Jacob Greenberg Putting Debussy in Context


hanging

New Focus FCR 192

Well it’s been 100 years since Claude Debussy (1862-1918) left the earthly plane and anniversaries are good times for a re-evaluation.  Usually this just means issuing recordings of a given composers works, mostly the composer’s most popular.   Jacob Greenberg has chosen to record Debussy’s Preludes for Piano Books I and II (1909-1913).  But that alone seems a bit pedestrian so he adds in Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Op. 1 Piano Sonata (1909), Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) masterful Variations for Piano (1936), and Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) “Book of the Hanging Gardens” Op. 15 (1908-9) as well as a few additional Debussy pieces.  Greenberg is a sort of refugee from the International Contemporary Ensemble.  For this recording he also conscripts the fine soprano (and fellow ICE refugee) Tony Arnold.  These two have already amassed quite a few recordings of repertory from this era.

This mix provides a context for the listener which shows where the Preludes fit historically and demonstrates some of the similarities in sound between these early 20th Century works.  We hear music written between 1908 and 1936 by four composers.  Hearing these works together gives the listener a sense of how some of the best “contemporary” compositions of this brief era sounded.  Indeed there are similarities here and one can see the emerging style which would become known as “expressionism”.  It is clearer how this emerged from Debussy and Ravel’s “impressionism” when you hear related works from the same era.

This reviewer had not been familiar with Schoenberg’s “Book of the Hanging Gardens”.  It is one of the less performed of his works.  These songs have a militantly atonal sound. Vocalist extraordinaire Tony Arnold puts real muscle into her reading of these songs.  The disc is worth acquiring for her performance alone.

In some ways this cycle appears to have been Schoenberg’s “Tristan und Isolde” meaning that he had stretched the limits of tonality and, unlike Wagner, he chose to develop a method which would ensure that there is no tonal center in his music.  He developed his method of 12 tone composition and rolled out his first example of this new method in 1925.

What is striking is that this Schoenberg song cycle dates from pretty much the same time as the Debussy Preludes and Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.  One gets a sense of some of the tensions involved here.  Try to imagine being in the audience and hearing the wide stylistic differences between these two works and realizing that they are essentially from the same era.  Add in the much later Variations by Webern and one gets a sense of how far music could go, stylistically, based on Schoenberg’s methods.

Obviously the Debussy Preludes are the main focus here and these are acknowledged as classics of the repertoire.  They are most ably performed here but what struck this listener the most was the sound of those preludes in the context of the other pieces here which were part of that same 30 year span.  One can begin to hear perhaps some affinity between the Debussy and the later thornier harmonies and rhythms that typify the expressionistic style which would dominate much of the mid-twentieth century.

This is a fabulously entertaining recording and a sort of music history lesson as well.  Greenberg is a strong and assertive musician with an obvious feel for these pieces.  His choice of repertoire makes this a particularly good choice for the listener who is just beginning to explore this musical era and an eye-opening program for the seasoned listener.  Great set.

300 Years of Virtuosity, Liza Stepanova’s Tones and Colors


stepanova

Concert Artist Guild CAG 120

This is the solo piano debut of this talented and incredibly virtuosic artist.  This hard working pianist can be heard on a previous CD (After a Dream) with the Lysander Piano Trio.  Her web site can provide a good idea of the range of solo, chamber, and orchestral music in her repertory.

This CD is a good example of creating a brand, a practice which seems to be the current rage especially among artists who specialize in new music.  I have previously commented on the brands of pianists like Sarah Cahill, Kathleen Supové, Nicolas Horvath, and Stephane Ginsburgh to name a few.  All are amazing musicians but each seems to have been able to carve out an identifiable niche which sets them apart from each other and defines their various artistic missions.  Granted these are soft definitions in that they do not preclude them from playing anything they choose but it gives audiences a sort of general idea of what to expect when they do a program.

Liza Stepanova appears to have chose virtuosity as her signature.  She plays what sounds like fingerbreakingly difficult music with both ease and expressiveness.  Here she chooses to basically survey virtuosity from J. S. Bach to György  Ligeti.  In addition she has chosen to pair each composition with an analogous piece of visual art.

The pairing of music and visual art is as old as dirt and has always seemed to have an inherent validity.  Tone poems like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Clair de Lune are familiar examples of music as a visual analog.  But music sometimes suggests pictures even if it was not the stated intent of the composer too.  Stepanova covers the visual territory from the representative to the abstract in this entertaining collection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recording is the pianist’s choice of music.  She does go with the familiar at times such as Debussy’s Goldfish but the majority of this disc contains music that is seldom heard by lesser known composers such as Maurice Ohana (1913-1992), Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), and Lionel Feininger (1871-1956).  There are better known names such as Enrique Granados (1867–1916), Bohuslav Martinú and Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  And the most familiar names such as J. S. Bach (1885-1750), Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Claude Debussy (1862-1918), George Crumb (1929- ), and György Ligeti (1923-2006).

