New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri


OUR 6.220674

Sunleif Rasmussen is the best known composer from the Faroe Islands which are about mid way between Iceland and Denmark. He turned 60 on March 19th. He is certainly lauded in his homeland but his works have demonstrated him to be an artist whose reputation can hardly be contained by a single country. His works favorably compare with the finest composers from all of the Nordic countries (Iceland, Faroe Islands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland). His work is known, as it should be, internationally.

This most recent release on the Danish label OUR Recordings contains music written between 2009 and 2014. All of these works are collaborations with the wonderful recorder player Michala Petri, a Danish artist whose name is as easily recognized as predecessors like David Munrow and Frans Brüggen. She is arguably the first lady of the recorder and the instruments most prominent advocate having first taken up the instrument at the age of three. and gone on to play over 4000 concerts.

The recorder is featured in several different contexts from solo to collaborations with choral, chamber, and orchestral groups. These contexts serve to demonstrate Petri’s facility as a performer as well as Rasmussen’s range of compositional vision.

The album opens with Flow (2012) for recorder and string trio. Here Petri is joined by the Esbjerg Ensemble String Trio with Bogdan Bozovic, violin; Michele Camile, viola; and Pau Codina Masferrer, cello. The piece was conceived as a companion piece to Mozart’s Flute Quartet K.285 (for flute and string trio). This work, in three movements utilizes a variety of extended techniques on the recorder and Petri’s collaboration was essential to provide the composer with information of the possibilities of such techniques with her instrument. The string writing is also laden with harmonics and techniques that were virtually unknown in Mozart’s time. To be clear, this “companion” piece is more homage than imitation but there are phrases which are clearly neoclassical nods to the Austrian master.

“I” (2011) is for the unusual grouping of recorder with chamber choir (with alto and tenor soloists) in a setting of a poem by Danish poet Inger Christensen whose text is a response to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”(1917). Christensen’s poem is a personal (and dare I say feminist) response to Stevens’ classic work. Lyrical writing in the composer’s essentially tonal idiom belie the intricate structures of this brief setting. It is clearly a challenge for all but the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under their director Stephen Layton, along with Petri, deliver a truly excellent performance.

Next up is a piece for solo recorder, “Sorrow and Joy Fantasy” (2011), essentially a set of variations on a theme. It is based on a folk melody which was applied to the Thomas Kingo (1634-1703) sacred poem/hymn, Sorrow and Joy. There are twelve variations each with increasing demands on the soloist. It is a stunning vehicle for Petri’s lyricism and virtuosity.

Next is “Winter Echoes” (2014), an homage to the late Danish master Axel Borup-Jørgensen whose work has been championed by OUR records. This piece, scored for recorder and 13 solo strings. Petri is accompanied by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under Clemens Schuldt. It sounds like a concerto in all but name. The piece requires Petri to play bass, tenor, alto, soprano and sopranino recorders as the piece progresses from low to high, dark to light. Extended instrumental techniques are present for the recorder soloist and the the string players.

The final piece, and the one from which this album derives its title, is “Territorial Songs” (2009). This concerto for recorder and orchestra finds Petri accompanied by the Aaborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen. It is cast in five movements. The composer states that he was inspired by bird song in composing this piece, an inspiration shared by Olivier Messiaen most famously but also by composers who have written for the recorder. Again we have music that is lyrical, basically tonal, and virtuosic for both soloist and orchestra. Rasmussen’s facility with orchestral color make for an exciting listening experience and, as always, Petri meets the considerable demands with grace and seeming ease.

The recording, as seems to be the case with all The OUR Recordings that have met these ears, is bright and clear. The liner notes include a statement from the composer and a very welcome and useful set of liner notes by my friend and colleague Joshua Cheek who alerted me to this release. He provides insight and detail that enhance one’s appreciation of the music. The photography and design are both beautiful and distinctive. Lars Hannibal deserves high marks for his work as producer. It is a fine 60th birthday gift to Maestro Rasmussen and a major release for Ms. Petri. If you don’t know Rasmussen’s work (or Petri’s for that matter) this is a fine introduction that will have the listener craving more.

Michala Petri and Sunleif Rasmussen at Other Minds in San Francisco, 2013

Michala Petri in the 21st Century


amerecorder

OUR Recordings 8.226912

Since her debut in the mid 1970s Michala Petri has proven herself as one of the great masters of the recorder.  The recorder is an instrument which, until the 20th century was pretty much only heard in music written before 1750 or so.  Many previous masters such as David Munrow and Franz Brüggen restricted their playing to early music.  Petri has certainly broken that mold.  She has mastered baroque, renaissance and contemporary music for her instrument as her recent releases demonstrate.  And her skills as a musician have only grown stronger and more convincing.

