Saturday, February 28, 2015

Havergal Brian - Symphonies Nos. 6 and 16 - Arnold Cooke - Symphony No. 3 - London Philharmonic Orchestra - Myer Fredman & Nicholas Braithwaite, Conductors - Lyrita 1975 (remastered 2008)

I have been a huge fan of the music of Arnold Cooke ever since I discovered it years ago on an ultra-rare Titanic Records disc that I bought for an equally rare hovhaness work. That wonderful disc also has music of Vivaldi, Boismortier, and Jonathan Lovenstein and features music for Recorder and Strings. It can be explored here: One of his teachers was Paul Hindemith, who had a profound influence on Cooke's compositional style; Arnold Cooke's music sounds quite a bit like Hindemith's however it is not derivative, as Cooke clearly has something to say in his works. Typically his music is muscular, contrapuntally based and for the most part tonal, although clearly in a contemporary idiom. I think he is one of the greatest unsung heroes in British music and 20th century music in general. 

Havergal Brian too I have always been fond of, however for me he is much more uneven. I bought this disc specifically for the Cooke symphony, hoping the Brian works would be 'decent' listening. I feel almost like describing him the "British Allan Pettersson" however that's not really accurate. Like Pettersson however, Brian's music can often be hard to penetrate fully, and might reward only after (several) listens. The energetic Cooke symphony No. 3 I find to be a small masterpiece that I could happily play practically every day and not lose interest. Back to Brian, I have always loved his "Gothic" Symphony, (No. 1) which is an astounding symphonic record-breaker; the symphony requires about 800 musicians (!!!) and not surprisingly it's rarely performed or recorded. There are at this point a few good choices, my favorite still being the early Marco Polo disc (for nostalgic reasons almost more than anything else-it's a great performance that would have benefitted from better sound). Here are the forces needed for the Gothic (taken from the Brian Society):

Part one [1]: 
2 piccolos (1 also flute), 3 flutes (1 also alto flute), 2 oboes,  oboe d’amore, cor anglais,  bass oboe, Eb clarinet, 2  Bb clarinets, basset horn, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, Eb cornet, 4 trumpets in F, bass trumpet, 3 tenor trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets (min 3 drums) timpani, 2 harps, organ, celesta, min 8 percussion:  glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 bass drums, 3 side drums, tambourine, pair cymbals, tam-tam, triangle;  strings [say]

Part two [1]:
Soprano, alto, tenor, bass soloists, large children’s choir, 2 large mixed double choruses [in practice 4 large SATB choirs]
orchestra: 2 piccolos (1 also flute), 6 flutes (1 also alto flute), 6 oboes (1 also oboe d’amore, 1 also bass oboe), 2 cors anglais, 2 Eb clarinets (1 also Bb clarinet), 4  Bb clarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bass clarinets, contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns, 2 Eb cornets, 4 trumpets in F, bass trumpet, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, 2 euphoniums, 2 tubas, 2 sets (min 3 [in practice 4] drums) timpani, 2 harps, organ, celesta, minimum 18 percussion:  glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 bass drums, 3 side drums, long drum, 2 tambourines, 6 pairs cymbals, tam-tam, thunder machine [not thunder sheet], tubular bells, chimes, chains, 2 triangles, birdscare; strings (

4 off stage groups: each containing 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, set (min 3 drums) of timpani (in summary: 32 wind, 24 on stage brass, 24 off stage brass, 6 timpanists, 18 percussion, 4 keyboards and harps, 82 strings - total orchestra c190 players, plus adult choir of min 500 [assumes largely professionals], children's choir of 100, 4 soloists = c800)

I have yet to post the Gothic, but feel this info is worth adding here as it's an almost unfathomable musical expedition (the symphony actually holds a "Guinness record" as the longest symphony in history, typically just under 2 hours!) and quite intriguing.

Focusing on Arnold Cooke..

Arnold Cooke was one of the few English composers of his generation who chose to study abroad in the inter-war years (Lennox Berkeley went to Nadia Boulanger, Humphrey Searle to Webern, and Walter Leigh, like Arnold Cooke-to Paul Hindemith). Cooke was 23 when he went to Berlin; a mature student does not seek out a teacher to be 'formed', but because, in view of his own character and philosophy of life-already senses the direction in which to go, and hopefully finds teachers (sooner than later) whom can help him on this road. As mentioned Cooke's melodic and harmonic idiom shared a good many characteristics with that of Hindemith, particularly in his middle years. He did not feel the need to learn or invent a new language every few years, and as a result acquired great freedom, subtlety and certainty in handling the one language of his choice. More generally, he shared many of Hindemith's attitudes to music. He liked economy and clarity, disliked grand displays of theatrical emotion, and was ready and able to serve the needs of all types of music makers both amateur and professional. Besides six symphonies, his works include concertos for violin and piano, a full length opera "Mary Barton", cantatas and song cycles, and Cooke was particularly active in every field of instrumental music. Cooke wrote brilliant instrumental music when the occasion demanded but his writing was always practical (and exciting) -without introducing superfluous complexities or difficulties. The relatively compact Symphony No. 3 is a perfect example of this and indeed, the more one listens to it, the more one discovers in it's pages..

The first movement gets right down to business without wasting time on preliminaries. Risings scales in the first two bars lead to a lively staccato theme and thence to a slowly-rising passage in slurred and paired quavers and a forceful entry for trumpets, trombones and tuba. A longer second paragraph of peaceful dialogue between strings and woodwind is followed by a rapid crescendo and two syncopated brass outbursts, with a clinching fortissimo brass unison set against a hammered staccato rhythm from the rest of the orchestra. All this happens in two minutes no less! The development is at first concerned with the initial rising scales, and then the slowly rising passage is dissected into its constituent parts with the trumpets, trombones and tuba forcefully entering once again. Solo horn announces a new theme over pianissimo trumpets and trombones, at once converted into an ostinato (at twice the tempo) which passes through the woodwind, horns once again and then down to the basses, leading back to the recapitulation. When this has run its course, the rising scales return once again; a crescendo builds up quickly from pianissimo depths, preparing the way for a final statement from the brass in unison and by way of the ostinato a powerful fortissimo ending. Now *this* is a knockout first movement!!        

In the second movement one should note the falling thirds of the opening clarinet phrase, which are to play a large part in later developments. Variants and derivatives of the the first phrase occupy strings and woodwind at first-the end of this section marked by a punctuating chord built up cumulatively from below. An angular dotted-rhythm theme follows-horn over pizzicato cellos and basses-which soon combines with itself in triple imitation. A short canonic passage based on the falling thirds of the clarinet leads back to a varied recapitulation from which the clarinet is rarely absent. The last appearance of the angular dotted-rhythm is supported by a bass ostinato derived from the falling thirds of the clarinet; the movement ends with a second punctuating chord of the same type as the first. (the last bars always remind me of the opening of "Mathis der Maler")

In the finale the opening major-minor arpeggio theme trails away into a triplet figure as a new rhythmic figure on horns appears above. Many themes follow-some bearing a resemblance to the first movement themes-the last of them, a short figure on oboe accompanied by horns, assuming considerable importance later. The uprushing scales of the first movement are perhaps referred to in the development, which in later stages is much concerned with the major-minor theme. We hear more of the triplet figure in the recapitulation and the oboes and horns take a major role in the action. Towards the end, the arpeggio theme and the oboe accompanied by horns contend for attention; the symphony ends brilliantly and positively, all problems resolved, both motives combining in the final massive tutti.   

