Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Villa-Lobos - Chamber Music - The Jet Whistle - Quintette Instrumental - Song of the Black Swan - Duo for Violin & Viola - Five Songs for Flute & Harp - Mobius

Heitor Villa-Lobos was one of the 20th century's most prolific composers (along with others such as Darius Milhaud, Alan Hovhaness etc..) and as such wrote a lot of everything; happily his chamber music too is in abundance, and I prefer his chamber music most of all (including his under-appreciated set of 17 string quartets). This disc on Naxos with the ensemble Mobius is first-rate, and makes a nice introduction to Villa-lobos's chamber music for those unfamiliar with it-a lovely survey of his chamber music from 1917 (Song of the Black Swan) all the way up to 1957 (the Quintette Instrumental). I find these works all to be of great charm (I wish Mobius had included the "Sexteto Mistico" or "Sextuor Mystique" for Flute, Oboe, Alto Saxophone, Guitar, Celesta and Harp...perhaps my favorite Villa-Lobos chamber piece). 

"The Jet Whistle" is cast for flute and cello and makes for a mellifluous and delightful entree. With its baroque-evoking patterns and with the flute pirouetting over the cello line, this is a life-enhancing, somewhat Ravelian piece. Indeed, the warm lyricism of the central movement is decidedly Francophile and the finale an exciting terpsichorean one, tinged with jazz. The "Quintette instrumental" for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Harp was one of his very last completed works; you’d never know. The harmonies are deft and once again the whiff of Paris is never far away. As a composition it’s full of generous ardor-nothing is solemn or unnecessarily reticent. There’s a Nocturne complete with birdcalls and a ruminative “Cello and the Nightingales” aura-the beautiful harp patterns presage the chiming of the clock. The finale even indulges some Middle Eastern moments-terrifically verdant and fulsome writing and nothing is overstated or unwelcome. Really gorgeous music.
The 1946 "Duo for Violin and Viola" is a work that has remained rather too well hidden. That’s a real shame, as it has plenty to offer the inquisitive player and listener-it would do excellently in a quartet evening for example where a little imaginative programming could yield great rewards. Counterpoint is the obvious feature but so too a real and yearning lyricism-reminiscent almost of Vaughan Williams in modal mood. The interweaving of lines is accomplished with the utmost skill and balance and this performance is thoroughly successful in exploring its lyric heartland. 

The "Five Songs" are heard here in the arrangements by two members of Mobius, flautist Lorna McGhee and harpist Alison Nicholls. They range from melancholy to sultry to warm and lulling-and back to the delights of tristesse. Naturally they’re played by their arrangers with artful sensitivity. "Song of the Black Swan" is an early work and tenderly lyric, expertly crafted by a composer yet to pen such a long line of masterful opuses. 

*For some reason I was having problems importing the disc as m4a (both lossless and aac), thus for now this post is mp3, Lame encoded @ 320. Sounds great though.




Sunday, December 28, 2014

Modern Masters II - David Ward-Steinman, Concert No. 2 for Chamber Orch. - Paul Turok, Threnody - Norman Dello Joio, Lyric Fantasies for Viola & Strings - Henry Cowell, Hymn - Paul Creston, Partita for Flute, Violin, & String Orch. - City of London Sinfonia, David Amos

There are three volumes in the "Modern Masters" series, seriously enterprising releases by Harmonia mundi France. One of my favorite discs of all time, "Modern Masters III" (1991), I posted months ago, indeed it was my introduction to the music of my friend Arnold Rosner. That recording had an impact on me like no other, needless to say. All three volumes are worth having, and these discs were
extremely rare until Kleos decided to re-release them a few years ago (Volumes II and III exist, I don't recall if Kleos got around to Volume I, I believe the re-releasing was done in reverse order).

Conductor David Amos has focused on championing the music of America’s traditionalist composers of the twentieth century, and has recorded hundreds of compositions from this rich stream. These have included lesser-known works by Nicolas Flagello, Arnold Rosner, Paul Creston, Vincent Persichetti, Vittorio Giannini and Ernest Bloch among many others. He has been something of a jobbing nomad and has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the London Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the Polish Radio, and the Jerusalem Symphony. He is the founder and music director of the TICO Orchestra of San Diego. He began his musical studies in Mexico City, continuing at San Diego State University, before pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Indiana. In addition to conducting, he has hosted and produced a long-running radio series on contemporary music, and writes a regular music column for the San Diego Jewish Times. He is in frequent demand as a lecturer, guest conductor, and adjudicator in music competitions.

David Ward-Steinman's "Concerto No. 2 for Chamber Orchestra" was a Sherwood Hall, La Jolla commission and is very well crafted, busy and oft dervish-like, evidently written with affectionate obeisance to Stravinsky and "Pulcinella" in the outer movements, which are skitterish and great fun. The middle movement, marked "very slow" is a beauty, with nostalgic Americana in a Copland-esque vein. It is scored for string orchestra with percussion, and single woodwind and brass. "Every instrument is treated soloistically at one time or another, including the principle strings", according to the composer, "and the various choirs are themselves often independent and pitted one against the other-hence the title".  A great opener indeed..

Paul Turok has flown so far under the radar, you won't find even a Wikipedia entry on him. Turok’s sombre "Threnody" for String Orchestra Op. 54 is a short work that I think is pretty effective as a song of lament, and the musical language reminds me of another obscure composer, the Hungarian Odeon Partos-they could be musical twins it seems to me. "Threnody" was premiered in Seattle in January, 1980.

Norman Dello Joio's "Lyric Fantasies for Viola and Strings" is a ripely reflective discursively lyrical piece. The sound of the solo viola, accompanied by string sonorities which range between strong harmonic support and soft murmuring create the mood of the piece. The "Lyric Fantasies" are more than just a virtuoso work for viola and strings; aside from the melodic exchanges between the viola and the string ensemble, the writing has very varied and expressive moments. Indeed, as a complete entity, the Fantasies are a strong statement and a major contribution to the solo viola literature with orchestral accompaniment. Like much of Dello Joio this piece has depth and grows on you quickly. Quite an exciting and beautiful work I think.

