Saturday, June 27, 2015

Alan Hovhaness - Symphony No. 46 "To The Green Mountains" - Symphony No. 39 for Guitar and Orchestra - Milyang Arirang (Korean Folk Song) - KBS Symphony Orchestra, Vakhtang Jordania - Michael Long, Guitar - Koch Classics 1993

For any Hovhaness fan, this is just a spectacular disc. I cherish it very much, although I confess to cherishing anything having to do with Alan Hovhaness. These two symphonies were world premieres and remain so. It's hard to imagine performances that would be better-for me the pacing and general "feeling" is close to that of Hovhaness conducting himself. The sound too is rather good and the KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Orchestra deliver first-rate performances and style. Symphony No. 46 subtitled "To The Green Mountains" (as in the Mountains of Vermont during the warmer seasons) is one of my favorite Hovhaness symphonies; I can easily listen to it several times a day, or in a row-for me the journey taken is not unlike the otherworldliness and spiritual grandeur experienced whilst traveling to the "phantom peak" of the sublime Mysterious Mountain (the almost-proof-that-a-god-might-exist Symphony No. 2, Opus 132). Symphony No. 46 truly is peregrination clad in nothing but beauty. The Symphony No. 39 for Guitar and Orchestra is quite lovely too, especially the long (19:07) first movement, an Adagio, with it's opening strings lush and grand, followed by quieter passages for solo guitar, delicate and often exotically colored. Then the strings return, the guitar is almost "swept away" in the process (indeed, the guitar is something of a traveller as well in this symphony!)

Symphony No. 46 "To The Green Mountains" was completed in 1980. The work was dedicated to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and was first performed by that orchestra in May of 1981. The symphony is in four movements:

Prelude - Short woodwind solos and softly undulating harp lead to a lament for orchestra in 7/4 time.

Aria, Hymn and Fugue - This movement is simply gorgeous. The Aria features a beautiful extended melody for solo flute, with a flavor that is clearly from the Far East. Featured in the accompaniment is solo harp, vibraphone, and pizzicato strings. The stately Hymn is in 7/4 time and opens with strings and woodwinds and later, brass. The extended Fugue marked Allegro Appassionato (it seems more like a flowing Maestoso to me) is predominantly for strings and woodwinds and is religious is spirit. I think it's one of Hovhaness's finest fugues. All of the brass returns at the end of the movement when the hymn reappears. 

River and Forest Music - This movement, as it's title implies, contained two main sections. The first features a memorable folk-like theme for the oboe. The accompaniment includes a second oboe, harp, and pizzicato strings. The second portion is dance-like and features two flutes. The music is contrapuntal and is accompanied by pizzicato strings. A brief reference to the opening oboe melody concludes the movement. 

Mountain Thunderstorm and Thanksgiving Music - Following a passage for two trumpets and strings, the thunderstorm begins. Two frequently found types of writing in Hovhaness's work can be observed: the first is the use of senza misura passages and the second is the use of cycles. Senza misura (or "controlled chaos", considered by many to be a Hovhaness invention) means "without strict time". During the thunderstorm, each performer in the string section plays their passage over and over at an independent tempo until the conductor gives the cue to stop. Although brief, this is one of my favorite senza misura passages in any AH work; I can hear/see the whirling wind, the lightning striking the mountain in several locations simultaneously-it's imo a gripping and effective moment! When cycles are used, a rhythmic pattern is presented that repeats itself over and over. Often the pattern includes rests and is scored for percussion instruments. Frequently two or more parts are written cycles simultaneously. This is the case in the thunderstorm section at the timpani, bass drum, giant tam-tam, and piccolo are used. The Thanksgiving Music/Hymn is in 7/4 time and features bassoons and strings. The frequently used combination of quarter notes and half notes in AH's work can be found (7/4 qqq hh). Expressive woodwind solos lead to a second hymn which acts like a coda. This concluding material is for full orchestra with the chimes providing a feeling of spiritual grandeur. A knockout, I think..

The Symphony No. 39 for Guitar and Orchestra was completed in 1978. The work was commissioned by and dedicated to Michael Long, who, before making this recording, studied extensively the traditional music of Japan. This symphony is also in four movements: 

Adagio - The opening of this movement alternates between a stately theme (initially stated in the strings) and guitar. The solo instrument plays material inspired from parts of Asia. A brief contrapuntal section for strings leads to more melodic material featuring the soloist. One of the many memorable sections in this movement pairs the solo guitar with a solo English horn. The thematic material written for the English horn in accompanied by rolled chords in the harp. This section ends with contrapuntal treatment of the stately opening theme. 

Allegro - This movement is a pastoral dance in 3/4 time. Featured is the solo guitar, woodwinds, and and pizzicato strings. A brief senza misura for guitar and strings brings this movement to a close.

Andante -  The beginning of this part alternates solo guitar and orchestra. The material for the ensemble features repeated chords with the inclusion of passing notes especially in the lower instruments. As is the case with much of the rest of the symphony, the guitar plays material inspired by the Far East. Later on,  a duet for clarinet and piano appears and is eventually joined by pizzicato strings. The movement continues with a section for solo guitar and woodwinds and concludes with a march-like section with strings, woodwinds, percussion and solo guitar. 

Allegro - In this short but exciting movement there are several canonic sections in the brass. The music, in 6/8 time, is accompanied by strings and timpani. 

"Milyang Arirang" is a representative folk song of the eastern region of Gyeongsang, Gangwon and Hamgyeong Provinces. The folksongs of all three Provinces are together classified as "dongbu minyo" (Eastern folksongs), sharing the same scale and modal practices known as "menaritori" with strong musical details, melodic characteristics and subtleties, heard in the distinctive sikimsae (melodic ornamentation and pitch gestures) patterns. Here it has been arranged by Kim Hee Jo, and it's a nice addition to the program.



Thursday, June 25, 2015

Y'all reading this, 'classical' marketing strategists?