I have to add that the remastering Lyrita has done here is superb, as you will hear for yourself..



J.S. Bach - The Transcriptions for Solo Harpsichord of Concertos by Vivaldi and the Marcello Brothers - Sophie Yates, Harpsichord - Chandos 2013

These elegant and delicious transcriptions for solo harpsichord I have been listening to much the last
couple days; I am indebted to Pappa Bach for distracting me from a good deal of chaos over the week. Sophie Yates plays this music with such precision and mastery; something to behold indeed! 

Around 1714 J.S. Bach suddenly (and apparently without provocation) transcribed and adapted a number of Italian instrumental concertos, mainly by Antonio Vivaldi, for the keyboard. Why he did so is subject to some speculation, though it is often suggested that he had become aware of the publication a couple of years earlier in Amsterdam of Vivaldi’s op. 3 L’estro armonico, possibly through the efforts of his patron, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. While it's true that his main duties in Weimar at the time were mainly as an organist, he also provided a host of other musical services, including secular concerts, for which these transcriptions were probably most adaptable. Moreover, they offered him the opportunity to absorb thoroughly the popular Italian style. 

Clearly, a simple transcription would not suffice for the sort of work that Bach envisioned, and moreover there are inevitable difficulties in arranging the various orchestral ritornellos, though of course the unison openings offered an immediate solution. His arrangements often transpose the works to fit the keyboard compass better. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the version of Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto, now transposed up a whole step to D Minor, or in the C-Minor Concerto by his brother Benedetto, which was originally in E Minor. The result is to bring the works into a more intimate and manageable focus, even though they do not lose their often virtuoso lines. The result is somewhat of a tour de force that has intrigued keyboardists (mainly harpsichordists) for a long time. Moreover, the art of the transcription reaches pretty much its apex here, for one cannot deny that Bach has essentially turned these concertos into brand-new works, in essence deconstructing and recomposing already well-known and acknowledged significant pieces, thus giving them an alternative life. 

Enjoy all

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mieczyslaw Weinberg - Trio for Violin, Violoncello & Piano - Sonatina for Violin & Piano - Sonata for Double Bass Solo - CPO 2014

Let's explore some of Weiberg's chamber works on this fine CPO recording. Although some of the bio info here is likely (somewhat) similar to my earlier posts, I've added (a few) what I think are pretty interesting quotes by Weinberg, Shostakovich and others as well as (frankly) extremely depressing information that is truly testament to Weinberg's inextinguishable spirit and unfathomable strength. What a fascinating, great composer and human being he was!!

There are various ways of approaching the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. A purely musicological idea would be one of them. After all, Weinberg was one of Dmitri Shostakovich's most important companions, advisers, and personal friends. This is not the only reason-but certainly one reason-why Weinberg’s compositions have experienced a renaissance during recent years.
Like many composers (not only in the Soviet Union), Weinberg had to earn his everyday livelihood. The composition of music for feature films or television films enabled him to do so. It was thus that he even wrote the music for the animated "Winnie the Pooh" (a Russian short film version, from 1969). Weinberg's compositions are distinguished by a very personal idiom. Their overall mood differs substantially from that of the compositions of his friend Shostakovich. Considered individually, however, they are often quite different stylistically. 

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was a Polish Jew by birth and fled to the east during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He felt like a foreigner in the Soviet Union throughout his life. Other colleagues of his had made a better decision; they had fled to the west (e.g., Alexandre Tansman, to Paris) or even overseas. Weinberg had underestimated one important aspect-the anti-Semitism inherent in the Soviet regime. Additionally, until his death he spoke Russian only with a strong Polish accent, which was another reason why he was not highly regarded by the bureaucrats in the communist party and music world in the Soviet Union. Weinberg never served the Soviet system. What saved him was his friendship with Shostakovich. (Shostakovich, among other things, wrote a letter to Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, the head of the Russian secret police; the officer in charge of the hearing commented with cynicism, "Your little friends are helping you...but an old German proverb states "from the frying pan into the fire". Shostakovich wrote of Weinberg, "He is so different, and he is no slave". Shostakovich's decisive intervention and perhaps Stalin's death, which for Weinberg occurred at the right (last) moment, alone kept Weinberg, who had already been imprisoned, from being deported to Siberia. Stalin's cultural policies had brought about the virtual silencing of Dmitri Shostakovich as an opera composer-at least since the scandal involving the premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth. However, Weinberg was not eliminated from this sphere; instead, he continued to write operas (a total of seven), including "The Passenger and The Idiot", which have recently been presented with great success in Germany and Austria..

"A human being of incredible purity; he did not live in a country-not in the reality that surrounded him". It was thus that the conductor Thomas Sanderling, one of few people of those times who had the opportunity to meet Weinberg personally, described this composer. Even though Weinberg's music was quite literally prohibited, many great artists such as Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan, and Mstislav Rostropovich performed his works. They all held Weinberg in great esteem-especially as a human being. Kirill Kondrashin also played a very important role; he firmly committed himself to Weinberg’s cause and conducted his works.

Weinberg's childhood years were wonderful and music was often the top priority. His father was a violinist and composer who wrote music for a Jewish theater, traveled with it throughout the country, and conducted. Weinberg later stated, "I was certain that Father's baton sounded like a trumpet". He was apparently very disappointed when his father explained to him that it did not produce any tones at all! By the the age of eleven Mieczyslaw was playing the piano with his father in the theater and
indeed Weinberg was an extraordinary pianist and all of his piano compositions (and especially the trio) clearly demonstrate just how phenomenal his technical gifts as a pianist were. 

Weinberg's plans for his life were repeatedly painfully dashed, and the war very quickly caught up with him in Minsk, the city to which he had initially fled. In 1953 he spent three months in prison-on the charge of having advocated the establishment of a Jewish republic in the Crimea.

Much of the grief, tears and constant worry during the war years is reflected in the music of the "Trio op. 24 for Violin, Cello, and Piano" from 1945. By this point in time, Weinberg was certain that he has lost his parents and his sister (upon fleeing with his sister, Weinberg could not have imagined that this would literally be the last moments that he would ever see her...all because she attempted to run back home to put on another pair of shoes) and his feelings were indeed correct; all three were murdered at Trawniki concentration camp, about 25 miles southeast of Lublin, as Weinberg would learn after his escape. Weinberg reflected on the general nightmare which surrounded him that day: "I will never forget the mothers, with children on the border, who embraced the legs of the horses of Soviet customs soldiers and pleaded with them to let them go over to the Soviet side, for the Nazis were on one side, and the Soviet soldiers were on the other". 