Henry Cowell’s "Hymn for Strings" is concentrated, rounded, prayerfully invocational, serious and more 'Tallis-like' than the Dello Joio, with something of the weighty passion of Hovhaness’s ethereal string writing about it. Cowell composed a whole series of gorgeous stylistically like-minded works called "Hymn and Fuguing Tunes" which are lyrical, modal gems to my ears. I shall have to remember to post a Cowell disc on CPO that offers several pieces from the "Fuguing" series. 
The "Hymn" is both simple and gorgeous.

Paul Creston wrote his gorgeous and so very likable "Partita for Flute, Violin, and String Orchestra" Op. 12, in 1937. His indebtedness to Baroque music is reflected in the use of suite movements, concerto grosso musical texture, rhythmic ostinato, and long spun-out melodies. These musical principles, combined with modern compositional techniques, result in an engaging blend of old and new. This early work of Creston contains a freshness and vitality that would characterize his entire musical output. -Delos records did a great service in the 1990's releasing Paul Creston's symphonies and other works, as they did with Walter Piston, David Diamond (one of best Stateside 20th century composers, a favorite of mine, and ridiculously under-appreciated), Howard Hanson and others. 




Iva Bittová - Iva Bittová (Vocals, Violin, Viola) (Pavel Fajt, Drums, Percussion on "Dos Kelbl") Nonesuch 1997

I discovered Iva Bittová's unique music in the 1990's while listening to a radio program from NYC called "New Sounds" which I would tune in to listen to rather religiously. One evening the theme was
both Czech folk music and Czech contemporary composers. Bittová's "River of Milk" (third track on this album) came on and I was transfixed. Her voice (literally and artistically) was entirely her own, and if there's one thing that really sets me afire it's that which is aurally fresh or 'alien', and atypical. My excitement and curiosity blossoms like wildflowers, and the passionate exploration of new avenues of sounds that naturally follows is just such a sublime exercise. With Bittová's music there are barely any reference points. I am a long-time fan of Meredith Monk and she does come to mind, due to the often unusual vocal techniques, but the connection otherwise is entirely superficial. 

Iva Bittová's compositions frequently combine her unique vocal chops with violin or viola (she is both virtuoso and 'fiddler' at the same time I'd say) with Bittová as composer and performer. I hardly find her music to be 'avant-garde', but for many listeners perhaps it will be. Then again Tuvan throat singing (from the lands of Tuva and Mongolia) will sound extremely odd unless one has had exposure to it; from another galaxy it is not, indeed the technique and music are actually ancient. Various initial intellectual and emotional responses to all musics is a given (we can eliminate the majority of *current* 'popular' music..) but it is all about the absorption that can take place if one is open to giving it a shot. That in itself is no guarantee of enjoyment needless to say, however personally I think it's important to give anything a 'second go'. Incidentally, this is not meant to 'prepare' the listener for Bittová's music-trust me this is not Varese or Stockhausen...I am as always, just thinking out loud via fingers ;) 

Iva Bittová was born in 1958 in Bruntál in northern Moravia in what was then Czechoslovakia – and nowadays the Czech Republic. Both of her parents were musicians. Her mother Ludmila was a pre-school teacher who spent most of her life with her family; her father Koloman Bitto – Bittová is the surname’s female form – was a musician strongly influenced by the land of his birth – southern Slovakia. His main instruments were string bass, cimbalom, guitar, and trumpet. This exceptional ability to play almost any instrument he laid his hands on, whether performing in classical or folk music styles, proved a major influence on his three daughters as they grew up. Both of Iva’s sisters – her older sister Ida and her younger sister Regina – are professional drama and music performers.

Iva attended drama pre-school, specializing in violin and ballet. In due course she gained admittance to the Music Conservatory in Brno, often called the Czech Republic’s second city. She graduated in drama and music. During her studies, Iva took part-time engagements as an actress and musician in Brno’s Divadlo Husa na provázku (Goose On A String Theater). She cites these engagements as some of the most formative and influential of her life.

Around this time she also featured as an actress in radio, TV and movie productions. Later on, while working full time in theater, she re-kindled her interest in playing violin, an instrument she had set aside in her younger years. After her father’s early death, she decided to follow in his professional footsteps as an instrumentalist and by composing her own music.

In 1982, Iva started studying with Professor Rudolf Šťastný, the primarius (first violin) of the Moravian String Quartet. In the intervening years the violin has become her life’s passion and the most inspiring musical instrument in her professional life. Iva firmly believes that, as playing the violin places extreme demands on musicians, the composer’s work depends utterly on commitment and diligence.

After living in the countryside near Brno for 17 years, Iva decided to relocate her personal and professional life to the United States. In the Summer of 2007, she settled amid the splendors of nature in upstate New York. Iva shares her Hudson Valley home with her younger son Antonín (born 1991) – also a dedicated musician and another chip off the Bitto block.

Iva Bittová’s countryman Milan Kundera wrote how Europe’s “small nations” form another Europe. The violinist-vocalist may be ‘small nation’ Czech but her musical worldview and visionary creativity acknowledge no borders. Her powers of spontaneous creativity are more bountiful than it is fair to confer on one person. Witness and marvel.

A few words from Iva:

“For many years, I have worked in a range of musical genres, including jazz, rock, classical and opera. Deciding on a name for my style of music is far from over yet. Whatever it is, many of my listeners have long considered it highly original. It has always been everyday life that inspired my music and interpretations. Its inspiration has been total silence and an absolutely positive atmosphere. Those are the most important conditions and surroundings in which when my ideas spring into life. I believe they have a significant impact on my music.”

“The violin accompanies me all the time. Everything around me is under its influence. There are difficult pieces to practice from which I gain discipline, confidence, and self–control – and a healthy measure of doubt. The violin is a mirror reflecting my dreams and imagination. I believe there are fundamentals to my performance, such as the music’s vibration and resonance between violin and my voice. Their ‘symphony’ leads me on to perfection, even though I know it never can be attained.”

