Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Frederic Rzewski
Ole Kiilerich, piano

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a massive set of piano variations based on a Chilean folk song by pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski. Structurally, it resembles Beethoven's "Diabelli "variations, or Bach's "Goldberg" variations. Like the former, it's a virtual catalog of compositional technique. And like the latter, its 36 variations are divided into six groups of six.

The People United begins and ends with the same simple folk tune -- but this is a work that's more about the journey then the destination. After hearing it transformed by Lisztian piano flourishes, complex counterpoint, atonal reinterpretations, aleatoric passages, and extended piano techniques, the listener gains new appreciation for this tune when it returns intact in the final movement.

Frederic Rzewski is a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer. Like Bach and Beethoven, he knows -- and continues to push -- what's possible on his instrument. And that technical command gives the work a sense of coherence. Like the "Diabelli" and the "Goldberg" variations, this piece is a marathon -- although more for the performer than the listener.

The variations of The People United have a rhythm and flow to them that pulls the listener along. The each of the six sections have a feeling of arrival, although only in the final movement does one get a sense of completeness.

In the liner notes pianist Ole Kiilerich writes, "I had this odd feeling that the piece was written just for me to fulfill my conception of musical expression and I felt an urge to instantly dig deeply into this overwhelming piece of art right away..."

That compulsion works to his benefit. The performance captured in this recording is engaging and exciting. Kiilerich has indeed made this composition his own.

The People United can be listened to in installments. The six sections provide logical places to enter and exit the composition. But I recommend hearing the work the way it was intended -- from start to finish. As I mentioned earlier, "United" is all about the journey. And it's one that's well worth the time invested.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Brundibar - Music by Composers in Theresienstadt

Brundibar - Music by Composers in Theresienstadt 
The Nash Ensemble 

 Theresienstadt was the primary concentration camp for Czech Jews, and in that crucible the interred musicians forged an artistic life that was as creative as it was transient. The four composers on this disc were the most prominent to be interred at the camp. All had promising careers cut short by their arrest, all composed and performed in the camp, and all died in Auschwitz before the end of the war.

The Nash Ensemble presents works written at Theresienstadt by Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, and Pavel Hass.

The title work, Brundibar is a children's opera written by Hans Krasa in 1938. Stylistically, it's similar to Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf". While tuneful and charming, it also has an underlying acerbic quality that give the music some tang. The original composition calls for an orchestra. The arrangement on this recording by David Matthews closely reflects the limited assortment of instruments available in the camp, and this stripped-down version gives this instrumental suite an additional edge.

Viktor Ullmann's third string quartet was composed in 1943, and is the only one of his quartets to survive. It's a highly chromatic and expressive work that compares favorably (I think) to the early quartets of Bartok.

Gideon Klein was greatly influenced by Alban Berg, as his String Trio shows. While the trio pushes to the edge of chromaticism, it never quite crosses over into atonality. Its nevertheless a compact, well-constructed work, completed just days before Klein was shipped to Auschwitz.

String Quartet No. 2 "From the Monkey Mountains" by Pavel Haas was inspired by the composer's trip to the Moravian mountains of the same name. The quartet is a programmatic piece depicting various aspects of the the trip, from the inspiring scenery to an amusingly bumpy cart ride. The quartet sounds much like those of Janacek and Smetana, weaving folk elements into a decidedly classical structure.

The Nash Ensemble plays with precision and energy. All four works are compositions of substance that deserve to be heard on their own merits. The fact that they were composed under the most hopeless of circumstances gives them additional emotional power. As Ullman wrote, "our will to create was equal to our will to live."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Billband - Towards Daybreak

Towards Daybreak 

 Billband is a chamber ensemble organized by composer Bill Ryan, created to perform his music. I'd best characterize Ryan as a post-minimalist, drawing inspiration from classical, jazz and popular music and bringing them together in an original fashion.

Most of the music on this album was commissioned by a dance company, and the works have a certain programmatic quality to them. As with most composer-founded ensembles, the intimate connection between creator and composer works to the music's advantage. These players know Ryan's music -- and it shows in their committed performances.

Ryan's music is somewhat sparse, so how it's performed makes a world of difference. Simple Lines, for example, is a work for two cellos (or in this case, one cello overdubbed) with rather plain melodic lines. But the expressiveness cellist Ashley Bathgate pours into those lines lines make this work a thing of beauty.

Sparkle, as the name implies, is a light, shimmering work. Glockenspiel and piano tinkle away in the upper register while the soprano sax adds a glistening melody.

My favorite track is Blurred, which begins with a simple piano line. The line becomes obscured as it repeats against slightly different versions of itself. Cello and violin lines slide from note to note, further smearing the sound. Overall, a quiet and quite effective work.

Not all the works are slow -- Rapid Assembly is a jazzy little number, and Friction is a bundle of nervous energy -- bot there is a uniformity to the album. Ryan draws on a small group of instruments; piano, violin, cello, percussion, bass clarinet and saxophone. This provides a consistency of timbre to the album.

 Listening from start to finish provides a complete aesthetic experience, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. The works on this album are, on the whole, quiet and introspective, and deeply emotional. This is quiet time well spent.