Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jennifer Higdon: An Exaltation of Larks

Jennifer Higdon: An Exaltation Of Larks
The Lark Quartet
Gary Graffman, piano
Todd Palmer, clarniet
Blair McMillen, piano
Bridge Records

From a marketing standpoint, it's a natural -- the all-female Lark Quartet performs music by female composer Jennifer Higdon, including her Lark Quartet. But this release is more than that. It's actually about a very talented string quartet performing music by a very talented composer. Period. And on that level, An Exaltation of Larks succeeds admirably.

The title work is flowing, modal composition. According to the liner notes, Higdon's intent was to mimic a group of birds, and the music does just that. It swoops and spins, the four instruments coming together and moving apart, just like flocking birds. Motifs twitter and trill like bird calls to. An Exultation of Larks is an appealing work, even if you don't know the program.

Scenes from the Poet's Dreams is an engaging and most unusual-sounding piano quintet. The work was ommissioned by the Lark Quartet and Gary Graffman, who lost the use of his right hand. The piano part is for left hand only, thinning the texture somewhat. Higdon uses the restriction as a resource. the piano becomes a fifth single-line instrument, completely integrated into the ensemble.

Light Refacted -- as befitting the title -- is a somewhat angular work for string quartet, clarinet and piano, The ensemble gives Higdon a lot of textures to play with, and she does. The first movement "Inward" turns slowly like a prism in the sunlight, the various instruments coming together and moving apart, creating subtle permutations of sound. It all comes coalesces in the last movement "Outward." All the players are united, and the united ensemble races ahead to an exciting climax.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

This Friday: The Magnificat, Mandolins and Mozart!

This Friday on Vivace!, we have a delightful array of music for your enjoyment.

If you're an early bird, there's a special treat in store: the first hour will feature a fine performance of the Magnificat by CPE Bach, the words taken from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1.

At just after 7 am, you can hear the enchanting Mandolin Concerto by Johann Hummel and at 7:30 am, the Scherzo Capriccioso by Dvorak, a work written in just over three weeks from start to finish!

Also this week, we'll conclude our series of Mozart's apocryphal symphonies, with No. 55.  It's been a delight to meander through these works since mid-April and by way of celebration, the 8 o'clock hour will be filled with music of Mozart, including some variations by Max Reger.

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, Friday morning, 6-9 am.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 8/15/13  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Helmuth Rilling Personal Selection: Indeed the best of the best

Helmuth Rilling Personal Selection
10 CD Set
Hänssler Classic

Conductor Helmuth Rilling has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with the Hänssler Classic. To celebrate Rilling's 70th birthday, Hänssler released this 10-CD set, Rilling's hand-picked favorites from the over 240 recordings he's made with the label. With that much material to choose from, it's safe to say this set is indeed the best of the best.

Rilling is perhaps best known for his traversal of Johann Sebastian Bach cantatas and oratorios. That cycle is well-represented in this collection. In addition to the St. John Passion and the "Peasant" Cantata, there are also some shorter works by Bach in the set.

Rilling takes a straight-forward approach to Bach. He tends to keep things moving briskly along, with tight, clean ensembles that make the counterpoint easy to follow. Rilling lets the music speak for itself, and in these recordings, it has a lot to say.

That same type of unadorned, no-nonsense direction is equally effective in Rilling's recording of the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten.

The collection includes many works by romantic masters, and Rilling adjusts his style appropriately. César Franck's Les Béatitudes shimmers with a soft glow. Rilling lingers lovingly over each beautiful turn of phrase in Schubert's Gesang der Geister. His performance of Bruckner's Te Deum is emotive, with just the right amount of gravitas and portent.

Also featured in the collection is Haydn's Harmoniemess in B-flat. Rilling's precise interpretation captures the classical era's ideal: the perfect balance between form and emotion. Mendelssohns' Heimkerh aus der Fremde is full of good humor. The work was written for private performance (to celebrate an anniversary), and Rilling maintains a light hearted and casual mood throughout this seldom-heard work.

Hänssler's crystal-clear recording techniques perfectly match the style of this remarkable conductor. If you're not familiar with Helmuth Rilling, this collection is an excellent place to start. It spans a good portion of his time with Hänssler, and shows a remarkable consistency of quality throughout.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

An unusual Vivace this Friday: you'll know all the composers!

This coming Friday, July 26, Vivace! has an unusual twist:  we're featuring the music of three very popular composers.

The first hour will be devoted to music of Irish composer John Field, in celebration of his 231st birthday.

During the second hour, we'll feature music by the Mozart family: Mozart himself, including his first-ever composition written at the age of 6, maybe Mozart and Mozart Junior: Franz Xaver Wolfgang, in celebration of his 222nd birthday.

