I’m a couple of weeks late for Black History Month but right in the middle of International Women’s Month. Both of these groups are woefully under represented in the arts, hence the need to put more energy and funding into the promotion such as we see in this fine release from Azica records..
This is the second volume by the enterprising Catalyst Quartet‘s project to find and record chamber music by black composers. The first volume focused on the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) and the present album focuses on Florence B. Price (1887-1953). Price was the first black woman to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra when the Chicago Symphony under then music director, Frederick Stock performed her 1932 Symphony in E minor in June, 1933.
In fact Price’s music had nearly been lost when, in 2009, a cache of her scores was discovered in her abandoned summer house near St. Anne, Illinois (by the structure’s new owners). Price had written nearly 300 works which, until recently, had been all but forgotten. Since then three of her four symphonies (the second one is lost) have been recorded along with many of her smaller works. This recording marks the most comprehensive presentation of her extant chamber music: Two string quartets (one apparently unfinished), two piano quintets, and two sets of contrapuntal variations on folk tunes for string quartet.
This digital only release is the equivalent of two CDs. And, while the digital only status is a reflection of the lack of funding for music of blacks and women, it is very important that recognition be given to this very fine effort of musical archeology rescuing important American art from oblivion. The Catalyst Quartet consists of Karla Donehew Perez, violin; Abi Fayette, violin; Paul Laraia, viola; and Karlos Rodriguez, cello. They are joined by pianist Michelle Cann in the piano quintets.
The recording starts out mightily with the Brahmsian Piano Quintet in A minor of 1935. This is a major work which can hold its own with similar works by Brahms, Schumann, Faure, Franck, Dvorak, etc.
The work is cast in four movements. The opening movement, marked “Allegro non troppo”, immediately affirms Price’s mastery of compositional technique with a lengthy elaborate development and some virtuosic writing for both quartet and piano. The “Andante con moto” which comprises the second movement is also evidence of Price’s skills and talent. It is a lyrical essay which provides a respite from the intensity of the opening movement and demonstrates the composer’s melodic prowess.
There are two shorter movements that follow. Juba is the name of a dance form which was imported along with the slave trade from the African continent. It is known variously as “juba”, “djouba”, “pattin juba”, and “hambone”. Price was fond of using this form in her work and the inclusion of folk and vernacular music in classical compositions was very much in fashion during this era as evidenced by the work of Dvorak, Bartok, Kodaly, Copland, Dawson, and Still. Price used the form in her symphonies, the present piano quintet, and the A minor String Quartet. The work concludes with a brief scherzo movement, another device which Price used to conclude several of her works.
Next we hear another example of Price’s use of folk music in the first of two sets of arrangements for string quartet. Actually the term, “arrangements” carries a too simple connotation for these works. They are in fact contrapuntal elaborations more in the tradition of Bach in his chorale preludes.
This first set, titled, “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet” which dates from about 1949. It consists of four separate movements: “Go down Moses”, “Somebody’s knockin’ at yo do'”, “Little David play on yo harp”, and “Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho”. This is the world premiere recording of another substantial Price work.
The next work is another world premiere recording, her String Quartet in A minor which received its first public performance in 1936. It is cast in four movements, Moderato, Andante cantabile, Juba, and Finale. With the exception of the Juba movement this is pretty much a standard classical formula. The quartet is another of Price’s major works and, like the Piano Quintet, can stand with its contemporaries in the string quartet repertory. Of course the fact that it had to wait over 80 years to receive a commercial recording serves as part of the preponderance of evidence that the neglect of this music was willful.
The “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet of 1951 is similar in style and structure to the earlier folksong elaborations this time with five songs: “Calvary”, “O my darlin’ Clementine”, “Drink to me only with thine eyes”, “Shortnin’ bread”, and “Swing low sweet chariot”.
The last two works featured in this fine set are also world premiere recordings but these are works that were unknown until that serendipitous find in 2009. These works appear to be incomplete, works that the composer likely set aside and never revisited. They are entirely competent and entertaining works but not on the level of the preceding pieces on this recording. In fact the dates of composition have not been reliably determined and the work of the musicologists must begin in earnest.
The two movements (Allegro and Andante moderato) of the String Quartet in G major are quite satisfying but the expectation of two more (perhaps a Juba and Scherzo?) will forever identify this as an unfinished work.
