Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Danielpour: Darkness in the Ancient Valley

Richard Danielpour: Darkness in the Ancient Valley
Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Angela Brown, soprano
Hila Plitmann, soprano
Naxos


Darkness in the Ancient Valley is Richard Danielpour's attempt to return to his Persian heritage. The basis for this five-movement symphony is a 16th century Iranian poem.

To my ears, the opening movement sounds like film music trying to evoke a Middle Eastern setting. But as the work progresses, pastiche gives way to passion, and the music develops its own blended and original voice. The final movement for orchestra and soprano (Hila Plitmann, for whom the part was written) brings the work home with an emotional and transcendent finale.

Rounding out the release are two other orchestral works. Lacrimae Beati sounds a little like Copland with its open intervals. Although based on the first eight bars of Mozart's Requiem (reportedly the last music he ever wrote), Danielpour so completely integrates the source material that there's almost no trace of the original composer. And that's a good thing -- this is a deeply personal work, a musing on mortality. It would be jarring to Mozart's music stick out from the rest of the composition.

A Woman's Life, a setting of eight poems by Maya Angelou, has a distinctively American feel to it. But it's not Copland Americana. While the harmonies may sound similar, the rhythm of the words and the melodic seem to recall African-American gospel traditions. The work was composed for soprano Angela Brown, and her performance here infuses the words with understated drama and urgency. A beautiful orchestral song cycle that deserves a place in the repertoire.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Jean Maillard: A renaissance composer rediscovered

Jean Maillard:
Missa Je Suis Deheritee & Motets
The Marian Consort; Rory McCleery, director
Delphian Records


Jean Maillard was a student of Josquin des Prez, and his music inspired Palestrina. Although little-known today, this French composer's music was highly regarded by his contemporaries. And listening to these performances by the Marian Consort, it's easy to understand why.

Maillard carefully and tastefully builds his contrapuntal compositions in a manner similar to Palestrina, although with a lighter touch. The primary work on this album, the Missa Je suis Desheritee is one of Maillard's largest works, and the most popular during his lifetime. It, like the motets interspersed throughout, show a composer in full command of his talent, able to create ethereal cathedrals from pure sound.

The Marian Consort has a uniform clarity of tone that's well-suited to these works. The ensemble blend is quite smooth throughout, although at times the sopranos seemed to have a slight edge to their voices (especially after a wide upwards leap).

All in all, though, this is a disc that should be in the collection of anyone who loves renaissance sacred music. Maillard may be the link between Des Pres and Palestrina, but he has a style all his own.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Inukusuit - Soundscapes by John Luther Adams

Inukusuit
John Luther Adams
Cantaloupe


If I had to describe Inukusuit, I’d say it sounds like Edgar Varese’s “Ionization” performed in the woods. But that really doesn’t do justice to Adams’ innovative soundscape. Inukusuit is a work intended for outdoor performance The ambient sounds are an important part of the composition, making every performance unique.

Be warned: Inukusuit require a major time investment (about an hour) to be experienced properly. But it will be worth the effort.

The recording starts with about three minutes of ambient sounds of the forest, before the percussion ensemble makes its presence known. Eventually the ensemble builds to a climax, completely drowning out the sounds of nature. Then the man-made music subsides, and in the end, we are left with only the chirping of birds and wind rustling the trees.

Adams’ music seems an organic part of the landscape. There’s a lot of wooden percussive sounds (including a wooden flute), and the ensemble seems to rise and fall, as if breathing. The disc comes with both an audio CD and a DVD version. And that’s a good thing. Because the DVD, played through a 5.1 home theater system, will get you as close as possible to the performance – which, after all, involves heightening the listener’s sense of space.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

John McDonald: Airy - Music for violin and piano

John McDonald: Airy, Music for Violin and Piano
Joanna Kurkowicz, violin
John McDonald, piano
Bridge


Airy brings together  John McDonald's music for violin and piano, bringing together light-hearted miniatures with more serious long-form compositions. It's an appealing program that's full of variety. Mad Dance, Op. 66 and the Suite of Six Curt Pieces, Op. 326 are just plain fun, while the major work, the Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 219 is more complex composition with greater emotional depth.

In the program notes, McDonald says he considers many of these works to be songs without words -- and it's an apt description. Poem, Op. 12, for example, is based on the poetry of Samuel Beckett. The shape of the music is determined by the poem, although not a word is sung. That's also the case with Lily Events, Op. 97 (inspired by poetry collection),  and the Lines After Keats, Op. 336.

There's an audible chemistry between violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and the composer (who accompanies her). Airy is the title of the release, and airy it is.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Marcel Tyberg: Symphony No. 3 - A Voice Not Silenced

Marcel Tyberg
Symphony No. 3
Piano Trio in F major
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Michael Ludwig, violin; Roman Mckinulov, cello; Ya-Fe Chuang, piano
Naxos


Marcel Tyberg finished his third symphony in 1943, shortly before his arrest by the Nazis and death at Auswitz. Fortunately, he entrusted all of his scores to a friend and so they survived the war.

The symphony is a marvelous post-romantic work, and reminds me very much of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony without in any way sounding derivative. Tyberg’s melodies are full-bodied and bursting with energy. The Scherzo is a particular delight, and the adagio is absolutely gorgeous.

It’s a bittersweet listening experience. The symphony stands on its own merits, but it makes one wonder what Tyberg might have accomplished had he lived.

Coupled with the Symphony is the piano trio from 1936. Like the symphony, it’s a lush, romantic work with plenty of opportunities for all the players to shine. In a video promoting this release, JoAnn Falletta stated she’s fallen in love with Tyberg’s music. And her performance shows it.

Highly recommended.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Tyberg: Symphony No. 2, Piano Sonata No. 2

Tyberg: Symphony No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 2
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Fabio Bidini, piano
Naxos


Austrian composer Marcel Tyberg's career (and life) was cut short by the Second World War. Despite being a devout Roman Catholic, he was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 because his great grandfather was Jewish. Fortunately, he entrusted his music to a friend before his death in 1944 en route to Auschwitz.

Tyberg didn't compose many works, but the quality of them makes one wonder how he would have fared in a less toxic atmosphere. His second symphony, finished in 1931 is a big, post-romantic composition and reminded me of Erich Korngold's symphonic works. Tyberg seems more influenced by Beethoven than Brahms, however, with simple motives building and transforming themselves in rigorously logical fashion. The overarching themes were expressive examples of post-romanticism -- not as memorable as Rachmaninov's but still quite moving.

JoAnne Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are thoroughly invested in this work, and that dedication shows. Falletta lets the music stand on its own strengths. The performance presents a well-constructed symphony that should be immediately appealing to  most listeners.

Coupled with the symphony is Tyberg's second piano sonata from 1934. Tyberg was a pianist and organist, and his composition takes full advantage of the instrument. The work ranges over the keyboard, with plenty of Liszt-inspired gestures. If Nicolai Medtner wrote more tightly organized music, he might have composed something along these lines.

Pianist Fabio Bidini performs the sonata with relish, delivering the music with all its inherent drama and brio.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This Friday: A Vivace Christmas!

This Friday, please join us for the Vivace Christmas Special.


We'll start at 6 am with a Sinfonia by Mozart played by an all-star cast of performers, and we'll mix seasonal music and some other goodies. We'll include your favorite carols, some of them sung by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge (above), and some unusual ones as well.

At 8 o'clock, there's a special treat:  John Rutter's new carol, All Bells in Paradise, which was written for the last festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge.  And we'll end with some favorite selections from the Messiah, in case you missed our complete broadcast last Sunday.


Finally, my family and I, along with the dogs and cats, wish all our listeners the joy of Christmas, the gift of loving friends and family, and the very best of everything in 2014. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."  (Luke 2:14)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Penderecki: Works for String Orchestra

Penderecki: Works For String Orchestra
Likasz Dlugosz, flute
Rafat Kwiatkowski, cello
Radom Chamber Orchestra
Maciej Zoltowski, conductor
DUX

The purpose of this recording is to showcase the Radom Chamber Orchestra. The CD booklet begins with a letter from the mayor of this Polish city outlining the proud musical history of the town, and its cultural rebirth, of which the Radom Chamber Orchestra is a part.

