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Archive for the ‘21st Century’ Category

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?

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Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen

Orchestra: Los Angeles Philharmonic

Performer: Yefim Bronfman (Piano)

Years of recordings: 2007, 2008

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Music: Ever since its premiere in 2007, enthusiasts of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s modernist delicacies have been anticipating the CD release of his piano concerto, his largest work to date. It’s finally here, along with recordings of Helix, a nine minute orchestral piece first revealed to audiences in 2005, and Dichotomie, Salonen’s solo piano extravaganza.

Helix: The opening spark of this relatively short piece is instantly compelling. While it’s fairly serene, there’s this grotesque element that surfaces very quickly and draws you towards your speakers. Salonen employs a spiral motif in the work where, as the liner notes state, “the tempo grows faster but the note values of the phrases become correspondingly longer.” The instruments effectively paint a startling depiction of a series of frail efforts to overcome an overpowering, asphyxiating force; when I listen, there are times when I can’t help but feel that I’m trapped in some sort of sparkling, elaborate, hermetically sealed container gingerly rubbing its feet against the stratosphere’s head. I am elated to have discovered this provocative piece.

Piano Concerto: Perhaps my expectations were too high after my initial exposure to Salonen’s major works through his Wing on Wing disc, because his most recent offering doesn’t entrance me like Foreign Bodies or Insomnia. Salonen wasn’t deprived of ambition when he created this concerto, for it certainly does tax the capabilities of the orchestra and the hands of Yefim Bronfman, Salonen’s long-time keyboard collaborator. The first movement is arguably the most adventurous; stern percussion clears the way for Bronfman to emerge after roughly two minutes. The manner in which the orchestra hangs in the distance as the piano ignites is particularly effective. The orchestra and piano escort listeners through a diverse array of audial corridors; in one of the more intriguing passages, it seems as if the orchestra is trying to emulate the shrillness of a stock market exchange bell. The movement as a whole, however, feels slightly disjointed.

Salonen claims that the attractions of the second movement are inspired by science fiction visionary Stanisław Lem. He states that the movement represents the story of “a post-biologic culture where the cybernetic systems suddenly develop an existential need of folklore,” and features the sounds of “bird-robots.” The movement has a very pronounced Ravelian flavour, with an opening that I find somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of the Ondine segment in Gaspard de la Nuit. Later parts of the movement bring to mind the Adagio Assai of Ravel’s piano concerto. The final movement has more in common with the second than the first, but it’s not nearly as interesting as either of the two. Bronfman really swings through the trapeze bars here, though, and helps the orchestra land to a sudden, upbeat conclusion.

Dichotomie: A label affixed to the front of the album boasts that the disc features the “CD premieres of Helix and Dichotomie,” but I question the accuracy of DG’s claim. Telarc released a disc including Gloria Cheng’s recording of this demanding solo piano work not too long ago, and even that disc never suggested that her reading was the first to be committed to our reflective, circular friend. In any case, additional interpretations of Salonen’s work are always welcome. Cheng’s performance is still the standard bearer, however; there are numerous passages in the Mécanisme segment where Bronfman seems a mite hesitant and doesn’t quite capture the robotic essence of the music as well as Cheng does. His treatment of the contrasting segment, Organisme, is sensitive and highly appealing.

While the piano concerto is not as spectacular as I hoped, I’m still confident that Salonen will cultivate several more entertaining works. If you’re well acquainted with Salonen, you’ll definitely want to investigate.

Now that Salonen is very soon going to assume the role of Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in England (if he hasn’t already by the time you read this), there’s no knowing what future compositional projects he may tackle. Although he’s apparently piecing together an opera, I think he should continue to feed his sci-fi fixation and pay tribute to his new country of residence by crafting a stirring cello concerto adaption of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. What instrument could better represent the lethal, lumbering plants as they swarm the defenseless human population? Look to the future, Salonen, but just don’t gaze at the sky!

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Magnus Lindberg: Clarinet Concerto; Gran Duo; Chorale

Conductor: Sakari Oramo

Orchestra: Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Performer: Kari Kriikku (Clarinet)

Years of recordings: Presumably 2001-2005

Label: Ondine

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: Magnus Lindberg (1958- ) is one of Finland’s most distinguished modernist composers.

