Monday, September 29, 2014

Andrew Manze Leads Lars-Erik Larsson Revival

Lars-Erik Larsson: Symphony No. 2
Orchestral Works, Vol. 1
Helsingborgs Symfonionkester
Andrew Manze, conductor

Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson is not well-known outside of his native country, but this new series from CPO may change that. Larsson is part of the generation immediately following Sibelius, and follows him stylistically as well.

Larsson's works are decidedly neo-romantic, with rich harmonies and expansive melodies. His Symphony No. 2, written in 1927, is the centerpiece of the album. This four-movement symphony is a youthful work, full of excitement and high spirits. And yet it's also tightly constructed, with clear-cut melodies and masterful (albeit straight-forward) orchestration. To my ears, the overall sound resembles the symphonies of Nielsen, with a more lyrical bent.

The other works help present a more rounded portrait of the composer. The Music for Orchestra, written two decades (and world war) after the Symphony, has a sparer, more somber sound. Larsson stretches the limits of tonality, and imbues a restless energy into the work. 

Four Vignettes to Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" is an attractive, tuneful work, reminding me Larsson's colleague, Dag Wiren,  in its beautiful simplicity.

Andrew Manze leads the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra with authority. He's made a deep study of Larsson's music, and that understanding ensures that these works receive sympathetic readings. This is a strong start to what should prove to be an important series. Larsson's music deserves a place alongside that of his more famous Scandinavian colleagues.

Monday, September 22, 2014

George Crumb, Vol. 16 - Spanish and American Songbooks

George Crumb Edition, Vol. 16
Voices from the Heartland; Sun and Shadow
Ann Crumb, soprano; Marcantonio Barone, piano; Patrick Mason, baritone; Orchestra 2001; James Freeman, conductor
Bridge Records

Bridge Records' sixteenth(!) installment of George Crumb's compositions feature two works that are both similar and different. Sun and Shadow is another collection of songs based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Lorca's work has inspired several Crumb compositions, including the Ancient Voices of Children. This set, subtitled Spanish Songbook II is classic Crumb. In this case, he uses just an amplified piano to create his unique soundscapes, making this a somewhat intimate composition

Voices from the Heartland (American Songbook VII), presents Crumb's arrangements of some traditional American songs. Baritone Patrick Mason and soprano Ann Crumb perform, along with the James Freeman and the Orchestra 2001. Actually, these songs are more re-imaginings than arrangements.

While the melodies of such tunes as "Softly and Tenderly (Jesus is coming)" and "On Top of Old Smokey" are easy to pick out, they've been transformed by Crumb's imagination. Triadic harmonies are replaced with clouds of sound; phrases are broken up and folded back upon themselves; melody and accompaniment veer off in different directions. And yet, rather than obscuring these simple songs, Crumb brings out the deeper emotional themes that, in retrospect, were there all along.

Ann Crumb has extensive experience singing in Broadway shows. While she sings Sun and Shadow in a clear, classical tone, she lets her musical theater roots show in the American Songbook. Which somehow makes these transformed American folk songs sound even more authentic.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

George Perle Portrait in Eight Pieces

George Perle: Eight Pieces 1938-1997)
Michael Brown, piano
Bridge Records

Every composer should have a champion. For George Perle, that champion is pianist Michael Brown. As a teenaged virtuoso, Brown fell in love with Perle's music and had an opportunity to meet the composer. That developed into a close personal and professional relationship over the years, culminating in this release.

Brown collects not only Perle's published works for solo piano, but some earlier works still unperformed at the time of Perle's death. Brown has a deep understanding of Perle's music, and that makes this collection so exciting to listen to. The eight works span Perle's creative output. The earliest work, the 1938 "Classical Suite" receives it's world premier recording here.

In many ways, it's similar to Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony." While using traditional forms and mostly tonal harmonies, Perle continually plays against expectations as his melodies veer off into unexpected directions.

The "Six Celebratory Inventions" (1989-1997) is the collection that Brown played for Perle as a teenager. Each invention honors a different composer by imitating his style. And while one can hear the dedicatee in each movement -- Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Ernst Krenek, et al -- it's all filtered through Perle's inventive imagination, giving this set an overarching sense of cohesion.

Michael Brown has lived with some of these works for a while, and he plays with authority and sensitivity. Perle isn't primarily known for his keyboard compositions. Brown's performances suggest they should be reassessed.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Poul Ruders, Vol. 9 - Amiable Chamber Music

Poul Ruders, Vol. 9
David Starobin, guitar; Daniel Druckman, percussion; David Holzman, piano; Amalia Hall, violin; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, Sara Rothenberg, piano
Bridge Recrods

The two words that sprang to mind as I listened to this collection of Poul Ruder's chamber music was "amiable atonality." These chambers works move well beyond tonality, without a hint of academic dryness. Every work had real personality, often full of warmth and gentle humor.

Guitarist David Starobin and Poul Ruders have enjoyed a long and fruitful collaborative relationship, and Starobin brings his deep understanding of Ruders' music to two works. The "New Rochelle Suite" for guitar and percussion is a witty composition, and Starobin and percussionist Daniel Druckman perform it with a sometimes wink at the audience. Ruders scores imaginatively for percussion, making non-tonal instruments such as the castanets and tom-toms (among many other) add nuanced shading to the guitar's wide-ranging melodies.