Well, it's a good start.

The ensemble has a warm, rich blend with strong section leaders. The talent of those first chairs comes to the fore quite often in the works on this program and they perform admirably. The music is also well-suited to the ensemble. There seems to be an intuitive understanding of what fellow countryman Kryzysztof Penderecki had in mind with these works, and the Maciej Zoltowski and the Radon Chamber Orchestra deliver.

In these performances, Penderecki's music doesn't seem as dissonant -- and yet there's an undercurrent of power to them. The 1990 Sinfonietta for Strings, for example, reminded me quite strongly of Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, Op. 100. It had the same overall sound, and carried the same emotional intensity.

The Serenade for Strings is perhaps the most atonal of the works. It gradually builds to a satisfying climax from the simplest of melodic ideas. Pendericki's Sinfonietta No. 2 for flute and strings isn't quite a concerto, although the flute does have a prominent role. Lukasz Dlogosz plays with a plaintive introspection that gives the work emotional weight.

The Concerto for Viola and string, percussion, and celeste (performed here in it's cello concerto version) begins as a very quiet work. The cello develops the melody in short, hesitant gestures. Once the full ensemble enters, though, the work changes character, becoming stormy and brooding. A powerful composition.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kaija Saariaho - Chamber Works for Strings, Vol. 1

Saariaho: Chamber Works for Strings, Vol. 1
META4
Ondine

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is a master of soundscapes. Her orchestral works weave tapestries of sound that are both earthy and other-wordly. And as this new collection shows, her nuanced approach to music is equally effective with the limited forces of chamber groups.

Although the string quartet META4 are the featured artists, they only perform together on one track -- Nymphéa. The rest of the selections are for a single string instrument with varying types of accompaniment: Tocar, and Calices for violin and piano; Vent nocturne for viola and electronics; Spins and Spells for cello solo, and Nocturne for violin solo.

Nymphéa is composed for string quartet plus electronics. And Saariaho applies said electronics with a very light touch. She uses them to enhance the sound of the acoustic instruments, almost like super-saturating the colors of a photograph. The electronics heighten the emotional intensity of the string quartet in this pensive work.

My personal favorite is Spins and Spells for solo cello. There's an off-kilter quality to the music that keeps it moving forward in fits and starts. The work feels perpetually off-balance and tumbling forward right up to the end.

If you're already a fan of Saariaho's music, this disc is a must. If not, this can provide a good and somewhat intimate introduction to this visionary composer's style.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Strange Case of the Schubert Symphonies

If there's one thing most people know about Franz Schubert, it's that his most popular symphony is unfinished. If there's a second thing folks remember about Franz Schubert, it's that he only wrote nine symphonies. But if you look carefully at the list, you'll notice two oddities.

Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, D 125
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D 200
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, "Tragic" D 417
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D 485
Symphony No. 6 in C major "Little C Major" D 589
Symphony No. 8 in B minor "Unfinished" D 759
Symphony No. 9 in C major "Great C Major" D 944

What's odd?
1) There's a symphony missing.
2) It's not the unfinished symphony.

Unfinished, but included
The official "Unfinished" symphony (No. 8) incompletion wasn't because of Schubert's death. He wrote the first and second movement in 1822 (six years before his death), and just never got around to writing the last two movements. (most symphonies from this era had four movements). The first two movements were of such quality, though, that they were performed and have become part of the standard repertoire.

Unfinished and missing
The missing symphony is No. 7 is even more of a fragment than the 8th. composed in 1821, this E major symphony exists in sketch form, with a melody line and bass and counterpoint underneath. Unlike the 8th, all four movements of the 7th were written, and the first part of the first movement is fully orchestrated (the next step in the composition process).

The other other unfinished symphony
And there's another symphony missing from the list. In the final weeks of his life, Schubert composed a 10th symphony in a piano reduction score. That is, the music is written to be played on the piano, with notes indicating instruments for later orchestration. Like the 7th, it appears to be complete in sketch form.

With a significant amount of these compositions complete, it isn't surprising that musicians have been tempted to fill in the blanks.

Symphony No. 7's three co-composers
Schubert's 7th symphony was first completed in 1881 by John Francis Barnett, an English composer and teacher. Famed conductor Felix Weingartner did his own version in 1934, and featured it in performance. The final version (to date) is by composer and scholar Brian Newbould, who extensively studied Schubert in order to make his completion as authentic as possible.

Symphony No. 10's two-and-a-half co-composers
The score for Symphony No. 10 was only identified as such in the 1970's, and Brian Newbould offered a scholarly completion of it. Conductor Pierre Bartholomeé revised Newbould's version with controversial results. And finally, composer Luciano Berio used the source material  as the basis for his work "Rendering."

Questions remain
So how many symphonies did Schubert really write? In terms of completed works, seven. In terms of what's commonly performed, eight. And in terms of what might have been, ten.

But are these completions valid? It's difficult to say Schubert may have revised the surviving material after working with it for a while. While we can say a combination of instruments for a certain passage is likely, based on Schubert's other works, it's possible he may have chosen differently.

Personally, I think the sketches are complete enough that most of the resulting music is Schubert's. And I'm glad for the opportunity to hear these works, even in an adulterated form. They deepen my understanding and appreciation of this short-lived musical genius.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wendy Warner: Haydn & Myslivecek - An appealing program

Haydn; Myslivecek: Cello Concertos
Wendy Warner, cello
Camerata Chicago; Drostan Hall, conductor
Cedille

An appealing program played by a masterful virtuoso. That's my impression of this new release from Cedille. As with many recordings, this Chicago-based label uses local talent -- but what talent it is!

Drostan Hall and the Camerata Chicago perform with precision and sensitivity admirably suited to Haydn. And Wendy Warner, though from Chicago, is an internationally-recognized cellist who brings a fresh interpretation to some well-known works.

The two cello concertos of Franz Joseph Haydn have long been repertoire staples, and just about every major cellist has recorded them. Warner's performances are expressive without being overly dramatic. The clear, singing tone of her Guarneri cello is beautiful -- and beautifully recorded. And Warner's interpretation, accompanied by a small ensemble, makes these works sound warmly intimate.

Sandwiched between the Haydn concertos on the album is Josef Myslivecek's only concerto for cello. A contemporary of Haydn (and friend of Mozart), Myslivecek's wrote in a similar style that nicely complements the Haydn concerti. And the Myslivecek concerto does not suffer for the comparison. Myslivecek wrote in a leaner, more straight-forward manner, bringing the aesthetics of the classical style to the forefront of his music.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Domingo: Verdi - immaculately sung

Placido Domingo
Verdi
Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencian
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor
Sony Classical

Normally a new recital disc of Verdi arias by Placido Domingo would not be particularly noteworthy, except this disc features the great tenor in arias written for the baritone voice. After a distinguished career as a tenor, Domingo now is singing Verdi's baritone roles. Already Covent Garden, Berlin, Mantua, and the Met have heard him as Simon Boccanegra, Germont, and in other roles, but this new disc features a broad spectrum of arias composed by Verdi for his baritone characters.

Distinguished Verdi baritones are a rare commodity these days, so this disc is especially welcome. Verdi's baritone roles typically lie mostly in the upper part of a lyric baritone's register, well within the range of Domingo's voice.

Domingo the baritone does not evoke memories of Macneil, Warren, or Milnes. Instead, he makes these arias his own, almost as though Verdi composed them for a lower-voiced tenor. The dark, but still lyric quality of the Domingo voice is still very much in evidence, as is the noble phrasing and immaculate technique.

As always, he does not simply sing the arias, but he inhabits the role that he is portraying. Boccanegra's curse terrifies, and Germont's sorrow is made real for us. Domingo's voice does not quite reach the depths of the baritone register, so a phrase or two is not perfectly finished where it concludes in the lower register, as in "Eri tu" from Un ballo in maschera, but otherwise his voice comfortably fits the selections he has chosen for this recital.

