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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Chamber Music from Reger

Max REGER (1873-1916)

Piano Quartet in a minor, Op. 133 (1914) [38:50]

String Trio in d minor, Op. 141b (1904) [20:55]

Aperto Piano Quartet

Gernot Süßmuth, (violin)

Stefan Fehlandt, (viola)

Hans-Jakbo Eschenburg, (cello)

Frank-Immo Zichner, (piano)

Felix Schwartz, (viola)

Recorded at the Sendesaal des Hessischen Rundfunks, Frankfurt am Main, Germany 16-18 September 2002 and at Siemensvilla, Berlin-Lankwitz, Germany, 27-28 February, 2007.

NAXOS 8.570786 [59:52]

Max Reger was a prolific loner whose career seemed to vacillate readily between having success as a professor, being misunderstood as a member of the avant garde, and being again derided for his old-fashioned devotion to tonality and traditional structural forms. What is left to us is a large body of work, some of which is over-ripe and difficult to digest. Yet for all of his excursions into then uncharted chromatic harmonies, fiendishly difficult keyboard music written for himself to play and structural architecture often stretched to the breaking point, we still have a composer of often profound depth and surprising originality.

A virtuoso pianist with an active performing career, Reger had a great love for chamber music, much of which was composed for strings and piano with himself as the soloist of choice. His two piano quartets are influenced by the work of Johannes Brahms, a composer whom Reger played and admired. This second quartet is full of storms, and yet its overall demeanor is carefully shaded in melancholy so as to give it a rather sweet and autumnal feeling. The opening allegro is full of passionate outbursts with some very thick textures and heavy handed piano writing. The second movement vivace is much more playful and a welcome relief from the thunderstorm of the first movement. There follows a graceful and tender largo and a spirited allegro ending.

It would be very easy to let this music derail emotionally, as it is just close enough to the edge of excess to get syrupy in the wrong hands. The Aperos however give us a balanced and nuanced performance with romantic gush given just the right amount of restraint to keep us listening. Any more passion would be over the top, any less would result in too academic a reading. The thick texture of the piano writing is kept in check by Frank-Immo Zichner, and his string playing colleagues have ample power to keep up with what is at times some overly dense keyboard writing.

Lovely as the quartet may be, the real gem of this disc is the elegant String Trio in d minor, Op. 141b, which was reconstituted from an earlier serenade for flute. From a warm and glowing opening movement, we move to an elegant theme and variations, quite touching in its simple beauty. The work is rounded off by a sprightly little vivace. One really could not ask for a finer performance. The sound is warm and balanced and themes sing like arias in a Bellini opera.

The stretching of tonality and the frequent chromatic shifts in harmony might be a turn off to some listeners, but for anyone who enjoys late romantic music, this disc is a winner. It left me anxious to check out its companion disc (Naxos 8.570785) to see what Reger’s earlier outings in the same two instrumental line-ups might sound like.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Defense of Church Musicians

Most of my posts of late have been record reviews, but I think it's time that I sound off about something that's been on my mind for some time. I will try to be diplomatic, but I will also be honest.

This post concerns the plight of those who make their living or a part of their living in churches. Let me begin by saying that I hold a Master's degree in sacred music and have been a professional church musician for thirty of my forty-four years, so I speak with some experience.

Many college students depend on their church gigs for extra income while they are in school. While they do these jobs they are expected to give up their entire Sunday for some 8.50 an hour on the average. Most paid section leaders get 25-30 dollars a call for a two and a half hour rehearsal on Wednesdays and two , often three services with obligatory 45 minute warm ups for EACH service. This comes out to something like 7 or so bucks an hour. Hardly a worthy wage for people with one of the most rarefied skill sets on the planet.

Add in that they are expected to learn difficult and complicated solos, evangelist roles and the like for special concerts an holy days for an "extra call," another $25. Yeah right.

Then there are the egos of the often less than competent and abusive choir masters, the self righteous clergy, and the blatant and pervasive homophobia in many churches. (Face it girls, most of you tenor section is gay, get over it.)