Iva has written music for String Quartet among other works, and I will post her releases on Supraphon and perhaps others in the future.

Track listing:

1)Driv Nez (Before) (5:49)
2)Dedecek (Grandfather) (3:03)
3)Proudem Mleka (River of Milk) (4:45)
4)Ne Nehledej (Stop Searching) (14:04)
5)Divna Slecinka (Strange Young Lady) (5:04)
6)Ples Upiru (The Vampire's Ball) (7:42)
7)Dos Kelbl (The Little Calf) (7:18)
8)Paraskeva (7:01)






Friday, December 26, 2014

Martinů - "The Butterfly that Stamped" - Ballet in one act after Rudyard Kipling - Prague Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek - Supraphon 1986

Martinů has written many works that happen to have intriguing, mysterious names ('The Strangler', 'Legend of the Smoke from Potato Fires', 'Comedy on the Bridge', 'Inconstancy of the Life', 'Alexander Twice', 'The Kitchen Revue'....and of course The Butterfly That Stamped!) Yes, the title of Martinů's early one-act ballet makes me smile a bit, it just sounds so odd without the actual story of the winged friend. This is one of my favorite Martinů discs, and it's a real rarity at that. Martinů based it on an exotic story by Rudyard Kipling, employing a wordless female choir to further enhance the 'oriental' atmosphere. The score is full of Eastern spice and Martinů pulls it all off convincingly and to beautiful effect, with a sense of floating sonically, as if in a dream. 

"The Butterfly that Stamped" (Motýl, který dupal), H. 153, has never been performed-as far as I know. Martinů completed the Ballet in Paris on March 9, 1926, a time when the composer was still finding his voice; it is safe to say however, and easy to hear-that his was unique from the very beginning-with avant-garde outings such as "La Bagarre" or "Half-Time" as well as otherworldly, enchanting and impressionistic tinged scores such as "The Butterfly that Stamped". The ballet is charming and fresh, delicate in it's orchestral color and musical narration, providing a finely contoured version of the humorous tale of a butterfly and his quarrelsome female companion. Martinů took the story from Kipling's "Just So Stories", several short and fantastic accounts of how various phenomena came about. The stories typically have the theme of a particular animal being modified from an "original" form to its current form by the acts of man, or some magical being.

In "The Butterfly That Stamped", we join King Solomon, his lovely wife Balkis, his other nine-hundred ninety nine wives, and two charming but quarrelsome butterflies. Solomon (who mainly goes by Suleiman bin Daoud in the story) is a very wise man, but is very annoyed with his surplus wives and all their quarreling. He thinks they are very loud and ungrateful. He refuses to use his magic to do anything about it because he believes it is just showing off, something he will not do. One day, when walking in his forest, Suleiman bin Daoud stumbles upon two butterflies arguing. The male butterfly tells his wife he could stamp his foot and the huge palace and garden would disappear. The king hears the butterfly's story and finds the claim amusing, and so calls the butterfly over. The king asks the butterfly why he lied, to which the butterfly replies that it was to silence his quarrelsome wife. The King tells the butterfly that if he has to, he can 'help him'. Meanwhile, Balkis has a talk with the butterfly’s wife, who says she is only pretending to agree with him, because "you know how men are." Balkis tells her she should dare her husband to stamp his foot, as he must be lying, and then she can argue with him again. Really, she is hoping the disappearance of the palace will shock the other wives into obedience.

The female butterfly dares her husband, and the butterfly prevaricates by telling her the king called him over to ask him not to, because he is afraid of the butterfly. The wife insists he stamps, and he goes to the king, who tells him he will make it happen to help control his wife, sympathizing with the butterfly's plight. The butterfly stamps and the palace disappears. This makes the butterfly's wife scared, and she promises never to argue with him again as long as he brings it back, leaving Solomon in fits of laughter. But when the garden vanishes, Solomon's less pleasant wives are deathly afraid, believing that the king is dead and the heavens are mourning the news. Balkis claims it was the butterfly who was angry at his wife, and they realize that if the king will do this for the sake of a tiny butterfly, 'what will he do to us, we who have been making him miserable with our quarreling', and they in turn become scared of Solomon's powers, and are nice and quiet from then on.
There's a bit more but this is likely already more of the story than most of you bargained for ;)

I hope everyone enjoys this rather unusual Martinů gem as much as I do!



Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten - McPhee: Balinese Ceremonial Music (*McPhee and Britten, pianos) - Tabuh-Tabuhan - Britten: Suite from the ballet "The Prince of the Pagodas" - BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

As I have already posted and written about Colin McPhee's wonderful toccata for two pianos and orchestra "Tabuh-Tabuhan" in the past, I will let listeners refer to the album notes for any extra details. This is a recording of historical significance, as McPhee's "Balinese Ceremonial Music" for two pianos is here played by two rather able pianists- Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten, recorded in 1941. The other works on this disc are digital and with the excellent Chandos sonics one would expect. Benjamin Britten's Suite from "The Prince of the Pagodas" will likely be something of a surprise for listeners who are only familiar with Britten's staples such as the "War Requiem", "Simple Symphony", "Peter Grimes", and so on.. The coupling of these two composers is of no coincidence once the historic details are known and the music itself is heard and felt. It was in January of 1956 that Britten travelled to Bali. Like McPhee, he too was bowled over by the island’s 'remarkable culture' and especially its gamelan tradition, which in turn spurred him to complete his ballet "The Prince of the Pagodas" (a Sadler’s Wells commission with which he had become rather bogged down). This recording gives us an effective sequence devised in 1997 by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke. Lasting 51 minutes, it is cast in six parts, the fourth of which includes a generous helping of the gamelan-inspired material for "Pagoda-Land" missing from the composer-approved concert suite assembled by Norman Del Mar in 1963. This is indeed quite the special Britten opus, and it's a great listening experience from start to finish to boot.