Particular favorites are "Pietà, rispetto, amore" from Macbeth, which opens the disc, and Rigoletto's anguished "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata." Domingo's treatment of Germont's aria "Di Provenza il mar" from La traviata rivals Robert Merrill's interpretation in its lyricism, if not in pure baritonal heft. Verdi usually encouraged a lyrical interpretation from his singers (the role of Lady Macbeth being an exception), and he would have approved of Domingo's always lyrical approach. It is only in the arias from La forza del destino, where we have grown accustomed to a more muscular approach, that Domingo's treatment of Carlo's music is not entirely convincing. albeit beautifully sung.

Throughout the disc Pablo Heras-Casado's conducting of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana is supportive and flexible. (Heras-Casado recently made his Met debut conducting Rigoletto).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Daniel Wohl: Corps Exquis

Corps Exquis
Daniel Wohl
New Amsterdam

For me, Daniel Wohl's music lands somewhere between classical and ambient. And those are two musical worlds that seldom connect.

The building blocks of the soundscapes Wohl creates in Corps Exquis are common to ambient and trance, but the way he uses them is more classical in structure. This isn't just stringing together cool-sounding samples in a studio to create a mood. Rather, this is (to my ears) carefully constructed music that has some substance and depth to it.

Plus ou moins, the longest work on the album, is a good example of this. The piano ostinato that gradually morphs sounds minimalist in inspiration, but the darting clarinet/glockenspiel figure doesn't. Scraping strings and electronic sound samples give the work an ambient feel, but careful listening reveals the subtle interplay between the voices. Lines influence each other in sort of a contrarian counterpoint, tying together what at first blush appears random.

Daniel Wohl has a unique compositional voice. Repeated listening helped me appreciate the artistry of that voice. Corps Exquis may sometimes evoke strange, dreamlike images, but there's purpose behind those fever dreams.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Peter Maxwell Davies: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 3 & 4

Maxwell Davies: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 3 and 4
Robert Cook, French horn
Peter Franks, trumpet
Lewis Morrison, clarinet
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Peter Maxwell Davies, conductor
Naxos

The Strathclyde Concertos are a unique group of compositions. Commissioned by Strathclyde, Peter Maxwell Davies composed one concerto a year for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The ten concertos, spanning a decade, make an impressive -- and somewhat unified -- body of work.

This release features the third concerto for horn and trumpet, and the fourth concerto for clarinet in arguably the most authoritative performances recorded -- the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for whom the works were written, conducted by the composer himself.

One of the characteristics of the Strathclyde concertos is the elimination of competing voices from the orchestra, throwing the solo instruments in sharp relief to the ensemble. So the third concerto has no brass instruments, save for the solo French horn and trumpet. The fourth concerto has only one clarinet -- the soloist.

Each concerto fully explores the possibilities of the solo instruments, and those possibilities influence the direction of the work. The brass concerto is more aggressive than the clarinet concerto, with wider melodic leaps and an higher energy level overall. The clarinet concerto, while more lyrical and soft-spoken, is not without some spiky sections as well.

This is a re-release from the Collins Classic series (they recorded Concertos 3-10). I'm hoping Naxos will eventually reissue the rest, and perhaps the first two from Unicorn-Kanchana too, please?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All Saints Day: A Vivace celebration

This Friday is All Saints Day and Vivace will celebrate the occasion with some special music.

We start at around 6:45 am with Four Little Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi by Francis Poulenc.


At 7 o'clock, we have the very familiar St. Anthony Chorale by Haydn, and the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue by Bach.  After 7:30, we have another real treat for you: music composed by St. Francis of Assisi himself.

In the 8 o'clock hour, we have a lovely - and surprising - variety of music connected with saints, including compositions by Arvo Part, Vaughan Williams and Mozart. 

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company as we celebrate All Saints Day - Vivace style, Friday, 6 -9 am on WTJU.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stuyvesnat Quartet: Brahms & Mozart -- Audio Treasures

Stuyvesant Quartet with Alfred Gallodoro, clarinet
Brahms/Mozart
Bridge

The Stuyvesant Quartet was a group of talented musicians who left a remarkable legacy. Founded by by the Shulman brothers, Sylvan (violin) and Alan (cello) in 1938, the quartet consisted of preeminent musicians from broadcast network symphony orchestras. In 1950 they formed their own label -- Philharmonia -- with audio legend Norman Pickering as their recording engineer.

Although Philharmonia was short-lived, the recordings and performances were top-notch, as this current reissue attests. The sound is warm, but detailed. The ensemble is nicely balanced, with a natural-sounding blend. And the performances are very much of their time.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet with clarinetist Alfred Gallodoro is given a heavily romantic and sometimes sweet, reading. It's a performance that's full of drama, yet there are passages where the ensemble seems to be simply savoring every note.

The Stuyvensant's performances of Mozart's String Quartet in D major, K. 499 and String Quartet in D major, K. 575 are more straight-forward. While there is more vibrato than you'd hear in a modern recording, the ensemble keeps things simple and uncluttered.

This reissue is a window into the past, and a valuable one. No modern quartet would perform these works in the manner of the Stuyvesant. Yet the high degree of musicianship and the emotional charge they give these works makes for compelling listening even today. And the Stuyvesant's interpretations yield insights that can still sound fresh to modern ears.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bortniansky: Hymns and Choral Concertos - Orthodox beauty

Hymns and Choral Concertos
Ensemble Cherubim
Marika Kuzma, director
Naxos

Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) was almost an exact contemporary of Beethoven, and just as ground-breaking. He was the conductor of the Imperial Russian court and as composer, specialized in sacred choral music. The Russian Orthodox Church does not allow instruments to used in worship services, giving rise to a rich body of a cappella liturgical music.

Bortniansky took that tradition and updated it, creating a new type of sacred work, the choral concerto. This release presents nine of these works. While the texts are Russian, the harmonies are mostly Western, sounding somewhat akin to choral works by Schubert or even Mendelssohn.

Also included are two additional sacred works: The Cherubic Hymn No. 7, and the Kol slaven. The former is one of Bortniansky's most popular sacred works, often performed and recorded. The Kol slaven is even more popular: the tune became a Russian Christmas carol, and is more widely known in that version today.

The Ensemble Cherubim under Marika Kuyzma have a clean, intimate sound. One can easily hear inner workings of Bortniansky's harmonies and the interplay between voices. If you're not familiar with Bortniansky, or Russian Orthodox sacred music, this release is an excellent place to start.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Starobin Plays Giuliani -- an appealling program

Mauro Giuliani, Volume 2 
David Starobin, guitar
Amalia Hall , violin
Inon Barnatan, piano
Bridge Records

This recording has two things going for it. First, it's an album by David Starobin, one of the most talented classical guitarists performing today. Second, it's released on Starobin's record label, Bridge, which has been recording guitar music since 1981. In other words, a perfect match of artist and recorded sound.

Mauro Giuliani's compositions are part of the classical tradition of Mozart and Haydn. Starobin plays them with warmth and delicacy. Although written as showpieces, Starobin chooses to emphasize the musicality of the works, a decision that I think adds to their overall appeal.

And Starobin wisely varies the program, too. Included are the Op. 24a variations for violin and two rondos for violin and guitar. Violinist Amalia Hall plays with a simple purity of tone that perfectly suits the elegant variations. Inon Barnalan's style also meshes nicely with Starobin's, although I thought the recorded piano sound was a little muted.

All in all, though, an excellent recording of classical guitar works by Giulinai. Perhaps there will be a volume 3 someday...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Coffee and Enchantment: Start your Friday with Vivace!

On this Friday's Vivace, be prepared to be enchanted and uplifted with some delightful music.

The first hour will be filled by just one work, Twenty-five Etudes for Guitar by French composer Napoleon Coste.

At 7 o'clock, we'll enjoy a symphony by Antonio Rosetti and at around 7:20 am, be prepared for some true enchantment as we bring you two versions of the Estonian Lullaby by Arvo Part.


