Bis Recordings Takes on Ben-Haim


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Israeli composers are too little known so this album of the music of Paul Ben-Haim is particularly welcome.  BIS records is known for its quality recordings and its attention to neglected repertoire.  Hopefully this is only the first release and BIS will go on to record more of this man’s work as they have with so many other neglected masters.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich.  He moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933 as the Nazis took power.  He has become known, for better or worse, as the Israeli Aaron Copland.  Indeed there are parallels between the two composers in terms of their embrace of mid-twentieth century romanticism and, to some degree, nationalism.  He worked as an assistant to Bruno Walter at one point.

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Portrait of Paul Ben-Haim from Wikipedia

A quick glance at Wikipedia will reveal that he mentored many composers including Ben Zion-Orgad, Zvi Avni, Eliahu Inbal, Henri Lazarof, Shulamit Ran, and Ami Maayani among many others.  Leonard Bernstein recorded Ben-Haim’s “Sweet Psalmist of Israel” and was supportive of the composer’s work.  He was very influential during his lifetime and the neglect of his work is hard to fathom.

Much of Ben-Haim’s work has been recorded to be sure but it tends to get little airplay and few concert performances.  As is true for many countries it is difficult to get music by Israeli composers in the United States (Is this true in other countries?).  This release from the Swedish based BIS records with its distribution network may be a partial remedy to that problem.

The Violin Concerto of 1960 is the big work here.  It has been recorded previously, most notably by the wonderful Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman.  It is filled out with his 1942 Evocation “Yizkor” for violin and orchestra and some chamber pieces, the Three Songs Without Words (1951) and Berceuse Sfaradite (1945) both for violin and piano.  In addition there is an arrangement for violin and piano of the composer’s well known Toccata (1943) for piano.  And in keeping with the violin theme the world premiere recording of his Three Studies (1981) for solo violin rounds out this wonderful survey of the composer’s work.

Itamar Zorman is the soloist and this, not his first release, is a major statement in his career.  Zorman previously released a violin and piano album with more conventional repertoire but this is his first release playing with an orchestra.  Having demonstrated his facility with the conventional repertoire he seems to be blazing a path beyond.

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Portrait of the Artist from his website

The album opens with the highly romantic Evocation “Yizkor” (1942) reflecting the composer’s style as developed in his native Germany.  The disc basically follows the order of composition except for the last two tracks.  This gives some sense of the composer’s evolution over his substantial career and the album includes the composer’s last work.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is ably conducted by Philippe Bach in the Evocation and the Concerto and Amy Yang is the very busy accompanist in the violin and piano pieces.  Mr. Zorman himself contributed the lucid liner notes.

Having just reviewed another fine album which included a Ben-Haim piece it was particularly delightful to receive this recording.  It brings this important music to a new generation of listeners.  Also toward that goal the following link will take the interested reader to a comprehensive list of the the recordings of this composer’s work.  The link is here.

 

 

Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler 6th on BIS


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I have heard varying opinions on the conducting skills of Osmo Vänskä.  He is the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003 and, prior to that, a conductor of the wonderful Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  I very favorably reviewed his Kullervo disc from last year.

The Mahler 6th and, I suppose, with pretty much any Mahler there are many critiques of the music and the performances.  So many complexities with tempo, handling the massive orchestra to bring out one nuance or another, order of movements, etc.  One thing is for certain, no Mahler aficionado will be satisfied with only one recording of each of his works.  There appear to be no definitive recordings agreed upon by all.  By contrast most people seem satisfied with perhaps Herbert von Karajan’s interpretation of the Beethoven Symphonies as being at least a good starting point.

One must recall that Mahler’s music was not well appreciated for a number of years.  Though he gave performances of all his major works interest in them faded rather quickly after his death in 1911.  Performances did occur but critics generally regarded Mahler’s music as dismissable efforts calling it “conductor’s music”.  It wasn’t until Leonard Bernstein began earnestly performing these works that the current cult of Mahler actually took root.

I preface my review with these comments to say that I enjoyed this disc immensely with its gorgeous sonics (as always with BIS).  Vänskä produces a lucid performance which differs from many in tempo choices and such but seems, to this reviewer’s ears, to do justice to this large and masterful work.  In the end the experience is one of a valid performance (he places the slow movement as second) which provides another view of this complex work.  And part of the cult of Mahler, it seems, is the need to own multiple performances.