This disc is her celebration of American music for the recorder.  We hear four 21st century concerti for the recorder.  Composers include Roberto Sierra (1953- ), Steven Stucky (1949-2016), Anthony Newman (1941- ), and (a new name to this reviewer) Sean Hickey (1970- ).  These are fine compositions but they are basically mainstream sort of neo-romantic/neo-classical/neo-baroque works.  These are all finely crafted compositions but nothing here is experimental.  Despite the names all are basically concerti which highlight the interplay between soloist and ensemble.  Therein lies the joy.

The disc begins with Roberto Sierra (1953- ) wrote his “Prelude, Habanera, and Perpetual Motion (2016) as an expansion of an earlier recorder and guitar piece but, obviously, with a great deal of expansion and orchestration.  Despite its colorful title the work is basically a concerto and a fine one at that.  Petri here performs with the Tivoli Copenhagen Philharmonic under Alexander Shelley.  From Sierra’s web page there is a link to a video of the premiere here.  Sierra, born in Puerto Rico, affirms his skills as a composer in this exciting work.

Next up is music of the late Steven Stucky (1949-2016) sadly known almost as much for his recent demise as for his compositions.  However Petri’s performance of his “Etudes” (2000) for recorder and orchestra goes a long way to affirming some of the gravity of the talent we lost and the wonderful legacy he left.  The Danish National Symphony under Lan Shui do a fine job of handling the complex orchestral accompaniment and Petri shines as always.  This concerto is in three movements titled: Scales, Glides, and Arpeggios respectively.

Anthony Newman (1941- ) is a name that must be familiar to classical recording buyers in the late 1970s into the 1980s when Newman’s exciting recordings of Bach dominated record sales.  It is no wonder that he composed an essentially neo-baroque concerto pitting the recorder against an ensemble consisting of a harpsichord (deliciously played by Newman) and a string quartet (in this case the Nordic String Quartet).  Clearly a more suitable sized ensemble that might have been used in the 18th century.  This is the only piece on this album that is actually called a concerto by its composer.  Concerto for recorder, harpsichord, and strings (2016) in four movements (Toccata, Devil’s Dance, Lament, and Furie) shows this performer, musicologist, and composer at the height of his powers in this lovingly crafted work.

Last (and certainly not least as the cliché goes) least is by a composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, Sean Hickey (1970- ) is also the youngest composer here.  His A Pacifying Weapon (2015) is subtitled, “Concerto for Recorder, Winds, Brass, Percussion and Harp” which tells you about the rather gargantuan dimensions of his work.  While not representing a specific “program” the work is the only one on this CD that espouses some political content.  The title reflects the composer’s desire to use this concerto to represent some of his response to “current events”.  The three movements are simply numbered 1, 2, and 3.  I can only begin to imagine the problems of balancing the little recorder against such a huge and loud ensemble but the Royal Danish Academy of Music under conductor Jean Thorel are clearly up to the task.

Hickey originally hails from Detroit and is now based in New York.  A quick perusal of his web page suggests that listeners like your humble reviewer have much to hear from this up and coming young composer.

All these are world premiere recordings which show Michala Petri at the height of her powers.  Indeed she is an international treasure whose instrumental skills and her range of repertory continue to amaze and entertain her audience.  The recording under Lars Hannibal’s direction is, as usual, lucid and very listenable.  Joshua Cheeks liner notes save this writer a great deal of research time and pretty much answered all this listener’s questions.

Happy listening all.  This recording has it going on at many levels.

 

 

 

 

 

Axel Borup-Jørgensen’s Floating Islands, New Music for Guitar


jorgensen

OUR Recordings 6.220672

OUR recordings (Lars Hannibal, producer) continues its survey of the inexplicably little known Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924-2012).  I first encountered this composer when I received for review the earlier disc of his percussion music (reviewed here) and later when I received the CD/DVD of his orchestral music (reviewed here).  He belongs to a lineage of Danish composers whose work dominated the Danish music scene of the mid to late twentieth century and just a dip in the water of the twenty first.

The lucid liner notes by my esteemed colleague Joshua Cheek put the composer in context where his reputation lives among his contemporaries Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000), and his students Per Nørgard (1932- ), Ib Nørholm (1931- ), and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932-2016).  Indeed these are the names to know if you want to learn about post 1950s classical music in Denmark.

