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Conductor: Paul Englishby

Orchestra: The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra

Performers: Charlie Siem (Violin), Martin Robertson (Alto saxophone)

Year of recording: 2011

Label: Naxos

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: Tony Banks (1950- ) is best known for his involvement with the progressive rock band Genesis, but his keen interest in classical idioms has driven him to create music for the residents of the orchestra pit.

About the Music: Six is Banks’ second album released under the Naxos label (A suite for orchestra entitled Seven was his first, published in 2004) and includes six orchestral pieces which, according to Banks, “… refer to the elements of a universal story: seductress, journey, hero, quest, decision and goal.” He adds that the album is “a story without words,” and that listeners will need to fill in the details for themselves. The cover art for the disc, depicting six mysterious boxes emanating radiant light from their open tops, is certainly fitting. This is warm, yet often wistful music; don’t expect anything with the same caliber of aggression as a Genesis work like Land of Confusion. Two of the pieces, Siren and Blade, are interesting soloist vehicles.

Siren: This is no smoky burlesque excursion, despite the sultry title and the fact that the soloist grips an alto saxophone. Banks distances the listener far from questionable sidestreets and escorts them along a spacious, pastel-hued boardwalk of delights. There are no cadenzas lurking about as the soloist works continually with the orchestra to festoon the landscape with vibrant flares. Siren serves its purpose well as the ignition key for the disc and is arguably the flagship piece to be found here.

Still Waters: According to Banks, Still Waters is the ‘journey’ piece, and listeners will quickly learn why. The name of the piece suggests a summer idyll, but I found Still Waters to possess more of a wintry motif in part because its slow yet steady pacing suggests a laborious but awe-inspiring sub-zero trek. Furthermore, there’s even a short passage towards the end that sounds like an excerpt from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas! Fascinating.

Blade: The second soloist-centric work in Six, Blade places high demands on the violinist. After an energetic introduction from the orchestra, the violin emerges with considerable vigour. As Siem works his way through the score, listeners may find themselves wondering if the soloist is using the instrument as some sort of improvised weapon and is training with it in preparation for future encounters with evildoers. There are moments in the music which seem to intimate that the ‘hero’ of the piece has steep challenges to face, but they ultimately prove to be no match for him.

Wild Pilgrimage: This piece isn’t nearly as engaging as the other works in Six, but Banks still succeeds in evoking a palpable sense of majesty. Many of the passages here could easily accompany time-lapse footage of panoramic vistas from a Natural Geographic production.

The Oracle: If one was to transform the individual works in Six into living, breathing humans with distinct personalities, Oracle would probably be the innocent, inquisitive youngster who sits down with a pillow and lays his back against a mature oak tree while quietly gazing at the nearby meadows. It’s the most childlike work on the disc; I place it one rung below Siren in my list of favourites.

City of Gold: Not surprisingly, the final segment of Six is the longest, clocking in at just over 12 minutes. While the work has a main theme befitting of a triumphant, impregnable fortress whose size and grandeur evades the sight of no one, the boldness peels away at times to make room for some calm and highly mellifluous passages. These serene episodes are the highlight of City of Gold, and I appreciate how Banks skillfully weaves them into the bombast.

The sextet has a running time of roughly 52 minutes. Monocle-bearing purists will promptly pry open the lateral filing cabinet drawer and stuff Six into the corpulent ‘Cloying Movie Music’ folder. Though the pieces were not composed for use in a film, they do have an undeniably cinematic essence about them. They are of sterling quality nonetheless, and will appeal to a significant audience. Will Banks continue the countdown?

Conductor: Tõnu Kaljuste

Orchestra: Tallinn Chamber Orchestra

Performers: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Years of recordings: 1994, 1995

Label: ECM New Series

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: Estonian progressive rocker Erkki-Sven Tüür (1959-) moved towards classical forms early in his career and has concocted several works, many of which place electronic instruments alongside the standard members of the orchestra.

About the Music: Arvo Pärt is Estonia’s most important classical export, but younger composers such as Tüür prove that there’s certainly more than one beam of talent emanating from the small Baltic state. The composer’s versatility is aptly demonstrated in this collection of pieces from the early 1990s.

Architectonics VI: Scored for flute, clarinet, vibraphone, and strings, the mysterious Architectonics VI clocks in at roughly twelve minutes and bears two distinct halves. The first portion is slightly brooding as the clarinet scurries around in the darkness, only to be seemingly intimidated by the other instruments at certain intervals. Try as it might, the clarinet can’t seem to get a restraining order in place, and once the second half of the piece commences, its reactions become more plangent as the remainder of the ensemble continually reiterates a rather playful yet aggressive passage that serves as the work’s most radiant element but also gives the listener the impression that the other instruments are literally pouncing on the clarinet as a declawed housecat might assail a catnip-stuffed toy mouse.