Weinberg wrote the Trio op. 24 during the same time he composed the Clarinet Sonata (1945), the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1,  and the Children's Album No. 3 for piano solo, and the String Quartets No. 4 and No. 5. The premiere of the piano trio was held on 9 January 1947 along with two members of the Beethoven Quartet, the violinist Dmitri Tsyganov and the violoncellist Sergei Shririnsky. The trio creates the impression of a grand architectonic work. As in all of Weinberg's compositions, tempo and mood shift relatively quickly, almost as if they were reproducing a theatrical scenario. After a monumental beginning 'Prelude and Aria', doubts about this almost euphoric seemingly optimistic basic mood quickly spread-the shift from A major, previously the movement’s dominant key, to A minor, and the conclusion in terrifying eighths in pianissimo confirms this. The ensuing toccata, beginning in 5/16 time, is endowed with enormous power. The tireless thundering of aggressive rhythms produces an eerie, intense, and almost hectic effect. And things gradually intensify to what is like a devilish dance of the kind often encountered in Weinberg-for example, in the Quintet for Piano and Strings (1944). The third movement 'Poem' begins with a slow piano solo-and this too is something that we often find in Weinberg's chamber music-full of passion and melancholic intensity. When the cello assumes the melody, one cannot yet imagine that the violin accompaniment recalling descending drops of water will later lead to the relentlessly hammering culmination point. The circle closes, but there is a role reversal in the concluding adagio: it is now the violin that narrates the story and concludes it melancholily and poetically. The finale is a masterpiece of counterpoint, but before it becomes a genuinely monumental fugue, Weinberg avails himself of a genial dissimulation. The first theme, presented by the piano in pianissimo as if ex nihilo is so pure and clear that it could be a fugue subject by Bach-but instead of the expected canonic entry of the other voices, it is initially a hurried insert of the violin that at this point leads to the first rhythmic diminution in the piano. The actual fugue subject (completely different thematic material) is presented to us only much later by the cello, and we also first reencounter the hectic violin motif in other circumstances. A fugue truly to be termed genial then follows, and the tension repeatedly increases on the basis of dynamic sequences ascending in pitch and then finally-almost abruptly-is released by a nostalgic waltz (now in the interval sequence of the initial motif), which brings the movement to its conclusion in a conciliatory A major.

Weinberg wrote the lovely "Sonatina for Violin and Piano" op. 46 in 1946. Forming associations with the depiction of an idyllic landscape, in what is almost a Schubertian tone, everything is actually situated -though peacefully, tranquilly, harmonically, or narratively-in the key of D minor(!). The tragic element in all these idylls is first eliminated in the final chord, which at last is in the desired key of D major. The second, very tragic movement reflects concern and incredible misfortune. One feels as if one has been petrified, and then suddenly a marking reads 'very fast, mysteriously'. Weinberg seems to be attempting to render the listener breathless..   By way of sarcasm, theatricality, and then a lento concluding the third movement, the tragic element of life's experiences nevertheless again finds its place. But-the lento is again in D major. Weinberg’s quest for a "good" ending, for peace, is found in a quantity his works.

Weinberg: "I believe that each moment in the life of a genuine artist is work. Interesting work, hard, endless. Work not only at the writing desk but the observation and assimilation of sounds, colors, movements, and rhythms in the real world. I am always at work".

During the 1970s, Weinberg wrote some solo sonatas: three for violoncello in 1971 (op. 106), one for viola (op. 107), two for viola in 1978 (op. 123), and one for violin in 1979 (op. 126). The sonata for solo bassoon came later (op. 133), and the "Sonata for Double Bass Solo" op. 108 was written in 1971. The performance history of the double bass sonata is not documented in any sources. All that is known is that it first appeared in print in Moscow with the 'Sovietsky Kompositor'. Since it was published in an anthology organized by the Russian double bassist Rodion Azarkhin, it seems natural to assume that it was he who first performed this work. Although there is no dedication in the autograph, Azarkhin is regarded as one of the double bassists who wanted to enhance the role of this rather underrepresented instrument in the solo literature by writing arrangements of his own and also by lending his energetic support to new compositions. Shostakovich stated of Azarkhin, "The double bassist Rodion Azarkhin is an outstanding virtuoso. Apart from his brilliant technique, his recital artistry is of high culture and expressive power".
This sonata does not really belong to the standard repertoire of double bassists. With its six movements, it is similar to a suite in which each movement is structured very clearly thematically. It's a work that, although it's taking some time, is growing on me.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Mikhail Nosyrev - Piano Concerto - Capriccio for Violin & Orchestra - 4 Preludes for Harp - A Fairy-Tale (Symphonic Poem) - Olympia, 2001

Here is one of Olympia's outstanding discs dedicated to the music of Mikhail Nosyrev. This is territory that's not obscure as say Kochurov (Northern Flowers) but Nosyrev is still a faint blip on the radar even for the specialist listener. Olympia has always been nothing less than a godsend, and I feel this way especially as Soviet/Russian music has always been dearest to my heart and soul. Onwards..let's get to know this neglected maestro..

To an outsider, the methods of the former Soviet state were virtually unfathomable, and produced idiosyncrasies that bordered on the absurd. A good example was the manner in which the system dealt with musicians and composers with whom the regime could not come to terms-partly just because of a lack of 'specialist knowledge'. Often, such people were sent to the provinces-although in this context "the provinces" included everywhere outside the huge cities of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. The former category (musicians) is exemplified by the famous Ganelin-Tarasov-Cherkasov Jazz Trio, which was "allocated" the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, and also by the avant-garde rock ensemble "Arsenal", which was stated to come from Gorky even though the musicians mostly lived and worked in Moscow. A good example of the second category, composers, is Mikhail Nosyrev, whose professional career ran its course almost exclusively in Voronezh in southern Russia. It should be noted that, despite everything, various witnesses testify that Nosyrev was content with his life as a highly regarded theater conductor in Voronezh (a city with a population approaching 1 million, and a significant center of music and culture). From Moscow, however, he received no official recognition.
In his case this was not the result of an excessive devotion to the avant-garde, but had a wholly different cause; nobody would touch with a 10 (make that 100) ft pole someone who had spent years in a prison camp!

Mikhail Nosyrev was born on May 28, 1924 in the city of Leningrad. It was in 1943 that Mikhail Nosyrev, then a 19 year-old music student (in Leningrad), was denounced by one of his teachers following a statement complaining about life in the USSR; this led to a sentence of death for him, his mother and his stepfather for "counter-revolutionary agitation". The sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment, but he was rehabilitated only posthumously in 1988. A further Soviet absurdity is that the library of his Siberian gulag contained a volume that one would hardly have expected to find in such a place: Rimsky-Korsakov's book on instrumentation (!)
Nosyrev could thus continue his studies during his years in prison. Having served his sentence, he resumed his professional work as a conductor, initially in Vorkuta and Syktyvkar and then at the Voronezh Opera; here he was held in high esteem both as a conductor and as a composer. His career as a composer, which ended with his untimely death at the age of just 57, was also hindered by his enormous workload at the theater. In the mid-1970s for instance, his ballet The Song of Triumphant Love was played to packed houses at the Voronezh Opera (as it had done since January 1971) and, at the same time, he was conducting an impressive number of operas and ballets including l Pagliacci, Faust, Carmen, Rigoletto, La traviata, The Barber of Seville, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, and Giselle. He made guest appearances with with the theater ensemble in other cities such as Rostov, Smolensk, Kaliningrad, Sotchi, Samara and Krasnodar. He also wrote theater music for other companies in Voronezh, from dramas to Astrid Lindgren's "Karlsson on the Roof". 