Might be worth a try at this point. Wagner would come beautifully wrapped in granny-panties, Toru Takemitsu delivered with silky thongs (to make those quiet-types squeal)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Happy 80th Birthday Terry Riley - "The Book Of Abbeyozzud" - Cantos Desiertos - Zamorra - Dias de los Muertos - Barabas - Ascencion - Tracy Siverman, Violin - David Tanenbaum, Guitar - Gyan Riley, Guitar - William Winant - Percussion - New Albion 1999

Here we have Terry Riley in a more lyrical, less minimalist mode. If you are only familiar with early masterworks such as "In C" and "A Rainbow in Curved Air", you might be perplexed by the angularity and chromaticism of these pieces from the 1990s. It's often hard to follow where Riley is going when he wanders so freely over the harmonic and stylistic map-which makes things all the more interesting. Composed over six years, each of the 28 pieces (here we get 10) has a title that starts with a different letter of the Spanish alphabet, and Riley evokes Spanish guitar music with intricate passagework, Latin dances, and flamenco strumming. The excellent guitarist David Tanenbaum, who commissioned these works, gives them articulate and poetic readings even at their most unwieldy. He teams up for stunning duos with violinist Tracy Silverman in one suite, and percussionist William Winant joins him in another on tabla, marimba, Peking opera gongs, and other instruments. Riley's talented son Gyan, who ultimately led his father to the guitar, joins Tanenbaum on "Zamorra".  This is beautiful music, however I also enjoy Riley's pure minimalism and trance-like works just as much. Needless to say this is a much more accessible side of Riley's output and many listeners will likely prefer this.

Terry Riley did an interesting thing after writing "In C": he essentially went back to being a student, spending years working in India with the vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. It was not until the early 1980s that the groundbreaking Kronos Quartet convinced him to sit down, be a 'Western composer', and write some string quartets. As often happens with composers, the guitar felt too alien to Riley initially when he contemplated writing for it, but in the early 1990s, his son Gyan won a guitar and some lessons in a raffle, and so the guitar and its music filled the Riley home. Soon thereafter Terry Riley was ready to write. The late Rose Augustine, former head of Augustine Strings who was ever at the ready to bring fine composers to the guitar, jumped at the chance to commission him, and "The Book of Abbeyozzud" was born.

"The Book of Abbeyozzud" (ah-BYE-ah-ZOOD) is a word invented by Riley, without any apparent meaning. Riley writes "....these works are indebted to great Spanish music traditions and to those traditions upon which Spanish music owes its heritage". This is evident throughout the recording, and to wonderful effect Riley-style. 


Happy 80th Birthday Terry Riley - "Cadenza on the Night Plain" - The Kronos Quartet - Rykodisc/Gramavision 1988

The maverick composer and musician Terry Riley turns 80 today, June 24th, and is still going strong.
Going to start off now with a classic recording of four of Riley's works for string quartet, played by the Kronos Quartet (also going strong after several innovative decades).

The Kronos Quartet violinist, founder, and artistic director David Harrington says of the Quartet's remarkably fruitful relationship with Terry Riley, which began in the late 1970s at Mills College in Oakland, California: "There is no other composer who has added so many new musical words to our vocabulary, words from so many corners of the musical world. Terry introduced Kronos to Pandit Pran Nath, Zakir Hussain, Bruce Connor, La Monte Young, Anna Halprin, Hamza El Din, Jon Hassell, and Gil Evans". He continues, "In a crazed world laced with violence and destruction he has consistently been a force for peace. Through his gentle leadership a path forward has emerged. Terry sets the standard for what it means to be a musician in our time".

Riley says of his 35 years of working with Kronos: "Each of our projects together was launched by conversations with both David and me riffing on ideas. I always came away from these planning sessions feeling exhilarated, and these energies would soon get my pen moving toward a melody or a rhythmic pattern-or, in the case of Salome Dances for Peace, a five-quartet cycle. David has this gift, a unique catalytic effect on so many collaborators. Because of this gift, we have this astounding body of work created for Kronos over the past four decades".

Composer and performer Terry Riley is one of the founders (arguably THE founder) of music's Minimalist movement. His early works, notably In C (1964), pioneered a form in Western music based on structured interlocking repetitive patterns. The influence of Riley's hypnotic, multi-layered, polymetric, brightly orchestrated Eastern-flavored improvisations and compositions is heard across the span of contemporary and popular music. Performers who have commissioned and/or played his works include: Kronos Quartet, Rova Saxophone Quartet, ARTE Quartet, Array Music, Zeitgeist, Steven Scott Bowed Piano Ensemble, John Zorn, Sarah Cahill, California E.A.R. Unit, guitarist David Tanenbaum, electric violinist Tracy Silverman, drummer George Marsh, bassist Bill Douglass, the Assad brothers, cello octet Conjunto Ibérico, Crash Ensemble, Abel Steinberg-Winant Trio, pianists Werner Bartschi and Gloria Cheng, Calder Quartet, Arditti Quartet, Amati Quartet, Alter Ego, Sounds Bazaar, Paul Dresher, singer Amelia Cuni, Bang-on-a-Can All Stars, and guitarist Gyan Riley among others.

Terry Riley looking 60 at age 80

To save myself time I am including scans of the brief but informative booklet notes.

Enjoy all

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"Tongues of Fire" Carl Rütti, Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion - Tongues of Fire for Organ solo - Anton Arensky, Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky - Francis Poulenc, Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings - Guild 2012

Here is one of the finest recordings of music for Organ and Orchestra that I know of, especially from the last few years. The "Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion" by Carl Rütti is especially exciting and powerful music (as is Poulenc's concerto, but that pretty much goes without saying!), and in my opinion it is one of the best concertos written over the past few years. Everything is exceptionally well played to boot. This is the world premiere recording of the Rutti concerto, and indeed the only recording-however I cannot imagine it being played any better than what we get here. This disc won Gramophone's Critic's Choice in 2012, and after/whilst listening I'm sure all of you will understand/hear why. 

Carl Rütti, born in 1949, is a Swiss organist and composer who also writes a good deal of choral music. The organ concerto presented here, composed in 2011, is actually his second. It opens up with a driving, urgent Allegro and some positively wild solo work for the organ (I simply love modern organ music, and this fits the bill completely)-all very exciting and cogent. The Adagio starts out restful but returns briefly to the agitation of the first movement before settling back to a quiet ending. The third movement is a brief Scherzo, and the fourth and final movement is a theme and variations on a carol tune that builds to a satisfying climax, with plenty of percussion (including tom-toms, cymbals, temple blocks, snare drum, tambourine and triangle) and organ. This is a very impressive piece of music that audiences would really enjoy-let's hope it gets the concert outings it deserves. A complete knockout. 

"Tongues of Fire" is a work for solo organ that lives up to its name, alternating between flickering mischievousness, thunderous declamation, and quiet introspection in its brief seven minutes. Again, modern organ it. 

Arensky's gorgeous "Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky" gets a sweet, nostalgic, lyrical performance that is almost as expressive as the classic Barbirolli recording. Although at first glance it may seem out of place on the program, it gives the orchestra a chance to shine, and after the powerful Rutti pieces, it cleanses the listener's aural "palate" so to speak before diving into the wonderful Poulenc concerto.