This doesn't come close to addressing the crappy music that we are forced to sing week after week except in the highest of smells and bells Anglican parishes. Ugh.

A year or so ago, I went on my last (and I mean it) cathedral tour of the UK with a prominent church in Dallas. Seven years of faithful service did not exempt me from the gossip of incompetent co-workers (colleagues is by no means a fitting term) or the condescension of the bitchy queen choir administrator whose qualifications can't hold a candle to mine. After that trip I decided that I was done. And now I rarely if ever don a a cassock and surplice.

In a way this is a shame, because I do have a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of music that was bestowed upon me by the creator. But, I have no intention of serving his undereducated and incompetent minions with his gift. Sitting in the congregation and having the people around me be uplifted by what I have to offer in the hymns is all this ego needs.

To my friends who still feel called to serve in choirs, I support you and pray for your success. But until further notice, I am taking a stand for those who have to work like slaves to edify the senators and business execs who make up the congregations rich enough to pay their convenience store wages to gain bragging rights at the country club every Sunday at the buffet. You don't deserve our talents and your spirituality is a pile of dog shit.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Surprises from Bartok.

Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)

Andante for violin and piano (1902) [3:44]
Sonata for violin and piano (1903) [29:15]
Hungarian Folksongs for violin and piano (1934/54) [9:41]
Sonata for solo violin (1944) [28:33]

Elise Båtnes, (violin)
Håvard Gimse, (piano)

Recorded 3-5 September 2005 and 20-21 November in Sofienberg Church, Oslo.

SIMAX PSC 1174 [71:24]

It is interesting that Bela Bartók, a pianist, should devote so large a part of his output, and indeed some of his deepest thoughts to music for the violin. This may be due in part to his relationships with some of Hungary’s finest violinists, namely, Jenö Hubey, Stefi Geyer, Jelly d’Arányi, Joseph Szigeti and with the great Yehudi Menuhin. Thankfully these friendships spawned not only the works on this recording, but also the six string quartets and the two violin concerti.

Opening with Bartók’s earliest known violin work, Elise Båtnes and Håvard Gimse give us a tender performance of the Andante for violin and piano, which is possessed of so sweet a melody that we are led to wonder if this isn’t a piece of salon music by a lesser composer. No indeed, this is the work of a young master composed oddly on the back of twelve postcards and given to a friend and fellow student Adila d’Aranyi as a little musical greeting card. Would that Hallmark™ could produce such gems.

The sonata of 1903 is another student composition, and although very well crafted, it shows the influence of Brahms and Dvorak on the young composer. The melodies are bold and sweeping and the accompaniment is lush and romantic and full of the late nineteenth century harmonic progressions. Of particular interest and merit is the gypsy themed second movement, played here with a dark and compelling passion.

Bartók, along with his colleague Zoltan Kodaly, were pioneers in the field of ethnomusicology, and the both of them travelled throughout the Hungarian countryside capturing authentic performances of folksongs on the newly invented phonograph. This research led both composers to integrate these songs into their more formal compositions, thus preserving the old in the clothes of the new. The nine little gems here are brief and sometimes even abrupt, but are altogether captivating with their spicy harmonies and stirring dance-like rhythms. Ms. Båtnes and Mr. Gimse tear into them with abandon and produce a splendid contrast to the more rhapsodic and serious sonatas.

The unaccompanied sonata was written for Yehudi Menuhin and is the last work that Bartók was able to complete in every detail. Clearly modeled after Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, Bartók uses ancient formal structures in a kind of homage to the great baroque composer. This is the most harmonically adventuresome of the works presented here, and Ms. Båtnes gives us a sensitive and virtuosic performance. Her rich tone applied in the warmer passages, contrasted with a pointed clear sound in the more biting harmonies.