By the summer of 1939, Benjamin Britten arrived in New York. After nearly three months in Canada (including a mosquito-ridden June in the Laurentians), Britten journeyed southward, to make his mark on America. He quickly fell for the New World, at many points claiming he would take citizenship and remain in the US for the rest of his life. The man who became the iconic British composer of the 20th century did not remain in the United States: he sailed home for England in April of 1942. In the early days of his New York residency he encountered Canadian expat Colin McPhee. Fresh from a seven-year stay on the island of Bali, McPhee was keen to peddle the exotic secrets of Balinese music and found a proselyte in Britten. Their friendship had lasting effects on both, especially on Britten. It was through Colin McPhee’s connection to Bali and its tantalizing musical and dance culture that Benjamin Britten came to cultivate his own interest and eventual study of Balinese materials, as he later integrated them into some of his works. Britten’s taste for Bali and the significant role it formed in his creative consciousness is a story unto itself, but in April of 1941 Britten and McPhee entered a recording studio in New York City to put down five of McPhee’s Balinese transcriptions for two pianos. The result, a six-record set entitled "The Music of Bali" released by Schirmer in May 1941, was extraordinary: lucid and tonal, sensual glimmers of an ancient tropical paradise were realized on an instrument so common to domestic life in the West. It was the piano, as plain as island rain. 

Benjamin Britten came to remember his connection with Colin McPhee as circumspect. In Britten’s letters we learn very little of the relationship between these two composers, even though the British composer performed McPhee’s music at Wigmore Hall in March of 1944. But based on the fact that Britten and McPhee played one another’s music, concertized a handful of times and recorded together, we can assume that these two held at least a mutual musical admiration and respect for one another. The encounter had a permanent effect on the English composer, integrated keenly into the composer’s own modernist language. Britten learned from McPhee, but did McPhee learn from Britten? Probably not so much. But, then again, Britten was a reluctant partner, at first. The Balinese-inspired album the two composers recorded in the early years of the war included five pieces for two pianos, as well as some music for flute and piano. McPhee and Britten had already performed the transcriptions together in public before entering the recording studio, a fact that surely offered McPhee further incentive to choose Britten as his recording partner. On Britten’s score of McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music, McPhee’s inscription reads: "To Ben-hoping he will find something in this music, after all. Colin. April, 1940."

McPhee must have needed a player with a dual talent for this recording: both a composer and a pianist (like himself). Britten fit the bill. There is intricate, seductive rhythm in this music whose origins lay far off in a hazy, paradisiacal land. McPhee knew that understanding such music-in structure, melody, harmony, timbre and rhythm-needed the mind and hands of a composer-pianist.
The pianism displayed on this record is thoughtfully poised and intuitively musical. McPhee’s transcriptions come so very close to the original Balinese, (perhaps as close as is possible on western instruments), that they offer a faithful and wondrous rendition of the gamelan ambience: vivid sound worlds of gleaming counterpoint and rich, bright harmonies. The lustrous sonorities created by McPhee and Britten’s pianos lure the listener in to a magical sphere, irresistible and sincere. Britten understood the subtleties of gentle melody, of elegant figuration, and of formal design suffused with tropical light. The music sounds just like it was recorded-in the 1940's. Needless to say however, it's performance cannot be equalled.




Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hovhaness Treasures - Symphony No. 31 - Starry Night - Celestial Canticle - O, Joy at the Dawn of Spring - Symphony No. 49 "Christmas Symphony" - Northwest Sinfonia, Alan Hovhaness & Gerard Schwarz, Conductors

This is a special disc on many levels. To start with the entire program was compiled and chosen by Alan Hovhaness himself; these are, apparently, the works that he was the most proud of, works that were his personal favorites. During my initial listening of the disc back in 1995, I was surprised that his "favorites" did not include even a single opus from his early 'Armenian' period; needless to say Armenian culture and music (especially the music of Komitas, who was also known as 'Gomidas' or Komitas Vartapet-'Vartapet' as in an ordained priest. He is considered the father of Armenian composition, was also an important ethnomusicologist and scholar, and is/was widely considered a martyr by the Armenian people following the Armenian genocide of 1915. Hovhaness was deeply affected by the history of persecution that befell his ancestral lineage on his father's side. Ancient Armenian music and Armenian folk songs were also a huge inspiration during his formative years) had a profound affect on Hovhaness's musical personality and psyche. Many of Hovhaness's masterpieces are from this period (1940's mostly) Secondly, Hovhaness conducts two of the works on this recording: "Celestial Canticle" and "O, Joy at the Dawn of Spring" which is an aria from his opera "Tale of the Sun Goddess Going into the Stone House". Thirdly, although I think this bit was "special" more so for Hovhaness himself-his wife Hinako Fujihara, a coloratura soprano, is featured on this recording twice. Indeed the aforementioned compositions were written especially with his wife's...shall we say 'unusual' voice....in mind (I'm trying to be polite to his widow here). I used to find Hinako's singing almost unbearable to be honest, as it's extremely high-pitched and oft grating to my ears; luckily her singing only accompanies perhaps 12-13 minutes of music. On one of the disc's highlights, "Celestial Canticle", Hinako's singing is to be found in 3 of the 4 movements, however the music is so beautiful that it hardly matters (for me anyway, I've played this disc 100's of times). My feelings about the 'special' singing aside, it's an important document also for the very reason that Hovhaness wrote it for his wife, and that she performs here, for better or for worse. 

The whole disc is delightful, the Symphonies and "Celestial Canticle" clearly the strongest
and most worthwhile music here..pretty much borders on magnificent for me. "Starry Night" for Flute, Harp, and Xylophone is a short, serene and sweet-scented listen. That leaves the Opera Aria, which I would enjoy if it was anything but an aria. This disc has also been one of my "automotive soundtracks" for years, especially during the late 90's; driving through countrysides with AH flowing from the speakers is such a satisfying experience. 