Francis Poulenc's concerto should be performed more often than it is, and although it's a staple of the twentieth century organ concerto repertoire, it's mostly heard on recordings. And as far as recordings of the Poulenc go, the playing here both from the soloist and the orchestra is first rate. The concerto is given a remarkably spiky reading, with a real intensity of approach by organist Martin Heini. One oddity is that while the short Arensky piece gets a separate track for each variation, the entire Poulenc concerto is on one unbroken 24-minute track. Needless to say it's such an excellent piece that I suppose the choice of single tracking hardly matters. Once a knockout always a knockout :)



Monday, June 22, 2015

Jesús Guridi - Complete String Quartets (Nos 1 and 2) - Bretón String Quartet - Naxos Spanish Classics 2013

Here is yet another unopened/unheard selection, and with this release I have high hopes as Guridi is a very fine composer indeed who writes colorful and exciting (oft folk-inspired) orchestral scores in particular. I am entirely unfamiliar with his chamber music.

These quartets I shall check out after work-perhaps someone else can fill me in with their own comments/review :-)

Enjoy all


Sean Hickey - Concerto for Cello and Orchestra - Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra - St. Petersburg State Symphony, Vladimir Lande - Dmitry Kouzov, Cello - Alexander Fiterstein, Clarinet - Delos 2013

I have gone back to my unopened/unheard cd piles to share this recording of concertos by Sean Hickey. I am hearing the opening movement of the Cello Concerto for the first time as I type; so far
so good, if not entirely original to these ears (this is just a first listen though, so initial impressions at only 4'00 into the work usually ends up meaning little). I read a few Gramophone reviews that praised this disc so of course I bought it. Interestingly this recording is on Delos yet Hickey is apparently the Vice President of Sales & Business Development at Naxos of American (nice job!!).
I am mostly unfamiliar with his output, many of you will likely know much more than I do about the composer at hand. So, once again let's give a listen together..

Here's an excerpt from a Gramophone review (too lazy to find my physical copy!):

“Sean Hickey’s two big three-movement concertos give their soloists a huge range of extended passages, riffs and cadenzas with which to stand up and out against often explosively colourful orchestral support (with frequent solo opportunities for the woodwinds and brass) … Dmitry Kouzov… dramatically showcases his virtuosic skills. … The Clarinet Concerto… features brilliant young clarinettist Alexander Fiterstein in music … inteded by Hickey as ‘a restless, yet haunting recollection of life in the US heartland’. The stunning audiophile recording, produced by Alexei Barashkin, was made at St Petersburg’s Melodiya Studios.” — Laurence Vittes, Gramophone

Enjoy all

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Paola Prestini - "Listen, Quiet" (from the 'Something of Life' compilation, Innova 2014)

Paola Prestini is a contemporary composer who I am very fond of. Her music cannot be pigeonholed and her output is extremely varied with all sorts of collaborations, including many multimedia works and installations. Possibly her greatest effort, the album "Body Maps" was recorded some years back on John Zorn's wonderful and inexhaustible Tzadik Records. I will post it soon.

"Listen, Quiet" is a 15 minute long composition and multimedia work scored for percussion (including a 'prepared' water set), amplified cello, voice and electronics (with backing tracks, drum set etc.) It was written for cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and percussionist Pablo Rieppi. It begins with percussive effects that may bring to mind Lou Harrison, the African marimba, but also Latin American music (especially salsa, Latin jazz and cuban music) with the sound of the Latin American instrument called the claves (which was either used or its woodsy clicks recreated electronically..I do not know for sure). Quite striking (and a bit alarming) are the sounds of a woman crying or speaking in some unintelligible tongue which is first heard at 0:40' into the piece. I was baffled and intrigued when I first heard this, and somehow these sounds seemed to feel like genuine distress. Sometime later I read what the composer had to say about this; my intuition was correct (what she says I have added below..) "Listen, Quiet" has it's "quieter" moments with the cello singing in an almost twisted plainchant paired down with just a few instruments, as well as a most beautiful section (starting around 7:55) where the cello flows, lyrically and mournfully, with the addition of minimal percussion and what appears to be hushed vocals/humming that keeps fading away mysteriously.
About 4 minutes later, a one-sided conversation can be heard along with pizzicato cello, evoking for me some sort of gypsy language or chatter. At the same time, one can audibly hear that there's actually English in the mix, although it's rather hard to make out. The music continues with passages that are "quiet", and then loud (lively cello, ceremonial or dance-like percussion..), and then quiet once again. An unusual piece this, but one that I thoroughly enjoy!

"Listen, Quiet" premiered March 17th, 2010 at the Willson Theater (The Juilliard School's state of the art multimedia theater). It was then premiered with choreography by Kate Skarpetowska at Capture and Release, at the 2013 River to River Festival.

**I am curious to know what you think about this work-love it or hate it. Please comment,
it would also be very nice to hear from some of you who never have commented-especially
if you are a fan of contemporary music!**

The composer writes:

This commission celebrated the 10th anniversary of Beyond the Machine, A Festival of Electro-Acoustic and Multi-Media Art. "Listen, Quiet" explores the way I feel about water in my life: it nurtures, heals, separates. The work is based on recorded private conversations that struggle with live performance. The piece was inspired by the third panel in "Going Forth By Day" a multi-channel work by Bill Viola. In this specific video panel, water accumulates throughout the thirty minute cycle, and eventually, washes out an entire home, its memories, delusions, stories. The work is divided in two halves.

Listen: I had recorded an artist’s voice this past summer who was dealing with a great deal of pain, thinking that this work would eventually ease her pain, and illuminate her vicious cycle. The work assigns roles to each player: the cellist narrates, the percussionist is the perpetrator and symbolizes the indifference, at times, of life; the manipulated voices recount her story, and the natural elements eventually wash away her voices, leaving only sounds of nature. Perhaps easing the pain, perhaps narrating that these stories are in fact, the everyday, and they are cyclical.

Quiet: is a hymn to voices from my childhood, of my mother. They tell a story of magic, and of the memories that shaped us both.

-This is also a file hosting "test" post..since share is giving me grief I sent this mp3 file to sendspace, which I never used before. -It's under 30mb but please tell me what you think of sendspace..  

