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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

duruflecover

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.

lindbergthing

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.

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

Smetana: Má Vlast

Smetana: Má Vlast

Conductor: Rafael Kubelik

Orchestra: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Venue: Munich Herkulessaal, Germany

Year of recording: 1984

Label: EuroArts

Running time: 82 minutes (Performance), 11 minutes (Introduction)

Sound formats: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1

About the Composer: Regarded as one of the most important Czech composers of all time, the spirit of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) lives on in his famous work Má Vlast, a cycle of six nationalistic tone poems. Smetana was afflicted with deafness when he commenced work on Má Vlast, but like Beethoven, the loss of hearing did not prevent him from making a remarkable contribution to the classical canon.

About the Video: Having amassed numerous classical discs in the past couple of years, I decided some time ago that it would be an interesting change of pace to acquire a video recording of an exciting concert performance so that I could try to improve my understanding of the sounds made by the various instruments of the orchestra. I was curious about Má Vlast for some time, so when I discovered that EuroArts had recently released a 1984 recording of Rafael Kubelik conducting the piece, the disc was promptly placed into my Amazon shopping cart.

The consensus seems to be that while a handful of strong readings have been produced by numerous conductors, Kubelik is the greatest interpreter of Smetana’s epic work. Although all of the segments of Má Vlast are invigorating, the two main draws are Vltava, a serene paean to the titular Czechoslovakian river, and Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields), an intense piece with a very chilling introductory passage. It’s not long before one can see that Kubelik might benefit from having a nice absorbent towel in his left hand to compliment the baton in his right; the members of the orchestra, on the other hand, seem fairly relaxed throughout the entire performance.

The slightly grainy footage is solid for the most part, providing the viewer with numerous camera angles highlighting the orchestra and some of the ornate architecture of the concert hall. Unfortunately, there are some elements present that should have been effaced. When the camera decides to observe a specific group of musicians, it will often make a transition by slowly zooming in on one or more of the performers’ instruments and then intentionally slip out of focus. Some might find this amusing, but I find it rather irritating and would prefer to see the director simply move to a different angle of the action. However, it’s not nearly as bad as when various footage of Kubelik and the instruments is taken and superimposed onto the screen when the camera is showing the entire orchestra, as shown in the image below. I’m not sure if these sorts of filming techniques are de rigueur for concert recordings, but I certainly don’t care for them at all.

Even though some of the directorial decisions made aren’t in line with my preferences, there are still enough positive elements in the recording to warrant a purchase. The sound is clear, and a brief introduction concisely describes Smetana’s life and his inspirations for each of the tone poems in Má Vlast. A few minutes feature Kubelik being interviewed about the significance of Smetana’s work, and one can see that he has an indomitable enthusiasm for the composer. After hearing these works, you might just follow suit!

A trailer of the recording can be seen at the Naxos site.

Hindemith Conducts Hindemith:
The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon

Conductor: Paul Hindemith

Orchestra: Berlin Philharmonic

Performers: Monique Haas, Hans Otte (Piano), Hans Gieseler (Violin)

Years of recordings: 1954-1957

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

SPARS Code: AAD, ADD

About the Composer: A dedicated musical theorist and staunch critic of Atonalism, German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) produced a large number of chamber music pieces, operas, and orchestral works.

About the Music: One of the smaller instalments in Deutsche Grammophon’s Original Masters series, this 3-disc set thoroughly showcases Hindemith’s capabilities as a conductor of his most recognized works. The Mathis der Maler Symphony and the Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria Von Weber, his two most accolade-laden achievements, are presented here along with five other lesser-known compositions.

Concerto for Orchestra – Clocking in at roughly twelve minutes, this short yet ambitious piece isn’t the most euphonous work I’ve heard, but it’s still quite interesting and provides the listener with a feel for Hindemith’s general approach to composition. Though there are some brief eloquent moments, the concerto is rather dissonant and will likely irk those accustomed to the serene Romantic form.