We have a clarinet quintet by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, and the Duo in G, by Ferdinando Carulli.

At 8 o'clock, we have another special treat as we mark Reformation Day: the original version of Psalm 46 with music by Martin Luther followed by the famous arrangement of it by Johann Sebastian Bach from his Cantata BWV 80, which we know as the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is our God".


Later in the hour, we have a rare concerto for recorder and some delightful music of Mozart and Chopin to complete the program.  All in all, we promise you a rich bounty of musical offerings on this week's Vivace.  As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, 6-9 am this Friday.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Anne-Marie McDermott: Transparent Mozart Concertos

W.A. Mozart: Piano Concertos (chamber versions)
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
Calder Quaret
David J. Grossman, bass
Bridge Records

The three piano concertos (Nos. 12-14) on this new release had a somewhat checkered history. Mozart composed them as small-scale works in 1782 for a subscription concert he wished to put on.

The ensemble parts were composed in such a way that wind instruments were optional, and the string parts could be reduced to a simple string quartet if necessary. Thus, however much money was raised, the ensemble parts would be covered. Unfortunately, the subscription was unsuccessful. The works were eventually published, but only the full orchestral versions.

Hearing these three concertos in chamber form is something of a revelation. I didn't miss the orchestra at all. The pieces work very well with just a string quartet (or in the case of Piano Concerto No. 14, K.449 string quartet and bass) supporting the piano. It's a very clean, clear sound, and one that's perfectly, well, Mozartian.

Anne-Marie McDermott plays with taste and delicacy, capturing just the right emotion. Overly dramatic or aggressive playing could easily make the piano overpower the string quartet. And that's something that never happens on this recording. The Calder Quartet and McDermott are in full agreement, mutually working towards the same end.

These are delightful performances that I'll return to again and again. These chamber versions of the concertos are Mozart at his sunniest. Highly recommended, especially if you're only familiar with the full orchestral versions of these works.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Happy Birthday BBC ... and some music to delight you ... on Vivace this week!

We love to celebrate birthdays and on Vivace this week, we'll be blowing out the candles for the BBC's 91st birthday at around 7:45 am.  I hope you'll join in some very enjoyable music and songs!


We'll open the show with a piano concerto by Friedrich Kalkbrenner, followed by a Hofmann Flute Concerto.  At 7 am, we have a delightful clarinet concerto by Ignaz Pleyel, and after 8 o'clock, we'll enjoy a Mozart horn quintet, some baroque music of Georg Wagenseil and we'll end with four polonaises by Schubert.

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company this week on Vivace, Friday morning, 6-9 am, on WTJU-Charlottesville

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Come Again: John Dowland and his Contemporaries

John Dowland & His Contemporaries
Come Again
Jan Kobow, tenor
Hamburger Ratsmusik
Simone Eckert, director
CPO

John Dowland's music usually shows up in recordings in one of two ways; either as a release of all-Dowland compositions, or as part of a compilation of English renaissance masters. But unlike many of his colleagues, Dowland traveled extensively (if not always voluntarily) throughout Europe.

In doing so, he was exposed to the courtly music of France, Italy, Denmark, and Sweden -- all of which influenced his own writing. Come Again programs Dowland's music alongside contemporary works by Samuel Scheidt, Orlando Gibbons, Michael Praetorius and others. The results are illuminating.

In one grouping, for example, we hear Dowland's 1597 song Can She Excuse My Wrongs, followed by Johann Schop's 1642 Sollt' ich, oBild der Tugend nicht preisen, an anonymous dauant Gagliard, and Gabriel Voigtländler's 1642 Weibernehmen ist kein Pferdekauf -- all sharing the same distinctive opening motif.

Not only are variety of composers presented, but the texture is varied as well. Some selections are sung with ensemble, others with lute accompaniment, and the exclusively instrumental tracks don't all have the same line up of instruments. All of this combines to create an engaging and fresh-sounding listening experience.

Simone Eckert and the Hamburger Ratsmusik perform on instruments of the period, and they do impeccably. Jan Kobow's clear tenor voice has a slightly soft and warm tone that's perfectly suited to Dowland's delicate compositions.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Something for everyone on this week's Vivace!

We have a delightful Vivace for you this week.  If you're an early bird, we'll start with a piano trio by Beethoven and the Lute Suite by Johann Sebastian Bach.  The first hour features an all-star cast of musicians:  Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell and John Williams.

At 7 am, we'll introduce you to the music of Joseph Fiala with his Oboe Concerto in B-Major - it's one of those tunes you'll be humming all day; and later, we'll have some delightful music by Carulli and Glazunov.


At 8 o'clock, we have a special treat for opera fans: a celebration of Puccini.  And we'll end with music of John Field, Mozart and Shostakovich.

There's something for everyone on Vivace this week. As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, Friday, 6-9 am.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 10/30/13

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gergiev and LSO shine with Szymanowski symphonies

Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
SACD Recording
LSO

Symphony No. 1 was composed when Szymanowski was only 24, and he seemed to have considered it a youthful indiscretion. Yes, parts sound derivative of Richard Strauss' tone poems, and the structure isn't very tight in places.

But the symphony's a work with a lush, romantic sound and that's the work's strength. Gergiev understands that and presents the work with unbridled enthusiasm. These may be the exaggerated passions of youth, but they're genuine -- and in this recording, they're taken seriously.

In some ways, Szymanowski's second symphony No. 2 is proto-concerto, with solo violin playing off the orchestra. The influences of Richard Strauss and Max Reger are evident; the former in the first movement, the latter in the intricate second movement's fugue. Gergiev shapes the music to make these relationships more apparent.

Szymanowski at 27 was a much more confident composer than he was three years earlier, and Gregiev artfully articulates the structure of the music -- especially in the theme, variations, and fugue of the second movement.

I strongly recommend the SACD version if you have an SACD player. Although a live recording, the performances by the London Symphony Orchestra are immaculate. Subtle details of the sound of the instruments and the acoustics of the hall really make the music come alive. An excellent addition to LSO's self-released catalog.

Friday, October 4, 2013

John Musto concertos benefit from composer's performances

John Musto: Piano Concertos 1 & 2
John Musto, piano
Odense Symphony Orchestra; Scott Yoo, conductor (Concerto No. 1)
Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra; Glen Cortese, conductor (Concerto No. 2)

John Musto performs his piano concertos with telling effect. While these works are technically challenging, I don't hear keyboard prowess being the purpose of these works. Rather, the focus seems to be on the beauty and integrity of the musical expression. Which is what makes this recording work so well. Musto has the ability to play with precision and authority -- which he does -- but it's his phrasing and articulation that gets to the heart of these works.

Musto's first piano concerto (composed in 1988) opens with a solo clarinet that sets the tone for the work. It begins with a lyrical atonality that gradually builds in intensity. While this is a big composition, there are places that are surprisingly intimate. As the work progresses, the aggressive dissonances begin to soften. The second movement introduces a touch of ragtime, leading into a bustling and satisfying final movement.

The Piano Concerto No. 2, written 18 years after the first, shows how much the composer's skill has developed. The orchestration is more varied, and more adventurous. While the first concerto flirted the vocabulary of popular music, this one fully incorporated it, in the way that Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" encapsulated jazz. Unlike Gershwin's Rhapsody, Musto's concerto is more fully realized, and highly structured.

That's not to say the second concerto's a stuffy academic exercise. The music flows seamlessly from start to finish in an inviting fashion. It's only later that you realize that the engaging first movement cadenza involved some deftly written counterpoint.

Separating the two concertos in the program are two of Musto's concert rags. They're appealing light classical compositions, perfect encore material.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lithuanian Composer Vladas Jakubenas Rediscovered

Vladas Jakubenas: Chamber & Instrumental Music
Vilnius String Quartet
Kasparas Uinskas, piano
Kaskados Piano Trio
St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra; Donatas Katkus, conductor
Toccata Classics

Vladas Jakubenas has been called "The Lithuanian Hindemith," and this new collection from Toccata Classics helps explain why. Jakubenas moved from his native Lithuania to Berlin in the late 1920's to study with Franz Schrecker. He remained until 1932, then returned home.