Passion: Solely for strings, this shorter piece begins somewhat coolly but gradually builds towards a bright exclamation. The triumph is short-lived, though, as a deep-seated sense of adversity quickly takes hold. It’s not long before the strings unceremoniously descend down the chasm of silence.

Illusion: Tüür’s composition notes tersely state that Illusion “deconstructs a baroque motif.” The work would be nestled quite comfortably in a documentary about the global textiles industry. It’s difficult for me not to imagine a legion of stalwart Singers hammering away with the same unrelenting rapidity as the string players do here. The surpise ending will catch many listeners off guard, so be vigilant!

Crystallisatio: Altered fragments of Architectonics VI and Passion appear to have sprung rabbit legs and peregrinated to this ensemble piece which includes electronics and glockenspiel sounds. Tüür is manning the electronics in this recording, and he produces some intriguing effects, the most interesting of which occurs halfway through the work where he effectively distorts the flute and glockenspiel playing and makes them sound like they’ve gingerly circled the drain of a laundry room sink. The percussion and winds are the contrarians in the pack, and like the clarinet in Architectonics VI, they find themselves repeatedly protesting the vigorous charges from the strings.

Requiem: Crystallisatio receives top billing in this collection, which is somewhat curious considering that Requiem is a far more ambitious endeavour. Dedicated to Tüür’s late colleague Peeter Lilje, Requiem is almost a half hour in length, making it the largest work on the disc. The male tenor and bass vocalists are the first on the scene, and they give the text the solemn treatment that you’d expect; they’re eventually accompanied by the female sopranos, which I didn’t find to be quite as captivating (I’m not particularly keen on the soprano voice, let alone vocal music in general!). Regardless, the sparing use of piano throughout the work compliments the singing well. It would have been exciting if electronics were incorporated at one point or another, but it looks like Tüür is aiming to be more of a traditionalist here. I can’t decipher the spoken Latin, but at least the original text is provided in the liner notes along with English, German, and French translations.

ECM New Series has cornered the market on dreary classical album covers. Thankfully, Tüür’s works exhibit significantly more colour.

Conductor: Bernard Haitink

Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra

Year of recording: 2008

Label: LSO

SPARS Code: DDD

Hybrid Multichannel SACD

About the Composer: Despite what many filmmakers and television commercial producers would have you believe, the oeuvre of German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) actually does include works other than Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra)!

About the Music: It was some time after I maneuvered along the crags of Rued Langgaard’s first symphony that I learned that a far more prominent composer also devised a symphony highlighting the sensations of the mountaineering experience. While Langgaard’s symphony premiered first in 1913, Strauss’ 1915 Eine Alpensinfonie (Alpine Symphony) diverges considerably from the Danish composer’s work despite the thematic similarities. Langgaard’s hour-long nature romp concludes once the traveler reaches the apogee of the summit; Strauss’ musical peregrination depicts the wayfarer’s ascent and descent of the Alpine hurdle in roughly fifty minutes. Eine Alpensinfonie does not conform to the traditional four-movement symphonic structure, but is comprised of 22 segments that provide elaborate sound-images for the listener. With programme notes in hand, one can easily follow the orchestral action.

I have always appreciated works where there is a clear sense that the composer is labouring to move the music forward; one of my primary grievances with many Baroque compositions is that they squander far too much time gyrating about in the town square as they brandish their plumage for the curious onlookers in the vicinity. Some spectators will be enthralled by the remarkable display, but others will feel that the pirouetting pieces simply aren’t making themselves useful. Eine Alpensinfonie is appealing because Strauss judiciously selects his sound images, allows them to speak, and then quickly escorts listeners to new regions along the rocks. There is no needless repetition, and as a result, tedium never lunges at the climbers’ cleats.

The most striking passages of the symphony, in my view, are those illustrating the sunrise, the entrance into the forest, the perspective from the summit, and the subsequent frenzied descent once an intense lightning barrage scrapes away at the frigid peak. Many portions of the work, not surprisingly, feature resplendent use of very German-sounding brass, but a wind machine and organ are also used to great effect towards the end of the expedition. I love wind machines!

A welcome touch in the liner notes is a complete listing of the LSO players featured in the recording. This addition not only provides credit where credit is certainly due but also emphasizes the instrumental demands of a work of such sweeping magnitude. The lack of an accompanying Strauss recording on the disc shouldn’t prevent you from unclasping your change purse or removing the stopper from your clown-shaped coin bank.