About the Music: Magnus Lindberg’s affinity for musical experimentation since the late 1970s has led to the development of a body of innovative works. His Clarinet Concerto, which premiered in 2002, has been regarded by critics as one of his greatest achievements, and it receives first class seating on this disc. Two shorter pieces written around the same period, Gran Duo (2000) and Chorale (2001-2002), are also present. The combined running time of these three musical specimens is roughly 51 minutes, somewhat shorter than your usual classical disc, but don’t let that discourage you; there’s still a fair bit to explore.

Clarinet Concerto: It’s extremely difficult to keep track of all of the unique sounds in this concerto, many of which are produced by the incredible capabilities of soloist Kari Kriikku. After ushering in the very relaxed and slightly Gershwinesque main theme, Kriikku manages to create several fascinating sounds with the clarinet that many would not believe possible. At one point, you’d think someone was jabbing the accelerator of a car placed alongside the orchestra; a little later, some listeners might suspect Kriikku is running lumber through a planer. In one passage, he even makes a quiet, fluctuating noise that one might associate with the covert movements of an unidentified flying object. The orchestra effectively accompanies the clarinetist, but the recording never obscures the high degree of precision Kriikku employs.

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I am intrigued by the graphics included with the liner notes and the jewel case and their relation to the flagship piece. The cover sports a striking pair of “mechanical eyes;” the liner notes state that the distinct palette and texture types which emerge in the introduction of the Clarinet Concerto “can be construed as masks or costumes for one single character.” I am under the assumption that the cover is essentially a mask of sorts, but I can’t be certain. There’s also a peculiar-looking instrument which resembles a speedometer adorned with quarter notes. Whenever Kriikku emulates the sound of a moving vehicle, the image of the device quickly comes to mind. Ondine certainly has some skillful graphic designers on its payroll.

Gran Duo: Although the clarinet does play a role in this work, you won’t experience the pyrotechnics of the Clarinet Concerto here. Devoid of strings, Gran Duo features an extended interplay between a set of woodwind and brass instruments. The relationship is mutual in some passages, yet highly adversarial in others. There’s substantial orchestral detail, but you’ll need to be very attentive if you want to fully comprehend the sounds that Lindberg is creating.

Chorale: The chorale Es ist Genug from J. S. Bach’s cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20) serves as the inspiration for this work, which I found to possess a jarring quality despite its serene conclusion. I’m not familiar with the Bach work, but it’s interesting when modernist composers decide to mine the Baroque period for material.

When I first listened to these works, I expected them to be dark and in the vein of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s pieces. Despite his past collaboration with Salonen, Lindberg demonstrates that he treads along a different compositional tightrope. It would have been appreciated if an additional work was added to the trio on this disc, but the inclusion of the exciting Clarinet Concerto offsets this shortcoming.

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Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky, and Lutosławski

 

Performer: Gloria Cheng (Piano)

Year of recordings: 2008

Label: Telarc

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Music: It’s difficult to determine if Esa-Pekka Salonen should be referred to as a composing conductor or a conducting composer, but one thing is certain; he’s never reluctant to admit his indebtedness to the late Witold Lutosławski. American composer Steven Stucky also cites him as an inspiration, and in this latest compilation from contemporary pianist Gloria Cheng, premiere recordings of works from all three of the modernists are featured in lucid Telarc sound.

Four Album Leaves (Stucky): The disc begins with these four very brief pieces. They’re not riveting, memorable works, but each one maintains its own distinctive qualities. The slow pace of the mysterious first movement is promptly abandoned in the hectic second movement, which in my view is a pianistic representation of an air traffic controller’s life. I found the third piece bereft of substance. The final segment has a creeping, menacing air, although it’s highly unlikely to invite nightmares.

Sonata for Piano (Lutosławski): Written in 1934, this recently unearthed sonata receives its premiere recording by Cheng. If you’re familiar with Lutosławski’s later output, you may be surprised by just how different the tone is here. The first movement is the most appealing, as it is rather radiant yet cold; when I hear it, I envision myself looking upon an expansive winter scene through a partially ice-encrusted window. The second movement is quite downcast, but it’s certainly not haunting like Lutosławski’s symphonies. There’s no real consistency in the final movement, which is unfortunate. Witold did produce this sonata when he was in his early twenties, so even if listeners don’t particularly like it, they will find it to be an interesting look into his formative years.