The Second World War forced Jakubenas to eventually make his way to the United States, where he died in 1976. The war had a disruptive effect on his compositional output. during the postwar years Jakubenas devoted more time to writing and teaching, becoming a respected contributor to journals, encyclopedias, as well as drama and music critic.

The album opens with Jakubenas' 1929 String Quartet No. 4. The work receives a spirited performance by the Vilnius String Quartet in this recording. The modernist (and mostly tonal) harmonic underpinnings of the work make it sound very much like a Hindemith composition with a hint of Janacek. Jakubenas wasn't as interested in counterpoint as Hindemith, though, so the quartet spends a great deal of time developing and presenting long, flowing melodies supported by dense harmony.

The Two Pictures, Op. 2 are charming miniatures for piano that seem more influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov than the Berlin school of the 1920's. They would be right at home in a recital of Medtner and Debussy.

Jakubenas based his 1930 Melody-Legend for violin and piano on a Lithuanian folk tale. And that folk influence becomes more pronounced as the piece progresses. Jakubenas moves from a mild form of atonality to a romantic and emotive conclusion.

The Serenade for cello and piano is the latest to be written, and suggests the direction Jakubenas was moving towards. The modernist tendencies found in his earlier works are largely absent from this 1936 composition. Instead, Jakubenas seems to using Ravel as a starting point. The cello line is smooth and elegant, without being overly expressive. The piano's harmonies have a shimmery quality to them, strengthening the connection (at least to my ears) with Ravel.

The most ambitious work on the album is the 1928 Prelude and Triple Fugue in D for string orchestra. The prelude flows along at a brisk pace, the voicing of the ensemble reminded me quite a bit of Benjamin Britten's early works. The fugue, though, represents a return to the Hindemith ideal. The counterpoint is rigorously worked out in a tonal framework that Hindemith would have approved of.

Before auditioning this release, I was completely unfamiliar with Vladas Jakubenas. After hearing the works on this album, I'm interested in hearing more, especially his larger more ambitious works, such as his symphonies. Kudos to Toccata Classics for this fine disc of world premier recordings.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Duchen's List: Women Conductors Brought to the Fore

An article in the Guardian prompted a firestorm of controversy in the classical music world. "Male conductors are better for orchestras, says Vasily Petrenko" read the headline.
The principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has provoked outrage by claiming that orchestras "react better when they have a man in front of them" and that "a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things".
(It's since been noted that Petrenko's comments were taken out of context from the original Norwegian newspaper article).

And while criticism was quick to follow -- especially on social media sites -- music journalist and author Jessica Duchen was prompted to do something constructive. She began tweeting the names of women conductors to show that such a thing wasn't unheard of. And soon others were joining in on the conversation.

She's compiled a list of over fifty names of professional women conductors from around the world. Duchen's posted that list on her blog, JDCMB, and is still updating it. The list, titled Fanfare for the uncommon woman conductor, is very much a work in progress.

As Duchen notes on the page: "The women conductors I know are heartily sick of being asked why there aren't more women conductors - mostly because there are [as this list proves]. They would like, please, recognition first and foremost and, ideally, only for their work as musicians, regardless of gender.."

A very positive response to a very negative opinion.

Note to local readers: yes, Maestro Kate Tamarkin is on the list!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fellow Traveler: Attacca Quartet's fresh take on Adams

Fellow Traveler - The Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams 
Attacca Quartet
Azica

The Attacca Quartet is a relatively new quartet, which is significant. Because they bring a youthful attitude and energy to Adam's music -- and the works benefit greatly from it.

"John's Book of Alleged Dances" is a wonderful collection of made-up dances. And its a set that should be played with a sense of fun. How can you take movements named "Dogjam" or "Alligator Escalator" otherwise? Yet this is demanding music that only works when played with precision and energy. The Attica pulls it all together, and delivers a winning performance. I won't say this is the definitive performance, but it's pretty darned close.

Also included is Adams' 2008 String Quartet, and the title select, "Fellow Traveler." The latter is a birthday present to Adams' opera collaborator Peter Sellers, and receives its world premier with this release. Although a short work, its unaffected nature and spontaneity makes it an ideal encore piece -- a function it sort of serves in this release.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thea Musgrave: Chamber Works for Oboe - an unusual but effective composer portrait

Thea Musgrave: Chamber works for oboe
Nicholas Daniel, oboe

Harmonia Mundi

Oboist Nicholas Daniel is uniquely qualified to present this program (which is probably why he did so). Daniel commissioned a concerto from Thea Musgrave, and the working relationship they established gives Daniel special insight into Musgrave's music. This recording brings together Musgrave's compositions for the oboe in chamber settings, and represent over fifty years of compositional development.

The earliest work is the Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1960). To my ears it sounds academically atonal, as was the fashion then. And yet, it's not at all harsh or unmusical. The inherent lyricism of Musgrave might be buried, but it's lying very close to the surface.

The featured piece, Night Windows for oboe and piano, is more recent, dating from 2007. Based on a Edward Hopper painting of the same name (which appears on the cover), Night Windows is a series of musical sketches, each one delineating a different emotion: loneliness anger nostalgia despair and frenzy. The sparse piano part coupled with the single-line of the oboe present these emotions in a simple and straight-forward manner. Here Musgrave's melodic gifts are to the fore, making this work quite effective and appealing.

There are some shorter and lighter works on the album, such as the two impromptus and Take Two Oboes, which is just some good-natured fun.

For me, works for live performer and tape don't age well, but Musgrave's Niobe is an exception. Although composed in 1987 for oboe and tape, its atmospheric and ethereal sounds have a timeless aspect.

The Threnody for cor anglais and piano makes a fitting close to the program. The cor anglais has a warmer and darker sound than the oboe, an the change in timber from the previous oboe pieces almost serves as a coda. The work was commissioned to make the passing of a beloved teacher, Musgrave effectively conveys deep sorrow and a sense of loss without sounding maudlin or trite.

Daniel plays with a clean, clear tone and is in complete command of this material. He has the ability to be warm and expressive, and to play aggressively and with great agility as the music demands. An unusual but very compelling portrait of a modern master.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Higdon: Early chamber works hold their own

Higdon: Early Chamber Works
Serafin Quartet
Charles Abramovic, piano
Eric Stomberg, bassoon
Naxos

In this collection of early chamber works, one can hear hints of the composer Jennifer Higdon would become -- and the amazing amount of talent she already possessed.

Amazing Grace (written when Higdon was 24)  breaks this overly-familiar hymn into small bits and rearranges them in a kaleidoscopic fashion. Great fun, and a great way to open the program. 

Her String Trio (another student work), is a well-structured work, although a trifle unfocused. The style of the work doesn't sound completely gelled. The trio sometimes leans towards the academic, before settling into Higdon's characteristic quasi-modal style towards the end.

Bassoonist Eric Stomberg admirably performs Dark Wood, a fast-moving work for bassoon and piano trio. This engaging work full of energy that casts the bassoon not as a clown, or as a mournful crooner, but as an agile and aggressive solo instrument.

Higdon's Sonata for Viola and Piano lets the viola sing in the first movement, and contrapuntally interact with the piano in the second, trading ideas back and forth. The Sky Quartet evokes the grandeur of the Western sky (which inspired its composition). Elegiac and expansive, the quartet is definitely a work of a composer in command of her material.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A delightful mixture of music, and an observance of Yom Kippur

We have another fun and busy edition of Vivace coming your way this Friday.  In the first hour, we'll listen to the Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 by Rachmaninoff.

 

In the 7 o'clock hour, we have a delightful horn concerto by Rosetti played by one of the world's finest horn players, Radek Baborak (above).  And at about 7:30 am, you can enjoy the Duo in C-Major for Guitar and Piano by Fernando Carulli.