Conductor: Israel Yinon

Orchestra: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Performer: Guido Schiefen (Cello)

Years of recordings: 2009, 2006

Label: cpo

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: German composer Tilo Medek (1940-2006) was under the tutelage of Nono and Stockhausen in his early years, yet went on to develop several tonal works, many of which emphasize the darker elements of human life.

About the Music: Scant portions of Medek’s output have been committed to disc, but those adventurous folks at cpo have brought us this recently recorded performance of his 1978 cello concerto, along with a couple of solo cello curiosities from the same decade.

Cello Concerto: Schiefen and the other string artists immediately take on the task of building the momentum for the main theme of the first movement, an oft-repeated passage with an appealing, enigmatic flair. Although Medek intended the movement to represent the concept of vertical ascension, my visualization of the music resembles a horizontal plane; as the brass offers its rendition of the main theme, I imagine myself being steadily escorted through an extensive series of elaborately furnished yet dimly lit hotel hallways. I appreciate how the orchestra reveals its canines at the end of the movement and heightens the intensity.

The second movement begins with chirpy reports from the wind instruments and some benign string plucking, but the other instruments soon make known that they prefer a more suspenseful direction. One might say that the third movement is the obligatory ‘contemplative movement’ of the concerto, but there’s an azure draft present that slides along and keeps one engaged. The last movement is more appealing, as it revolves around a theme that is quite evocative of the sensation of wilting. Orchestral crashes abound not too long afterward, and the resulting debris clutters the concerto’s exit door.

Eine Stele für Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Medek’s memorial to the late German musical tinkerer is as damp and dreary as you would expect. I think some of the string tapping halfway through the piece seems a bit too light for such stark subject matter, but it does provide a respite from the continual cello groaning.

Schattenspiele: This set of five short pieces is more entertaining than the former solo work because Schiefen gets to produce some very peculiar noises for our benefit. The second piece is likely the most compelling, as it includes a recurring wailing that I found to be slightly reminiscent of a fragment from your typical Barron electronic work.

I certainly don’t dislike the Cello Concerto, but I can’t see myself returning to it on a frequent basis. I maintain a similar sentiment towards the other two works, but that may be simply because I’m not particularly giddy about solo string compositions. Regardless, this disc makes me eager to invest a little more time in Medek’s other creations.

Conductors: Yves Prin and Karl-Anton Rickenbacher

Orchestras and performers: French National Orchestra, Beethovenhalle Orchestra, and Ensemble l’Itinéraire

Years of recordings: 1980, 1987, 1986

Label: Naïve

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: Tristan Murail (1947- ) is a trailblazer in French electronic music and has had a storied involvement with the Paris-based Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music (IRCAM).

About the Music: Murail is regarded as a pioneer of spectral music, which can be described as a style or aesthetic in which a composer analyzes sound spectra in order to make compositional decisions. Listening to Murail’s pieces will lead many to mistakenly assume that the term refers to music that is primarily ghostly; though highly technical in nature, his work will definitely keep listeners on edge. All of the works employ a bevy of traditional instruments, but it is the electronic devices that really make things interesting.

Gondwana: Gondwana opens with a terse, serpentine rattling that gives way to a series of arresting waves propelled by the percussion and the rest of the orchestra. The piece is named after the sunken continent prominent in Indian legend, and it contains numerous passages which effectively represent the eerie recesses of the abyss. I appreciated the sinking sensation that Murail creates about eleven minutes into the work, but felt that the subsequent turbulence from the instruments, meant to signify a volcanic eruption, could have been even more high-strung. The sounds slowly wilt as they reach the conclusion.

Désintégrations: I felt like my mind was being funnelled through an arrangement of dark glass beakers when I first heard the magnetic tape that is employed extensively in this haunting work. Murail has punctuated Désintégrations with several moments of sudden silence that allow you to be easily caught off guard when a bizarre mixture of noises remorselessly pounce on your tympanic membranes. The sounds are unique enough to prevent the nearly 23-minute long piece from meandering into repetition, and they certainly are provocative; witness, for example, the disturbance roughly three minutes into the piece which could be taken to resemble the blaring siren of an otherworldly ambulance as it crawls along the void. The unexpected cascade of percussion sparkles that follows shortly afterward should sound comforting, but it’s certainly not in Murail’s universe. It’s not long before the tape and the ensemble emit a series of thunderous, electrified gulps and sneezes that may either frighten or possibly elicit a chuckle from some listeners. The cacophony doesn’t end there, however; there are also some curious passages in the final minutes which feature a peculiar yet persistent droning noise, reminiscent of an electric razor, which may lead some to posit that extraterrestrial forces surreptitiously entered the studio in an effort to supplement the composer’s handiwork. But does Murail really need assistance from the Greys? I don’t think so!