The program notes were written by Hinako Fujihara, with material on Symphony No. 31 written by Hovhaness himself. I will type out the booklet notes tomorrow, as I must get to work early in the morning. 

Track listing:

Symphony No. 31, Op. 294

1)Andante Molto Cantando (4:07) *atypical & wonderful intro with plucked strings
2)Presto (1:59) *love this movement! dancing strings and signature pizzicato
3)Lento (5:42)
4)Fuga Presto Ma Non Troppo (2:21)
5)Allegro Vivace (1:39)
6)Andante Con Molto Espressione (2:50)
7)Fuga. Presto (2:59) *love this movement..kick ass fugue.

8)Starry Night, Op. 384, Flute Harp & Xylophone (5:48)

Celestial Canticle, Op. 305, No. 2 (Hovhaness conducting, H. Fujihara coloratura soprano)

9)Prelude (2:49) *AH majestic strings at their best; plucked strings & flute loveliness
10)The Lord Reigneth (2:28)
11)Under The Shadow (3:02)
12)Alleluia (4:29)

13)O, Joy at the Dawn of Spring, Aria from the Opera "Tale of the Sun Goddess Going into the Stone House" (Hovhaness conducting, H. Fujihara coloratura soprano) 

Symphony No. 49, "Christmas Symphony" Op. 356

14)Celestial Prophecy (6:29) *'senza misura' strings, rapidly plucked amidst long melodic lines of strings..and that's just the intro. The next 20 minutes are just as blissful...
15)The Angel (2:24)
16)Pastorale (2:58)
17)The Star, Watchman Tell Us of the Night (10:04)

-I have imported this disc as Apple Lossless (ALAC) *Some posts will be lossless going forward, while many will still be high quality 320 m4a. 






+ + + +

or LAME encoded mp3s @ 320:



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!! Vaughan Williams Weekend - Fantasia on Christmas Carols - The Lark Ascending - Fantasia on Greensleeves Etc. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner

Here is one of my all-time favorite Ralph (or "Rafe" should you quibble..) Vaughan Williams discs of all time; indeed this was only the second RVW recording I had purchased oh so many years ago. The main inspiration behind this VW post is of course the "Fantasia on Christmas Carols", for the holidays. It's a lovely work for Baritone, Choir, and Orchestra and is gushing with warm holiday spirit and cheer. This is actually my 2nd favorite version of it, and I do have many..but this disc was easy to locate and the Fantasia here is one of the best anyhow. 

Also I believe that this is the finest recording of the "Fantasia on Greensleeves" which Vaughan Williams sets so tenderly and beautifully (It also includes the flute instead of the other version which only features the violin; it's much more gentle and lovely this way). Also "The Lark Ascending" presented here is my absolute favorite, with Iona Brown as the violin soloist. It's a classic and well-loved version with St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Sir Neville Marriner conducting. The English Folk Song Suite too is wonderfully done here, and assuming you have a pulse it should compel you to march, frolic, and perhaps even transport you to the countrysides of yore.  The songs "Linden Lea" "Silent Noon" and "The Vagabond" from the "Songs of Travel" are very fine, and better still are "O Clap Your Hands" and "O Taste and See" for chorus (brass in the former, organ in the latter). I especially love "O Clap Your Hands", performed here by the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral and the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble. "Three Shakespeare Songs" too is fine, although I've never been crazy for the work-I do 'like' it however, RVW can do no wrong in my mind/ears/soul...and opinion. These recordings were made at different times, the earliest being the Shakespeare Songs (1960) and the most 'recent'  being "O Clap Your Hands" and "O Taste and See" (both 1984). The second-to-none "The Lark Ascending" with Iona Brown was recorded in 1972, while The "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" was recorded in 1962. The English Folk Song Suite was recorded in 1978, and the songs 1972 and 1979. 

Sorry everyone for the subpar writing but I'm in such a rush. If I can I will try to post a delightful holiday album by the Baltimore Consort (one of my favorite ensembles, they recorded mostly for Dorian) late tonight and perhaps Hovhaness's "Christmas Symphony".

Lastly I have imported this as Apple Lossless (ALAC) files (still will be m4a) which are smaller than flac files yet with the same quality; a nice advantage of ALAC!  

Track listing:

1)Fantasia on Greensleeves (4:31)
2)Linden Lea (2:52)
3)Silent Noon (3:40)
4The Vagabond (3:19)
5)The Lark Ascending (16:11)
Three Shakespeare Songs
6)Full Fathom Five (3:27)
7)The Cloud-capp'd Towers (2:13)
8)Over Hill, Over Dale (1:09)
English Folk Song Suite *Boston Pops Orchestra, Fiedler
9)March: Seventeen Come Sunday (3:38)
10)Intermezzo: My Bonny Boy (3:44)
11)March: Folk Songs from Somerset (3:52)
12)O Clap Your Hands (3:08)
13)O Taste and See (1:45)
14)Fantasia On Christmas Carols (11:45) *London Symphony Orchestra, Sir David Willcocks
King's College Choir, Cambridge Hervey Alan, bass-baritone 


Pt 1



Pt 2



Monday, December 22, 2014

Mieczysław Weinberg - Symphonies, Vol. 1 - National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Katowice - Gabriel Chmura, Director - Chandos 2003

Mieczysław Weinberg (Or Moishe Vainberg) was one of the most talented of 20th century composers, his reputation constantly increasing each year as his music has the power and brilliance of such masters as Shostakovich (Weinberg's close friend and biggest advocate) and Prokofiev. How fortunate we are that recordings have been popping up like springtime flowers in the past decade! The reason for the neglect of his music is largely political, for Weinberg, as a bourgeois Jew, suffered under both Nazism and Socialism. It is only since the barriers between the Soviet Union and the West have relaxed, that scholars worldwide are realizing the importance of Weinberg’s legacy.