Despite these commitments, Nosyrev managed to compose a significant amount of music, including four symphonies, concertos for violin, cello, and piano, three ballets, four string quartets and other chamber works. I think it's likely that there's an unspecified amount of music that is yet to be discovered, largely due to the ramifications of Nosyrev's life (indeed, this is all too common for many composers who musically came of age at this time). His music reveals the absolute mastery of orchestral sonority that he acquired as a violinist and conductor, and he was indeed able to play most of the instruments of the orchestra. His greatest problem as a composer was of a wholly different kind, and was superficially just a bureaucratic matter-he was refused membership of the Soviet Composer's Union. In practice, however, this caused him considerable difficulty, because membership of the union was a prerequisite if a composer's music was to be performed more frequently and in different places, or if a composer needed support of a more material nature. Only the personal intervention of Dmitri Shostakovich eventually secured the successful outcome that Nosyrev was admitted to the Composer's Union. 

The composer Vladimir Belyayev, a close friend of Nosyrev's in Voronezh, once wrote: "Two leitmotifs characterized Nosyrev's creative work: one the one hand, the motif of all-conquering love and the belief in happiness, and on the other hand the motif of life and death. For Nosyrev death was a reality that he had confronted in his prison cell. His orchestral works convey the emotions of a person who found himself on the fateful dividing line between life and death. Mikhail Nosyrev passed away at the zenith of his creativity, as though at the most exciting moment of a phenomenal game of chess (he was, moreover, an excellent chess player) that could now no longer be played to its conclusion". 

After his time in prison, Nosyrev began his career as a conductor and composer in Siberia rather than in European Russia-partly because it was normal for an ex-prisoner to spend some years in exile. During the years 1953-1958 he composed numerous theater scores for the theater in Syktyvkar, among them 'When the Acacias Bloom' and 'La Dame aux camelias'. There too, in 1957, he wrote the "Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra" (the same year saw the birth of his son, also named Mikhail, who 40 years later started to publish his father's complete works; he was the producer of these discs on Olympia). The style of the Capriccio is fairly traditional, especially by comparison with the symphonies, and the form-as is usual with a capriccio, is free. A dark bass melody develops in an upward direction; it is taken up first by the winds and then by the solo violin, and is then presented in ever-changing form by various instruments. The tempo, restrained at first, becomes faster and faster until the piece ends virtuosically, Prestissimo; in the faster passages the musical language is at times unmistakably Russian. Strikingly, the composer is not tempted to allow the elegance of the orchestral sound to overwhelm the soloist; instead, he maintains an optimal equilibrium between soloist and orchestra. 

The "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" (one of my personal favorite piano concertos) was written considerably later. In 1971 Nosyrev had composed his Violin Concerto, and in 1973 his Cello Concerto was completed; with the intention of producing a triptych of concertos, he immediately began working on the Piano Concerto recorded here, completing the score on November 30th, 1974. On April 19th, 1975 the composer himself conducted the first performance with the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in Voronezh. The next performance did not take place until Febuary 13th, 1999, when the internationally renowned pianist Igor Zhukov played the solo part at a concert marking the 75th anniversary of the composer's birth. The very first bars of the opening 'Improvisata' make it clear that that some years have passed-the musical style clearly reflects the influence of Western avant-garde music, not least in the way the composer exploits various effects from the percussion. The essence of the piece nevertheless derives from Russian tradition, combined with certain elements rooted in the sound world of composers such as Debussy. The 'Ritmo ostinato' follows abruptly, a movement of obsessive stubbornness, a perpetuum mobile in which the wildness of the piano writing is slightly reminiscent of Prokofiev's Toccata, though here enriched by the presence of a virtuoso orchestra. After such excesses it would be unthinkable to start the next movement at a fast tempo, and so there follows an improvisatory dialogue between soloist and orchestra, which leads to a fugato episode in which the piano part is surprisingly chordal. The soloist now takes charge and, in a powerful piano cadenza, an overwhelming climax is built up, whereupon the orchestra returns fortissimo. The music then dies back to pianissimo, at which dynamic level the piano and a couple of percussion instruments bring the work to a conclusion. At the very end, the main theme of the finale returns to its original form, in a gentle A minor.

As mentioned before, Nosyrev could play almost all the instruments of the orchestra, and his favorite was the harp, "that strange instrument with its numerous pedals and colorful strings". The "Four Preludes for Harp" were written in Voronezh in 1964 (Nosyrev and his family had moved to that city in 1958). Nosyrev hoped to be able to invite a famous harpist there to give first performance, but his plan came to nothing; the Preludes were not performed until after his death, in a television broadcast to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth. The underlying character of these four attractive pieces is intimate and impressionistic.

Even as an inmate at the gulag near Vorkuta, some 1,500 miles northeast of Moscow, Mikhail Nosyrev-prisoner number 12385-composed a number of works. Of these, however, only a few have survived: the songs "A Beautiful Tale", and "Yesterday at Seven o'clock" to words by the Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov, a Piano Sonatina, the symphonic poem "Skazka" (A Fairy-Tale), a Fantasy on Russian Folk-Songs, and the song "Dark Blue Color" to a text by the Georgian poet Nikoloz Baratashvili in a Russian translation by Leonid Maltsev, a fellow prisoner of the composer in the prison camp. The symphonic poem "A Fairy-Tale", written in 1947, would even in normal circumstances have been a remarkable achievement for a composer who was just 23 years old, but we should also bear in mind the conditions under which he was living in the prison camp. No one will be surprised by the very traditional nature of the work, nor by the presence of various affinities with Rachmaninov and to a lesser extent Scriabin; the maturity of the orchestral writing is astonishing. In one respect the composer leaves us in the dark-we are not told whether it refers to a particular fairytale, or indeed anything about its subject-matter. Here, Nosyrev admittedly had a famous predecessor; when Sibelius wrote "En Saga" (the title of which also means "fairytale") he also left us guessing as to its subject (could have been any number of legends, Finnish or otherwise). In the case of Nosyrev's piece, the ending sounds like a question mark-albeit one that might be interpreted, despite everything, as a sign of optimism, as the suggestion that outside the gulag there is another, more hopeful world. 