There are 13 tracks grouped into 4 visual art themes (A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity, and an Encore).  The only problem I have here is the photos of the art (which thankfully are included in the little booklet) are necessarily small and really don’t give the consumer the full intended effect.  One would do well to obtain some art books or some larger prints of these to gain the intended effect.

I won’t go into detail about each individual piece.  Suffice it to say that they are all technically challenging and intelligently chosen pieces.  This is a very entertaining program from this emerging artist.

This reviewer is given to speculation as to Stepanova’s next release.  Perhaps Sorabji with some Dada works?  Whatever it is will doubtless be as interesting and entertaining as this disc.  Brava, Ms. Stepanova!

 

Visions of a Dreamer: Keane Southard’s Waltzing Dervish


dervish

Keane Southard (1987- ) is a composer and pianist whose work is influenced by a variety of styles including standard classical and pop and folk influences.  This major debut disc is a fine sampling of his work though it is important to realize that his work is for diverse ensembles of pretty much every description and the present sampling is of music for wind ensemble.

Just like every specialized grouping, be it string quartet, string orchestra, wind quintet, solo piano, full orchestra, etc., one encounters composers with varying degrees of facility in each configuration.  Southard seems very much at home with the wind ensemble/band and its possibilities.  A quick look through his extensive works list at his site suggests a hugely prolific musician with a wide variety of skill sets in a variety of musical configurations.  Wind ensemble is clearly one of his strengths and the Northeastern State University Wind Ensemble of Oklahoma under conductor Norman Wika are up to the challenges.  Southard playfully refers to this grouping as a “wind powered” ensemble using it as a metaphor for ecologically sustainable power systems.

There are nine tracks of which three are transcriptions of other composers’ work and the remaining six are by Southard.  His metaphors are as eclectic as his musical choices but fear not, his choices are friendly ones.  The first track, Waltzing Dervish sets the tone as an original and substantial composition of some ten minutes duration in which he takes on the waltz and its various meanings both public and personal to create an original band composition concerned as much with ecological metaphor as with a striving for multicultural diversity in an optimistic and thoughtful exploration of what can easily be a tired dance form.

The second piece is an arrangement of a piece by Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), one of the composers whose music he encountered during his 2013 Fulbright Fellowship in Brazil.  The piece is scored for optional choir (not used in this recording) and band, an arrangement Southard made with the intention of sharing this music as a highly viable selection for concert band.  It is indeed a joyous affair and one could easily imagine this being adopted as a staple in the rarefied realm of concert band music.

Do You Know How Many You Are? is the composer’s 2013 band arrangement of a 2010 choral piece which he describes as having basically come to him in a dream.

Claude Debussy’s Menuet (ca. 1890) was originally a piano piece which Southard envisioned in this orchestrated form during the course of his studies of orchestration.  That sort of inspiration is not uncommon for a composer but the result is not always as ideal as the composer imagined.  Fortunately this orchestration works quite well and again would proudly fit in a given band’s repertoire as an audience pleasing piece.

The next piece, originally an orchestral piece from 2013 is presented in the composer’s own arrangement for band.  No Interior Do Rio De Janeiro (2013/15) is another of the inspirations from the composer’s 2013 Fulbright Fellowship and was inspired by his work with “Orquestrando a Vida”, a Brazilian music project inspired by Venezuela’s famed “El Sistema”.  The band version was written on a commission from the present NSU Wind Ensemble.  Here is perhaps a departure from the dance theme of the first three tracks.  It seems to be a thesis or musical diary entry reflecting his personal take on the experience of working with this project though the spirit of the dance remains throughout.

Carousel (2008/2010) is the arrangement for band of the third movement of a mini-symphony (perhaps a scherzo?) for orchestra.  Curiously he describes his inspiration as coming from the sound of the calliope, a sort of steam driven organ common in circuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cortège et Litanie (1922) by French composer and organist Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) is a bit of a departure.  Neither a dance nor derived from Brazilian sources this piece was originally written for organ.  The organ (like the calliope in the previous piece) is arguably a wind instrument and this transcription retains some of the ambiance of that grand instrument.  It is among Dupré’s better known pieces and seems a natural for band.

Uma Pasacalha Brasiliera (2015) is a commission from a the Arrowhead Union High School Wind Ensemble and conductor Jacob T. Polancich.  The composer describes various influences in the circuitous path the the completion of this work but it is basically a sort of homage to the baroque form of the pasacaglia (variations over a repeating bass line) as well as to some of the great folk song influenced composers such as Percy Grainger.  Brazilian influences dominate much of the composer’s work from this period and they combine with the aforementioned baroque and folk influences to form a wonderfully creative take on that form of baroque counterpoint.