This may not be the only Mahler Sixth you will want to own but it is definitely worth hearing, preferably on a good sound system.

Lara Downes’ Bernstein Tribute


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Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today.  Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established.  She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy.  Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.

The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes.  Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.

This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.

Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.

My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.

This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives.  Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree.  This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.

In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater.  This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends.  Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording.  Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.

This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate.  And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults.  From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas.  Generations have been forever changed by him.

The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically.  She clearly has a real feel for this music.  This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows.  It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying.  The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.

This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?”  Brava!  And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.

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.

Samuel Barber in Perspective, A New Documentary


It is surprising that this first ever documentary on American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) comes some 36 years after his passing.  This two time Pulitzer Prize winner whose now ubiquitous Adagio for strings was first championed by Arturo Toscanini was much lauded and performed during his lifetime.  His two grand operas (Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra) were performed at the Metropolitan Opera and his increasingly popular Violin Concerto was first recorded by Isaac Stern with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Barber’s music is a personal favorite of this writer.  This mid-century neo-romantic master is gaining greater recognition through an increasing number of performances and recordings so this release would seem to be a timely one.  

Filmmaker H. Paul Moon will be screening an discussing the film ahead of its March 23rd release on disc.  The screening will be at the Jarvis Conservatory at 1711 Main Street in Napa, CA at 7 PM on Friday, February 10. It will be preceded by a performance of the justly famed Adagio for Strings in its original form for string quartet.

The trailer is available for viewing at the website noted above and the site contains further info about rental and purchase.

Alberto Ginastera at 100


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Oberlin Conservatory OC 16-04

Let me start by saying that the only thing wrong with this album is that it is only one CD. Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is without doubt one of the finest composers of the twentieth century.  Stylistically he holds much in common with composers like his contemporaries Aaron Copland (with whom he studied), Carlos Chavez, Leonard Bernstein and others who incorporated the spirit if not always the literal music of his homeland’s folk culture into his music.  In additional to these nationalist works he wrote a substantial amount of traditional concert music which touched on the edges of modernistic trends.

He wrote three operas, two ballets. two piano concertos, two cello concertos, a harp concerto, three string quartets, a bevy of piano music and sundry other items.  It is simply not possible to contain a fair representation of his work on a single CD.  Despite that this disc is not a bad retrospective.  It is lovingly played and recorded and if it does not represent the whole of Ginastera’s oeuvre it is a nice sampling.

The disc begins with the wonderful Harp Concerto Op. 25 (1956, rev. 1968).  Though originally commissioned by Edna Phillips (principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra) she had retired before she could perform it and it was premiered in 1965 by the amazing Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.  This three movement work is certainly one of the composer’s finest works and is beautifully played by Yolanda Kondonassis with the Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jiménez.  This piece is one of the finest modern harp concertos and is representative of the composer’s international style with perhaps just a taste of modernism.

Next up is the single movement Pampeana Op. 16 (1947) with the great Gil Shaham on violin and his sister Orli Shaham on piano.  This is a sort of window on Ginastera’s earliest nationalist style full of melody and virtuosity.

The next work is the Sonata for Guitar Op. 47 (1976) played by Grammy winning virtuoso Jason Vieaux.  I had not heard this work and my first hearing was indeed a revelation.  This is a major work for guitar and a wonderful sonata in the classical form.  I gave these four tracks a few listens in an attempt to digest some of their beauty and complexity and I will doubtless give them many more listens.  This is a major piece that belongs in the repertory.

And, finally, we move to the earliest utterance here with the Danzas Argentinas Op. 2 (1937) in an exciting and dedicated performance from Orli Shaham.

The sound is wonderful and there are a geekily satisfying set of liner notes which include a useful analysis by James O’Leary, Frederick B. Selch Assistant Professor of Musicology, Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  All in all a beautiful production and a great introduction to Ginastera’s work but please, don’t stop here.  Make sure you get to hear his other work and perhaps the wonderful folks at Oberlin will consider a volume two?

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.