Enjoy the strangeness of it all

Méditations: Music for Flute, Viola and Harp - Arnold Bax, Elegiac Trio - Harald Genzmer, Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp - Claude Debussy, Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp - Nathan Currier, A Sambuca Sonata - André Jolivet, Petite Suite - Chandos 1995

Within the genre of chamber music the instrumental combination of flute, harp and viola has always been one of my absolute favorites. It produces a sound world of exceptional beauty; to the point that when one encounters (certainly when I do anyhow) a piece for this trio combination that is "contemporary" in style (which might seem atypical unless one knows extensively this repertoire)-it will often delight and surprise even those who tend to have musical 'allergies' (fear, tremors, upset stomach, short-term anhedonia and/or hopelessness about the state of modern music..) to substantial dissonance and free atonality. The enchanting music at hand generally steers clear from such approaches (Debussy needless to say was intrigued by the modernist tendencies at this time, and there is an identifiable albeit gradual change in his compositional style, motivated in part by the new European school but also drawing on his life-long interest in music from around the globe-his early exposure to the Balinese gamelan is one such example).

The "Sambuca Sonata" is something of an exception, although not in any strict sense. The music is overall playful, and it's inspiration derives from several genres including jazz. 

What makes this disc really quite special however, is the inclusion of Harald Genzmer's "Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp", which I had never heard before (there are several recordings, it seems to be his best known work). In 1995 this disc was my introduction to Genzmer, and his Trio grabbed me from the start. Harald Genzmer was a composer who rejected the avant-garde in his compositions, taking his cue from Hindemith, with whom he studied. His works resonate highly with me, doing precisely what I "want music to do" not unlike the music of my late friend Rosner and many others. Harald Genzmer is sadly yet another example of an unjustly neglected composer with an original voice, and a lot to say. I have a few discs of his music, although the most comprehensive and important survey of his music was released on the Thorofon label during the 1990's, with 10 discs produced altogether. Later Thorofon offered the volumes in a 10-cd set, which I also missed out on. This bothers me all the time! These recordings were hard to find then and are hard to find now, although amazon and other sites do have a few volumes for sale (mostly private sellers) at prices upwards of 20 USD. Either I will wait until luck strikes and I find the box set somewhere or I will give in and buy the volumes that I can find one by one, although not really feasible at this time for me. As soon as I can locate the rest of the Genzmer that I do have, I will post it as listeners need to know it!

Harald Genzmer (1909-1997) was born in Blumenthal near Bremen on 9 February 1909. In 1928 he began to study at the Berlin Hochschule fur Music with Paul Hindemith (composition, until 1934), Rudolf Schmidt (piano), Alfred Richter (clarinet) and Curt Sachs (musicology). From 1934 to 1937 he worked as a repetiteur, later as assistant conductor at the Breslau Opera House. In 1938 he began to teach at the Volksmusikschule Berlin-Neukolln, where Hindemith too had been teaching before. In the 1940's, he experimented with electronic instruments and devoted himself particularly to the "Trautonium" (an electronic instrument invented by Friedrich Trautwein).

He passed his military service as a clarinet-player in a music corps and, after the Second World War, in 1946, was appointed professor of composition and assistant director at the new Musikhochschule of Freiburg, then, from 1957 to 1974, at the Munich Hochschule fur Musik. In Munich Genzmer has been leading the department of music of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts for ten years. He also became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin and held important positions in many cultural political organisations like the GEMA. In recognition for his outstanding services as a composer and teacher, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Bavarian Constitution in 1998, the Arts Price by the Bayerische Landesstiftung in 1996 and the Maximilian Order, the most distinguished Bavarian Cultural Award, in 1991. His works include all genres, especially many fine concertos, misc. orchestral works and chamber works, with the only exception being opera. Among his substantial output there are also significant choral works and also many educational compositions. 

Arnold Bax's "Elegiac Trio" is one of my favorite chamber works of all time; indeed I find his chamber output generally to be some of his strongest and most enchanting music (please, no arguments for his tone poems or symphonies-trust me I love every single one! ;)  The trio is simply ethereal.

Debussy's "Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp" needs no introduction. It is ubiquitous and cherished in the repertoire, deservedly so. One of my favorite works as well, and likely yours too-it was a profound and moving experience hearing it for the first time (oh so many years ago). I still remember the sheer wonder and joy as if it took place last week.

The "Petite suite for Flute, Harp and Viola" of André Jolivet (probably from 1941) recalls Debussy in its impressionist delicacy and evocations of hazy summer days and breezes, but its rustic gigue and wandering harmonic changes are Jolivet's own. Jolivet wrote quite a bit of charming chamber works and everyone should stay tuned for more of his music in the future..


Part 1


Part 2


It just figures.

So I am for the 3rd time trying to upload the same file. The first two attempts would have taken 40 minutes (!) each for a file just shy of 200mb. So, my third go at it is almost finished, at "only" 20 minutes. Meanwhile I actually have time to post today :/  Hopefully zshare will free up a bit, something's not right. I hope you enjoyed my rather useless complaining!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Nina Makarova - Symphony in D Minor - Zara Levina - Piano Concerto No. 2 - Poem for Viola and Piano - USSR Symphony Orchestra, Olaf Koch - Russian Disc 1994 (Originally recorded 1982 & 1967)

This is an obscure recording of music by two highly obscure (although Nina Makarova's name might pop up here and there-she was after all married to Aram Khatchaturian) female Russian composers-and it's a real treasure; this is great music, and it's an extremely satisfying listen. Russian Disc sifted this gem out of the Melodiya vaults (and oh can you imagine how much unknown music is sitting there waiting for it's just time to be explored?? I've said it time and again, there must be several masterpieces to say the least...gems deeply imbedded within the dark shadowy caves of Soviet/post-Soviet recording sessions) Zara Levina's 2nd Piano Concerto is a somewhat unusual concerto and each time I listen to it I discover nuances-the journey is a bit like revealing precious stones every time I mine my way through. Nina Makarova's quite substantial symphony, has an expansive sound world  similar to the symphonies of her teacher, the great Nikolai Myaskovsky. Makarova conducted the premiere of her symphony in Moscow on June 12th, 1947. The Symphony is the finest work here.

Zara Levina was born in Simferopol, in the Crimea in 1906. By the age of four Zara's musical
talents started to surface; she could easily pick up music on the piano, without any prior instruction. Age the age of eleven she was admitted to the Odessa Conservatory to study the piano and graduated with honors at seventeen. In 1925 she entered the Moscow Conservatory where she studied composition with Gliere and mastered her pianistic skills with Felix Blumenfeld (among his pupils at that time were Vladimir Horowitz, Simon Barere, and his nephew and friend Heinrich Neuhaus). The music played there by Blumenfeld and his pupils left a profound impression, and fostered the young Levina's compositional thoughts. "These sessions could hardly be called lessons" Levina said. "Rather, those were endless hours of revealing the profound essence of the great art of music, its mission, its necessity.." Soon after, Levina began to study composition with Myaskovsky and upon graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in 1931, she dedicated herself entirely to composing music. She wrote in various genres including symphonic, chamber, instrumental, vocal works and songs, music for children, plays and radio productions. Her music combines a hallmark elegance, lyricism and powerful drive with a solid classical background of musical thought. 

