A Far Cry: Visions and Variations


farcryvisions

Crier Records CR 1801

This is the latest release by an ensemble whose debut CD was released some nine years ago.  Most recently this ensemble released a fine recording featuring Simone Dinnerstein playing piano concertos by J. S. Bach and Philip Glass.  This recording is focused on the virtuosity of this small string orchestra by focusing on some unusual but highly listenable pieces from the early twentieth century to the present.

The lovely cover art (by Bill Flynn) conjures images that evoke Picasso’s drawings of Igor Stravinsky conducting.  The album evokes a feeling of an early twentieth century salon and makes the most of this rather small ensemble which counts 20 musicians on this release.  The issue here seems to be quality musicianship exploring unusual but very listenable music.

The disc begins with the too little heard Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  Bridge was one of Britten’s teachers and a fine composer as well.  This is the piece that first brought Britten international recognition but it is not frequently played or recorded as one might expect.   It is a very entertaining set of variations and one can only surmise that this ensemble will likely tackle some of Britten’s other early string orchestra pieces like the Simple Symphony (1934).

After that workout we are treated to another set of variations.  This time by one Ethan Wood, a violinist with the ensemble.  His contribution is a set of variations on the French song, “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman” (better known to some as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  This little fantasy is billed as “a folk tale for 18 players based on characters created by W. A. Mozart”.

And, finally, we have a lively transcription of Sergei Prokofiev’s ” Vision Fugitives” Op. 22.  Originally for piano, this string orchestra version is a unique but interesting idea.  The ensemble handles this complex music well and this version provides a perspective on these little miniatures that will produce discussion among fanciers of the original piano versions.

All in all this is basically a pretty conservative program stylistically but the intelligent choices of repertoire and the wonderful execution make this a stand out release with incredible potential that will leave listeners waiting for their next release.

Tesla Quartet Debut Pleases


teslaqr

Most recordings of the wonderful Ravel String Quartet of 1902-3 is most frequently paired with the similarly masterful Debussy String Quartet (1893) or with another of Ravel’s fine chamber works.  Not here though.  For their debut recording this quartet has apparently chosen to demonstrate their skills by programming which spans the 18th to the early 20th century along with a selection of transcriptions of lesser known Ravel pieces.  After ten years playing together they have chosen to lay down some recorded tracks for posterity.

The disc opens with the Ravel Quartet which is handled most ably.  It is ostensibly this quartet that inspired first violin Ross Snyder to dedicate his career to the string quartet.  The bonuses here are transcriptions by first violin, Ross Snyder, of three lesser known Ravel piano pieces.  They are, in order of appearance on the album, the brief Menuet sur la nom d’ Haydn (1909), the more familiar Menuet Antique (1895), and the Menuet in C sharp minor (1904) are heard in transcriptions for string quartet.

By contrast the Teslas have chosen to feature Haydn’s String Quartet in C major Op. 54 No. 2.  It is the first one of the first set of so called “Tost” Quartets written in 1788 and named for a violinist (Johann Tost) of the Esterhazy orchestra.  This is mid-career Haydn who is justly known as the father of the string quartet.

The larger works are punctuated by the short transcriptions.  The Menuet sur le nom d’ Haydn follows the Ravel and leads us neatly to the Haydn.  The Menuet Antique follows next.  It is one of the more ubiquitous compositions of Ravel and listeners familiar with the composer’s work will doubtless recognize it as it appears in the Sonatine and the piano suite (later orchestrated), Le Tombeau de Couperin.

We then get to hear a lesser known masterwork by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), his Concertino for String Quartet (1920).  This is early Stravinsky but he clearly thought highly of this piece as he later orchestrated it in 1953 for small ensemble.  It is only about six and a  half minutes long but listeners will be able to discern this as a masterful work by the composer who had already produced his three great ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.  Nothing that earth shaking here but the hand of the artist can clearly be heard.

The disc ends rather enigmatically perhaps with a transcription of the very brief Menuet in C sharp minor which clocks in at under a minute.  The end result is a tasty little resume of an emerging chamber group that one hopes will bring another interesting perspective on the genre of the string quartet.  This is an auspicious and most listenable debut.

Christopher Bailey: Glimmering Webs, New Piano Music


glimwebs

I admit to some trepidation when I received this 2 disc set of piano music by an unfamiliar composer.  Even in the best of circumstances the “double album” concept can be a trying thing even to fans of a given artist.  I think I recall some similar trepidation confronting the newly released Elton John Yellow Brick Road double album.  I invoke some pop sensibility here in part for humor but also because that sensibility is one of the many threads that imbue this rather massive collection of pieces.

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Christopher Bailey

Christopher Bailey is a freelance composer who holds degrees from Eastman (BA, 1995) and Columbia University (MA, 1997 and PhD, 2002).  This is the eighth disc to contain his music though only the second to be dedicated entirely to his works (and his first double album).