Finally the big finale is presented in another transcription, this time of a concerto for piano and organ from 2008.  Of course the organ again lends it’s sound easily to a band transcription and we have this Concertino for Piano and Wind Band (2008 rev. 2015) which allows us to hear the considerable keyboard skills of the composer.  This is the most substantial work on the disc and provides a satisfying finale to this portrait of a prolific and optimistic young composer at the very successful beginnings of what this writer (optimistically) hopes will be a long and productive career.

 

New Orchestral Music from Rain Worthington


Rain Worthington herself kindly sent this CD to me for review.  There seems to be very little biographical information online about this very interesting composer.  Her current  credentials available on her website are impressive but there is little to be found on her training and influences. (Time to talk to the webmaster I suppose)  This appears to be the first disc dedicated solely to her music and it is an great one.

There are seven tracks representing seven orchestral pieces dating from 2001 to 2012. Like the album title, all are given poetic titles which make no reference to musical structure.  No doubt there are stories behind each of these but there is no information  in the liner notes as to the inspirations or intended meanings of this music.

This reviewer is fond of detailed liner notes but their absence is hardly a hindrance to the appreciation of these little tone poems for various sized orchestras.  There is a remarkable consistency of style here suggesting that this composer has a clearly established voice.  Clearly Worthington is a master of orchestration as she wields complex orchestral pallets where dissonance as well as orchestration contribute to the color in a basically tonal framework.

The music here is about motive and gesture rather than melody per se.  Perhaps that is a “minimalist” method but the impression to this listener suggests influences as diverse as Claude Debussy, Jacob Druckman, Daniel Asia, Toru Takemitsu, and Anton Bruckner. This is beautiful though not “pretty” music with complex emotional content that leans in somber, wistful, sometimes haunting, and even nostalgic directions much as an impressionist painting.

The lovely cover photograph, a time exposure of a night scene with a blurring of stars over a lake, works as a metaphor for the album’s content.

Three orchestras (none of them American) under three different conductors are employed in this very satisfying release.  Multiple listenings will definitely contribute new layers of understanding for the listener.  This listener found that initial impressions of seemingly simple, pretty romantic/impressionistic leanings give way to things deeper and perhaps even disturbing.

One of the conductors, Robert Ian Winstin (1959-2010) was an American composer and conductor (whose compositional efforts deserve some serious review) is at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on two tracks.  Petr Vronsky leads the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra on four tracks and Ovidiu Marinescu leads the Russian Philharmonic on one track.  It is amazing how well these orchestras handle the challenges here.  These are some excellent musicians.

Kudos to producer Bob Lord for his bold choice in releasing this disc.  Hopefully we will soon be seeing more of this composer’s work in the near future.  My thanks to Ms. Worthington for sending this my way.

 

 

Exploding Debussy, Kathleen Supové


New Focus FCR 170

Increasingly it seems that new music performers take on a persona which includes a unique selection of repertoire and frequently a distinctive physical presence.  Kathleen Supové is a fine example.  Her distinctive physical appearance and attire becomes a metaphor for her very personal and intelligent choice of repertoire which sets her apart from her peers.  In addition to unquestioned virtuosity and beautiful interpretive skills her persona takes on an adjectival quality which prompts this reviewer to ponder the “Supovian” experience.


I may live to regret that neologism but the present album is offered as exhibit one (of about 20 albums) attesting to the distinctive choices of music that characterize her work.  This two disc album, The Debussy Effect, is a very modern homage (even sometimes with apologies) to the impressionist master.  Twelve tracks on the two discs feature seven contemporary composers.  Only three tracks are for solo piano.  The rest involve electronic enhancements and or “soundtracks”.

Initially I had hoped to be able to say something useful (if not particularly insightful) to prospective listeners/buyers of this album about each of the pieces here but after several listens I can only reliably say that the material makes for a great and entertaining listening experience.  It harbors complexities that cannot be fairly recounted in such a brief review.  (And this reviewer has a limited knowledge of Debussy as well.)

Here are works by some of the finest of the New York “downtown” music traditions that reflect some amazing and very deep appreciations that will likely change the way you hear Debussy.

Here is the track list:

Disc One

1.  Storefront Diva: a dreamscape by Joan La Barbara

2.  Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell by Matt Marks

3.  Layerings 3 by Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark

4.  What Remains of a Rembrandt by Randall Woolf

Disc Two

1-4.  Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind by Annie Gosfield

5-7.  Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld

8. La plus que plus que lente by Jacob Cooper

All are engineered by the wonderful Sheldon Steiger for the New Focus recordings label.

So the take away here is as follows:  If you are a Debussy fan you will want to hear this album.  If you are a Kathleen Supové fan you will want to hear this album.  It is the second reason the seems the most salient here.  I expect to be listening to this many more times.  Enjoy.