Track list:

1) Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra (1957) (11:36)

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1974) (24:52)

2) Improvisita. Moderato, a piacere (6:26)
3) Ritmo Ostinato. Allegro moderato (7:06)
4) Finale. Andante (11:14)

Four Preludes for Harp (1964) (9:53)

5) Adagio (1:58)
6) Andante (2:29)
7) Rubato (2:40)
8) Reflections of the sun. Presto (2:33)

9) Skazka (A Fairy-Tale) Symphonic Poem (1947) (11:39)



Thursday, February 19, 2015

Shadowcatcher - Eric Ewazen - Richard Danielpour - Kathryn Salfelder - Anthony Plog - University of Michigan Sym. Band - Western Winds - Western Brass Quintet - Robert Spradling, Dir. - Klavier 2013

Here's another disc from my circa 2013 "unopened discs pile". This particular pile is extremely structurally unsound; I have them in my clothing closet, where they are towering and nestled halfway up the legs of my wrong move-one poor decision-one chosen pair of dark jeans-and it's all over ;) This catastrophe happens all the time with many piles. So, I got this disc for the Ewazen and the Plog works in particular (I do have an earlier recording of the Ewazen) and have not heard the Danielpour or Salfelder (new name to me) yet. About to do so now. 

So, below I'm simply pasting what seems a good review from the Arkiv site:

As with many discs of concert band music, this one features an eclectic and intriguing mix of works in contrasting styles, three by well-established figures and one by a newcomer. Richard Danielpour himself hardly needs any introduction. His Icarus from 2009, written for the unusual combination of brass ensemble, two pianos, and percussion, takes its name from the ancient Greek legend of the boy who, with his father Daedalus, escaped imprisonment in the labyrinth of King Minos on Crete by means of wings made of bird feathers and wax, but fell to his death in the Aegean when he recklessly flew too close to the sun and his wings dissolved. The brief booklet notes state that although the myth provides “the background for this exciting work ... the music does not reflect a story line.” While the work is indeed exciting—almost incessantly violent in the syncopated fortissimo musical motives that constitute most of its content—and well constructed, it leaves me bemused as to any possible connection to the ancient story at all, either pictorially or metaphysically. It seems a far more fitting musical depiction of a scene of violent combat instead. However, taken purely as an abstract piece of music, it is quite engaging.

The centerpiece and eponymous work on this disc, Eric Ewazen’s Shadowcatcher from 1996 (the booklet mistakenly gives 1956 on the index page but gets the date right in the notes), for brass quintet and symphonic band, is an ambitious four-movement work of almost 35 minutes’ duration. “Shadow Catcher” is the name that Native Americans gave to the famed photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952), who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries documented the lives of more than 80 tribes with over 40,000 photographs and over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings. Each movement is inspired by a particular photograph:

1) “Offering to the Sun” (Tewa, 1925)—Among the rock cliffs at the San Idelfonso Pueblo near Santa Fe, a tribal member offers prayerful supplication to the morning sunrise;

2) “Among the Aspens” (Chippewa, 1926)—A teepee stands within a grove of Aspen trees near a stream;

3) “The Vanishing Race” (Navaho, 1904)—A group of Indians on horseback, photographed in silhouette, slowly rides into the darkness, symbolizing an uncertain future;

4) “Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon” (Kwakiutl, 1928)—This tribe of the Pacific Northwest coast believed that lunar eclipses occurred when a giant creature of the night sky swallowed the moon. However, the monster could be made to sneeze and disgorge the moon by the stench of a bonfire fueled with old clothes and hair. The photo captures a frenzied dance around such a bonfire.

Ewazen, a longtime professor of composition at Juilliard, is a gifted composer who writes music that remains thoroughly tonal and accessible to more general audiences without being condescending or slipping into banalities. Here, he employs a number of melodies and motives from Native American music, including the distinctive pentatonic scale patterns, and adroitly utilizes them to create larger movements of free-flowing variations without ever falling prey to the hoary clichés of film music for Hollywood westerns. While I quite enjoyed the work, the first couple times I listened through it I thought it a bit overlong for its contents, but with repeated hearings I become more and more convinced of its overall excellence. This is a major addition to the concert band repertoire.

Kathryn Salfelder, a young (b. 1987) and hence new compositional voice, is currently completing her doctorate at the New England Conservatory. Her Stylus Phantasticus was commissioned by the University Symphonic Band and premiered on February 17, 2013. The work’s title refers to a type of free-form composition found primarily in Baroque organ literature, and here Salfelder employs fragmented elements of Dieterich Buxtehude’s Toccata in D Minor, BuxWV155, for her thematic material in a Postmodernist musical pastiche. While Salfelder is clearly a talented composer, this piece strikes me as being considerably less than the sum of its parts, with a plethora of momentarily interesting effects never adding up to some more substantive unity.

Anthony Plog, a onetime member of trumpet sections in several orchestras in the USA and Sweden, has been a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg since 1993. Most of his compositions are for brass instruments, a genre to which he has made significant contributions. While his overall compositional style remains tonal, taking its point of departure from Stravinsky and Bartók, its vocabulary is considerably more dissonant than that of Ewazen. Like Ewazen’s Shadowcatcher , the Concerto 2010 is also scored for brass quintet and symphonic band. Its four movements, played without pause, virtually constitute a brief symphony, proportioned similarly to that of Prokofiev’s First but with the scherzo in second position. The first movement follows its stately slow introduction with an Allegro main section dominated by a skittering, agitated theme of rapidly running eighth and 16th notes, into which a jazz-like interlude momentarily intrudes, and then brings back the material of the slow introduction. The brief scherzo is dominated by rapid double-tonguing figures in the brass that take off from the theme of the preceding opening Allegro , backed by cascading woodwind runs and clattering marimba and woodblocks. A succeeding Adagio starts with a slow but flowing fugue tune, first stated on clarinets but gradually bringing in flutes and then brass. That is followed by a somewhat swifter, chattering second theme, closely related to the main theme of the Allegro section of the first movement, which at a quicker tempo them becomes the main motif of the Allegro finale, where marimba and woodblocks once again have a prominent supporting part. Overall I also greatly enjoyed this work, though the interludes of jazz in the first movement and of dissonant brass early in the finale strike me as ad hoc insertions lacking organic relations to any other facets of the work.

There are at least three other recordings of Shadowcatcher , and one apiece of Icarus and Concerto 2010 , whereas Stylus Phantasticus receives its debut recording here. I was unable to sample all of the alternatives, but compared to those I did hear I would say that the present disc equals or exceeds them for technical excellence and/or recorded sound. The Western Brass Quintet consists of faculty members of Western Michigan University; the Western Winds comprise that quintet along with a few other faculty members and a number of university students. Both of them and the larger University Symphonic Band are crackerjack ensembles that toss off even the most difficult passages with carefree insouciance, and they are showcased in ideally balanced recorded sound. The concert band repertoire continues to expand its footprint exponentially in the commercial recordings market, and this CD is a particularly fine entry; warmly recommended.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reinhold Gliere - Concerto for Cello & Orchestra - Concerto for Coloratura Soprano & Orchestra - Wartime Music (1941-1945) Vol. 13 - Northern Flowers

Reinhold Gliere (born in Kiev on January 11 1875, died in Moscow on June 23, 1956) was born into the world of Tsarist Russia and grew up amidst the glorious accomplishments of Tchaikovsky and "The Five" who created a strong nationalistic language for Russian music. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Tchaikovsky's favorite pupil Taneyev (counterpoint) and with Arensky (harmony) and Ippolitov-Ivanov (composition), all composers whose work represented the fulsome richness of late romanticism with Slavic coloration, and in the case of Ippolitov-Ivanov, a strong interest in exoticism. Though Gliere lived beyond the middle of the 20th century, his music never really left the Russian romantic tradition. He worked on the grand scale producing music in the large forms, including three symphonies (the last, a program work on a Russian folk hero entitled Ilya Murometz, is of Mahlerian proportions, running over an hour and a half in a complete performance), ballets, operas, concertos, chamber works and also instrumental pieces. His best-known work (along with his Third Symphony "Ilya..") by far is a single number, the “Russian Sailors’ Dance,” from the 1927 ballet "The Red Poppy". Otherwise Gliere remains still a rather under-appreciated composer, for which there is no justification. 