Shostakovich described Weinberg as "one of the most outstanding composers of the present day". That someone who endured the horrors of Nazi genocide, World War II and the Gulag managed to compose at all is extraordinary, let alone produce an oeuvre of such size and quality (22 Symphonies, four Chamber Symphonies, two Sinfoniettas, seventeen String Quartets and numerous other pieces of chamber music as well as seven operas). Weinberg was the only one of his family to escape Nazi atrocities during the war. His father-in-law was assassinated by the Soviet authorities. Weinberg himself was detained and came close to death in 1953 when he was falsely accused of plotting to set up a Jewish republic in the Crimea.

Weinberg’s music shares stylistic traits with that of Shostakovich which is unsurprising, considering the closeness of their relationship. They met in 1943 when, as a refugee in the Soviet Union, Weinberg sent him a score of his First Symphony. The older composer was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to be officially invited to Moscow. Weinberg felt as if he had been ‘born anew’ through their encounter. It was not a question of his taking lessons, rather, he had found someone in whom he could confide. The two composers would play each of their newly completed works to one another-Weinberg was the primary source of the Jewish musical influences in Shostakovich’s music. Besides Shostakovich, other palpable influences on Weinberg’s music were Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Mahler. More of a romantic than his mentor, his music is notable for the lyrical beauty of its melodies and its extraordinarily fine thematic development.

The Symphony No. 5 Op. 76 emerged in 1962 influenced by the first performance, after a long suppression, of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. It is dedicated to Kondrashin, a lifelong Weinberg champion, who conducted the premiere of the Shostakovich work and recorded it for Melodiya shortly afterwards. Alistair Wightman comments, in his notes, on the similarities between the music of Shostakovich and Weinberg. The four movement Symphony is indeed bleak, has its moments of soured triumph threaded through with disillusion. There is a beleaguered comfort about the fine tenderly plangent adagio sostenuto which is I think more powerful than anything in Shostakovich 4. It bridges across to the tense adagios of the Roy Harris symphonies of the 1930s and 1940s. Tension bursts the bonds at 9.01 when the tender theme thrusts forward with all the torque of a supercharged spiritual; impressive by anyone's reckoning. The impishly playful flute and then other solo wind instruments seem to dance in macabre delicacy in the shortish allegro. This soon takes on a distinctly Shostakovichian edginess and dazzle before restively petering out into silence from which emerges a pastoral attacca final.

The First Sinfonietta dates from 1948, shortly after Shostakovich encouraged Weinberg to come to Moscow. Half the length of the symphony, it is more simply constructed and less emotionally complex. In this work, the Jewish elements are especially pronounced. The final movement, for example, is clearly based on klezmer music. Initially, the Sinfonietta's Jewish elements earned it praise from the commissars- this was music for the people-but it wouldn't be long before they were used against the composer, as anti-Semitism became more prominent in the Soviet Union. (Btw-is it my eyes or is the text smaller in this paragraph? Blogger is messing with me I do think..)





Sunday, December 21, 2014

Paul Hindemith - Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano - Dmitri Shostakovich - Piano Quintet in G minor - The Boston Symphony Chamber Players

This recording on Arabesque was nominated for the 2000 Grammy Award for "Best Chamber Music Performance." It's easy to hear why, and to my ears and mind no ensemble has, to this day, one-upped these impeccable, dare I say 'perfect' readings.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, Hindemith was already unwelcome, having 'offended' Hitler some years earlier. In 1939, Serge Koussevitzky invited Hindemith to teach composition at the Tanglewood Conservatory, and happily Hindemith accepted, and he wrote the Quartet at the end of a U.S. concert tour. Members of The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the work its premiere performance in 1939. The Quartet is noteworthy for its gentle nature and fluid interaction among the instrumentalists. The Boston players simply shine in this music, with especially memorable contributions by the clarinetist, William R. Hudgins

Dmitri Shostakovich lived under the ever-threatening shadow of Joseph Stalin and worked in constant fear of evoking the dictator's ire. The five-movement Quintet was written in the dark period between the start of World War II and the Nazi invasion of Russia. An extremely moving work by one of the great geniuses of our time, it offers the fascinating juxtaposition of pathos and sardonic humor that is typical of Shostakovich. The composer played the piano part at the work's premiere and pianist Gilbert Kalish assumes the role with skill on this recording. This Piano Quintet is a chamber masterpiece in my humble opinion. 


Track listing:

Paul Hindemith "Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano" (1938)

1)With moderate movement (6:58)
2)Very slow (8:47)
3)With moderate movement-Lively-Moving calmly-Very lively (10:46) 

Dmitri Shostakovich "Piano Quintet in G minor" Op. 57 (1940)

4)Prelude. Lento (4:39)
5)Fugue. Adagio (9:39)
6)Scherzo. Allegretto (3:25)
7)Intermezzo. Lento (6:37)
8)Finale. Allegretto (7:16)




Saturday, December 20, 2014

Alexander Tcherepnin - Symphony No. 4 - Suite for Orchestra - Russian Dances - Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Wing-Sie Yip - Marco Polo 1991

I have always enjoyed the music of Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) and he is, with certainly, one of the under-appreciated and neglected Russian masters. While Tcherepnin was, like many of his compatriots inspired by the cultures of the surrounding territories and countries, Tcherepnin's musical voice is entirely his own, and it's a voice with a lot to say. Despite the lack of radio play and concert programming, there are very fine Tcherepnin discs to be cherished (his chamber works are also of the highest quality; one of my favorite discs is on Chandos, with world-premiere recordings of his Cello Sonatas (three of them) along with three other works also for Cello and Piano). I have been *dying* to get my hands on the BIS set of Tcherepnin's complete symphonies (there are four) and piano concertos; I believe the 4-disc set also includes a few other orchestral works as well...what a treasure chest!! I just don't have the $$ these days to buy and continue to feed my massive collecting and volcanic musical passion. In time I hope..

