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vasksmessage

Conductor: Krišs Rusmanis

Orchestra: Riga Philharmonic Orchestra

Performers: Normunde Schnee (Cor Anglais), Nora Novik, Raffi Kharajanyan (Piano), Ligita Zemberga (Cello)

Year of recordings: 1994

Label: RCA

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: Pēteris Vasks (1946- ) is a Latvian composer whose works bear strong nationalistic and moral themes.

About the Music: Vasks continues to write new music, but this 2004 reissue of a 1994 Conifer Records disc offers a helpful survey of his smaller orchestral works, many of which were conceived in the 1980s.

Cantabile: The radiant tone of this string orchestra composition becomes increasingly troubled, yet its shimmer remains unscathed. Surprisingly effective!

Cor Anglais Concerto: There aren’t very many concertos sculpted for the cor anglais, so we should be grateful that Vasks has provided us with this four-movement adventure which sends the peppy woodwind treading through the dimly lit recesses of melancholy. The second movement offers a respite from the gloom, as it features a playful cadenza that is followed with a jovial outburst from the orchestra. The concerto drifts to a close with a dash of mysterious, percussion-administered sparkles.

Message: Vasks states that this work represents a battle between the forces of good and evil. Who knew that percussion would play a key role in such a harrowing struggle? While I relish the initial effervescence of the piano and the other tingling instruments as the strife is about to commence, this isn’t my favourite offering on the disc. The instrumentation is never aimless, however, and the resulting sounds do provide most listeners with the dire feeling that the fate of the known universe is at stake.

Musica Dolorosa: Written shortly after the death of Vasks’ sister, this elegaic string orchestra work is the greatest accomplishment included on this disc. In the first half of the piece’s roughly thirteen minute length, there is a magnificent brand of intensity present which gradually unfurls itself through several exciting string flourishes. The resulting explosion leads to a malevolent skirmish which eventually careens into a brief moment of silence. When the instruments return, an insatiable sense of grief raises its wings; the troubled strings at the end are very disconcerting.

Lauda: Listeners who haven’t become completely depressed by the preceding pieces should appreciate this nationalistic work. Though reminiscent of Cantible during some of its more tranquil moments, Lauda remains stylistically distinctive with its generous use of percussion. There are two overwhelming ‘tidal waves’ generated by the orchestra, and it may prove difficult for some not to assume that there is a sort of nautical motif in play when they emerge.

Unlike a considerable bulk of modernist works, you won’t need to worry about encountering any ‘experimental’ music in this collection, so you can fearlessly remove the latch from your front door and appreciate Vasks’ province of sounds.

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Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies

Orchestra: Radio Symphonieorchester Wien

Performer: Alexei Lubimov (Piano)

Year of recordings: 2001

Label: ECM

SPARS Code: DDD

About the Composer: Valentin Silvestrov (1937- ) is a Ukrainian composer heavily enamoured with various dimensions of avant-garde expression.

About the Music: The crimson curtains recede to reveal a disc featuring two works by Silvestrov: Metamusik, a symphony for piano and orchestra written in 1984, and Postludium, a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra released in 1992.

Metamusik: Silvestrov seesaws between episodes of frigid intensity and mellow solitude in this lengthy 48 minute marathon. The piece’s forceful opening, with its menacing conflagrations from the orchestra, may cause you to believe that you’re hanging from a dark precipice. A resourceful filmmaker would have no difficulty incorporating some of these more ominous passages into the soundtrack of a psychological thriller. The suspense gradually tapers off and the mood becomes rather restful temporarily, but even during the quiet moments there are no true beams of radiance from the piano; a dreamy ambience prevails. The music becomes so ambient, unfortunately, that it becomes a challenge to remain a focused listener, especially when the work is so very, very long. Taking the scissors to the staves would have tightened up the piece.

Postludium: This 20 minute piece, written a number of years before Metamusik, shares many of its successor’s stylistic elements. There are several mysterious sounds to be discovered like those in the preceding work, but it’s far more succinct. The tender voice of the piano in the last third of the piece is somewhat depressing, even if Silvestrov didn’t necessarily intend it to be that way.