At eight o'clock, we'll pause to celebrate the birth of HRH Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge with some special appropriate music.

And at around 8:15 am: Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev has written a really superb transcription of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with a difference:  it's for clarinet, and it is a work you've probably never heard before.  We'll have this astonishing recording for you.

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

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 8/9/13  

Monday, July 15, 2013

New Music Box Music: Tom Sora's 20 Tones

Usually the image of a music box conjures up the tinkling of pleasant little melodies. It might be something simple, such as a bit of Mozart, or Stephen Foster, or Brahms' "Lullaby." But those 20 diatonic tones can be used any number of ways -- as German composer Tom Sora ably demonstrates.

Sora composed nine works for a 20-tone music box, and managed to take this extremely limited instrument to new and exciting places sonically.

Consider: the twenty notes on the music box are all part of a C-major scale, spanning 2 and a half octaves. In other words, just the white keys on a piano starting at middle C and going up twenty notes. So no black keys, which means no modulation (moving to other keys), no complex harmonies (within an octave), and no sharp dissonances to add spice.

Further, the mechanism of the music box hits the bars in a uniform fashion. So there's no way to get the expressiveness of a piano, with accented notes, contrasts in volume, or shaping of phrases through subtle differences in how keys are struck.

There's also a limit on tempo. The music box is cranked at a uniform rate, feeding the punched paper through at a fairly constant speed. So expressive variants of tempo -- slow rubatos and sudden tempo changes simply can't happen.

And yet within those severe limits of notes, intonation, and volume, Tom Sora has managed to create works that are exciting and inspired, such as the one featured in the video below.

New music for old instruments indeed!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fred Lerdahl, Volume 4 - Spirals in Form

Fred Lerdahl, Vol. 4
Odense Symphony Orchestra
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
eighth blackbird
Bridge Records

Volume Four in Bridge Records' ongoing Fred Lerdahl series features works from different stages of the composer's career. And what an interesting career its been!

Wake, a setting of Finnegan's Wake, was Lerdahl's first major composition. Finished in 1968, it's Lerdahl at his most atonal. Written (and performed here) by Bethany Beardslee, Wake is a jagged, spikey work that moves along like an wobbly wheel, threatening to spin out of control at any moment.

Fantasy Studies, a 1985 work commissioned and performed by eighth blackbird shows how much Lerdahl's own compositional voice developed. Rather than academic serialism, Lerdahl uses his concept of spiral development, continually revisiting motives that fold back on themselves.

The third major work included is Spirals, a 2006 orchestral composition. Here the linear nature of Fantasy Studies is replaced by sound clouds -- further developing his idea of spiral forms. The music wavers and flows, groups of instruments interweaving with each other in fascinating ways.

Some smaller -- but no less appealing -- works round out the release. There Diatonic Studies (2009) bubble along, proving that just using the white keys doesn't always result in bland music. Imbrications (2001) is more aggressive, with noodlely lines working with and against each other in a sparkling mixture.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

This Friday: four musical birthdays!

This Friday on Vivace, we'll have a brief salute to our French friends as they celebrate Bastille Day, (Deborah will devote her Classical Sunrise show to French music on Sunday).

And as well as some generally lovely music I think you'll enjoy, we'll have another of Mozart's apocryphal symphonies and we'll celebrate four musical birthdays, which run the gamut (to coin a well-known phrase!) all the way from the Middle Ages to the present day!

Do join me Friday morning, 6-9 am, for Vivace.

You can also replay the program anytime from our archives. The program will be available for replay through 7/24/13  

Holmboe: Concertos -- Unabashed neo-classical richness

Holmboe: Concertos
Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra
Dima Sloboderiouk, conductor
Erik Heide, violin
Lars Anders Tomter, viola

Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996)  remained true to himself, throughout his career, writing the music he wanted to with little regard for academic fashion. While generally neo-classical in style, his music has a distinctive individuality to it -- as this collection proves. These three concerti span a half-century, yet they collectively form a homogeneous program.

Holmboe's Concerto for Viola is a two movement work written in 1992. Holmboe relishes the rich warmth of the viola's lower register. Sprightly and spiky passages alternate with bursts of long, lyrical melodies. Lars Tomter's expressive playing adds tremendously to the emotional content of this work.

Holmboe takes a different tack with his 1929 Concerto for Orchestra than Bartok does. Unlike Bartok, Holmboe doesn't isolate the various sections of the orchestra. This is big, heroic music that revels in the blended sound of the ensemble. While there are some quiet sections that use just parts of the orchestra, they're not showcased. Rather, the focus remains on the virtuosity of the collective whole.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 (1979) is more aggressively modern than the other works on this release. It's not quite atonal. Rather, it's highly chromatic music with the violin leaping and skipping about in the opening and closing sections. But the heart of the work is in the slow sections, where Holmboe lets the violin sing -- and Erik Heide does indeed make his instrument do so.