The first disc is a journey of styles ranging from electroacoustic music (like the opening track which resembles the work of Mario Davidovsky at times) to several whose inspiration seems to venture closer to that of Pierre Boulez and ends with a lengthy sort of post minimalist piece appropriately titled, Meditation.  The composer says in his liner notes that this piece is his homage to “ambient music” and in particular, Harold Budd. The second track is a piece which is a sort of deconstruction of a Hall and Oates song, the pop sensibility to which I referred earlier.  And, yes, there is some nod to microtonalism as well.  Can you say eclectic?

The second disc contains the large Piano Sonata and a host of smaller works in various styles ranging from neo-classical to microtonal.

In the rambling liner notes the composer provides useful clues as to the genesis and intent of some of his ideas.  One need not read the notes to appreciate the music but the clarity that they provide was useful to this listener. More notes would have been appreciated though.  The composer’s and the pianists’ web sites are certainly useful but I doubt that the average listener will spend that much time researching these things and is then left with gaps in information and consequently in understanding.

The composition dates here range from 1994 to 2013 and embrace a wide swath of styles all with a strongly virtuosic aspect.  The second disc starts with the brief Prelude-Fantasy on the So-Called Armageddon Chord (2011).  The title is almost longer than the piece and, while it’s a fine work, the placement at the beginning of the disc preceding the major opus of his four movement Piano Sonata (1994/1996/2006) is a bit confusing.

I don’t mean to quibble with such things as track order and such but I was left with a sense of difficulty focusing.  Here is a large collection of music which ranges through pretty much the entire gamut of the last 200 years of music and it is presented en masse.  I think some re-ordering might have been helpful but that is one of the difficulties with multiple disc issues.  I listened numerous times to these discs and find the sheer volume and diversity a bit overwhelming.  It is as though this is too much for a single release.

Bailey says that the sonata is an homage to Stravinsky and those neo-classical elements are certainly clear but this listener hears some ghosts of Charles Ives and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke as well.  The Sonata seems to be the highlight here.   It is wonderfully complex, kaleidoscopic, loaded with quotation, even grandiose at times, but eminently listenable and it is a highly entertaining piece also because of it’s virtuosity which is ably handled by the performer.

There are apparently three pianists on this recording, Jacob Rhodebeck, Shiau-Uen Ding and Augustus Arnone.  The problem is that it is not clear from the labeling or the notes who plays what.  This is actually a fascinating and engaging collection, well played, but I was surprised to be unable to attribute the various virtuosities to the deserving performers.

The recording, mastered by Silas Brown, is as good as it gets.  Overall quite a collection but one that left me with many questions as well.  Perhaps that was, at least partly, the intent but it is my hope that these ambiguities will not distract the listener and that more releases will be forthcoming.  This is very interesting music deserving of serious attention.

 

 

 

Filling Vital Gaps in the Recorded Repertoire: The Walden Chamber Players Do America


walden ch pl evolution

The only name that might not be familiar to fans of early to mid-twentieth century American music feature in this recording is that of Marion Bauer (1882-1955).  The rest of these composers are clearly established in both recordings and the performing repertoire.  One of the great things about this recording is that the collector runs practically no risk of duplication.  While the Rorem, Barber and Bowles have been recorded before I am not aware of any currently available recordings of the Thomson, Copland and Bauer pieces.

I don’t know how profoundly significant all these works are, only time (and more performances/recordings) will tell.  But these are attractive pieces that fill historical gaps and that is apparently the goal of this clever ensemble.  Even if these are not first order masterpieces they do speak to the historical evolution of the American sound in the twentieth century.

Marion Bauer is herself in need of a reassessment.  This woman, 20 years older than Aaron Copland was essential in the establishment of the foundational institutions of American music.  Few of her works have been recorded and even fewer given good or great recordings.  So this 1944 Trio Sonata No. 1 recording is a very good start.  This, like the other works on the album do not stray far from basic romantic tonality but were the “modern” idiom for the works of their day.  The sound of mid-century neo-romanticism is clearly in evidence in this lovely and lyrical three movement sonata.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) is now better known for his excellent music criticism but he was also one of the finest examples of the American neo-romantic tradition (and the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for a film score) and his work is sadly under-appreciated. The five brief movements are infused with the composer’s folk and hymn references like much of his work.  I do not think this lovely little Serenade for Flute and Violin (1941) has been recorded before and, hearing it now, I can’t imagine why not.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is represented here by two late works from 1971 and 1973, both entitled Threnody.  The first is dedicated to Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the second to Copland’s friend Beatrice Cunningham.

As far as I know this is the first recording of these two works.  They are short and intense pieces whose apparent simplicity most likely belies some complexity but these are very approachable works.  It is a great service to have them available for listening.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is probably the foremost representative of American romanticism.  The brief Canzone for Flute and Piano (1961) was originally written for a friend.  The melody made its way into Barber’s Piano Concerto Op. 38 (1962) and has been given the opus number 38a.

