Bang on a Glass Can: Maya Beiser’s New Album


This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.

It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…

Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.

Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Cavatina


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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

Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc


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Cameron Carpenter (1981- ) is a spectacular musician and showman.  But don’t let his showmanship fool you.  He is a brilliant and disciplined musician and arranger and belongs to a tradition of flashy virtuosos.  He is also not the first organist to have and use a portable organ either.  Prior to Carpenter people “of a certain age” (your reviewer qualifies) may remember one Virgil Fox (1912-1980) whose musicianship and showmanship delighted audiences of an earlier era.  He too sometimes worked with a portable organ.  In fact he did a show at, of all venues, The Fillmore East with his Rodgers Touring Organ.  This storied home to late 60s rock and rollers included a light show with Fox’s performance of Bach et al.

Another keyboard genius who took on a little flash at one time is Anthony Newman (1941- ) whose enthusiastic and authoritative presentations opened a whole new generation to music of Bach and others as well as introducing them to the organ and harpsichord.  Newman, also a composer of note continues to be a valued concert performer and interested listeners are encouraged to check out his website for more details about this man’s recordings and compositions.

One can’t look at Carpenter with his mod haircuts and stylish clothing without thinking of another wonderful flashy virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy (1956- ), a wonderful violinist with a powerful style and stage presence.  Once again the presence belies the genius just beneath the flash.  Surprisingly he does not have his own web page so I linked to his Wikipedia page.  The Guardian and at Warner Classics also maintain pages on him.  C’mon Nigel, get someone to set up a page for you, dude.

All this is just to put Mr. Carpenter in context (as much for myself as my readers).  So on to the main purpose of this review, the disc.  I don’t know off hand how many discs he has released so far but this one is a fine place to start if you don’t already know this musician’s work.  It includes his work as organist solo and with orchestra, and as arranger in the opening work, Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1943).  Originally, of course, the work is for Piano and Orchestra and is a piano concerto in all but name.  (And the disc is indexed so you can choose each variation separately if you wish.)

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Carpenter posing with his touring instrument

Cameron’s arrangement is effective and entertaining.  I will not give up my love for the original but this arrangement does what a good arrangement should by providing insight to the music.  I can only imagine the difficulties encountered trying to make this piece playable on an organ and balancing the sound with the orchestra.  Fortunately Cameron has a valuable partner in crime here.  The Konzerthausorchester Berlin is led by the brilliant conductor Christoph Eschenbach.  And he uses his portable touring organ which sounds as good as any I’ve heard.  They sound fabulous together and the recording is top notch.

How do you follow the Rachmaninoff?  Well, how about the Francis Poulenc Organ Concerto (1934-8)?  Yes, this concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani may be a discovery for many folks.  It is a piece which hooks the listener from the very beginning with a crashing fortissimo chord from the organ.  It goes on to an almost baroque sounding development with modern harmonies throughout.  It is a fitting companion on this disc to the opening piece.

And, finally, the final allegro from the Organ Symphony No. 1 Op. 14 (1898-99) by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) who was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 to 1937.  Vierne (who wrote six grand symphonies for solo organ) studied with another grand master of the organ Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937).  He wrote ten organ symphonies and a host of other music as well.  Also worthy of note is the fact that the man who first performed the Poulenc concerto was another grand organist/composer named Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) who was Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame for a time.

If you like organ music you will love this album.  And if you like flashy virtuosos then by all means check out Carpenter’s website and YouTube channels.  Enjoy, and play it loudly.

The Shostakovich Fourth, the Symphony That Almost Wasn’t


Shostakovich dealt with a great deal of adversity as a result of wars, the revolution, and Stalinism. That is sad but it makes for some really amazing stories. So it is with this symphony.

It was composed in 1936 and would mark the entry of more post-romantic elements into the composer’s work which gives it a Mahler-like cast at times. Unfortunately the politics resulted in the composer withdrawing the symphony. During WWII the score was lost and reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts and the present two piano transcription by the composer. The world premiere occurred in 1961 under Kiril Kondrashin.

It is the two piano “reduction” which is featured here. Reduction refers to the transcription of the piece for two pianos but the grand symphonic nature shines through with amazing lucidity. Of course this is as much due to the skill of the transcription but also of the artists. If you have never heard a great transcription this will amaze you.

Davies and Namekawa have established quite a name for themselves as a duo piano team. Davies, the long established conductor and his life partner Namekawa, herself a dazzling pianist have collaborated for some time now as a duo and this recording is testament to what they can do. Here they joyfully share their interests and insights on this masterpiece. Even if you have and know the orchestral version you will want to hear this.

There are three movements here. The outer movements are long extended compositions with a small(but amazing) interlude in between. This is not the Shostakovich of the famed 5th symphony. Rather it is a sort of transitional piece between the student work of the first symphony and the social realism of the second and third symphonies. While deeply intelligent the work has no intended program and one could almost pass this off stylistically as a lost Mahler work.

Fear not, though, the composer’s fingerprint is here. After all this is his 4th essay in the symphony genre. Unfortunately a perfect storm of politics conspired to almost destroy this work. Fortunately both this reduction and the reconstruction make the work available. It is especially curious for the Shostakovich enthusiast to listen to this work and imagine the care that must have been taken to avoid being associated with non state-approved music. It’s a good example of how politics places additional meaning on a piece of music that originally had none.

The recordings is lucid and is due for release on February 8th. One added sort of irony. The work is scheduled for its west coast premiere in San Francisco on February 10th.

Visions of a Dreamer: Keane Southard’s Waltzing Dervish


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jason Vieaux and  Julien Labro, Chamber Music with Afro-Cuban Roots


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This album seems to have been characterized as fusion/crossover perhaps for marketing purposes but it is in fact a fine compilation of too little heard works by Afro-Cuban/Latin American/South American composers of the mid to late 20th century.  Start with the rapidly rising star of guitarist Jason Vieaux whose earlier recording of the stunning Ginastera guitar sonata seems to place him in the position as a specialist in Latin American music.  Then add Julien Labro, a specialist in the bandoneón, an instrument best known for its ubiquity in tango music. Combine them with good audio engineering and an intelligent production and you have this album.

If there is a sense of “fusion” here it is due to the creative efforts of the composers involved.  In fact this is pretty much in the same tradition of Bartok, Kodaly, Copland, Thomson and others who mined folk and ethnic musics very successfully to infuse their “classical” compositions with new life.

Leo Brouwer (1939- ), Radamés Gnattali (1906-1988), and Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) are all composers deserving of serious attention but are little known in North America and the reasons are clearly not musical talent.  All three composers are featured here in works arranged by Julien Labro who plays bandoneón, accordion and accordina on this recording.  He is joined by Jason Vieaux on guitar, and Jamey Haddad on percussion.

In addition we are treated to a composition by Pat Metheny and a curious arrangement of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Roland Orzabal, Ian Stanley, and Chris Hughes to round out a diverse and engaging program.

One hopes that this will kindle further interest in these too little known composers but, until then, we have a marvelously entertaining recording that will likely please Latinists, guitar lovers, bandoneón lovers, and the like.

This is a fine and crisply recorded CD with some truly fine musicians.  Call it fusion if that helps you want to listen but please listen when you get a chance.  You won’t regret it.

 

 

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.