As Friday is the Eve of Yom Kippur, we will mark the occasion at 8 o'clock with a very special piece of music, Max Bruch's arrangement for cello of Kol Nidre, the prayer (above) set to an ancient melody which begins the synagogue service at the start of the 25-hour fast.  Last February, when cellist Amit Peled visited Charlottesville, he kindly gave me a copy of his recording of Kol Nidre, to be saved for this Friday's show.

It's a little unusual because Mr. Peled's gentle yet vivacious and refreshing touch on the cello brings what we might call an Israeli perspective to the work, giving it a modern feel, rather than the soulful, melodramatic renderings, guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of Diaspora Jewry, which have been the norm until now.  So that's the version you will be hearing at 8 am this Friday.  See what you think.

After that, we have a harpsichord sonata by Cherubini and a piano concerto by Mozart.

And a quick program note about Vivace on September 27:  we'll feature an exclusive interview with violinist Ray Chen, who will be performing in Old Cabell Hall, Charlottesville on October 1 as part of the Tuesday Evening Concert Series.

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, this Friday from 6-9 am on Vivace.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 9/20/13

Nine Notes That Shook the World

Nine Notes That Shook the World
Ronn McFarlane and Mindy Rosenfeld
Sono Luminus
Blue-ray Audio & CD

Is it OK to call a classical release a "feel-good recording?" Because to my ears, that's what Nine Notes That Shook the World is.

Lutenist Ronn McFarlane and flutist Mindy Rosenfeld have been playing together for over thirty years in various groups (mostly the Baltimore Consort), and are more than comfortable with each other's style. Plus, this release features some of their favorite early music works. The performances have a natural easiness to them that I find quite relaxing.

Not that this is background music by any means. McFarlane and Rosenfeld present a first-rate program of renaissance and baroque music that draws the listener in. While one might be used to hearing "My Lady Carey's Dompe" performed as an early music duet, arranging Handel and Bach for recorder and lute gives those works a fresh sound.

And McFarlane and Rosenfeld vary their instruements from piece to piece, sublty matching texture and timbre to the character of each work. In the end, though, it's the chemistry between the performers that makes this such an appealing release. Two old friends playing the music they love best -- what could be better?

Sono Luminus sweetens the pot by including two versions of the release; CD, and Blu-ray audio. If you've got the equipment, stick with the Blu-ray disc. The full, natural sound makes these soft-spoken instruments come alive.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Blurred Lines blurs lines -- John Beckwith vs. Robin Thicke

You'd think the cover art would give it away.
It turns out that the biggest scandal in the pop world -- Miley Cyrus' performance at the MTV Video Music Awards -- had an impact in the classical world. Because of all the attention Ms. Cyrus created twerking with Robin Thicke as he sang his hit "Blurred Lines," downloads for the song spiked.

As did downloads for any track titled "Blurred Lines," including the work for violin and harpsichord by Canadian composer John Beckwith. It was on Jalsaghar, an album by harpsichordist Vivienne Spiteri.

According to a post at Classic FM,

Suspicions were roused after staff at the contemporary music record label Centerdiscs spotted a sudden increase in international hits, as thousands of visitors flocked to their site to hear the composition [Blurred Lines]. It seemed odd that only the one track from the album was being downloaded, until they realised the music shared its title with the summer anthem.

Sonically, the quarter-tone contemporary classical work has virtually nothing in common with its commercially-produced counterpart.

I wonder how listeners who were expecting Thicke and got Beckwith reacted to the music?

Perhaps we've found the opposite of twerking.

John Beckwith - Blurred Lines
Hear it here.

Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines (just the original song)

Friday, September 6, 2013

THE GREATEST TENORS?

The great tenor Placido Domingo has retired from singing the tenor repertoire, now singing and recording the Verdi baritone repertoire. It is time to reconsider an article from BBC Magazine from about five years ago, surveying supposedly knowledgeable listeners on the greatest tenor "of all time." Domingo, although not high on that list, should have been (no singer ever has sung Parsifal, Don Carlo, Gherman, Don José, and Le Cid, let alone more than 120 other roles, with such consummate musicianship).

It all depends on one's criteria. How can we compare any tenor of today with all other tenors of the past? No one alive today ever heard Tamagno, Rubini, or Duprez, so how can we compare Corelli or Vickers to tenors we have never heard? We know from contemporary accounts what respected musicians of the time thought of them, but then again a critic as qualified as Berlioz never heard Pavarotti, so how is one to judge? If we limit the field to those tenors that we have heard, either live or on record, then the list makes some sense. That said, left off the BBC's list were Del Monaco, the greatest tenore di forza, and Simoneau, a superior Mozart tenor.

In terms of the influence on his contemporaries and future generations of singers and listeners, Caruso stands alone. Tulio Serafin, a conductor who heard more fine singers than anyone else, said that he had heard many great singers, but only three great voices, one of whose was Caruso's. His records are still best sellers.

If the criterion is sheer beauty of the voice, Pavarotti, Gigli, and Wunderlich are at the top of the heap. If the standard is technical excellence, singers today still learn from McCormack and Björling. There is no more demanding repertoire than Wagner, and Melchior sang that repertoire better than anyone else.

If the test is sheer visceral excitement on a given night, I would have bought a ticket to hear Corelli any time. And there was no more compelling singing actor than Vickers (along with Domingo perhaps). When it comes to suave, immaculate singing, then Bergonzi and Kraus are among the finest. Tucker was the "Italian tenor" of choice at the Met for years.

Although Caballé sang a huge repertoire, no one except perhaps the great 19th Century basso Luigi Lablache has even come close to the range of Domingo's repertoire. He did not have the beautiful, free, ringing top of a Pavarotti or a Gigli, but he has a warm, rich, baritonal midrange that is the envy of other tenors. Only Ramon Vinay may have been his equal in that respect. But Domingo is a towering stage presence, not to mention the consummate professional.

Vinay, like Vickers and Domingo, was a great Otello, and Vickers, like Domingo, was a great Siegmund. But while Vickers made Grimes his own, he would not have touched the lyric roles that Domingo sang. So, Caruso is still the "Babe Ruth of Tenors," but Domingo is not far behind, then maybe the next six or seven of your favorite tenors in whatever order you prefer. Bergonzi, McCormack, Corelli? Take your pick.

Do we have any future candidates from today's tenors? Maybe Kaufmann, or perhaps Floréz in the repertoire of his choice.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Music of Ursula Mamlok, Vol. 4 -- Overview and insights

Ursula Mamlok, Volume 4
Various Artists
2 CD set
Bridge

Bridge Record's survey of Ursula Mamlok's music continues with a collection of works from all phases of Mamlok's career.

Although most noted for her serial works, Mamlock began as a neoclassical composer (albeit one that strained at the limits of tonality). "Grasshoppers" (1957) and Sonatina for 2 Clarinets (1958) show her affinity for counterpoint, even in a somewhat traditional melodic framework.

One can hear her move towards Schoenberg serialism with "Four German Songs" (1958) and fully embracing it with the Composition for Cello (1962). To my ears, the works of this period sound like notes hanging from an Alexander Calder mobile. Tone clusters and motifs align and move apart according to their prescribed paths, yet still yield unexpected and seemingly random combinations.

Most of the works with percussion on this release come from the 1970's when Mamlok was exploring the tactile aspect of music. Works like the "Variations and And Interludes for Four Percussionists" (1971) can sound like Varese at times, but the resemblance is passing.

For me, the most successful works in the collection are the most recent -- "Aphorism I and II" (2009) and "Rotations" for cello and piano (2011). Mamlok's grown into her own compositional style, synthesizing all the influences apparent in the different phases of her earlier career. The music sounds completely natural, while still conforming to its own internal logic.

Bridge doesn't order the works on this 2 CD set in chronological order, which helps the listener hear the connections between works that are sometimes decades apart. Well done.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hoffmeister and Hummel, Mozart and Salieri

This Friday on Vivace, we'll have some melodic treasures to share with you.

In the first hour, there will be a rare broadcast of Hubert Parry's Symphony No. 1 in G-Major which has not been played on WTJU since we started keeping records  And after that, we'll hear a short work by Anton Bruckner - really!  Such things do exist!