While this release is available as a download, I highly recommend the SACD version -- especially if you have an SACD player. These performances were lovingly recorded by DaCapo, and the fullness of the sound adds an extra dimension to these appealing works.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Fernando Lopes-Graça Piano Concertos: Portuguese Gold

Lopes-Graca: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
Eldar Nebolsin, piano
Orchestra Sinfonica do Porto - Casa da Musica
Matthias Bamert, conductor

Fernando Lopes-Graça (1906-1994) was passionate about the folk music of his native Portugal. And like his contemporary Bela Bartok, he collected it, studied it, absorbed it, and synthesized it into his own music.

His two piano concertos reflect that passion. Both have strong folk rhythms to them. The first piano concerto even has a folk ensemble-like passage lead by an out-of-tune violin. But that roughness soon gives way to some sophisticated music-making. In Lopes-Graça's first piano concerto from 1940 I hear echoes of Khachaturian and Stravinsky (specifically "The Firebird"), but blended in a unique fashion. Lopes-Garça may have several influences, but he's his own man with his own voice.

Lopes-Graça started his second piano concerto a few years after the first, although it was not published until 1950. Here the music seems more influenced by Bartok and Shostakovich. The second concerto sounds more lyrical and expansive (especially in the second movement) than the first.

Highly recommended.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Magnus Lindberg and the NY Philharmonic -- Creative synergy

Magnus Lindberg: Expo, Piano Concerto, No. 2, Al Largo 
New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Yefim Bronfman

Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg served as the New York Philharmonic's Composer-in-Residence for three years. As this new recording attests, it was time well-spent. The release features three live recordings of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic performing music Lindberg composed for them. And what compositions!

Lindberg's second piano concerto, finished in 2012, is a lush, post-modern work that never lets up on the drama. The roiling piano solo (effectively executed in this performance by Yefim Bronfman) has some of the quality Liszt and Rachmaninov, cast in a more advanced tonal language. This is an expansive and powerful work, and one that has the potential to become a repertoire standard.

Framing the piano concerto on the disc are two shorter works for orchestra. EXPO (2009) is a bristling showpiece that serves as an exciting and appealing curtain-raiser. Al largo (2009) is a more substantial work. It begins with a heroic fanfare, then as thematic crosscurrents play across the orchestra, the work seems to shimmer with continual motion. The combination and recombination of instruments and sections  the instruments keeps Al largo moving along until the listener arrives at its unexpected -- but in retrospect quite logical -- finish.

The works, the performances, and the recording itself is all top-notch. A triumph all the way around.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Elliot Carter: Volume 9 - A strong addition to Bridge's survey

Elliott Carter: Volume 9
 Steven Beck, piano
Tony Arnold, soprano
Colorado College Festival Orchestra; Scott Yoo, conductor
et al. 

In the 9th volume of Bridge Record's Elliot Carter series is an interesting collection of old and the new.

The old is represented by some of Carter's works from the 1940's - two works for soprano and orchestra, plus the intimate "Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred" for soprano and guitar. All three works have the tonal American sound of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, but the harmonies are slightly more adventuresome.

The new consists of three piano works, all composed between 2005 and 2009. This is Carter at his most advanced and complex. The temporal modulations, the advanced atonal structure, and the incredibly technical challenges are all there -- and admirably handled by pianist Steven Beck.

Linking these two groups is Carter's 1964 Piano Concerto, performed by Charles Rosen. When heard in order, the works on this release reveals insights about Carter, and his growth as a composer. As pleasant as they sound, one can hear the seeds of his highly personal style in the 1940's works. The piano concerto still has echoes of that earlier tonal style, and look forward to the final three piano works on the album.

This is an album that rewards careful listening, and is an important addition to Elliot Carter's musical legacy.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Star-Spangled edition of Vivace this Friday!

We have a delightful Vivace program for you this Friday, July 5th. Many people will have the day off, so we'll try to bring you some extra-melodic music in the first two hours.

At 7 am, we'll have two works by Italian composer, Carlo-Alfredo Piatti. We'll have another in our series of Mozart's apocryphal symphonies and a flute concerto by Leopold Hofmann. And at 8 o'clock, we'll have a change of pace as we bring out the party hats and the red, white and blue bunting.

We'll enjoy an hour of great American music to celebrate the Independence Day weekend. As part of that celebration, we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg with the debut of a specially recorded setting of the Gettysburg Address within the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.

We'll play you the very first national anthem of the United States and end the hour with some stirring American music by John Williams. So do join us for a sparkling, star-spangled version of Vivace this Friday!

You can also replay the program anytime from our archives. The program will be available for replay through 7/19/13