rafael Rivera (1970- ), David Leisner (1953- ) and Clarice Assad (1978- ).  This is one of those wonderful crowd funded efforts through Kickstarter.

Thomas’ contribution adds a cello (played by David Cunliffe) to the mix for this Trio Sephardi in three movements each of which is based on a traditional Sephardic song.  The piece makes good use of the vocal qualities of the songs quoted and the lyrics seem to exist as a subtext even though they are not sung here.

Isabel by Joseph V. Williams is a sort of homage to Isabel de los Olives y López, a Sephardic woman who lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  She outwardly converted to Catholicism but lived secretly as a Jew.  One can hardly miss the sad irony of this tale of religious intolerance from the 15th century and its relevance for today.  This piece is based on a resistance song which masquerades as a love song, again a metaphor for our times.  It is scored for flute and guitar.

We move again into the realm of the trio, this time with violin (played by Desiree Ruhstrat), for this piece by Carlos Rafael Rivera called, “Plegaria y Canto”.  This is the most extensive single movement amongst all the works on the disc and is a deeply affecting and dramatic piece for which the composer’s notes provide insights.

The last two pieces utilize the forces of the Avalon Quartet for whom this is their second appearance on the Cedille label.  Their first disc, Illuminations, was released last year. They are currently in residence at Northwestern University and Cedille does a great job of promoting the work of talented Chicago area musicians.

Love and Dreams of the Exile is David Leisner‘s poignant contribution.  Its three movements tell an aching tale of love, pain and, ultimately, transcendence.

Clarice Assad is a Brazilian composer too little known in the U.S.  She is indeed related to the famed Assad family of musicians and she clearly has as abundant a talent.  Her Sephardic Suite concludes this program with this three movement essay on love and relationships.

Bill Maylone is the engineer with editing by Jean Velonis and the executive producer is James Ginsburg.  Photography of the Alhambra Palace by Maureen Jameson graces the cover.  Design is by Nancy Bieshcke.

This is music of an oppressed culture and it is tempting to look upon the creative impetus which oppression sometimes seems to provide but the message here is one of sadness and nostalgia but also of hope.  It is perhaps a tribute to the ultimate triumph over said oppression even if it took 500 years.  There is some comfort and healing to be had from the celebration of this lost culture and that is the triumph of this disc.