Konzertmusik op. 49 for Piano, Brass, and Harps – One of the most entertaining offerings in the trio of discs. Hindemith enlists the talents of pianist Monique Haas for the performance of this delightfully reserved and often unsettling work. I found the music to be surprisingly straightforward for a Hindemith piece, and the collaboration between Haas and the harpists in a number of the passages is quite compelling.

Mathis der Maler Symphony – This symphonic adaptation of Hindemith’s similarly titled opera depicting the life of painter Matthias Grünewald is regarded as the composer’s magnum opus, so it’s nice that we can bear witness to Hindemith’s interpretation. When you hear the extravagant opening fanfare that opens the first movement, you’ll feel sorry that Hindemith didn’t have access to the sound equipment of our time. But even the technological limitations of the day can’t prevent the composer from conveying the intense nature of this piece. I can’t induct the Mathis der Maler Symphony into my list of favourite orchestral works, but I do consider it to be one of Hindemith’s most appealing efforts.

Symphonic Dances – Far more focused and exciting than the Concerto for Orchestra, the Symphonic Dances illustrates Hindemith’s jubilant side. All four segments are of interest, but I was especially taken by the quiet meandering of the third dance. As with the Konzertmusik, Hindemith is very skillful at crafting low-key, inquisitive passages here.

Theme and Variations “The Four Temperaments” for Piano and Strings – It’s another musical experiment courtesy of Herr Hindemith, and one with which I’m not very enthralled. I don’t dislike variations, but I’ve found that if I’m not particularly fond of the main piece of music being reiterated, I probably won’t have much interest in the variations either. Unfortunately, this is the case for me with this work.

Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria Von Weber – Hindemith remorselessly steals masterfully adapts various music from Weber’s repertoire to create this jewel. After hearing Hindemith’s other material, you might accidentally assume that the flowery pieces here were crafted by a different composer. Most listeners will gravitate to this work rather quickly after their initial exposure.

Ballet Overture “Amor und Psyche” – Although it bears the standard Hindemith trademarks, this work doesn’t really carve for itself a unique place in the composer’s legacy.

Die Harmonie der Welt Symphony – I struggled in vain to appreciate the quiet nuances of this second symphony based on another of Hindemith’s operas, but I simply couldn’t be moved. As for the sweeping fanfares prevalent in the final movement, I must hesitatingly admit that I found them to be only slightly more profound than the sweeping noises occasionally made by the Oskar broom residing in the laundry room downstairs.

The final track consists of an interview in which Hindemith fields questions about his recording of the Mathis der Maler Symphony. Since I’m about as fluent in German as Mr. Bean is in French, I can’t decipher and comment on the composer’s remarks. A translated transcript of the interview would have been a welcome addition to the liner notes that chronicle the relationship between Hindemith and the recording experts at Deutsche Grammophon.

Hindemith’s music seems to be an acquired taste, and after reviewing this compilation in greater detail, I can understand why he hasn’t garnered the popularity of many other 20th-Century composers. There are many interesting concepts at work in his pieces, however, and if you can get your hands on this set, you’ll receive a comprehensive introduction.

Howard Hanson Conducts Bloch

Conductor: Howard Hanson

Orchestra: Eastman-Rochester Orchestra

Performer: Georges Miquelle (Cello)

Years of recordings: 1959, 1960

Label: Mercury Living Presence

SPARS Code: ADD

About the Composer: Born in Switzerland, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a Jewish composer who wrote several orchestral works, many of which derive inspiration from Hebraic literature. After touring extensively to showcase his pieces throughout Europe, Bloch immigrated to the United States in 1938 to escape the Holocaust and resided in Oregon until his death.