This disc focuses on his guitar music and features the fine young Danish guitarist Frederik Munk Larsen who studied with Erling Moldrup for whom the composer wrote some of his music.  His virtuosity, passion, and commitment to this music are evident in the careful readings of this somewhat diverse music ranging from the Preambula, Op. 72 (1974-76) to the Floating Islands, Op. 169 (2000-2), a series of pieces which, appropriately, float in amongst the other tracks (in non-adjacent tracks).

The recording, as seems to be the standard of this label, is quite excellent and lucid.  This is not a complete recording of the guitar music but a representative selection which will  hopefully lead to another volume of guitar works and a recording of his Guitar Concerto “deja vu”, Op. 99.

There are 19 tracks with most  lasting 5 minutes or less (he is not afraid of brevity when it suits his compositional needs) but the early Preambula, Op. 72 and the Für Gitarre, Op. 86 each take some 15 minutes in performance.  All of the music comes across as carefully crafted and the briefer pieces contain worlds unto themselves as do the longer ones.  No electronics, maybe just a few extended techniques, mostly just good music for the competent guitarist (worthy of note is that the producer, Lars Hannibal is a highly accomplished guitarist himself).

The music is enjoyable but this is also a very important historical document (with excellent documentation) which nicely fills a gap in the historical record of the story of classical music in Denmark.  As a result I will leave it to the listener to peruse the very useful liner notes as they learn of this unique composer’s oeuvre.  And of course enthusiasts of guitar music will be enthralled as well.

Leegowoon’s First Piece: Korean Post-Modernism?


leegowoon

OGUN Music JEC- 0253

This review was completed by chance on International Women’s Day.  It is not intended to stand in for all that means but I am pleased to present this woman’s work today.

Lee Go Woon is a composer new to this reviewer.  My friend Joshua Cheek has been sending me occasional shipments of some really hard to find releases from the western edge of the Pacific Rim.  There are some amazing gems being released from Korea, China, Japan, etc. that rarely find distribution in the United States and this is one of those discs.

One thing these discs (classical or popular) seem to have in common is a serious attention to art work and album design.  It is enough to start people like me whining about the loss of the 12 x 12 format of the LP which brought about the genre of album art, something I can never stop lamenting I’m afraid.

Well, it’s not just pretty pictures though.  This is a curious disc by young Korean woman who is familiar with traditional Korean classical music and apparently with other genres as well.  Korean classical is less well known to the general public in America than its analogous counterparts in Japan, China, Thailand, India, etc. but it is a fascinating and ancient system of music with its own set of artfully designed instruments.

Cultural appropriation has become a strongly pejorative term these days but what happens if an artist is appropriating their own culture?  What I mean is, for example, the incorporation of traditional Hindustani instruments and idioms in the hybrid pop of Bollywood music or similar such mashups with Chinese or Japanese traditional musics.  These are creative options and, while not necessarily a cherished part of so called “high culture”, are nonetheless acceptable and marketable options.  It is a hybridization or perhaps something like “self appropriative” or simply promoting?

The incorporation of traditional music is akin to the work done by composers like Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Aaron Copland, and that whole late 19th and early 20th century fascination with folk and traditional music spurred on by late romantic nationalisms.  The present disc fits roughly in that tradition, just being done in the 21st century and it does not appear to be about nationalism either.

Lee Go Woon’s first piece is basically a song cycle written for voices (one male, one female) and an orchestra comprised of traditional Korean instruments.  It is not the synthesis of east and west that one finds in Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps (1967).  It is not really at all about the west at all.  And it is therein that the real interest lies.

The composer studied piano as a child and later she studied traditional percussion instruments.  She graduated from the Korea National University of Arts in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree and attained a Master’s Degree from the same school in 2016.  She received a Gold Medal in the 31st Korean Traditional Music Competition the same year.

Korea has, perhaps more than many countries, had their traditional culture undermined by military occupations, bombings, forced relocations, etc.  The fact that there have been 31 years of competitions attempting to recover some of their precious musical culture is certainly reason for hope and these first compositions by one of their finest new composers is a reason to listen.

Unfortunately the liner notes in that beautiful booklet are mostly in Korean and I haven’t been able to find someone to impose upon for a translation.  But I can tell you that the album has 5 tracks and that the music is quite listenable.  It would be helpful to know the text of the sung portions but the music speaks pretty well for itself.  The recording is lucid and there is quite a bit of definition to bring out the subtleties of the instruments and the performances are wonderful.