So I can attend to other things, including coffee, here is the original review from Gramophone on this disc (as a supplement due to my current state of pure sluggishness!):

Marco Polo are doing invaluable work in recording pieces which in many cases have insufficient character to be viable in the concert hall, but which nevertheless serve to round out the picture of our musical heritage. Alexander Tcherepnin, son of Nikolai, with whom he moved from Russia to Paris in 1921, has now faded almost entirely from concert programmes, but he has always managed to keep a toehold in the record catalogue. His Second Symphony of 1951 used to be available on an LP coupled with the Second Piano Concerto (RCA, 9/77); the Third, composed the following year, is currently available from Thorofon; the First of 1927, not currently in the catalogue, is the one I would really like to hear, if only for its all-percussion second movement (predating Varese's Ionisation by four years).
The Fourth, and last of the cycle, was commissioned by Charles Munch for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It dates from 1957 and is characteristically attractive and well-made. The outer movements chug along nicely with lean textures and agile rhythms, while the central slow movement goes in for moderately recherche timbres (it starts as a piccolo waltz) which might put some listeners in mind of Vaughan Williams's Eighth, completed two years earlier. A certain slackness of thematic invention and schematicism in the harmony perhaps account for the music's ultimately faceless impression and the lack of staying power; devotees of 'easy-listening' symphonies may nevertheless find things to enjoy here.
More worthy of actual concert revival, I would say, is the Romantic Overture, a kind of Russian in Paris piece based on memories of street-life in old St Petersburg. The Op. 87 Suite evokes aspects of urban life, for the most part in very obvious, sub-Petrushka ways. The Russian Dances, undeveloped though they remain, are good clean fun. The orchestral playing shows signs of genuine relish, especially in the shorter pieces, and the recording quality is more successful than some from this source. This is an out-of-the-way issue but not one that has been thrown together without care.' 

*I have no idea what the reviewer means (or, why he includes this here if it's a general statement) by "insufficient character to be viable in the concert hall" as Tcherepnin's music is the complete opposite! The majority of the review is strangely negative, I'm not sure why I'm bothering to post it other than fatigue. I expect that I will end up deleting this rubbish review (I'm sure you will all agree with me once listening to the disc) and add my own notes in the near future.Quite inane really, I have to say it..

*And here's (an extremely thorough bio) on Tcherepnin from the Tcherepnin Society: http://www.tcherepnin.com/alex/bio_alex. The site promotes the lives and work of three generations of the Tcherepnin family: Alexander of course, as well as Nikolai Tcherepnin, Alexander's Father, and Ivan Tcherepnin, Alexander Tcherepnin's son.

I hope everyone finds this Tcherepnin disc to be superb as I do, there is not a single note that is not interesting, the musical life-force is explosive, it's a satisfying experience down to the marrow I would say! 




Sergei Vasilenko - Chinese Suite No. 1 - Indian Suite - Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Henry Shek - Marco Polo 1995

Back in July I posted an album containing Sergei Vasilenko's rather fascinating Concerto for Balalaika and Orchestra. Finally I have located another one of my Vasilenko discs, this time on Marco Polo. 

Sergei Nikiforovich Vasilenko (1872-1956) was a Muscovite and distinguished and long-serving composition teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire-he joined in 1905 and remained there until his death 50 years later-and one with a particular reputation for his orchestration class. The two suites reflect this, as well as another of his great interests, the music of Asian countries both within and outside the Soviet Union. He spent a lot of time in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in particular and the inspiration shows in many of his works (and indeed, Vasilenko wrote a lot). It is easy to admire and enjoy his orchestral artistry, which reflects the ‘oriental’ manner of Rimsky-Korsakov in the lucid textures and the skilled selection of instruments. The material is somewhat underwhelming(on this disc that is), at least in my opinion, with a good many predictable turns of phrase to suggest the exotic. However, Vasilenko is certainly a master of the orchestra and a fastidious craftsman, and there are many lovely effects to beguile the ear, and I do enjoy the results. Nothing of this tends to fat. Lines are lucid and clean. A lot of the music on this disc is 'quiet', which does give it an additional air of mystery.  

In the Chinese Suite No. 1 Op. 60, as odd as this might sound, the first couple movements sound, to these ears-like the result of what would have happened if Vasilenko and Delius (only living on the other side of the globe) became best friends(!) and the oft gentle, and breezy side of Delius had rubbed off on his "best buddy" from the Soviet Union. After this, we have the denser "Burial" (movement 3) with a few echoes (again, to my ears anyhow) of British composition, Vaughan Williams(!) in particular. All of this is fleeting however, keeping the Suite firmly planted in the composer's fascination with the Orient. The last two movements are my favorites, the final even more so with it's sparkling introduction of bell sounds, and further usage of 'mystic' bells throughout. I also like the excitement generated by the brass towards the satisfying peroration. Bells are used throughout the Suite, which is a nice touch. 

The Indian Suite can be sentimental but generally Vasilenko avoids Ketelbey-like kitsch. Shooting these rapids can sometimes be a close squeeze as in Whirling Dance in the Indian Suite or the Chinese Suite's Joyful Dance not to mention the almost Gaelic Lament in the latter. The Indian Suite is also frequently more animated than the Chinese, in a Rimsky-Korsakovian style for sure. This is imo a nice listen, volume needs to up quite a bit-and for me whilst relaxing (yet focused on the music at hand) in a dark room, typically from my bed. 

Segei Vasilenko is on the right, with his friend the poet Demyan. 




Friday, December 19, 2014

Vladimír Štědroň - Illusions, Symphonic Poem (Unknown Orchestra)

Here's a piece by an obscure Czech composer Vladimír Štědroň, who (if correct) lived from 1900-1982. Additionally it is not clear if this work is actually entitled "Illusions", as the wikipedia page (only a Czech wiki page, but it is easily translated) has in his list of works a symphonic poem instead called "Delusions"; rather similar in name to "Ilusions", but perhaps he wrote two such works and one is not documented on the page, but I dunnoooo. There is also apparently an LP from the 1970's called 'April Orchestra' Vol 26, which contains another symphonic poem by Štědroň, this one called "Fantomes". The albums also includes works by a composer named Emil Hlobil, who I don't think I know, but then again who knows I might have some compilation somewhere.. 