Time and Again: Named after the novel by American science fiction legend Clifford D. Simak, Time and Again is Murail’s stab at conveying music in which the passage of time is distorted, causing several flashbacks and premonitions to occur during the work’s 17-minute length. A loud and extremely discordant piece, I didn’t appreciate it as much as Désintégrations. I did enjoy the pleasantly unnerving finale, however, which consists of an unexpected smattering of radio static coupled with arcane tapping noises.

The liner notes are brief yet succinct. This disc is an appealing glimpse into Murail’s creative approach to electronic composition.

Conductor: Howard Griffiths

Orchestra: Bilkent Symphony Orchestra

Performers: Tim Hugh (Cello), Mirjam Tschopp (Viola)

Year of recordings: 2006

Label: cpo

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: A colleague of Bartók, Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-1991) was one of Turkey’s most prominent composers.

About the Music: Bartók never focused extensively on penning cello-centric orchestral works, so I was eager to discover how a composer who shared Bartók’s nocturnal sensibilities would use the instrument to mould an intriguing concerto featuring several of the alluring sharp edges prevalent in the Hungarian’s most remarkable pieces. In addition to the 1987 Cello Concerto, this disc includes its counterpart for the viola, which was completed in 1967.

Cello Concerto: Impassioned yearnings emanate from the cello while the orchestra blooms forth with a number of lush, highly attractive flourishes in this mystifying concerto. I found the first movement to be the most appealing because of the manner in which it smoothly slides from brooding to high tension during the moments when Saygun isn’t providing fragrant radiance from the strings. The cello is in a rather dejected state in the second movement, but there is one episode where the percussion adroitly walks along with the soloist and amusingly drops to the floor as if in jest. In the third movement, the cello gains significant agility and almost appears to set aside most of the mournfulness that it has been shackled with since the beginning. There’s an interesting march-like sequence that develops for a few seconds after the first minute, but it quickly dissipates so that the cello can once again grasp the ether. It would have been interesting to see how Saygun would have continued the sequence if he hadn’t moved the orchestra in a much different direction. At the end of the concerto, the somber soloist quietly wanders away.

Viola Concerto: More frantic and less downcast in nature than the Cello Concerto, Saygun’s Viola Concerto doesn’t bear the same degree of emotional heft, but there are a couple of entertaining moments. One of the high-pitched passages near the end of the first movement sounds somewhat similar to a section from the middle of the final movement of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The soloist offers some very crisp, sharp strokes halfway through the third movement that are fairly effective.

Even though I found the Viola Concerto underwhelming when compared to the vibrancy of the Cello Concerto, you should still enthusiastically lay down the welcoming rug for this disc. Let’s hope that Saygun wrote a second cello concerto that Bilkent University researchers have yet to discover!

Langgaard: Symphony No. 1

langgaardsymphony1

Conductor: Thomas Dausgaard

Orchestra: Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Year of recording: 2007

Label: Dacapo

SPARS Code: DDD

Hybrid Multichannel SACD

About the Composer: Danish romantic prodigy Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) created his first symphony while under the voting age.

About the Music: If you have a penchant for towering, sugar-engulfed late romantic works, you’ll appreciate the high-octane sentimentalism of this hour-long symphony, completed in 1911. Titled Mountain Pastorals by the composer, the five-movement symphony deftly depicts the various sights, sounds, and feelings experienced by a traveler arduously scaling a majestic mountain. The beginning movement, which is the largest part of the piece, sets the stage masterfully; while the intimidating attributes of the treacherous, craggy region at the base of the mountain are strongly pronounced, Langgaard also conveys the scenery’s vivid grandeur. There’s a fair amount of repetition here, but you’ll admire how the contrasting motifs are developed.

The subsequent three movements are much shorter but provide more unique sounds. The restrained second movement, which represents the flowers on the mountain as they are moved by the cool wind, contains an interesting, ethereal passage roughly three minutes in, and the third movement has an eloquently forthright quality which effectively presages the struggles to be faced as the traveler’s altitude rises. Images of a jubilantly swinging grappling hook occupy my mind during the briskly paced fourth movement, Mountain Ascent.

It is in the final movement, however, where Langgaard really provides his audience with the unadulterated, schmaltzy climax that they demand; after more dangerous maneuvering along the rocks, the mountaineer finally emerges victorious as he eyes the landscape from the summit. The movement is so overwrought at times, you’re led to absurdly speculate that Rachmaninoff had some Copenhagen timeshares and decided to do some ghostwriting because the nearby amenities proved to be less than satisfactory.

I’m not partial to sprawling, bombastic symphonies like the one presented on this disc, but if you have a fascination with such epic compositions, it is well worth your time to see how Langgaard’s effort compares with the work of Bruckner and other authors of large-scale pieces.

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