Yta II (Salonen): This highly idiosyncratic seven-minute long work is one of the highlights in the compilation. A kinetic demonstration of the piano’s formidable versatility, Yta II is an entertaining romp in the scurrying hands of Cheng; dozens of abrupt sounds are interrupted by sudden moments of silence, continually piquing the listener’s attention. One of the most amusing passages, halfway into the work, involves the pianist briefly hammering away at one of the keys like a pileated woodpecker fastened to a poplar.

Three Preludes (Salonen): These aren’t Salonen’s most exciting compositions, even though they do possess a certain energy. The opening passage of the second prelude, Chorale, seems to have been adapted from Wing on Wing, one of Salonen’s most popular works.

Dichotomie (Salonen): Originally written for Cheng, this elaborate piece is especially noteworthy because its first segment, Mécanisme, was eventually arranged and included as the introductory movement in Foreign Bodies. It’s interesting to compare the original with its orchestral counterpart; while I prefer the melody in its later incarnation, Mécanisme is highly textured and deserves repeated listening. Organisme, the second half, is generally more low-key. Whenever I hear it, I’m continually wondering what instruments could effectively be used in an arrangement to capture the dark nature of the piece.

Three Little Variations for David (Stucky): Stucky bookends the disc with these very, very short character pieces. The first variation has a piercing, jagged awkwardness that is actually quite interesting, but it’s over all too soon. The second is more refined, while the final one is a veritable flurry of notes.

If you are fond of solo piano works, you’ll be glad to own this collection. Stucky’s work is dwarfed by the Lutosławski sonata and the Salonen contributions, but his liner notes are highly informative.

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Title: Jan Beran (Chamber Music, 2003-2006) Christopher Raphael (oboe) (Cat. No. 2049)

Label: Vienna Modern Masters

Distributors: CDeMusic (North America), Vienna Modern Masters (Austria)

Release Date: 2007

About the Composer and Performers:

Jan Beran is a Swiss mathematician who currently teaches in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Konstanz (Germany). Christopher Raphael is an Associate Professor in the School of Informatics at Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana) where his work focuses on music analytics and statistical modeling. These efforts coincide nicely with Christopher’s passion to design an electronic accompaniment system (more on this in a moment).

It was this digital element that lead me to Jan and Christopher’s work. While browsing the electronic music selections on Naxos Music Library, I came across Beran’s Santi, Piano Concerto No. 2 (electronic version) on the Col legno label. I found the work to be thoroughly modern, and somewhat similar to some cinema mood music I enjoy. Particularly, the music avoided regular rhythm and melody…but was still interesting (to me).

I liked it. I wanted to hear more of Beran, but this turned out to be hard to do. His work is not widely distributed. While I could find Santi at Classics Online or Amazon.com, I couldn’t find much else. To their credit, Amazon.com does carry his textbook Statistics in Musicology (2003) along with his 1993 disc, Cirri, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t understand the statistics and I was looking to see if he’d composed anything more recently.

Enter Christopher Raphael. Browsing the web, I stumbled across Christopher Raphael’s blog where he describes collaborating with Beran and providing oboe solos (shout out to Patty!). Christopher has designed a digital accompaniment system that allows a soloist to actually direct digital accompaniment. Christopher describes his Music Plus One software better than I can. Here’s the page dedicated to Music++ and a download link. I can’t pretend to understand how this works, but the concept caught my interest, especially as Christopher credits it with enabling his performance of Jan’s more complex pieces.

Christopher’s description of his collaboration with Jan included MP3 samples. I liked the piano/oboe combination and determined to find out where I could get Mist Covered Mountains and Winter, the two pieces he demonstrated. I discovered these works were available on a disc titled Jan Beran: Chamber Music 2003-2006, Christopher Raphael, oboe on the Vienna Modern Masters label. This seemed well suited to my interests and I wanted to hear it in full CD-quality on my headphones. With help from David Osenberg, I was finally able to locate and obtain the disc. Thank you, David!

About the Music:

One of the reasons Andrew and I started the Sound Samples series was to get around the difficulty of describing music in English. If I wrote about a B-major scale in adagio, few people would really “hear” that in their mind (much less understand such technical jargon). Jan Beran’s music is both a perfect example of the dilemma of description and the value of hearing short clips (17 USC 107 “Fair Use” abiding clips).