Ned Rorem (1923- ), composer and diarist is also a strong contender for the romantic crown in American music.  He is the youngest of the composers represented on this recording (though this reviewer would like to make the case to perhaps include David Del Tredici 1937- for inclusion in this survey of mid-century American romantics).  Best known for his songs, Rorem’s orchestral and chamber music have only recently begun to get the attention they deserve.

His Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1960) is very strong example of the quality of his chamber music.  The four movement trio has been recorded before but this performance is about as fine and definitive as one could imagine.

Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is far better known for his literary endeavors and is connected to the beat writers.  His novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949) secured his literary fame.  Bowles spent much less time on composition after 1956 but his music has (though painfully slowly) been going through some reckoning in recent years.  And so it should.  This contemporary of Aaron Copland  has written a fair amount of music, much of that in the form of incidental music for various plays.  This Sonata for Flute and Piano (1932) has been recorded before but it is good to see it made available in a competent recent version.

Ned Rorem, the only composer here still living, gets the final word in The Unquestioned Answer (2002).  It is essentially a reflection on Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question (1908, rev. 1930-5) and provides a fitting conclusion to this wonderful survey.

I very favorably reviewed a previous release by the Walden Chamber Players (Marianne Gedigian, flute; Curtis Macomber, violin; Tatiana Dimitraes, violin; Christof Huebner, viola; Ashima Scripp, cello and Jonathan Bass, piano).  And they continue their intelligent and very personal survey of chamber music.

This is a very satisfying album which achieves its goal of displaying music which clearly contributes to the collective voice of American music as it developed in the early to mid- twentieth century.  This intelligent selection of music, well-performed, fills gaps in the recorded repertoire and, one hope, will encourage others to bring more of this work to recordings and performances.

 

 

 

 

RIP Elliott Carter


ElliottCarter (1908-2012)

Yesterday the music world lost one of it’s longest lived citizens.  Elliott Carter died aged 103.

Many obituaries and appreciations are being written at this moment for this man whose creative career spanned some 80+ years and includes two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards as well as influence on a great deal of students.  Admittedly he is hardly easy listening and a book length conversation with Carter written by one Allen Edwards was appropriately titled, “Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds”.    Outside of musicians and the limited audience of fans of new classical music such as myself are likely to be familiar with this man.  And a moments reflection told me that I cannot make him more familiar by citing any one of his musical works.

But his lack of familiarity is a product of his style and vision, not a commentary on his value as an artist.  That said I know of only a handful of friends and acquaintances who would be willing to sit through any performances of his music.  Like his contemporary Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) he pursued his own vision and succeeded very well in establishing himself as a major, if underappreciated, composer.

Carter whose early interest in music was encouraged by Charles Ives was present at the American premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’.  Along with a great deal of 20th century composers he studied with the venerable Nadia Boulanger in Paris of the 1930s.  Boulanger’s circle included the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky and numerous others of that fascinating period.

Curiously there is yet to be a comprehensive biography of this man and I look forward to reading one when it becomes available.  Anybody know of anyone working on this?

Born into a wealthy family Carter had little reason to be concerned about things financial.  Carter focused on the composing of music.  He was not a performer.  His style initially owed a great deal to Stravinsky and had a neo-romantic sound not unlike that of fellow Boulanger student Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber.

In the 1950s his style began to take on what would become his mature style.  It was characterized by methods related to Schoenberg’s twelve tone system and an idiosyncratic approach to tempo which he called “metric modulation”.  His style was challenging for both performers and listeners but this did not prevent him from twice winning the Pulitzer Prize (for the 2nd String Quartet in 1960 and the 3rd String Quartet in 1973).  His work has been embraced by many of the major performers and orchestras of our time and he was a fixture among the musical cognoscenti of New England.  He was appointed to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981.

His 5 String Quartets (1951, 1959, 1971, 1984, 1995) are likely the most significant development in that genre since Bartok.  Those along with his Variations for Orchestra (1954-55), Concerto for Orchestra (1969), Piano Concerto (1964), Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), Violin Concerto (1989), Piano Sonata (1945-6), Symphonia (1993-96) and Double Concerto (1959-61) all make my shortlist of his best work.

And there are a great deal more pieces with which I am less familiar which Carter wrote in his remarkably prolific later years.  He added about 54 new works to his catalog from age 90 until his death just short of his 104th birthday.  No doubt many of these will also claim a regular place in the repertoire.

Sometimes characterized as one of the “three C’s” of American music (Copland, Cage, Carter) he influenced many composers, performers and, in my case, listeners.  Though difficult at times I find his work ultimately rewarding.  His passing is truly the end of an era and his legacy is rich.