Happily this music can be heard via MP3 downloads on Amazon as well as via various streaming services.  Hopefully there will be more to hear as Korea moves on and recovers more of its rich culture and shares it with the world.

 

 

Zhang Zhao’s Myths of China 


Rhymoi RMCD- 1067

The strikingly beautiful look of the physical CD and the packaging are practically an indictment of streaming and digital music formats.  Producer Ye Yunchuan is the founder of Rhymoi, an audiophile label dedicated to contemporary Chinese music.  If this release is any indication it would be wise to pay attention his work.  Besides the excellence of the physical product the quality of the recording will please the ears of the staunchest audiophile.

Zhang Zhao is apparently one of China’s best known living composers (at least in China) and said producer favors us with a truly grand release.  Some of Zhang’s piano works are standard test pieces for conservatory students and this recording reveals his unquestionable mastery of orchestral technique and a mastery of a variety of traditional Chinese instruments as well.  Though biographical specifics are sparse this composer has a growing discography and the present disc demonstrates a highly skilled compositional voice.

This ambitious project is essentially a tone poem or series of tone poems (think Smetana’s Ma Vlast) on stories from a collection of Chinese myths called the Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas) a large collection of stories dating from the 4th Century B.C.  I don’t know how well these stories are known in contemporary China but this is a vast and rich culture that has deservedly survived its own sociopolitical dynamics and continues to inspire new artistic endeavors from its rich legacies.  It is no wonder that the composer found inspiration here.

The composer has chosen 11 stories from the big 18 chapter work.  The setting is for large orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, and at least 21 solo instruments which include both western classical and traditional Chinese instruments.  Such a large and diverse set of instruments poses a challenge by itself but the composer succeeds well due in part to having some of the country’s finest musicians whose mastery of these (to most western ears) obscure instruments is clear.  The orchestral musicians and choruses also demonstrate a high level of skill and commitment.  And the composer succeeds very well in integrating such diverse instruments quite comfortably into the larger mostly western classical fabric.  It is reminiscent of Tan Dun’s large Symphony which incorporated a set of ancient Chinese bells into its texture and similarly pays homage to great traditions.

The 11 sections are beautifully illustrated both by calligraphy and line drawings by Dong Xiaqingqing.   Thankfully there are lucid texts in English by Joshua Cheek and Nicholas Angiers describing the myths and giving some clues to some of the interpretive intentions of the composer’s musical choices.  These greatly enhance the enjoyment for those unfamiliar with this lovely mythology.

The sections are:

1. Pangu Separates Heaven and Earth

2. Yao and Shun Discuss Morality

3. Yu the Great Controls the Floods

4. Chang’ e Flies to the Moon

5. The War on Chiyou

6. The Tears of Xianfei

7. Nuwa Repairs the Sky

8. The Peach Banquet

9. Kuafu Chases the Sun

10. The Goddess of the Luo River

11. Fuxi-Ultumate Harmony

Soloists include:

Qin: Zhao Jiazhen

Erhu: Wang Ying

Guzheng: Chang Jing/Ding Xueer

Pipa: Yu Yuanchun/Dong Xiaolin/Sun Jing

Chinese Harp: Wu Lin

Di/Xiao/Xun: Ding Xiaokui/Li Yue

Ruan: Di Lin/Zhao Yue

Suona: Wang Rongfei/Yao Di/Shang Shuai

Liuquin: Di Yang/Pan Yuechen

Yangquin: Wang YuJue

Hansheng: Shan Chunshen

Lusheng: Yang Shengwen

Khoomei: Li Wenbin

Morin Khuur: Hasibagen

Violin: Zhao Kunyu

Cello: Yang Changying

Brass: Qin Guochen/Zhao Xiu/Jia Hui/Mi Qi

Woodwinds: Cao Lei/Yang Yilin/Xie Hongliang/Ren Biao

Harp: Zhang Xiaoyin

Percussion: Zhang Yangsheng/Tian Wei

Piano: Zhang Zhao

Music Assistant: Li Yongmin

This writer has but a passing familiarity with a few of these traditional instruments but the sonic colors are used to great and sometimes subtle effect.  It is a huge sonic tapestry and the  lush and full sound are the result of the skills of sound engineer Zhang Xiao’an.

It is important to note that this disc does not have an experimental feel but rather utilizes a range of compositional devices whose end result leans toward an easily digestible experience which successfully avoids bland populism while creating a lucid musical experience.  It is music that would doubtless be welcomed in most orchestral programs and contains great depths of invention and descriptive power.  It is grand and perhaps cinematic in scope as are the best works in the tone poem genre.