The opening of Painted Lady (MP3, 31 seconds) reveals Beran the minimalist – reminiscent of his Santi disc.

This excerpt from Camberwell Beauty (MP3, 13 seconds) demonstrates Beran’s love for piano virtuosity.

A third clip, this time from Capriccio (MP3, 18 seconds) samples Beran’s ability to marry his modern style with melody.

In Mist Covered Mountains 1st Movement (MP3, 17 seconds), Beran combines his melodic skill with Christopher Raphael’s oboe – a thoroughly pleasing juxtaposition.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this disc and can recommend it to anyone interested in modern piano/oboe composition

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Salonen: Wing on Wing

About the Composer: Aside from his extensive conducting career, Finlander Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958- ) has spirited away to his writing desk on several occasions and has cemented his reputation as one of the most significant modernist composers.

About the Music: Shortly after Vince began exploring various Naxos Lutosławski recordings and discussed them in an earlier post, I picked up a Sony Classical disc featuring Salonen’s recordings of wise old Witold’s third and fourth symphonies. Salonen was mentored extensively by the late symphonist, and since I found Lutosławski’s work to be rather compelling, I became curious and wanted to see how the young man’s approach to composition was influenced by his collaboration with the Polish giant. Wing on Wing, Salonen’s most recent compilation of original music on the Deutsche Grammophon label, features the titular soprano-driven work (2004), along with two orchestral pieces, Foreign Bodies (2001) and Insomnia (2002). The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra accompanies Salonen for the voyage.

Foreign Bodies – This work emphasizes Salonen’s core belief that musical expression emanates from the human body, but it’s certainly not the sort of rigid, overly erudite exercise you might expect from an avant-garde composer. A grinding, mechanical fanfare begins the piece, only to give way to intricate performances from smaller groups of instruments before returning in numerous variations. The woodwinds and percussion are effectively used in the quieter moments of the work. The spirit of Lutosławski is clearly flowing throughout, although Salonen includes some very brief, cheerful passages that would seem out of place in Lutosławski’s symphonies. Foreign Bodies is extremely entertaining, and it’s no surprise that original choreography has been created for the work. I’d like to see original choreography for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, but I’m afraid that all of the performers will become so fatigued before the end of the first movement that they’ll begin tripping over each other.

Wing on Wing – Salonen’s most recent work in this collection, Wing on Wing was produced to commemorate the construction of Frank Gehry’s design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The sister sopranos Anu and Piia Komsi propel much of the piece with their tremendously sharp vocals; they provide us with no lyrics, thus allowing the listener to ruminate about Salonen’s thesis as they skillfully navigate the higher octaves. The only spoken words that we do receive are those of Gehry himself, which are interspersed throughout the work and supposedly serve to highlight his philosophy of artistic design. The samples are very brief, and they’re not always very easy to discern on this disc; the recording quality is pristine, so I’m not sure if I can’t hear them because I’m not listening carefully enough or because the words were never intended to be perfectly comprehensible to the audience. There are some nice poetic instrumental passages in the middle of the work, but the orchestra doesn’t seem to get the chance to be as versatile as it does in Foreign Bodies.

InsomniaInsomnia impresses me more and more with each subsequent listening. Salonen probes a surreal, yet highly agitated musical landscape with a broad variety of mesmerizing sounds. The music at the very beginning of the piece is reserved, innocuous, and intriguing, but there is a sudden twist in the action that changes the direction of the work and allows Salonen to construct a thrilling sense of urgency. I consider this piece to be the most exciting offering on the disc, and hope that it will continue to find its way into concert programmes.

These compositions are fantastic because they incorporate the most innovative elements of modernism while remaining accessible to most fledgling classical listeners. I am eagerly anticipating the release of Salonen’s next album, and once you become acquainted with his unique style, you probably will too!

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HIGDON: Piano Trio / Voices / Impressions

About the Composer:

Jennifer Higdon (b.1962) did not begin formally studying music until age 18. Ms. Higdon is one of the most prolific modern composers. Her orchestral work, Blue Cathedral, has been performed by over 100 orchestras since 2000. Read her biography, discography, and performance log at her Web site, Jennifer Higdon.

About the Music:

Lively new music, new combinations. Ms. Higdon claims impressionist painting as an inspiration. In her string quartet “Impressions” the bursts of string sound and plucking convey this musical impressionism.

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