"Schrödinger's Cat" is a set of 12 canons for violin and guitar that reflect the ambivalence of the title. In quantum mechanics, Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment illustrating the paradoxical concept that particles can be in two states simultaneously until observed. So, too, these canons seem to shift back and forth until they suddenly collapse into a final cadence. Starobin and Amalia Hall perform these canons in an unadorned fashion, just presenting the facts -- which seem to change before our ears.

"Romances for viola and piano" is romantic in nature, but the expressive yearnings of the melody get their poignancy from decidedly post-tonal chromatic inflections. Violist Hsin-Yun Huang and pianist Sarah Rothenberg make a great team, though, bring out the emotion in the music without being too emotive.

David Holzman performs "Twinkle Bells - Piano Etude No. 2" with a light, deft touch. He makes the cascading thirds that make up the bulk of the etude shimmer and tinkle like tiny bells. He also brings the album to a close with Ruders' "13 Postludes." These are wonderfully-crafted short little works that evoke the spirit of Chopin -- in an amiably atonal way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lior Ronser: Awake and Dream

Awake and Dream
Works by Lior Rosner
Janai Brugger; soprano
Katia Popov, violin
The Hollywood Studio Symphony
Steven Vanhauwaert, piano
Lior Rosner, conductor, piano

Lior Rosner is best known for his film and TV scores, which show the wide range of styles he's mastered. This collection of his classical works betrays some of that background -- the music is mostly tonal, and is more about conveying atmosphere and emotion than being concerned about formal structure. And yet these works aren't just fleshed-out film cues. Rather, they're compositions of real substance -- post neo-romantic, if you will.

Rosner's featured soloists are real standouts. Katia Popov performs with a clean, slightly steely tone that's well-suited to these modernist works. Awake and Dream is an impressionistic work that seems to float between dream and reality. Popov spins forth the long, flowing melodies effortlessly, moving from motive to motive seamlessly. The solo violin work "G-Pull" lets Popov display some of her technical skills, but it's her shaping of phrases and subtle articulation that holds the piece together.

Soprano Janai Bugger has a rich, warm voice, with an upper register that sounds well-rounded and clear. She beautifully performs "In time of Silver Rain," a song cycle based on Langston Hughes' poetry. Rosner's settings sound more like Copland and Barber than Duke Ellington, giving these poems a universally American character, rather than African-American. Bugger performs them in a simple, straight-forward fashion, letting the words themselves deliver the emotional impact. By contrast, Bugger provides the emotion for "Three Poems by Sappho." Her singing communicates the full range of emotions this cycle expresses, from ecstatic love to deep mourning.

While the soloists shine, the ensemble could use some polishing. The Hollywood Studio Symphony is a pick-up ensemble, made up of session musicians contracted for the project. There's nothing wrong with that -- but sometimes the ensemble doesn't quite jell. Attacks are a little imprecise and some entrances seem a little tentative. It's not a horrible sound, just a little rough around the edges. I'd be interested in hearing these works performed by an orchestra that has lived together for a while. I expect it would really make the music come alive.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Meyerbeer Overtures and Entr'actes -- Light Entertainment from Grand Opera

Meyerbeer: Overtures and Entr'actes from the French Operas
New Zealand symphony Orchestra
Darrell Ang, conductor

When I mentioned I was reviewing this new Meyerbeer recording, I discovered just how low my colleagues held Meyerbeer's music. Robert Schumann didn't care much for it, but I think he -- and others -- miss the point. Giacomo Meyerbeer wasn't out to make pronouncements from God -- he wanted to write entertaining, successful operas. He achieved his goals, and the music in the collection demonstrates why.

Included are instrumental works from Meyerbeer's biggest hits -- "Robert le Diable," "Les  Huguenots," and "L'Africaine" -- along with selections from "Dianorah and Le Prophete. Meyerbeer wrote almost exclusively for the stage, and his works are unfailingly catchy and tuneful.

Darrell Ang conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with a certain amount of brio, never failing to bring out the drama of the music (without overplaying it). To me, this was a great collection of classical music for casual listening. I just need to be careful who I play it for.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Isserlis Energizes Martinu Cello Sonatas

Martinu: Cello Sonatas 1-3
Works by Sibelius and Mustonen
Steven Isserlis, cello
Olli Mostonen, piano

Steven Isserlis turns in an attractive program of cello music with this new SACD. Bohuslav Martinu wrote in a very distinctive style; one that was remarkably consistent throughout his long and prolific career. Martinu wrote tonal works, but they were his own version of tonality. Dancing syncopations and shimmering chords are Martinu trademarks, and they're here in abundance.

Playing two or more of Martinu compositions back-to-back -- especially ones using the same forces -- can have the effect of blurring them together. Isserlis avoids this by interspersing works by two composers whose styles complement Martinu's, simultaneously providing contrast and creating a coherent program.

Jean Sibelius' Malinconia, Op. 20 is a dark work, written after the death of the composer's infant daughter. Isserlis convincingly brings out the pathos of the work, while at the same time savoring the beauty of Sibelius' extended melodic lines.

Pianinst Olli Mustonen not only partners with Isserlis in these performances; he also provides a sonata as well. Mustonen's post-romantic composition fits in nicely with the Martinu and Sibelius works, with plenty of rich sonorities and juicy melodic tidbits.

Isserlis doesn't hold back in these performances. Martinu's music has a certain lightness to it, but Isserlis makes it more compelling by really digging into the notes. The urgent character his technique brings to these works makes them, in my opinion, some of the best recorded versions of Martinu's cello sonatas to date. And if you have an opportunity, listen to this release through an SACD player. The intimate nature of this chamber music becomes all the more vivid with the additional sonic details the format provides.