There are three extant movements in the Quintet for Piano and Strings (Allegro, Andante, Allegretto) suggest the possibility that this work may have been considered complete by the composer. But the level of quality in this work is not up to that of the A minor Quintet. Again it is time to alert the musicologists that there is work to be done and, of course, the possibility of finding more lost scores but having these so lovingly documented does a great deal to secure the composer’s legacy as one of America’s great composers.
A wonderful trend was begun by London/Decca in the early 1990s with the release of their “Entartete Musik” series. It featured music by composers whose work had been suppressed by the dictates of the Nazi regime. It brought to light a great deal of wonderful music by mostly but not entirely Jewish composers many of whom died in concentration camps or were forced to live in exile. These recordings sparked a trend which continues today and this time the Chandos label hosts the efforts of the Toronto based ARC Ensemble whose scholarship and performance skills bring this, the fifth album in this important series. It is saddening to see the sheer volume of these oppressed works evidenced by the seemingly endless flow of new releases in this genre but there is some joy to be had in the fact that this music is slowly getting performances and recognition.
Previous releases featured premiere recordings by Jerzy Fitelberg, Szymon Laks, Walter Kaufmann, and Paul Ben-Haim. Haven’t heard these names? Well, maybe you’ve heard of Paul Ben-Haim, the Jewish/German composer who changed his name (Paul Frankenberger) when he emigrated to Palestine in 1933. The importance of projects like this one is to bring to light the art of composers lost to history and unknown in concert halls due to political oppression and/or outright murder.
This release features music by Jewish/Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1987), a composer whose work displeased the Stalinist regime. He wasn’t put in a concentration camp, he wasn’t killed, he wasn’t even sent into exile in the Gulag. Rather he was forced into a sort of intellectual exile in which he produced music which pleased the regime. But he had been cast as a sort of “whipping boy” by the regime and used as an example in the hopes of preventing others from straying to more liberal and outspoken paths such as those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.Fortunately he outlived Stalin and was able to return to his own personal style of composition. It is this music which is presented here.
The three works from 1946, 1958, and 1965 respectively seem to have been chosen to reflect three fairly distinct eras in Klebanov’s artistic development. Whether these are ultimately representative of those chosen eras seems beside the point which is, I believe, to present a representative sampling of his work to give listeners a taste of his work and to help guide interesting performers and record companies to decide what to record next.
These works will serve to represent this neglected composer for now. There do exist some recordings of this music but these are mostly on small labels and very difficult to find. The hope for this recording and for a project like this is to provide good recordings with authoritative performances which may inspire musicians to explore the remainder of the composer’s work and, hopefully, bring these gems to audiences.
The disc begins with the nearly classical sounding fourth quartet from 1946. Cast in the classical four movements it’s difficult, in 2021, to imagine how this very accessible music could offend Soviet leaders but that is another issue entirely. All music ultimately exists within a variety of contexts but it is only possible to hear this music as it is today, listening with ears that did not exist at the time the music was written. Suffice it to say that this is eminently listenable music played with insight and dedication by the wonderful ARC Ensemble (Erika Raum, violin; Marie Berard, violin; Steven Dann, viola; Thomas Wiebe, cello; and Kevin Ahfat, piano).
The second selection is the Second Piano Trio of 1958. It is cast in three movements, some of which will remind listeners of Shostakovich whose fame and mastery loomed brightly at this time. But neither the rather conservative classical form of a piano trio nor the basically tonal idiom is likely to have charmed Kremlin leaders of the time. This is intelligent music that show the composer at the height of his powers and this, generally speaking, was not appreciated by the powers that be at the time of the work’s genesis.
The last work on the disc is the composer’s fifth string quartet from 1965. Like the two works that precede it in this recording this is music of both substance and charm. It is as listenable as the other two works and would doubtless entertain the average concert goer. It bears comparisons to Shostakovich, yes, but also to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Completists, such as your reviewer here, will wonder at the music not included on this disc: the first three string quartets, the first piano trio, the other chamber music, nine symphonies, and various concerti along with five operas and two ballets. It is both fitting and sad that this overdue review be published at at this moment in history when, as I write, the Russian army advances into the Ukraine leaving death and destruction in their wake. There is doubtless much more music yet to be uncovered/discovered, rescued from oblivion but the sad fact is that the forces which suppressed this Ukrainian composer’s works continue to oppress artists today.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.
Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)
Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.
The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.
This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.
The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.
Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.
“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.
“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.
The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.
I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.
It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but Duo Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.
The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.
This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.
The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.
The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.
The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.
The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.
The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.
This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.
This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting
The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.
In many ways this has been a year of reckoning. I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year. I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year). I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers). Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo. They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark. Please stop by if you can. After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.
Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list. Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts. However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year. The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down). Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience. These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.
The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.
Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure. Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020. For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music. He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music. This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.
Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)
Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got. I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.
A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month. It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year. As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times. I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say. I just hope it serves only to her benefit. Amazing musician.
Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo. This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it. I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales. This is a fun album.
I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts. I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year. The title pretty much says it all. First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.
Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list). If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works. He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work. Very pretty album actually.
This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it. Very leading edge material.
Loved this one. I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention. Hearing this performance was revelatory. It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month. It’s now been read over 2000 times. It is my most read article. It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.
OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb). A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know? About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument. It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging. You really have to see and hear this trilogy. It got over 100 hits. Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year. Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here. The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.
For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.
Keep yer ears peeled. This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch. This was also one of my most read review articles. This guy is making the future of the instrument. Stay tuned.
This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways. Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience. Blues Dialogues is a fine example. It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.
I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen. In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music. It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work. His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.
Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album. The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon. Really wonderful album.
It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention. This release is a fine example which supports that contention. Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer. Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it. In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.
My favorite big label release. This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels. Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release. Not easy listening but deeply substantive.
This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music. “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture. Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams. Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs. I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean. I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done. Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.
OK, I’m a sucker for political classical. But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways. This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.
Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder. Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording. Very listenable and substantive music.
I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach. Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master. Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography. I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed. You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.
The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.
Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite. Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.
Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy. The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago. But what a fine disc this is! The musicianship and scholarship are astounding. Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records. This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet. This one has Grammy written all over it.
This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling. What substance! What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.
Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire. Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.
Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today. Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is. And Cedille scores another must hear.
Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive. It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.
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.
Conjuring the spirits of the 1950s/ 60s avant-garde and a few musical references composer Mathew Rosenblum (1954- ) enlists the klezmer spirit of none other than David Krakauer and master conductor Gil Rose with his wonderful Boston Modern Orchestra Project to bring life to this klezmer clarinet concerto.
The concerto, titled, “Lament/Witches Sabbath” (2017) is a tour de force for the soloist and certainly a challenge for the large orchestra. Using elements of klezmer style along with musical references such as Berlioz in suggesting the evil sabbath revels the composer creates an unusual but fascinating canvas. Nothing evil here, just some truly exciting musicianship. In addition we hear various noisy avant-garde effects and even voice overs reminiscent of Robert Ashley. Ultimately it is also a species of classical which has a sociopolitical view and this is both memory and homage to the composer’s past, lamenting the suffering and pondering the evil that fueled it.
Krakauer’s facility with his instrument is simply astonishing. He has the klezmer thing down but he also brings with him a great virtuosity as a classical clarinetist and a working knowledge of free jazz. It’s not clear how much creativity this soloist was allowed within the constraints of the piece but the bottom line is that it works very well. Gil Rose’ expertise in handling all this potential chaos is impressive as always and he delivers ultimately a very enjoyable performance despite those noisy avant-garde moments. Indeed it is Rose’ ability to select repertoire with which he can grasp and from which he can conjure a compelling performance. It is Rosenblum’s family biography taking him from the pogroms of the Ukraine to the United States.
The second track (of 4) is a solo for percussion. Again the avant-garde remains interesting and both performance and recording communicate well with the listener. Northern Flicker (2013) is no filler, it is an interesting, if rather brief, work. Lisa Pegher is the busy soloist.
Falling (2013) is a complex work involving pre-recorded audio as well as a chamber group in a song cycle based on the James Dickey poem of the same name. It is a retelling of an incident in which an airline stewardess who died when she was sucked out of a defective emergency exit in the plane and fell to her death. The cycle recounts an imagined look into her psyche as she fell to her death. It is an affecting, if unusual, presentation but Rosenblum’s judicious use of modern elements while still using recognizable melodies and more traditional techniques make for a listenable, if harrowing, experience.
Here the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble consisting of Lindsey Goodman, flute; Eric Jacobs, clarinet; Nathalie Shaw, violin; Norbert Lewandowski, cello; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; and Oscar Micaelsson, piano/keyboard join with soprano Lindsey Kesselman with conductor Kevin Noe to produce this rewarding work.