After 7 am, the emphasis is on sweet, melodious music.  We have a superb clarinet concerto by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, an Impromptu by Vorisek and a remarkable serenade by Johann Hummel. 

And after 8 o'clock, we'll hear some exquisite music by two composers wrongly thought to be fierce rivals who were in fact friends: Mozart and Salieri.


In reality, Antonio Salieri was one of the few mourners who attended Mozart's sparse funeral and later trained Mozart's son, Franz Xaver, as a musician.  We'll hear music by both of them as well as a violin concerto by Johann Stamitz and a piano sonata by Haydn. 

So do join me, as ever, for Vivace, Friday morning, 6-9 am, on WTJU-Charlottesville, 91.1 FM for three hours of Vivacious fun!

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 9/12/13

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rautavaara: Sacred Choral Works - Beautiful music beautifully recorded

Rautavaara: Missa a Cappella
Sacred Choral Works
Latvian Radio Choir
Sigvards Klava, director
Ondine

There's a consistency about Einojuhani Rautavaara's writing that gives his music a timeless quality. After auditioning this new release, I revisited the earliest recording I owned of his music, "Angels and Visitations" (1997). The style was virtually identical.

That's not to say Rautavaara hasn't grown creatively. Rather, to me it shows that once he hit upon the best way to express himself musically, he's simply continued in that vein, creating works that continue to be deeply spiritual and thought-provoking.

This new release is no exception. The major work on the album, Missa a cappella, is a floating, ever-changing cloud of sound that benefits from the resonant echoes of the cathedral it was recorded in. This is not music for the concert hall, but truly music for the church. Rautavaara writes masterfully for choir, creating a work that is ethereal and spiritual, yet rooted in human emotion.

The release is filled out with several shorter a cappella selections that compliment the Missa perfectly. The Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Klava has a warm, blended sound ideally suited to Rautavaara's music. Beautiful music beautifully recorded.

Monday, August 26, 2013

LETTER FROM BAYREUTH

Wagnerians could be nowhere else this summer of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth but in Bayreuth for the new production of the Ring. This writer was one of the privileged few to have a ticket for one of the three Ring cycles presented at the Festival this summer (the second cycle, August 14-19). The brutal heat, topping 95 degrees in Central Europe, had finally abated, leaving cool evening air in its wake, making the atmosphere of the Festspielhaus at least tolerable.

Much critical commentary has already been written about the staging by Berlin director Frank Castorf. To characterize it as "Eurotrash" is almost a compliment. Rarely has such egotistical, willfully ugly, vulgar, and patently condescending staging been seen on any operatic stage, let alone one as exalted as Bayreuth's. The staging was especially unfortunate in that Castorf has a virtuoso director’s facility for using props and movement on the stage for visual effect. Yet his staging reflected his contempt for the audience in the house. This production seemed to say "I want to see just how much crudity served up by my ego you can tolerate in the guise of service to great art." That said, it speaks to Wagner's genius and the commitment of the artists for this Ring that somehow Wagner's mighty vision survived the offense visited on his creation by Castorf's production.

To pick just a few examples, what kind of imagination could conceive of the Rhinemaidens as voluptuous floozies turning tricks in a rundown second-rate motel run by Wotan? This is, after all, Der Ring des Nibelungen, but where are the Nibelungs? Nowhere to be found, rendering the chorus of clanging anvils that accompanies the voyage of Wotan and Loge to Nibelheim completely pointless. In Siegfried the purpose of the forging of the great sword Notung is to give Siegfried a weapon with which to dispatch Fafner and seize the gold. Fafner is done in by a burst of fire from Siegfried’s Kalashnikov assault rifle! Thereafter Notung becomes nothing more than a pointless prop. To a red Berliner of Castorf's generation, knee-jerk anti-Americanism comes with the territory, even though it has nothing to do with Castorf's narrative, assuming that there is a narrative. wake, making the atmosphere of the Festspielhaus at least tolerable.

Fortunately, this Ring was saved from disaster by the performing artists. The singing, with few exceptions, was of a high order. Wolfgang Koch's Wotan, while the voice is a bit light for the role, was lyrically sung. Sorin Coliban's Fafner, while well sung, was eclipsed by the Fasolt of Günther Groissböck. He has a resonant bass voice and an appropriately menacing stage presence. Nadine Weissmann's Erda was sung with a rich contralto voice, even though Castorf asked her to engage in stage behavior that was often unspeakably vulgar. Of the Rhinemaidens, Julia Rutigliano's Wellgunde was especially well-sung.

Die Walküre was the only one of Castorf’s creations that had any coherence. His visualization of Hunding's hut was convincing, as was the way in which the scenery and props were used by the characters to impart the action. The most consistently fine singing in this Ring was by Johan Botha and Anja Kampe, as Siegmund and Sieglinde. Botha's acting can be stiff and with little nuance, but what singing! He has a large tenor voice which he employs with just the kind of bel canto sensitivity and warmth that Wagner, who admired Bellini's operas, intended. If anything, Kampe was even better. She captured the fear and hatred she had for her husband, the brute Hunding (Franz-Joseph Selig), utterly convincingly. Her voice soared over the orchestra with a sweet tone and fine phrasing. Weissmann and Rutigliano distinguished themselves as Valkyries Schwertleite and Siegrune. Winterstürm and Wotan's Abscheid, were high points of this Ring, and Castorf actually made the magic fire believable.

Castorf’s Siegfried was almost unbearably vulgar, even given his low standards. The conclusion of Act III, with the arrival of two mechanical crocodiles to see the lovers off, is probably the stupidest bit of staging I have seen in over 40 years of opera-going. But Koch’s Wanderer and Burkhard Ulrich’s slippery Mime were nicely realized, not to mention well-sung. Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde hit her stride in Siegfried. But Siegfried ultimately belongs to Siegfried, and Lance Ryan disappointed in the title role. He has great upper extension to his voice, and it has the bright edge needed for this role, but his voice has a leathery quality with little nuance. Everything he sang sounded pretty much the same.

Die Götterdämmerung, of course, is probably impossible to stage–how to stage the end of the world? Castorf’s effort, though, was particularly feeble. Having been given the Ring by Brünnhilde, the Rhinemaidens simply cast it into a charcoal brazier, while Hagen looks on helplessly, as the object of his affection goes up in smoke. At least Attila Jun looked and acted the part of the consummate villain Hagen, and he sang the music with conviction and a big, dark voice. Foster was at her best in the Immolation Scene, even though she was given no help by the staging.

I have saved the best for last. Conductor Kirill Petrenko and the orchestra covered themselves with glory. They were rewarded at the end of each opera with huge ovations, each one of which was richly deserved. Under his leadership the orchestra phrased with the singers, and despite a massive sound, rarely drowned them out, aided immeasurably by the unique acoustics of the Festspielhaus. The brasses had a rich, dark sound that is so characteristic of the brass in the best of German orchestras. The sound of the lower strings was fat and lush, and the woodwinds played to perfection, especially the bass clarinetist, whose plaintive recurring solo lines so often signify a change in the mood throughout the Ring.

As bad as Castorf's production was, this Ring was redeemed by the singers, Petrenko’s conducting, and the magnificent playing of the orchestra. As a concert performance, it would have been a first-class Ring, but even despite the production, it was well worth the trip to the beautiful city of Bayreuth in the summertime to honor the bicentennial of the birth of Wagner, Germany's greatest opera composer.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dmitri Tymoczko: Crackpot Hymnal - Great music, great fun

Dmitri Tymoczko: Crackpot Hymnal
Corigliano Quartet
Amernet Quartet
Illinois Modern Ensemble, Stephen Taylor, conductor
Bridge Records

If I had to sum up Dmitri Tymoczko's music in a phrase, I'd say it's serious music that doesn't take itself seriously. At least, that's the impression this new release of Tymoczko's chamber music left with me.

All the works on Crackpot Hymnal are carefully constructed, with plenty of substance and depth. But the basic building blocks borrowed from rock, jazz, blues, gospel, and even movie soundtracks. It's all blended together in a heady mixture of high-energy gravitas that I found irresistible.