Issuing these two concertos as part of Northern Flowers's wonderful "Wartime Music" seems an odd choice in a sense, although I love Gliere's music so I'm happy they did. Ok-so these two events, the war and Gliere’s existence, coincided. No doubt the composer experienced the vicissitudes of World War II in the day-to-day management of his life, but if a war intruded on any of his works, it was the Golden Horde of Batu Khan that the legendary Ilya Murometz fought. None of these observations about his wartime status intrude on the quality of his music, of course. At his best, Gliere created beautiful works that demonstrate a strong fusion of form and expressive content, where there is never any question whether a bridge could be improved upon, or a theme treated differently and to better effect. His music is instantly likable and in many cases lovable!  These two concertos are prime examples of this.

The Cello Concerto is a typical Gliere piece, firmly in the classic tradition but with some surprises. The first movement, Allegro, introduces the principal theme with the solo cello, and there are long unaccompanied sections where the cello trills freely. With the added strings comes the beautiful melody that gradually develops lyrically, followed a little later by the supporting theme introduced by an oboe. These grow in scale until a totally unexpected new orchestral melody suddenly arrives to leave us wondering where did it all come from. The second movement, Andante, fully displays the Russian character of the concerto, through the (deliberate?) allusion to the Polovtsian Dances from the opera "Prince Igor", composed by another of Gliere’s famous predecessors, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). The melody is skillfully used as an underscore to the movement. It beautifully exposes its heartfelt melancholy, its atmospheric, nearly nocturnal characteristics, as suits a truly romantic work. The final movement, Allegro Vivace, is suitably the most vivacious of the three. It is almost cinematic in style, effortlessly taking the listener into a world of sound that could easily be translated into images of a virtuoso dancer executing a complex choreography. This is perhaps revealing of Gliere’s excellent understanding of ballet music and gives the concerto a final touch of elegance.

Gliere composed his "Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra" in 1943 and it is dedicated to Debhora Jakobwewna Pantofel-Netschezka. It was premiered in Moscow that year with the Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio under the direction of Orlov. In addition to the soprano soloist, the score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, three horns, timpani, triangle, glockenspiel, harp, and strings. A concerto for a vocal soloist singing wordlessly is extremely unusual. Generally speaking vocal music without words (vocalise) is intended as etudes for singers, study pieces designed to develop vocal agility, a smooth legato, and other technical elements, though rarely intended for performance before an audience. Still, there are a few pieces that have achieved wide popularity in which a singer has no words to project. The first movement of Heitor Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas brasileiras" No. 5 for eight cellos and soprano is one such work. Another, surely known to Gliere, was Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise". One of my favorites, although of a different nature, is RVW's "Flos Campi". What is unusual in this case is that Gliere has written an actual concerto (though a rather short one, in two movements) of this type. The first is an Andante, mostly dreamy in character, though with coloratura flourishes; the second is a waltz of progressively increasing brilliance. This is one of a number of works based on the folk culture of various nationalities embraced by the Soviet Union, including Ukrainian, as well as the peoples of the Transcaucasus and central Asia. Many of these works are based on folk tunes treated with a vivid imagination for orchestral color. These predilections matched well the requirements of the Soviet government for music accessible to the people, and Glière received the title People’s Artist of the USSR in 1938.

There is another wonderful version of Gliere's Coloratura concerto on an earlier Chandos disc, coupled with his Harp Concerto, and the Harp Concerto of Ginastera as well.


-This is another Apple Lossless post (as always m4a, which can be lossy or lossless)

Part 1


Part 2


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ervin Schulhoff and Arnold Schoenberg - Chamber Works - Chandos 2009

This Chandos disc from 2009 (the pieces were initially recorded in 1982 <Schoenberg>, and also 1992 <Schulhoff>, and presented here remastered, very nicely indeed as it is Chandos) brings together three distinctive expressions of 1920s modernism. 

Ervin Schulhoff's Flute Sonata is a fine example of urbane, witty and eloquent writing, closer in style to the Gallic neoclassicism of Poulenc and Milhaud, or of his Czech near-contemporary Martinu than to German models. The unusually brief Scherzo and jaunty finale are especially enjoyable and the work as a whole is a polished and warmly expressive delight.

The slightly earlier "Concertino for flute, viola and double bass" is more of an oddball piece, with a mysterious slithering melody that presents the material and keeps the tranquil river of sound flowing (it makes me picture rivers in an Asian scroll painting) throughout the majority of the first movement.  Schulhoff wrote the Concertino in a mere four days, between May 28 and June 1, 1925. The first movement begins with bass and violin playing an eastern-sounding theme with the flute offering an improvisatory theme as counterpoint. Schulhoff introduces brief contrasting episodes but always returns to the opening motto. The second movement derives from a Czech folk dance, the furiant, with a rhythm combining characteristics of 2/4 and 3/4. A folk song from the Carpathian Mountains in what is now the western Ukraine provides the basis of the Andante, its melody given to the flute. In the finale, the flutist doubles on piccolo and the bass provides the rhythm for another lively folk dance. Back to the first movement, it makes me think of Lou Harrison, who was inspired by the East for the entirety of his composing life, and indeed there are sections of a couple Harrison works that sound extremely close to the Andante here. Lou Harrison was only seven years old when Schulhoff wrote the Concertino. I'm not making the argument that Schulhoff was in any way an influence on Harrison, only that it's striking to me how much the Concertino opening sounds like Harrison several decades later. A fascinating piece.

There’s genuine historical interest in this transformation of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet into a Flute Sonata, made two years after the quintet’s completion by one of the composer’s favoured pupils and sons-in-law, Felix Greissle. The Quintet was Schoenberg’s first large-scale 12- note piece, a virtuoso exercise in the meaningful marriage of harmony and counterpoint, the five instruments each contributing an equal share of material to the intricately woven textures.