Her "Piano Concerto No. 2 (1943-1945) is the composer's response to the events of the war years. The whirling theme of the introduction is heard in the unaccompanied piano and is suggestive of the storms of war and its sudden attack. The main theme develops and changes its character gradually; alarming in the beginning, it grows ever more grim and severe, revealing both the inner tension and courage of Russia's defenders. The second theme is presented by soft lyrical sounds of the cello, and offers an air of positivity-hope surfacing during the continued days of hardship. In the recapitulation, 
the general coloring of the music brightens with a lyrical theme that acquires a heroic and hymnic shade. 

**In order to share the music now, I will have to continue writing later... work draws near unfortunately! Enjoy everyone.  

C.P.E. Bach - Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in D Minor - Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A Major - Orchestre de Chambre Dirige Par, Pierre Boulez - Pierre Rampal, Flute - Robert Bex, Cello - H.M. 1979/1994

I am absolutely nuts for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. He had a genius all his own, and although his music is highly admired by many, he is still underappreciated. C.P.E. was the greatest Bach after his father J.S., and he was a true maverick who practically bridged the baroque and (yet-to-come) classical realms, with an entirely unique style that was full of surprises and ahead of it's time. I cannot think of a single work, like his father J.S. Bach, that I do not like. His well-known Flute Concerto in D Minor is a masterful and gorgeous example of his musical personality. This recording on Harmonia Mundi (which has been rereleased many times over the years) with Rampal on Flute and Pierre Boulez directing is still the finest that I know of; it is fiery perfection from the very first bar, with lush elegance taking over in the slow movement and excitement and passion not unlike the opening movement once again in the last movement. The first movement of the Concerto in D Minor is one of my favorites of all time (as is the first movement from J.S. Bach's towering Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043) and does it for me every single time-the first movement especially that is-the entire work is out of this world needless to say!

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Flute Concerto in D Minor resembles in outward respects the three movement concerti of his famous father, Johann Sebastian: it is in the standard succession of three movements, fast-slow-fast; it alternates statements by the orchestra with solo passages featuring the flute; and it allows scope for both lyricism and virtuosity on the part of the soloist. The model for all of these features is the Baroque solo concerto as refined by Vivaldi and reinterpreted by J.S. Bach.

-The interior aspects of C.P.E. Bach's concerto, however, are quite new. In order to grasp the profound differences between the work of father and son, it is necessary to jump into the intellectual ferment of the mid-eighteenth century. The Concerto in D Minor is based on a new psychology, the concept of being sensitive to the stimulus of the moment. In this way of thinking, the music acquires a new freedom to change moods, subtly or abruptly, within a short compositional span. This is in marked contrast to the music of J.S. Bach, in which each movement of a composition tends to etch a unified picture and to eschew sudden diversions.

Daniel Webb, a contemporary of C.P.E. Bach, summarized the new aesthetic well when he described the normal human response to stimulus. He asserted that one's reception of pleasure is "not, as some have imagined, the result of any fixed or permanent condition of the nerves and spirits, but springs from a succession of impressions, and is greatly augmented by sudden or gradual transitions from one kind or strain of vibrations to another." It would be difficult to find a more apt metaphor for describing the difference in outlook between the elder and younger Bachs.

By 1747, C.P.E. Bach's fame as a composer had eclipsed that of his father. Any mention of "Bach" as a composer would automatically have been taken to refer to Carl Philipp Emanuel or to his half-brother Johann Christian. Several of the musical traits that made C.P.E. Bach's music seem so fresh appear in the Concerto. In the electrifying opening (Allegro) angular, jumping melodic lines vie with falling, "sighing" passages to create a "succession of impressions", indeed going "from one kind or strain of vibrations to another." C.P.E. Bach's employer, Frederick the Great, was a fine amateur flutist who should particularly have appreciated the slow movement (Un poco andante), with its melody rich in surface ornamentation, like the splendid decoration in the very room where Bach would have accompanied Frederick. The spirited finale (Allegro di molto) creates a storm that looks back to the tempests of Vivaldi's Four Seasons while pointing the way toward a future Storm and Stress style of a later generation of composers.

Carl Philipp Emanuel's three cello concertos were written at a time when the genre was pretty thin on the ground. They were written between 1750 and 1753, when the cello was still more of an accompanying than a solo instrument. With the exception of the Vivaldi concertos, and the pioneering six Suites for unaccompanied cello by C.P.E. Bach’s father, there was not much solo cello repertoire to build on. These concertos too demonstrate C.P.E.'s originality as a composer, and also the wide emotional range for which his music became famous. 

The A major starts off flighty and capricious, with a characteristically bouncy orchestral ritornello. The second movement features carefully contrasted dynamics from the orchestra; the lamenting solo allows for truly beautiful legato playing. The finale is a high-spirited affair, as energetic as those of the Haydn symphonies.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Peter Sculthorpe - The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu - Del Sol Quartet - Stephen Kent, Didjeridu - Sono Luminus (Dorian) 2014

Now THIS is a release that I was waiting with bated breath for; Peter Sculthorpe has been one of my favorite composers for many years now (I was hooked when I first heard his absolutely mesmerizing String Quartets on the original Tall Poppies discs...there's nothing quite like them) and this double-disc set is simply incredible, as I knew it would be. Truth be told I have only listened to the whole set a couple of times thus far, due to a general lack of (proper) time. Tonight I am happily remedying this, an event all it's own really :) I have always been fascinated by the Didjeridu (or Didjeridoo), and my first introduction to or "experience" with it's otherworldly deep, mysterious burbling was from an EP released in 1992 on the seminal electronic label Warp Records, by the brilliant composer and electronic musician known as Aphex Twin (Richard D James), among many other aliases. The first of the four tracks is entitled "Didjeridoo" and it's still entrancing and ahead of it's time today. Ironically, this now classic slice of relentless breakbeat/techno actually RE-produced, or rather replicated the sounds of the aboriginal instrument using a Roland TB-303 Rack-synth Bassline-pure madness and genius at the same time. That was my first outing. Later on, Aphex Twin performed the piece with actual didjeridu players. Incidentally, some of Aphex Twin's purely electronic music has been performed by the New York Philharmonic among others in transcriptions made by the man himself. Ok I know I'm getting off track here, but trust me even the mildly adventurous should get familiar with some of his work. Likely I will offer said-future-familiarity for everyone here at some point, so I will shut up now while the shuttin's good. Onwards...