And then there are the titles: "Crackpot Hymnal," "This One was Supposed to be Atonal.. "(from Typecase Treasury), "A Roiling Worm of Sound" (from Eggman Variations)... Great stuff!

Each of the four works are musical gems. Another Fantastic Voyage, for chamber orchestra and piano, captures the essence of 50's sci-fi movie scores without resorting to either parody or quotations. Typecase Treasury, written for string quartet plus bass, is a compendium of styles, each movement exploring a different subgenre of music. The piano quintet Eggman Variations begins with a simple diatonic pattern and ends in, well, a roiling worm of sound.

Crackpot Hymnal is serious fun.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Guitalian Quartet: Contemporary Italian Music for Guitar Quartet

Guitalian Quartet
Contemporary Italian Music for Guitar Quartet
Bridge Records

The Guitalian Quartet is comprised of four top-flight classical guitarists who perform together with seamless precision. This new release ffrom Bridge presents a wonderful program of contemporary Italian guitar quartet music. Included are major compositions by Giovanni Sollima and Bruno Maderna.

Bruino Sollima's "Beastiario di Leonardo" depicts the exotic beasts of Da Vinci's imagination with equally imaginative writing for the ensemble. Sollima conjures up swirling wraiths of sound for the shining Lumerpa, undulating melodies for the Alep (fish), busy, bustling chords for the horned Ceresta, and so on.

Bruno Maderna wrote Serenata per un satellite in 1969 with an unusual score that can be combined and interpreted many different ways. The work has a metallic quality to it soft, slow sections with sudden bursts of energy. The Guitalian Quartet captures the essence of this aleatoric work in a performance that sounds both spontaneous and inspired.

The quartet rounds out the album with short but well-crafted works by Carmelo Nicotra, Mauro Shiavone, Nicola Jappelli, and Paolo Arca. An enjoyable and engaging album from start to finish.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tranquility, harps and relaxation ... then Vivacious fun!

This Friday on Vivace, we'll devote the first hour to two tranquil works, the Violin Concerto by Ignaz Pleyel and a quintet for clarinet and strings by a Finnish composer you may never have heard about.


The vivacious fun begins at 7 am, when we'll have a delightful harp concerto of Jean-Baptist Krumpholtz -- who knew a thing or two about harps because he taught several harp manufacturers how to improve their products. 



We'll also listen to a splendid Mozart sonata for violin and piano -- and just before 8 o'clock, we'll have one of those catchy tunes that may well stay in your head all day!        

After 8 o'clock, we'll have Beethoven's Violin Concerto -- but not the one you're thinking of!  But surely, you ask, isn't there only one?  All will be revealed!  And, as well as works by Jacob Rosenhain and Louis Spohr, we'll play one of Felix Mendelssohn's early teenage symphonies.

As ever, I hope you'll join me for Vivace on WTJU, for three hours of terrific music this Friday, 6-9 am.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 9/5/13

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Friedrich Gernsheim - Forgotten Genius

Friedrich Gernsheim, 1836-1916
A pretty good composer once you get
to know him.
Beginning this Wednesday, "Gamut" (6-9am Wednesday mornings) will be featuring a cycle of symphonies by German composer Friedrich Gernsheim.

Who?

Although Gernsheim's reputation has lapsed into relative obscurity, it wasn't always the case.

Friedrich Gernsheim (1838-1916) was a well-respected composer, conductor, and teacher in the latter half of the 19th century. Like Mendelssohn, Gernsheim was born into a wealthy Jewish family that valued the arts and supported his efforts.

Young Friedrich had a natural talent for the piano and studied with virtuoso Ignaz Molscheles. But rather than pursue a career as a performer, he chose to concentrate on composition and conducting.

In the late 1850's he lived in Paris, where he associated professionally with Rossini, Lalo, and Saint-Saens. Returning to Germany, he joined the faculty of Conservatory of Cologne, where he taught (among others), Engelbert Humperdink. He was a great friend of Brahms, whose style closely resembled Gernsheim's own. Gernsheim championed Brahms' music, and often programmed and conducted it.

And no wonder. Gernsheim and Brahms had very similar views about music, and wrote in similar styles. Gernsheim's First Symphony (1875) follows the same structure as Brahms' First Symphony (premiered 1876), although the two men worked independently. Gernsheim, like his friend, would write just four symphonies. He also composed a piano concerto, two violin concertos, a cello concertos, as well as an extensive amount of chamber music -- 5 string quartets, 3 piano quintets, 2 string quintets, and more.

But as good as it was (and most of his works were premiered to critical acclaim and widely performed), Gernsheim's music was still overshadowed by that of Brahms.

While I'm not suggesting we should stop playing Brahms and play Gernsheim instead, I do think the latter's music is of a quality that's worthy of the time investment to listen to it -- at least once. Which is why I'll be presenting it to you over the next month or so.

And if I can track down some recordings of Gernsheim's chamber works, I'll share them as well. But for now, between 8 and 9 AM, we can enjoy the symphonies of a perhaps unjustly neglected master. You be the judge.

8/14/13 - Symphony no. 1 in G minor, op. 32 (1875)
8/21/13 - Symphony no. 2 in E-flat major, op. 46 (1882)
8/28/13 - Symphony no. 3 in C minor 'Miriam', op. 54 (1887)
9/4/13 - Symphony no. 4 in B♭ major, op. 62 (1895)

Here's a sample:

 

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay up to seven days after the original broadcast.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Carlos Chavez Piano Concerto: Muscular Music from Mexico

Carlos Chavez: Piano Concerto
Jorge Federico Osorio, piano
Sinfonica National de Mexico
Carlos Miguel Prietro, conductor
Cedille

Cedille presents pianist Jorge Federico Osorio in an exciting program of Mexican composers. The centerpiece is Carlos Chavez's sole piano concerto. This massive work presents serious challenges to both soloist and ensemble, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

The work fairly crackles with energy, with mercurial changes in moods and timbres. Chavez had a unique compositional voice, one that doesn't neatly fit into the pigeonholes of 20th Century schools. So there are some spiky, atonal sections as well as some modernist tonality -- and running throughout (very subtly) the rhythm and pulse of Mexican traditional music.

This is a live performance by Osorio and the Sinfonica National de Mexico, and an extraordinarily clean one at that. The ensemble plays with pin-point accuracy, a must given the sudden changes and the percussive nature of the score. Osorio is in full command of the material. His phrasing gives logic and shape to the sea of notes before him, Osorio's restrained but heartfelt expressiveness in the slow movement is particularly moving.

The albums is filled out with solo piano works. Meditacion, an early work by Chavez, shows surprising maturity for such a young composer. Jose Pablo Moncayo's Muros Verdes is a spacious-sounding work that blends Mexican musical traditions with a Hindemith-like neo-classicism. Samuel Zyman's 16-minute Variations on an Original Theme is most contemporary work on the album -- both by creation date and sound.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

An hour of Mozart and some heavenly voices!

This Friday on Vivace!, we have several special treats for you.

The first hour is devoted to a magnificent performance of a single Mozart piece: his Divertimento No. 17 in D Major. If you'd enjoy over 51 minutes of uninterrupted Mozart, you'll find it at 6 am on Vivace this week!

At 7 am, we have a remarkable piece of music for you: the Suite du Triomphe de la République by Francois Gossec, a leading royalist, who quickly switched sides and became the favored composer of the French revolution.

Just after 7:30 am, be prepared with a nice refreshing drink and some agreeable munchies for half an hour of heavenly choral music. No more details now, as it's something of a surprise!


And after 8 o'clock, as well as a sonata by Rossini and a Haydn symphony, we'll hear from my co-host, Andrew O'Shanick, who has been wowing the audiences in Austria this summer with his singing.  He'll be singing songs from Mozart's Don Giovanni and from the musical Camelot. Here's a sample of Andrew in action a few days ago in Graz, Austria:



All in all, this week's Vivace is a program you won't want to miss!  I hope you'll join me on Friday, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 8/22/13