The composer approved of the transcription in principle but seemed unsure about its performability. Following it with the score of the Quintet underlines how resourceful Greissle was at drawing the flute line from leading melodic strands in all five instruments, adjusting the registers accordingly. Despite occasional rough edges to the sound, this is a well characterised performance, true to the remarkable expressive range of the work while not making a conclusive case for its use as a regular alternative to the original.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Francesco Canova Da Milano - Lute Music - Fantasias, Ricercars and Duets - Christopher Wilson, Solo Lute - Shirley Rumsey, Lute Duettist - Naxos 1994

While it's often difficult for me to be in a light mood, being in a lute mood is rather effortless. The lute is such a beautiful instrument, aesthetically and of course for it's eloquent, oh so heavenly sound. 
Lately I have been listening to a lot, some highlights being very fine Naxos collections, truly superb accounts on the fantastic Dorian label (often an early music lover's paradise, I am especially in love with all of the discs that The Baltimore Consort made for the label..) Harmonia Mundi, Vivarte and the list goes on. Anything featuring Paul O'Dette clearly should be in your collection!

Francesco Canova da Milano was arguably the most important Italian composer of instrumental music from the Renaissance era. His works were widely published in his time, and his many admirers dubbed him "Il Divino." Exactly 124 of his compositions survive, most being ricercars, fantasies, and intabulations of various vocal pieces, the vast majority scored for lute or vihuela. Not surprisingly, Francesco Canova was generally considered the finest lutenist of his day as well.

"Now divine aire, now is his soule ravisht, is it not strange that sheepes guts should hale soules out of mens bodies?" -William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing. 

Shakespeare was only one of many writers of his day who attributed to the lute the power to transport the listener into a kind of ecstasy; for throughout the Renaissance the lute's ravishing tone made it the most esteemed and admired of all musical instruments. The fame of the greatest players spread through all Europe, and the doors of royal courts and palaces were open to them (a number were consequently employed as spies) while instruments by the most famous makers could fetch astronomical sums.

The origins of the lute, however, lay outside Europe. The lute derives its name, as well as its distinctive shape, from the Arabic 'ud, an instrument which is vey much at the heart of Arabic musical life to this day. 'Al 'ud' means 'the wooden one', a name perhaps coined to distinguish the 'ud from instruments made from gourds or with parchment soundboards. It came to Europe in the Middle Ages, perhaps brought back from the Crusades, or via Moorish Spain, or Sicily, where the thirteenth century King Manfred von Hohenstaufen was a keen player. Throughout the Mediaeval period the lute, which then had only five 'courses' or pairs of strings, was played with a quill plectrum—again like the 'ud. Playing with a plectrum limits the kind of solo music that can be performed, and so the lute was often played in consort with other instruments, perhaps improvising over a drone or ground, playing dance tunes, or being used to accompany song.

The lute really came into its own in the late fifteenth century when it was realised that it could be played with fingertips instead of a quill. This meant that music properly composed in parts could now be played on the instrument. With the addition of a sixth (bass) course, the development of a more elegant, elongated body shape, and the invention of a system of tablature for notating its music, the lute attained a new classical perfection, and the stage was set for a musical craze that was to last over 150 years.

It is not hard to see the appeal of the instrument. Light and portable, a harmonising instrument far cheaper and easier to maintain than keyboards, it was (and is) enormously versatile; it was used to play dance music, popular tunes, arrangements of vocal music and song accompaniments, and soon generated a solo repertoire of its own, in the form of preludes, passemezzi (a sort of Renaissance twelve-bar blues) and the most refined and expressive fantasias. It was seen as the heir of the ancient Roman cithara or lira, which gave it a further boost in an age obsessed with Classical literature. Above all, it was the lute's ravishing sound which made it so admired. While the essential design of the instrument (six pairs of strings tuned in fourths, with a third in the middle) is similar to that of the modern guitar, the sound is very different: low-tension gut-stringing and the peculiar resonance of its pear-shaped body give the sound of the lute a delicacy and richness which cannot be matched by its brash modern cousin. In a sense it is an instrument closer to nature than the modern guitar.

At the end of the sixteenth century experiments and innovations began to be made. A seventh pair of bass strings was added, then an eighth, then a ninth, eventually getting up to fourteen pairs; the intention being partly to increase the range of the instrument, partly to be able to play in a low register when accompanying male singers. To cope with the extra strings a second, longer neck and pegbox might be added. New tuning schemes were devised. From all these experiments a variety of new instruments were evolved, designated today as 'Baroque' lutes. The biggest, the 'Roman' theorbo or chitarrone, was a loud bass instrument, used mainly for accompaniment, with a long second neck which made it up to six feet long. In France a smaller instrument of either eleven, twelve or thirteen pairs of strings tended to be favoured; the first seven pairs could be stopped with the left hand, and the rest of the strings were played 'open' like harp strings. Overwound strings, invented in the mid-seventeenth century, could be made to produce a very low pitched note with only a short string length, which meant that it was possible to go back to the older, more manageable size of instrument, while still having a large number of bass strings.

By the end of the seventeenth century though, the days of the lute were clearly numbered. The rise of the orchestra, opera and the commercial concert hall put a quiet instrument like the lute at a huge disadvantage; it simply couldn't be heard in a big noisy room. Rising living standards meant that more and more people could afford keyboards, which were easier to play, had a wider octave range and could realise more complex harmonies than the lute. Classical literature was taken a little less seriously than before, so the lute's associations with the cithara and lira of ancient Rome counted for less. In 1727 the French author Titon du Tillet wrote that 'the difficulty of playing it well, as well as its little use in concerts, have almost made it disappear. I do not think one could find in Paris more than three or four venerable old gentlemen who are still playing the lute'. Many amateur musicians now favoured the five-course 'baroque' guitar, which was far easier to play than the lute, being mainly used for strumming lively Spanish dances. By about 1750 the instrument was more or less dead, though one or two offshoots, such as the German 'mandora' persisted.

The lute and its repertoire were never quite forgotten, however, and from the end of the nineteenth century a revival began. In England, the early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch started to make and play lutes, while in Germany lutes (lute-guitar hybrids, really) were widely played by the Wandervogel hiking clubs, attracted by the instrument's associations with pre-industrial, pre-bourgeois past. The early music craze of the 1970s, and the recordings of Julian Bream benefitted the lute greatly, and happily standards of both making and playing are now pretty high.

Over its long history a truly enormous repertoire was created for the instrument. There are an estimated 25,000 pieces that survive for the Renaissance lute, and probably as many for the Baroque instruments-and that is only the music specially notated in lute tablature, not counting music from the Mediaeval and Baroque eras which is written in normal staff notation. Indeed three quarters of lutenists today are ex-guitarists who have been seduced by the amazing riches of this repertoire. The lute witnessed not one but a succession of Golden Ages of composition. The first of these was in Renaissance Italy, where the greatest player, Francesco da Milano (1497-1543) was given the nickname 'Il Divino' (forgot to mention it was shared with Michelangelo!), the divinely-inspired. When he played, it was said, all thoughts turned to heaven. The music of Francesco and his contemporaries aspires to grace, elegance, and a certain stylish playfulness; similar in spirit perhaps to the early Italian Renaissance paintings of Botticelli and his contemporaries where everyone seems to be dancing. Mid-sixteenth century Spain produced a school of fine composers, playing the vihuela (a lute with a guitar shaped body) whose (rather serious) compositions are well-known to guitarists today. The next high point came in Elizbethan England, with the sweet-melancholy songs and fantasies of John Dowland, and his contemporaries. The Baroque lute produced two major schools of composition; in mid-seventeenth century France where the Gaultiers, Dufault, de Visée and others created a stately and self-assured style of music; and in early eighteenth century Germany, where Bach wrote for the lute, and the last great lutenist, Sylvius Leopold Weiss wrote suites of preludes and dances in a beautiful arpeggiated style.