About the Music: Bloch’s compositional endeavours haven’t garnered the same level of critical acclaim as those by many other early 20th Century notesmiths, but that certainly shouldn’t prevent the inquisitive from investing some time into listening to his distinctive works. The recordings in this collection, conducted by appreciative American composer Howard Hanson, provide us with a colourful overview of Bloch’s style. Bloch’s two concerti grossi (written in 1925 and 1952, respectively) are featured here, along with Schelomo (1916), his most popular orchestral triumph.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 – The prelude of this concerto, written for string orchestra with piano obbligato, begins with some rather stern-sounding flourishes; your reaction will likely vary, but for me, it evoked images of a surly headmaster wielding a well-worn cane above his head in front of a class of fledgling boarding school boys. The second movement is a very mournful dirge, and the various strings seem to be keeping their heads down and trying to console themselves. It is here that the piano makes a very strong contribution acting as the assistant pallbearer, carrying some very frigid notes into the musical procession. However, it’s not long before the gloom subsides and is replaced by a more vivacious tone. The fourth movement features lighter accompaniment from the piano; the strings are not as strict as they were at the beginning of the concerto, but they withhold most of their optimism until the very end.

Concerto Grosso No. 2 – I didn’t find Bloch’s return to the concerto grosso form to be as interesting as his first foray. The piano, which really complimented the strings in the first concerto, is noticeably absent here. The concerto’s first two movements are relatively relaxed and contemplative; the third is quite shrill, and it failed to hold my interest. Unfortunately, the finale wasn’t very memorable either.

Schelomo – An orchestral representation of Ecclesiastes, Bloch harnesses the expressive powers of a lone cello to serve as the voice of the beleaguered King Solomon. The strings which gingerly initiate the piece immediately conjure a portrait of futility and despair, one that is further detailed by the prominent cello and the host of woodwinds and brass. Most of the piece consists of several quiet, elaborate passages punctuated by striking fanfares from the orchestra. The tambourine is effectively used during the first of these many fanfares, and it almost seems to resemble the sound of fetters, a fascinating effect considering the subject matter of this work. After witnessing the intensity of Schelomo, you may mistakenly think that blowing sand from Old Testament Israel has flown into your face!

This compilation of Bloch works is not one of the most prized discs in my library, but it is certainly well worth your time if you have a strong appreciation for string music and wish to become acquainted with the efforts of a gifted composer!

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!

A Composer’s Immortality

In the world of music composition, the desire to experiment, to advance the state of the art, tugs against the siren call of popular acclaim. Risk the new, or refine the familiar? In the world of music reviews, experimentation seems more often praised than populism. The “great composer” label seems most frequently awarded to those who push musical boundaries by developing new sounds and structures (or avoid them). The “populist” label is almost derisively applied to those whose work enjoys limited appeal due to local attitudes, fashion, and the sensibilities of the times.

I suppose that truly “immortal composers” manage both to push the musical boundaries of their age, while creating works with lasting popular appeal (though their popular acclaim may arise from their continual repetition).

Will Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach ever be dethroned? How long will Shostakovich or Copland last? These names are already assumed to be immortal.

There aren’t a lot of immortal composers in the Western Classical tradition. Would you put the essential list at 10? Maybe 20 at the outside? Fortunately, there are 1,000s more who veered toward “excessive” experiment or populism. So, as listeners, we have plenty of opportunity to dangle a foot in the experimental, then indulge in the popular.

Recently, I’ve enjoyed listening through the Naxos Music Library’s collection of Dmitri Kabalevsky’s work. So, he severly limited his experimentalism to created populist music (to keep his Soviet masters happy? Because he believed in the aesthetic of Socialist Realism?) Whatever. I like the music, particularly his Comedians suite. 

New or familiar? Experimental or Populist?

What makes a great composer (or work)?

On a related thought, Harold Fromm touches on how the preimmenently immortal Bach fails to capture personal sympathy in J.S. Bach in the Twenty-First Century: The Chapel Becomes a Larder from the Hudson Review. Fromme writes, “When we hear ‘Mozart’ or ‘Beethoven,’ we think of a person behind the music. When we hear “Bach,” we think only of the music itself…”

What do you think?