This collection was full of surprises and is a disc that I shall certainly return to again and again. For one who is accustomed to the sharper, more dissonant music of the string quartets, these generous and hearty works came as a pleasant discovery. This recording fulfills what I believe to be any recording’s biggest mission; to leave the listener satisfied and wanting to explore more of a composer’s music. In this regard, this is a most satisfying performance. Program notes are thorough, interesting and thankfully devoid of academic blather. Sound quality is up to Simax’ customary high standards.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Old Dog, Some New Tricks

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K467 [21:22]
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K482 [33:36]

Jonathan Biss, piano
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Recorded in concert from 15-16 March, 2008 at Lefrak Concert Hall, Queens College, Flushing, New York

EMI 50999 2 17270 2 3 [61:07]

It would be nonsense to say that Mozart showed a weakness in any genre in which he chose to write, but it is in the piano concertos that we experience some of his most profound thinking, his most lyrical melodies and some of his most gregarious humor. The works presented here are two of the biggies, and EMI have trotted out another in their seemingly unending string of young artists to team up with New York’s exemplary Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to give us a very satisfying performance indeed.

Jonathan Biss is a wonderfully able technician, and he sails through the intricacies of these two mature works with ease. The opening movement of K467 is stately and well paced, and Mr. Biss’ tone is one of shimmering beauty and crystal clarity. The often over-ripe “Elvira Madigan” theme is played with operatic elegance, and with the utmost taste. I did find, however, that the rondo was, although quite cleanly played, a bit breathless. Mr. Biss didn’t miss a note, but the lightening pace he chose had me sitting on chair’s edge hoping that everyone would meet at the end. For the record, they did.

The meaty K482 receives a very well balanced and stately performance. Of particular merit is the simply stunning playing from the winds in the second movement. This at times soaring and at others achingly heart wrenching theme and variations is given a masterful performance. The finale contains some of Mozart’s most joyful music. One can just imagine him sitting at the piano and ripping through this jolly little tune with Tom Hulce’s wicked little smile plastered across his face.

It is a nice thing to hear these oft-recorded works approached with such fresh and youthful vitality. Recorded sound is alive and present, and Mr. Biss’ program essay is thoughtful and delightfully lacking in academic blather. Instead, we get a nice insight into Mozart’s mindset and the structure of the music. This is most definitely a winner. Playing like this encourages me to explore Mr. Biss’ recent Beethoven recordings.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Brilliant American Chamber Music

Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)

Chamber Symphony (2003) [19:14]
Autumn Song (2000) [4:59]
Cool Fire (2001) [21:02]

Marya Martin, (flute)
Jeewon Park, (piano)
Stephen Williamson, (clarinet)
Erik Ralske, (horn)
Ayano Kataoka, (marimba/vibraphone)
Ayano Ninomiya, (violin)
Jessica Lee, (violin)
Cynthia Phelps, (viola)
Edward Arron, (cello)

Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, December 2007.

NAXOS 8.559393 [45:30]

Paul Moravec is one of those rare composers these days who writes music that is not only original, but is also listenable, yea, even enjoyable. Ever conscious of the power of a good melody, Mr. Moravec combines a winsome way with a tune with a very careful and thought-out use of dissonance to create music that is not only instantly memorable, but worthy of repeated listening. It’s a fresh change of pace from what spills out of most copies of Finale and Sibelius these days.

Moravec’s style is clearly American and yet it is somewhat difficult to pin down his influences. His melodies are not theatrical like Leonard Bernstein’s, nor are they colloquial like Aaron Copland’s, yet they are fresh. Further, Mr. Moravec, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for music, has managed to avoid the kind of episodic and disconnected formal style that ensures only a single performance of much new music. Rather, he says what he needs to say in just the right amount of time and stops. It is this compactness of expression and his careful attention to the sound and blend of instrumental timbres that makes his music so very appealing.