You won’t need to worry about missing any orchestral details if you really can hold your attention, as the recording quality is solid. Thorough liner notes with several interesting photographs of Silvestrov, the performers, and the recording team are included with the disc, both of which fit into a thin little slipcase. Unless you have a very strong affinity for ambient orchestral works, however, I recommend against purchasing this disc. If I was the manager of a swanky restaurant, though, I might derive some thrills from funnelling Metamusik into the dining areas and observing how the customers react…

Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
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Performers: Sir Georg Solti, Murray Perahia (Pianos), Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill (Percussion)

Venue: Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, England

Year of recording: 1987

Label: Kultur Video

Running time: 30 minutes (Documentary), 28 minutes (Performance)

Sound formats: Dolby 2.0

About the Video: This entertaining DVD includes the 1987 BBC production featuring conductor Sir Georg Solti performing the technically challenging sonata, accompanied with Solti & Perahia play Bartók, an illuminating documentary about the work and its recording.

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Solti & Perahia play Bartók chronicles Solti’s intense fascination with the sonata and the tedium he endures in order to successfully record the piece. Solti had the honourable task of turning the pages for Bartók’s ivory-tapping wife, Ditta Pásztory, when she and her husband first introduced the sonata in 1938. The experience motivated Solti to perform the work with the assistance of pianist Murray Perahia and percussionists Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill. The conductor offers several insights into the sonata, noting that it is “practically impossible” to play if one is to perfectly follow the composer’s markings, while Glennie emphasizes the highly specific instructions Bartók provides for the various percussion instruments. The bulk of the documentary is devoted to the preparation for the recording; countless hours soar by as the group rehearses and then heads off to the audio room in order to evaluate their grasp of the Hungarian’s masterwork. Satisfying Solti is a formidable task, as he demonstrates an unrivaled knowledge of the sonata and clearly understands how the sounds of the pianos and the percussion instruments are to weave together as Bartók intended.

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The excitement really begins when the team gets down to brass tacks in the disc’s second segment. Solti and his colleagues are surrounded by an impervious darkness which complements the mysterious nature of the sonata rather nicely. The maestro maintains a steely determination throughout the course of the performance, and Glennie and Corkhill are amazingly focused and collected despite the demands of the piece.

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Perahia is the most interesting to observe, however; he’s so absorbed by the challenge of maintaining synchronicity with the other players that you almost begin to fear that he’s about to slip out of consciousness.

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There are several insightful camera angles documenting every part of the action. The perspective changes at a brisk pace during many of the more hectic passages, making for an exhilarating viewing experience. The resolution quality is what you’d expect from a 1980s recording, but all essential details are easily seen. Thankfully, there are no distortions in the sound either.

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Overall, the disc serves as a concise introduction to one of Bartók’s seminal compositional endeavours. Let’s hope that more of these remarkable modernist chamber music recordings saunter our way.

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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!

Duruflé: Complete Organ Works

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Performer: Friedhelm Flamme (Organ)

Year of recordings: 2003

Label: cpo

SPARS Code: DDD

Hybrid Multichannel SACD

About the Composer: The highly meticulous Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) published a remarkably small corpus of organ works which continue to astound admirers of the piped behemoth.

About the Music: I’ve had an irrepressible hankering for some exceptional organ music for quite some time now, so I was elated to discover this delicious collection of Duruflé recordings conjured by veteran organist Friedhelm Flamme. In addition to the actual performances, Flamme provides very thorough information detailing the life of Duruflé and the significance of his work to the organ canon. When one considers the formidable mental and physical dexterity of Flamme while listening to the intricate pieces, it probably wouldn’t come as a surprise if it was made known that he scribbled out the liner notes with one of his hands when it wasn’t attending the keyboards for 1/17th of a second.

The sizes of the works vary considerably. Many of the shorter pieces, such as the warm and steady-paced Chant Donné – Hommage á Jean Gallon and the uncompromisingly tumultuous Fugue sur le théme du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons are enjoyable, but it is Duruflé’s larger-scale explorations that will really capture your attention. The sedated second movement of the Suite, for instance, demonstrates just how effective the organ can be at producing vivid, distinctive, and quiet sounds that one may not typically associate with its often droning nature. The final piece on the disc, the Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain, is described by Flamme as Duruflé’s most popular organ composition. Written to commemorate one of Duruflé’s friends who was killed in World War II, it’s not difficult to know why it’s so well-received; the Prélude conveys an adamant sense of yearning, and the Fugue has a fantastic buildup that paves the way for some very sharp, heartfelt flourishes.

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the quality of the SACD transfer, but you should be advised that unless you have a relatively well-endowed sound system, you’ll probably find yourself adjusting the volume to an extremely high level so that you can hear all of the notes. If you have even a minor interest in the organ, however, you really should latch your fingers onto this compilation as soon as possible!

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.

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.