Though respectful gestures to Indigenous Australian musical idioms are a defining element of his output, the issue of direct cultural appropriation of Indigenous musical materials by non-Indigenous composers like Sculthorpe can be a vexed issue. Although the Kronos Quartet had approached him in 1992 (I'm wondering for the first time just now whether or not Kronos had heard the Aphex Twin track, of that same year..) suggesting the idea of scoring a work for string quartet and didjeridu, he almost certainly never would have considered adding an actual Indigenous instrument to his scores, were it not that, in 2001 a young Indigenous musician asked him to. That year, William Barton, a 20-year-old didjeridu player belonging to the traditional Kalkadunga people of Queensland, gave the first public performance of the version of the String Quartet No. 12 recorded here-the first time any Sculthorpe work was heard with added didjeridu. Later that year, Barton gave the first performances of Sculthorpe orchestral works with added didjeridu, with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and its then chief conductor, the young American Michael Christie, followed in 2003 by a disc of recordings. In 2004, Sculthorpe actually composed a part for Barton and the didjeridu in a major new original work, the "Requiem for Chorus, Didjeridu and Orchestra". Fittingly, this work was also a high-point in Sculthorpe's dedicated and ongoing personal attempt at a reconciliation of Australian Indigenous and settler cultures (and people), although Sculthorpe was careful to point out at the time that "reconciliation" was not his preferred word, "since we were never 'conciled' in the first place!". Since then, when commissioned to compose several new works without didjeridu, Sculthorpe has factored in the instrument's later addition, as in the String Quartet No. 16 (2006) and String Quartet No. 18 (2010) recorded here..

The didjeridu is Indigenous to the far north of Australia, where archaeological evidence suggests it has been used for at least 1000 years. Essentially it is a large wooden drone pipe, made out of termite-hollowed branches of large eucalyptus trees, most commonly 3 to 5 feet long. The outer and inner surfaces are further cut away until the tube is thin and produces a "light sounding" drone, which is then varied by being overblown. According to Indigenous tradition, the instrument dates from the creation "Dreamtime" . The Yolngu people call it 'yidaki', a name popularized by the Yolngu rock band "Yothu Yindi". The name didjeridu (also didjerry), though it sounds Indigenous-actually is probably an onomatopoetic settler invention, first recorded in print in the 1920s. 

Sculthorpe's added parts for didjeridu typically require two or more instruments, each with a fundamental drone of a fixed pitch. Where the didjeridu plays with the strings, the parts are precisely coordinated. However, apart from drone notes, it would be impractical, if not impossible to notate many of the more complex overblown didjeridu sounds conventionally. Many of these, derived from from traditional practice, are imitations of natural sounds (animal growls, bird calls) or dance movements (kangaroo hop). Some of these characteristic sounds Sculthorpe cues verbally, to be added especially between sections or movements of the string-quartet originals.       

Enjoy new sounds! 



Elizabeth Maconchy - Overture, Proud Thames - Symphony for Double String Orchestra - Serenata Concertante for Violin and Orchestra - Music for Strings - LPO, Vernon Handley & Barry Wordsworth - LSO, Vernon Handley - Lyrita (remastered 2007)

Here is a great recording from Lyrita that has done a tremendous service for many years, offering some of Elizabeth Maconchy's (1907-1994) most delightful (and well-crafted) large scale works. 

Elizabeth Maconchy was born in England but the family later settled in Ireland (Dublin). In 1923 she entered the Royal College of Music studying piano with Arthur Alexander and composition with Charles Wood; in a couple of years, she became a pupil of Vaughan Williams, saying later that "it was like turning on a light". Her progress at the Royal College was meteoric. She arrived as a shy Irish girl of 16 who knew only the music she could play for herself (there was no radio or gramophone in her house) yet by 1925 she was being referred to as 'Maestro Maconchy' by those who knew her. In 1927, moving on from writing songs and suites, she composed her first Violin Sonata and began her Piano Concertino. These striking works were already in a musical language far removed from mainstream English music (and the British pastoralists), and indicate her growing familiarity with European new music, which she was discovering for herself (Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berg, Janacek...but especially Bartok). Several Patron's Fund orchestral performances confirmed her distinctive voice-in 1929 she left the Royal College of Music with glowing reports (Ralph Vaughan Williams: "I can teach her no more; she will go far").

The overture "Proud Thames" was written in 1952 as Maconchy's entry in a London County Council competition. It is bright-eyed and magical. Like Smetana's "Vltava" it traces the Thames from bubbling source to the Capital. It's a work of singing and sighing beguilement and of regal nobility. 

The "Symphony for Double String Orchestra" is a fairly substantial work in four neatly contrasting movements. The first movement opens with a vigorous call to attention (a five-note figure that will reappear later in the work, actually in the final movement). The two string ensembles are used either antiphonally or in unison, with some forceful contrapuntal writing (one of Maconchy's strengths). The second movement opens with a 'rocking figure' paving the way for a richly melodic, impassioned theme, that momentarily gives way to the solo violin's reverie, but the music moves irrepressibly forward towards a mighty climax subsiding then into the opening mood before dissolving into thin air. The third movement is a light-footed Scherzo with the flavor of some rustic dance. The final movement is a concise, but none the less imposing Passacaglia. After the climax, the music again dies away calmly with a quiet, slow restatement of the very opening of the first movement. A wonderful work that should be in the repertoire..

The very title of the "Serenata Concertante" clearly suggests that much emphasis is laid on the symphonic nature of the argument, which is possibly tighter than in the Symphony. Indeed, the first movement opens with a short introduction stating some basic material that will keep reappearing during the course of the work. The introduction leads into the animated Allegro main section. The second movement is a Scherzo. If Bartok is often-and rightly-mentioned as an important influence on Maconchy's music, it is now Martinu who sometimes comes to mind, at least in this particular movement. The slow movement is a richly melodic and warmly lyrical arch supported by soft brass chords, over which the soloist freely muses. The work ends with a fairly extended Rondo, in which material from the preceding movements is briefly restated, thus emphasis the symphonic structure of the whole. It nevertheless ends with a beautiful, calm coda, as did the Symphony. 