Here's the (relatively useless, besides a list of works) wikipedia page for Vladimír Štědroň:


I couldn't even find a photo of him to post, only a 'Milos Štědroň' comes up in a search, whom I think is a relative to the composer. Additionally I have no idea who are the artists or Orchestra involved. The sound is descent however, perhaps this recording is not as old as the LP I mentioned. Stylistically I find the music of his compatriots Novak and Suk coming to mind especially. Although I will say there are also a couple brief moments that, to my ears, would not be entirely out of place in a Prokofiev or Stravinsky ballet score. So, give a listen and see what you think..

Vladimir Štědroň-Illusions.mp3


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Happy Hannuka!! "Circle of Fire": A Hanukah Concert - Songs of the Sephardim, Volume V - Voice of the Turtle, Judith Wachs Director

The Voice of the Turtle ensemble specializes in Sephardic music (that is, Jewish music both vocal and instrumental, in the Ladino language). Originally from the Iberian peninsula, The Sephardic people (Sephardim) lived mostly in Spain and Portugal, evolving what would become their distinctive characteristics and diasporic identity. Due to persecution, forced religious conversion vs. death, and the Spanish expulsion, the majority of the Sephardim left these lands for places such as the Ottoman Empire (including regions part of modern Turkey) and other parts of the Middle East, and North Africa. The other major (ethnic) branch of Judaism, indeed much larger- is/are the "Ashkenazi", Jews from Eastern Europe (like myself, I have family from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania...). Whilst 'modern' music exists inspired by Sephardic traditions, Sephardic music is an ancient/early music-beautiful, exotic to most ears, full of celebration and mourning, longing, love, poetry, humor, storytelling....the human experience filtered and spiced thru a particular Judaic lens.

There are many volumes in this series, three 'Holiday' discs while the rest are part of a series called
"Paths to Exile" which offers musics from the particular regions where the Sephardim settled and built their unique communities. It's an exceptional series. I believe this volume is the only live recording. I will try to find time soon to write more about the music contained on this disc.

Track list:

1. Ocho Kendelikas
2. Vayhi Mikets
3. Kita'l Tas
4. Siete Ijos Tiene Hanna
5. Mi Ze Yemalel
6. Mizmor Shir Hanukat Habayit
7. Una Matika De Ruda
8. Nani Nani
9. Benedicyon
10. Hanuka
11. La Vido do Por El Raki
12. Gantis I Kravata Blanka
13. En Mi guerta Vey Mama
14. La Berendjena
15. Mirame Las Gambas Mama
16. Adio Kerida
17. Hanerot Hallalu




Happy Hannuka!! Musiques Juives Russes (Jewish Music from Russia) - Sergei Prokofiev - Dmitri Shostakovich - Sergei Slonimsky - Bolshoi Orchestra, Andrei Chistiakov, etc.

This is a post for anyone and everyone obviously but with a musically Jewish theme; indeed it's also
a Hannuka post/gift to myself ;) Two of the three composers are not Jewish as you all know, that is
Prokofiev and Shostakovich. 

Russia's relationship with Jews has in large part been uneasy. But music knows few if any boundaries, and indeed Jewish influences have cropped up in plenty of unlikely spots. On this disc that presence is felt in a treatment of Hebrew themes by Prokofiev, settings of Yiddish poems by Shostakovich, and a rhapsody by a Russian-Jewish composer, Sergei Slonimsky. Although best known as a work for orchestra, Prokofiev's "Overture on Hebrew Themes" (1919) is here heard as originally written, for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano. The difference is rather startling. Instead of a 'homogenized' homage to Jewish themes, the piece emerges as a klezmer band's spontaneous, sentimental outpouring. And if Prokofiev's pungent harmonies still persevere, plenty of character is evoked in a committed reading by the Glinka Quartet, Anton Dressler, a clarinetist, and Julia Zilberquit, a pianist. This version of the Prokofiev is good, however I do have several others that I prefer, due to tempo and a general sense of passion. Shostakovich's "From Jewish Folk Poetry" an 11-song cycle for Soprano, Contralto and Tenor (1948; orchestrated in 1964), is sung in Yiddish rather than in Russian translation here: a first, it is claimed in the packaging. Eva Ben-Zvi, the soprano (though she sounds at times like a theremin!), Elena Goubina, the contralto, and Nikolai Kurpe, the tenor, handle the delicate task with apt poignancy. Andrei Chistiakov and the Bolshoi Orchestra accompany sympathetically. At first, it is hard to tell what is specifically Jewish about Slonimsky's "Jewish Rhapsody" (1997), a "Concerto for Piano, Flute, Strings and Percussion here in its premiere recording. The first two movements are stark modernist fare, but the Allegro finale contains plenty of klezmer vim. Mr. Chistiakov and the Bolshoi Orchestra present the Slonimsky score winningly, and Ms. Zilberquit provides a glittering account of the piano part.

I don't have the time now to write about each work in any detail, but if anyone is interested please leave comments and I will add to this post either late tonight, or tomorrow.

Track list:

1. Overture on Hebrew Themes, for clarinet, string quartet & piano, Op. 34

From Jewish Folk Poetry (Song cycle) Op 79 (orchestrated as Op 79a)

2. 'Lament for a dead infant'
3. 'The solicitous mother and aunt'
4. 'Lullaby: Little son, my fairest'
5. Before a long separation'
6. 'Warning'
7. 'The abandoned father'
8. 'Song of want'
9. 'Winter'
10. 'The good life'
11. 'Song of the young girl'
12. 'Good fortune'

13. Jewish Rhapsody, Concerto for piano, flute, strings & percussion: Moderato
14. Jewish Rhapsody, Concerto for piano, flute, strings & percussion: Andante
15. Jewish Rhapsody, Concerto for piano, flute, strings & percussion: Allegro ben ritmato