Finally we get another large work, this time for multi-tracked string quartet with percussion titled Last Round (2015) which is also biographical in that the composer is attempting to evoke a time in the 1980s when he frequented an establishment with fellow composers. The composer, in his entertaining and informative liner notes recounts his time with fellow composer Lee Hyla and friends and seeks to evoke elements of the downtown scene of that era. This is a rather large work with its own complexities but one which speaks easily to an audience, even one not experienced in the time and place the composer attempts to evoke.
This is a marvelous recording of a music by a composer unfamiliar to this writer (until now) whose work deserves your attention.
The Julliard Quartet is a hallowed name in classical music. This release reflecting its current generation of musicians is consistent with their practice of playing established classics alongside the modern. These are interesting choices of string quartets from the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
Many will likely speculate on the motivations for these choices but it is a typical set of choices for a Juilliard Quartet recital, an intelligent mix of standard repertoire, not the “usual suspects” or most popular but musically solid pieces. And, of course, there is their all important embrace of the modern.
The Beethoven and the Barton are lovely choices intelligently played but the real draw, at least for this reviewer is the Davidovsky. Mario Davidovsky (1934- ) is a major American composer who deserves more performances and documentation of his work. Fortunately Bridge Records has taken on this task.
He is best known for his “Synchronisms” series pairing electronics with various acoustic instruments. This won him a Pulitzer Prize. But his music sans electronics is just as substantial and this 2016 String Quartet, his sixth, provides ample evidence of that substance.
Near as I can tell this is only the second recording of any of his quartets but it is sufficiently intriguing to whet the appetite for the other 5.
As a recital disc this one is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s inclusion of the Davidovsky is gloriously consistent with the overall image of the hallowed name of the Juilliard Quartet.
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.
There are seemingly more string quartets performing these days than ever before and they are fine musicians. Whether we’re talking about the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, Pacifica, Telegraph, etc. all contain truly finely trained and virtuosic musicians. The problem is to distinguish one’s self (or one’s ensemble) in some way. I’m not going to go into how each of the mentioned string quartets have done this so don’t worry.
My point here is to review this fine disc by yet another new music quartet called PULBIQuartet. They have chosen, at least in this, their second release, to continue their efforts at “genre bending”, exploring music and transcribing music that is atypical of the standard quartet repertoire. Like their colleagues they are aiming at a redefinition or perhaps a revitalization of the string quartet genre. The performers are: Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, violins; Nick Revel, viola; and Amanda Gookin, cello.
The album at hand, titled “Freedom and Faith” presents music predominantly written by or associated with women. Get into the Now (2017) by Jessica Meyer is classical in the sense that it uses the standard 2 violins, viola,and cello and is divided into three movements played with short pauses. Content wise this is a strong piece which requires a great deal of virtuosity and a handful of extended techniques involving percussive use of the bodies of the instruments themselves and even a few spots that require the musicians to vocalize. All in all a riot of a piece with good humor. It lasts about 20 minutes and begs to be heard again. Very entertaining!
The next 9 tracks fit into the PUBLIQuartet’s project called Mind|the|Gap which is at the heart of their efforts to breathe new life into the string quartet and, hopefully, garner some new fans. All members of the quartet share arrangement and, at times, co-compositional duties.
Tracks 4, 5, and 6 contain transcriptions of sacred vocal music by female composers. The Medieval Hildegard von Bingen’s, “O ignee Spiritus” is followed by Francesca Caccini’s, “Regina Coeli”, and then Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s, “O quam suavis est Domine spiritus tuus”. The vocal originals must be quite lovely but these works seem to retain their sacred ambiance even without the words. So ends the section which contributes to the “faith” in the title of the album.
Who knew that “A tisket, a tasket…” was by Ella Fitzgerald’s arranger Van Alexander. The PUBLIs (if you’ll forgive the truncation) do a marvelous and entertaining arrangement of this novelty song. It provides a sort of comic relief dividing the faith segment of the program to the “freedom” segment.
The next 4 tracks focus on transcriptions of popular music. These are serious pieces, not the “pop” type songs that are basically feel good or dance tunes but the type of music that is in the shadow of serious social issues. Who better than Nina Simone? These are loving and strikingly original arrangements of Herb Sacker/Nina Simone’s, “Blackbird”, Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly’s, “Feelin Good”, Nina Simone/Weldon Irvine’s, “Young Gifted and Black”, and Nina Simone’s powerful antiracist reproach in her, “Mississippi Goddam”.