The Serenata and the Symphony were made in association with the RVW Trust.
The "Music for Strings", too, is in four movements. The dark-hued introduction of the first movement sets the predominantly sombre mood of the entire movement. The movement is another fleeting Scherzo ending "in a wisp of sound". The dark, elegiac mood suggested by the viola in the first bars of the third movement is sustained throughout the Mesto that reaches an eloquent climax. The music slowly subsides leaving the viola alone. The tense mood prevailing in the preceding movements eventually brightens in the final that concludes with "an insouciant throw away ending". On the whole, Music for Strings is a much sterner, rather more understated work than the Symphony, but one that any composer less modest than Maconchy would have proudly called Second Symphony for Strings. Another splendid piece of music from the under-appreciated Elizabeth Maconchy.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Carl Nielsen's 150th Birthday Anniversary - Orchestral Works - The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky - Chandos Records 1994

Today marks the 150th birthday of Denmark's greatest composer, Carl Nielsen, who was born June 9th, 1865 (same year as Sibelius, the other Scandinavian musical giant!). He is also one of the most important symphonists of the early 20th century, and I'd say his symphonies are some of the greatest achievements in the repertoire in general, across centuries.

Carl August Nielsen was born on 9th June 1865 at Sortelung near Nørre Lyndelse on the island of Funen. His father, who was a painter, also worked as a village musician, and as a boy Carl was already playing in his father's dance orchestra. At the same time he played in the local amateur orchestra, Braga, whose repertoire, besides entertainment and dance music, also included the symphonies of Vienna Classicism. At the age of just fourteen he was engaged as a trombonist in the regimental band in Odense. Alongside his work as a military musician he played string quartets with his friends and studied Das Wohltemperierte Klavier on his own initiative. From these years came his first real attempts at composition - mainly chamber music works in the Classical style.

Thanks to patrons in Odense, Carl Nielsen had the chance to go to Copenhagen, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in 1884-86 with the violin as his main subject and the Joachim pupil Valdemar Tofte as his teacher. He was also taught theory (by J.P.E. Hartmann and Orla Rosenhoff), piano (by Gottfred Matthison-Hansen) and music history (by Niels W. Gade).

After his years at the Academy he continued his theoretical studies with Rosenhoff and in 1888 he felt ready to publish his opus 1, the Little Suite for Strings. The next year he was engaged as violinist in the Royal Orchestra, a position he kept until 1905. In 1890, as recognition of his talent, he was awarded the grant Det Ancker'ske Legat, which enabled him to go on a study trip to the Continent. During this trip, in 1891, he married the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, who remained his wife for the rest of his life, although the marriage underwent serious crises in some periods.

In the 1890s Carl Nielsen consolidated his position as one of the country's prominent composers with works like the First Symphony op. 7 (1890-92), the J.P. Jacobsen songs op. 4 and 6 (1891), the violin sonata op. 9 (1895) and the choral work Hymnus amoris (1896-97). The years around the turn of the century brought a further two operas, Saul and David (1898-1901) and Maskarade (1904-06), the last of which quickly gained the status of a Danish national opera.

From 1901 he was granted a Government salary, which meant that he was no longer forced to take private pupils to keep up the family finances. A few years afterwards he also signed a general contract with the publisher Wilhelm Hansen, who published more or less all his works until 1924. Alongside his composing career Carl Nielsen was to hold several important posts in Danish musical life. In the period 1908-1914 he conducted at the Royal Theatre, then from 1915 until 1927 he conducted the concerts of the society Musikforeningen. In 1915 he was elected to the board of trustees of the Royal Academy, where he also taught theory and composition from 1915 until 1919. Finally he was on the boards of the Danish Composers' Society and the Society for the Publication of Danish Music.

From the earliest works on, Carl Nielsen's compositions were permeated by a Classicist aesthetic which deliberately avoided any element of Late Romanticism. But in the course of the 1910s and 1920s he oriented himself more towards the new currents in European music. Little by little he now worked several modernist elements into his music, but without at any time abandoning his very characteristic personal style. This development is very clear in the last three symphonies, no. 4 (1914-16), no. 5 (1921-22) and no. 6 (1924-25).

Alongside the increasingly modernist instrumental works Carl Nielsen worked, with his friend Thomas Laub for example, to reform the Danish national song tradition. This resulted in a number of collections of simple strophic songs where he deliberately tried to perpetuate the ideals of J.A.P. Schulz' Lieder im Volkston (1784). Carl Nielsen had a distinctive literary talent which resulted in the childhood memoirs 'Min fynske Barndom' (My Childhood on Funen), which is amazingly objective and unsentimental, and the essay collection 'Levende Musik' (Living Music), where his anti-Romantic aesthetics were clearly expressed. In his later years Carl Nielsen suffered from a weak heart, and he died on October 3rd, 1931 at the age of 66. He continues to be (astonishingly to me) underrated as one of the 20th century's true geniuses, but his legacy cannot be overstated.

Carl Nielsen's childhood home

The great Dane himself, in 1908

Someplace I'd rather be-The Carl Nielsen Museum, which is also dedicated to the works of the composer's wife, the sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen.

In the large-scale "Helios Overture" from 1902, we find ourselves at the beginning of Carl Nielsen's great musical 'sunshine period', which culminated in Symphony No. 3, nine years later. If Nielsen chose the Greek word for the sun, it was because the work was written in Greece while on a visit to Athens with his wife. They stayed on that occasion in a room that overlooked the Aegean Sea. Strongly descriptive in style, the Helios has a magnificent arching form which is even condensed, towards the end of the fast main section, into a bright firework display of a fugue. Carl Nielsen himself described the progress of the work in the following words:

Silence and darkness - then the sun rises
to joyful songs of praise -
wanders its golden way - sinks silently
into the sea

It opens in total darkness, with a deep pedal on C, but this gradually yields to the first hints of light, with soft horn-calls evoking the coming of dawn, which is symbolized by a noble chorale. As the sun rises, the large orchestra comes more and more into its own with radiating colors (one can almost 'feel' the golden rays caressing the skin I'd say!) as noon approaches, and the music hoists itself into a resplendent E major as the sun attains its zenith. There follows a quieter passage, suggesting the time of siesta. A grand and bustling music then breaks out into a joyous fugue as the sun makes its way into the west, to sink finally again into C and into the warm darkness from which the music first arose...

At that time European culture had once more rediscovered ancient Hellas, as expressed for example by the resumption of the Olympic Games of antiquity. Nielsen completed the Helios on April 23rd, 1903 and dedicated it to his friend, the Germano-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen, who had also been a friend of Brahms and of Grieg. And another significant Scandinavian figure-the Norwegian, Johan Svendsen-conducted the premiere of Helios in Copenhagen on October 8th of the same year.

The Helios Overture has been of great national importance because it was-and is-the first music one hears from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation on the radio after the turn of the year on New Year's Eve. Especially when the radio was the only broadcasting medium, people were given a sense that with this music they were on their way into a new time (with their dissonances, the horns at the beginning of the work create a feeling of space and promise: far out in space, the year is turning, the light of the sun will grow). There are also points of contact with the earlier great sunrise music in Denmark, Gade's morning song from "The Elf King's Daughter"; as if one sun work is greeting another. The Helios Overture is considered by many to be Nielsen's finest (smaller scale) orchestral work.