The lute is rich not only in repertoire but in symbolism. Its refined sound has given it courtly associations in East and West: for Arabs the lute was amir al - 'alat, the sultan of instruments. In the hands of angels it symbolised the beauties of heaven; it was further used as a symbol of harmony, while a lute with a broken string (as in Holbein's famous painting 'The Ambassadors') stood for discord. From ancient times it has symbolised youth and love. Ancient Mesopotamian seals show maidens playing long-necked lutes in the cult of Ishtar, goddess of love and destruction, foreshadowing countless images of the lute in love scenes in Renaissance painting. What could be more romantic than a man singing to the lute outside a lady's window? Conversely, it could be an emblem of lust or lasciviousness: in the hands of an older man it symbolised scandal and degeneracy. If the lute's sensuous and delicate tones evoked the pleasures of love, the fleeting nature of its sound, and the physical fragility of the instrument made it a fitting emblem of transience and death: it is often included, sometimes alongside a skull, in Dutch still life paintings of the Vanitas variety, illustrating the vanity of worldly existence.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Kamran Ince - Concerto for Orchestra, Turkish Instruments & Voices - Symphony No. 2 "Fall of Constantinople" - Piano Concerto - Infrared Only - Naxos 2010

Here we have a great Naxos disc of bold, colorful music by the Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince. Naxos has recorded 4 other albums of Kamran Ince's refreshingly original music, of which I only have one other (Symphonies 3 and 4). I greatly look forward to the acquisition of the other three discs when I can afford to do so!! 

Ince gets deeply into Turkish traditional music, presenting it from the inside out. He has an uncanny ability to meet the rawness of this aesthetic on its own terms and create ways to put it into a Western symphonic context without compromising its wailing grandeur. Subtlety is not what his music is about; one must accept a fair amount of literal repetition and raucous sonority-but Ince’s sense of dramatic structure makes the adjustment possible for people who are open to something bold and new, with often larger-than-life sonorities. It is imo, music that sustains its excitement from start to

The "Concerto for Orchestra, Turkish instruments and Voices" (2001/revised 2009) was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, Republic of Turkey. It was premiered at the 2002 Ankara International Music Festival by the Presidential Symphony Orchestra. The instrumentation calls for full orchestra, Turkish instruments (2 zurnas, kemence and ney, and eight voices-four female and four male). The work is about the boldness, rawness, directness of the sound of the Turkish instruments, the Zurna (grandfather of the oboe, louder then a bass drum, more nasal then the bag pipes) and 'village drum', contrasted with the spiritual and courtly character of the sounds of the Kemence (played with a bow, like a small violin, though strings are vibrated by the finger nails) and the Ney (a very airy, flute-like wooden instrument played by the side of the mouth). In some ways the work is inspired by elements of Turkish folk music and Ottoman court music, synthesized with the unique gestures and colors of the modern orchestra. Like the Turkish instruments, the orchestral colors are also used in their pure, most direct forms as separated brushstrokes of brass, strings, woodwinds and percussion.

Commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the subject of Ince's Symphony No. 2 is the events surrounding the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, an event that is fascinating in almost mythological proportions. The various titles of the movements reflect the time line of the siege and the fall of the city, which took over two years. The movements are strung together, played without pauses. "City and the walls" depict the mighty walls that surrounded the city and the relentless pounding of the Ottoman artillery. Silences came at night when the Byzantines skillfully 'restored' the walls for the following days defense. "Haghia Sophia" is one of the most beautiful churches in the world built by the Byzantines. It was the largest church with the most massive freestanding dome that had existed at the time. This movement reflects the prayers of the residents in Haghia Sophia to save their city. "Speeches of Emperor Constantine and Sultan Mehmet" represents the political speeches given to their troops to motivate them into braking the stalemate-the war was going nowhere. "Ships on rails": The marine battle is where the turning point in the siege finally comes. Byzantines had built massive chains across the harbor (!!) to prevent the Ottoman navy from entering. The Ottomans were finally able to respond to that by hauling ships over land on rails at night. In the morning the Byzantines were suddenly faced with the ships in the harbor and the inevitable defeat. Fall of Constantinople reflects the cities final moments before the Ottoman soldiers enter the city before its eventual fall. Epic music for an absolutely epic historical event.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was written in 1984, when Ince was 24. It had a preview performance that took place that fall with the composer as pianist and the Eastman Symphony Orchestra. It is a very important work for Ince, as it put him firmly on the new music map and helped to propel his career. After feeling obligated to be a part of the nationalistic movement of Turkish classical music (which was going strong in the late 1970’s), Ince moved to the States in 1980 and experimented with abstract languages ("it allowed me to start with a clean slate", he explains). It is with the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra four years later, with the influence of new romanticism and dramatic minimalism, that Ince started to mix twisted Turkish modal lines, tonal sonorities, nasal sonorities, minimalist backgrounds, purely percussive sections (Turkish or other), romantic tunes in blocks presented linearly, sometimes juxtaposed, in a nothing held-back fashion. Ince describes these blocks as having static, semi-static and moving characteristics. The love of extreme, simple and pure contrasts was the first ingredient to appear in Ince’s music after his move to the U.S. Through these contrasts he says he wants to 'shake' the audience, truly have them engage in what he is doing, and to ultimately take sides. This has continued to date and is heard in various degrees in his music. The concerto is presented in one continuous movement, though there are three inner sections and a coda.

"Infrared Only" (1985) with its pounding ostinatos (but also hymn-like cantilenas) is equally as feverish as the Piano Concerto, as the the booklet notes promise; Ince unleashes the full force of Western orchestral power and Lisztian piano pyrotechnics. Unhinged and dreamlike as they are, both pieces have decisive inner structures; they really go somewhere, the concerto arriving in a firm D major, Infrared also concluding in D but with a G added to give the ending some fascinating Eastern spice.

What ties the earlier music to the later offerings is a reliance on those repeating blocks of sound, ominous pedals, heavy timpani, and pulsating colors. The Piano Concerto is a workout for the soloist and Ince himself, obviously a gifted pianist, plunges fearlessly into his own thicket of technical challenges. "Infrared Only" is a bit more predictable than the concerto, but it’s fun to hear the brass and drums of the Bilkent Symphony showing their chops! Fascinating and fun stuff....

So, what do you all think of Ince's sound-world? Even when it's a tad 'cinematic' it's clearly penned (imo anyhow) by one of the most original voices of the 20th-21st centuries..