These transcriptions are done in a free manner with echoes of Stephane Grappelli, Cajun music and, doubtless, references that this reviewer has not grasped. They are highly entertaining.
The album ends with another string quartet. This one is by Shelley Washington and it is a powerful piece. In its relatively short ten minutes or so she manages to create some memorable sound worlds. There are few program notes that give a clue as to the background and intended meanings of the purely instrumental works (those not derived from vocal music) but one senses political stirrings.
All in all a unique little recital which at least challenges the common notions of this chamber grouping and, frequently, succeeds.
I admit to some trepidation as I proceeded to the beautiful War Memorial Opera House in downtown San Francisco. While I had heard of this composer, Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), it was only through one work which was contained on a disc with other microtonal works by John Cage and Harry Partch performed variously by Joshua Pierce, Dorothy Jonas, and Johnny Reinhard (among others). And microtonal music can be tedious in some hands.
This helpful sign in the elevator directed concert goers to the 4th floor recital room known as the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater
Adding to the sense of obscurity, the concert was in a small chamber music hall on the fourth floor. Other events ran concurrently on this night. The hall was nearly filled to its capacity of just under 300 people most of whom I would guess have never heard of this composer. But they likely had heard of the Arditti Quartet and clearly put their trust in the amazing ear and mind of executive and artistic director Charles Amirkhanian to deliver a satisfying musical experience which he does most reliably. This concert was no exception.
The stage awaits the performers with that OM logo projected on the floor.
The Arditti Quartet was formed in 1974 and quickly became known as one of the finest interpreters of contemporary string quartet music. Their repertoire is vast and they do not shy away from technical difficulty or other artistic challenges. In fact they had recorded the Wyschnegradsky Quartets but, sadly, that recording is out of print. Even more interesting is the fact that tonight’s performance constitutes U.S. premieres for all the works on this concert except for the Haas Quartet (included at the suggestion of Mr. Arditti to fill out the program). Another astonishing fact shared by Amirkhanian is that this is the only time that the quartet has been asked to play this music in concert. There are plans to release those recordings in the near future pending negotiations with record companies.
Amirkhanian reminded the audience to silence those pesky cell phones.
Mention needs to be made of the talents of OM’s graphic designer (and stage manager among other duties), Mark Abramson. His work on this and last year’s program booklets take things to a new level of excellence. The program notes by Charles Amirkhanian, Randall Wong, and Blaine Todd are both lucid and comprehensive (a very necessary thing in dealing with new and obscure music). And the photos of the composer and the performers along with some of the composer’s own art work make this another true collector’s item. Previous programs were certainly well done but this is a step up.
The Arditti Quartet
I chose to just listen and to read the notes later rather than get caught up in details. Indeed that was a good choice. Wyschnegradsky’s approach to the use of microtones seems more focused on the possibilities of extending melodic language than the harmonic and my understanding of complex harmony is admittedly limited anyway. Of course the harmony is necessarily different than the western models of the 18th and 19th centuries but the music, at least in the hands of such talented interpreter’s such as the Arditti speaks rather directly to the listener.
The music was presented chronologically in order of the years these pieces were composed (String Quartet No.1, 1923-4, rev. 1953-4), (String Quartet No. 2, 1930-1), (String Quartet No. 3, 1945, rev. 1958-9), and (Composition for string quartet, 1960, rev. 1966-70) completed the first half of the program. There was surprisingly little in the way of dissonance and the quartet played with a palpable intensity and concentration creating very convincing performances.
Blaine Todd holds the OM bag (a Carol Law design) as Amirkhanian picks two raffle winners after intermission.
The second half began with Wyschnegradsky’s last composition, a String Trio (1978-9). Incomplete at the time of his death the trio was revised completed by Claude Ballif. Again what one hears is not what you might expect from microtonality. The composer has realized a uniquely effective way to use microtones. Hearing this survey makes the composer’s vision clear and places him in the company of such as AloisHába (1893-1973), Harry Partch (1901-1974), and Ben Johnston (1926- ) to name a few.