In some of the drafts from 1892 Carl Nielsen’s first symphony (opus 7 in G minor) is called "Symphony in C". This Symphony was not his first attempt in the genre. As early as 1888 he had started on a symphony in F major, but he never went further than the first movement. So it was performed under the title "Symphonic Rhapsody for Orchestra" in February 1893, under the baton of Victor Bendix, at one of the so-called Popular Concerts in Copenhagen. While Nielsen's musical personality is not in any sense in full bloom here, the orchestral writing is clearly impressive and, imo, 'clearly' Nielsen all the same.

With the "Rhapsodic Overture: A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands", we are near the end of Carl Nielsen's life, after the completion of the sixth and last symphony. It is an occasional composition written for a celebration at the Royal Theatre to mark a visit from the Faroe Islands. We hear how the music approaches the remote islands in the Atlantic and arrives at an old melody well known in Denmark as "Påskeklokken kimed mildt" (Gently chimed the Easter bell). The work is also an example of how Carl Nielsen in his later years touched on many widely differing landscapes, each of which required its own music.

The orchestral piece "Pan and Syrinx" from 1917-18 is one of Carl Nielsen's most distinctive works, and has always been so regarded. Among other things that have been pointed out is a surprising affinity with musical Impressionism - even with Debussy's well known piece for solo flute, Syrinx, written five years previously, although Carl Nielsen is unlikely to have known it. But that is only one side of the work. The other is the odd shifts in tempo and the special alternation between transparent chamber-musical passages and tutti sections. Here, for the first time, Carl Nielsen uses a relatively large array of exotic percussion; in the work he is stepping out on new paths after the conclusion of his Symphony no. 4. The work points forward all the way to works of the 1920s, especially the Flute Concerto of 1926.

The story of Pan and Syrinx comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Pan is attracted to the nymph Syrinx. He pursues her, dancing and bleating. But she is frightened and flees to a woodland lake, where she is transformed into a reed. That is a summary of what Carl Nielsen writes as a text in the score. But he must also have been thinking about the continuation in Ovid, where Pan makes a flute from the reeds, so that he is united with Syrinx through his art. At the end of the piece the high strings lie close to one another in a dissonant block of sound. The individual strings must then gradually stop playing with vibrato. The result is a static sound where the reeds become an instrument, the nymph becomes a thing, and love becomes art.

The "Bohemian-Danish folk tune: Paraphrase for String Orchestra" of 1928 was considered by Nielsen to be an unimportant work (the booklet notes speak of Nielsen referring to his "Rhapsodic Overture: A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands" as "only a piece of jobbery" (!) which I certainly do not agree with. The "Bohemian-Danish folk tune...." is one of my favorite pieces here. I find it to be extremely beautiful, with modal string writing that is on an almost Vaughan Williamsian level,  inducing chills and sheer joy for me, anyhow. I must repeat it every time I play it. Just gorgeous, a real confection imo.

-Ok, I am including the booklet notes anyhow so I hope you will all excuse my abrupt end to this post; I have to get to work! If possible I might post the symphonies tonight (the classic Da Capo series is my first choice, but I dunnoo where I have them so we shall see)


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Franco Alfano - Cello Sonata - Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano - Samuel Magill, Cello - Scott Dunn, Piano - Elmira Darvarova, Violin - Naxos 2009

A few years ago whilst browsing on Amazon I stumbled across this disc by a composer I had never heard of. After reading a critique by a certain Amazon reviewer who always impresses me, I was excited and literally 'sold' on this wonderful recording. Hearing the samples, while barely 20 seconds, actually made quite an impression. 

Franco Alfano's fame has always been chiefly bound up with his completion of Turandot, a completion with which Toscanini famously and crudely expressed his dissatisfaction-to put it mildly-by walking out on the opening night at La Scala in 1926 at the very point where Puccini's music ended and Alfano's began. Alfano's own work as an opera composer-notably in "Risurezzione" (1904), "La leggenda di Sakùntala" (1921) and "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1936)-has done rather more for his reputation. Franco Alfano's instrumental music finally is receiving some reassessment (this Naxos disc is an important contribution indeed) although there's much more to survey. CPO (owned by Naxos as most will know) released a recording of Alfano's first and second symphonies, which I own, but to be honest I cannot recall what I thought; I listened only to part of the disc (was rushing someplace, who knows) and then it ended up in a pile, and I still need to find it. I have a third disc also, but I cannot recall what it is.

The earlier of the two works on the present disc, the "Sonata for Cello and Piano" is an impressive piece, particularly in the way it exploits something like the full range of the cello's tonal colors. Running over half an hour in performance, it is a work of real substance. Alfano's intriguing writing and strong sense of design (along with the very fine performance), means that it is never in danger of outstaying its welcome. The first movement of the work-one of the many written to a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge-has a predominantly pensive quality, steeped in a kind of calm nostalgia, but not without spiritual overtones. The central 'Allegretto con grazia' makes one think of Ravel at times; it is a movement that has many not-always-easy-to-anticipate twists and turns and some strikingly exotic phrases at times. The closing movement is passionate and full of dark colors on the cello; angry at one moment, more optimistic at another, and ultimately falling away as if all passion has been spent. The sonata as a whole is a fine work which deserves to be much better known. 

The "Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano" I like as much or perhaps more. It's a work of considerable subtlety and range, a work which, in its grounding in the reclamation of the Italian past, musical and otherwise-has things in common with Respighi, however that doesn't mean that the music of the two composers would be confused. The long first movement 'Con dolce malinconia' echoes the modes of the Renaissance church at its opening, but such reminiscences give way to more turbulent music which one might readily imagine to be the musical translation of a Renaissance tragedy. In the second movement 'Allegretto fantastic', which I cannot seem to get enough of-there are splendid instrumental dialogues, conversations conducted across and around rhythms which appear to owe much to basque and gypsy traditions. The final 'Presto' has more than a little of the ceremonial about it; indeed, in the booklet note cellist Samuel Magill declares that it "is clearly a celebration of ancient Rome". Certainly such an interpretation-though it needn't limit modern responses to the music-would fit in with the politico-cultural climate in Italy at the time of composition. It was premiered at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1933, with the composer at the piano. This "Concerto" makes considerable technical demands on all three instrumentalists and all those demands are met, and turned to thoroughly musical effect in this great performance. All around a great discovery!!