The Arditti Quartet sans second violin Asot Sarkissjian on stage to play the Wyschnegradsky Trio
The revelation for this listener was hearing a good sampling of the composer’s vision and a creative way to use microtones unlike any other composer really. And it became clear too why Charles chose to revive this unique voice in the musical world. This is beautiful music.
As mentioned earlier Mr. Arditti had remarked that the Wyschnegradsky Quartet and Trio music would not quite fill an evening and he suggested they play the Second String Quartet (of about 6 now I believe) by Austrian born composer Georg Friedrich Haas (1953- ). It was the only work which was not a U.S. premiere.
Arditti’s ear for programming was finely as tuned as ever and this quartet provided a very satisfying finale to the evening filled with wonderful discoveries. While this particular quartet uses some microtones the style is denser and more dissonant overall than the preceding music. This is not to say that it was not entertaining, rather it is illustrative of the rich possibilities of microtonal composition. The Arditti again shows itself to be at the forefront of the finest interpreters of the modern string quartet and clearly Haas is a name worth knowing as well. Bravo!
The musicians acknowledge the standing ovation and warm applause
Save the dates June 15 and 16 for the last two concerts in this year’s Other Minds 24 program.
Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights. In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights. This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.
Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century. This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.
With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed. But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work. Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait. That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes. Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.
By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes. The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison. Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance. What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.
In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page. This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello. And let’s just say they are up to the task. Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole. Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.
Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities. Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices. But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work. This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.
Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer. A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.
Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.
Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School. That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.
But no matter. We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme. The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96. It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony. It is debatable as to how “American” these works are. Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.
Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever. It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving performance. This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.
Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”. It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements. His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic. His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes. Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.
Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes. He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago. This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain. His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.
The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo. Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect. This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing. He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement. It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening). As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.
Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet. It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.
Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music. The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.
This is the debut album for the Telegraph Quartet who are based in the San Francisco Bay Area. They have chosen some curious works from the quartet repertoire to represent this nascent ensemble, Anton Webern’s Op. 5 Fünf Satze (1909, Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti (1936), and Leon Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 1 (1949).
Webern is, of course well known, but relatively seldom played. His pithy, brief, pieces belie a complexity which may delight musicologists but his music, for all of it’s craft, is never going to be a crowd pleaser like Haydn or Beethoven. It appears that The Telegraph folks are putting together a carefully selected intro to their work. They execute these little masterpieces with care and manage to squeeze the expression out so that the audience can begin to appreciate it.
The Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Divertimenti were unfamiliar to this listener and, doubtless, will be a pleasant surprise to many. Britten wrote three string quartets and a few other miscellaneous pieces for quartet. It is a bit surprising that these little Britten gems have gone with so little notice before now. These are three brief (though not as brief as the Webern) but engaging little compositions that clearly deserve at least an occasional performance. The Telegraphs handle these with a powerful almost romantic interpretation. It’s hard to say not ever having heard any other performance but these are engaging pieces.
Leaving the best for last we get to hear music by Leon Kirchner (1919-2009). This Pulitzer Prize winning composer (he won for his Third String Quartet from 1967). Kirchner wrote 4 quartets in total which vary widely in style. They date from 1949, 1958, 1966, and 2006 (which remains unrecorded…hint, hint). Kirchner wrote in pretty much all genres and even worked with electronics. It is time for a new reckoning of his work.
The first quartet is the least heard of the lot and is of a sort of romantic quality. It is a passionate composition that is influenced by a variety of styles but it precedes his 12 tone compositions. This quartet seems to have an affinity for romantic gesture and singing melodies and listeners will doubtless want to hear this work multiple times.
Some may recall a Columbia album from the 1970s that recorded Kirchner Schoenbergian second quartet as a “B side” to an album which contained Kirchner’s drama, Lily, based on Saul Bellow’s “The Rain King”. That disc was almost a Kirchner sampler displaying two major aspects of the composer’s output.
All the works here are bound to please a concert audience and this little collection of works dating a forty year period from 1909 to 1949 are excellent vehicles for this ensemble which sports a lush sound and a feeling for the proper shaping of melodies.
The Telegraph Quartet consists of Joseph Maile and Eric Chin (who apparently share the role of first violin with the other taking the second violin), Pei-Ling Lin, viola, and Jeremiah Shaw cello. It’s difficult to say how this new quartet will fare but this album suggests that they are already on their way musically and, judging from their choice of repertoire, they are likely to unearth (and probably commission) unheard delights of the quartet repertoire. Well done!
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.