The three works on this program were composed for the Brigehampton Chamber Music Festival, long a stalwart summer event in New England. The Chamber Symphony is scored for seven instruments. It opens with a virtuosic fast movement that features an energetic underpinning from the piano and percussion with lyrical swaths draped on by the winds and strings. The tender slow movement reminds me a bit of Poulenc with its spicy harmonic language the floats gently between tasty jazz chords and blissful major triads. The third movement, labeled “Quick” is just that, a sprightly romp through a musical playground with everyone running as fast as they can. The work closes with a substantial finale that begins slowly and peacefully and ends in another fun game of chase.

The tender Autumn Song for flute and piano is reminiscent of Prokofiev to these ears with some sweeping gestures in the piano and a flute part that often soars above the thick piano texture to make itself known. Marya Martin and Jeewon Park give a warm and sensitive performance, just thoughtful enough to be reflective, but not so over-ripe as to be maudlin.

Finally, Cool Fire rounds out the program. This three movement work scored for flute, piano and string quartet is more adventureous perhaps than the other two pieces, but nonetheless reflects Moravec’s penchant for lyricism and his ability to write energetic and intricate counterpoint in fast sections.

All the performances here are of the first order, and it is evident that these players have spent some time with the music and have internalized it. There is a palpable sense of purpose to the playing; serious when called for and utterly fun when appropriate. Kudos to Naxos for making a goodly chunk of Mr. Moravec’s music available to us in recent months, but at only forty-five minutes, it would have been nice to have had one more piece on this otherwise fairly flawless recording.

I was also a bit disappointed in the program notes which spent far more time flattering the good nature of the composer than they did in explaining the music to us. Those quibbles aside, this is wonderful music and well worth exploring by conservative and adventuresome listeners alike.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Superb New Recording from Seattle

William LAWES (1602-1645)

The Harp Consorts (complete)

Consort 8 in G, Paven and divisions [8:08]
Consort 7 in G, Air [2:10]
Consort 3 in G, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande
Consort 11 in d, Fantasie [4:07]
Consort 4 in d, Air, Air, Courante, Sarabande [6:30]
Consort 9 in D, Paven and divisions [9:22]
Consort 5 in D, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:39]
Consort 6 in D, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [8:28]
Consort 10 in g, Paven and divisions [8:40]
Consort 2 in g, Air, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:58]
Consort 1 in g, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:08]
Duo for Guitare et Harpe [6:08] (with Alman by René Meangeau) [3:49]

Maxine Eilander, (harp)
Les Voix Humaines
Stephen Stubbs, (theorbo and guitar)
David Greenberg, (baroque violin)
Susie Napper and Margaret Little, (violas da gamba)

Recorded at the Église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, Quebec, Canada in December 2002 and April 2006.

ATMA ACD2 2372 [76:26]

The so-called “Harp Consorts” of William Lawes, court musician to England’s King Charles I, stand as unique examples of an elegant genre begun in the British court, and tragically ended by the English Civil War, a debacle that claimed the lives of both King and composer. The works stem from a tradition of music for a mixed and specified group of instruments, often called the “broken consort” that first appeared in 1599 with the Consort Lessons of Thomas Morley. Lawes adaptation of Morley’s precedent places the harp in two roles: one as a harmonic instrument placed in the center of the texture as in the Fantasies and Pavens; or as a melodic instrument in dialogue with the violin and the theorbo, the harp’s right hand providing an independent and contrapuntal voice. The debate as to whether an Irish single or French triple harp was the intended instrument for this elegant music has been lengthy and heated, and I will leave it to you, dear reader to explore this question further in Stephen Stubbs’ thorough and informative program note.

With the arrival in England in 1629 of Queen Henriette Marie, all things French became the rage. This was particularly true in the fields of music and dance, and we see that these suites are on the whole collections of French dance music. Surely these works accompanied actual dancing at the court. Nonetheless, the music is of such an elegant nature that it must also have been enjoyed in intimate chamber settings for its own sake. These instruments combine to make such a sweet and gentle tone, that listeners, regardless of their experience with early music, cannot help but come away satisfied.

Lucky are we indeed then that we have such a fine practitioner of the harp as Maxine Eilander, and more fortunate still are we to have her team with her renowned husband Stephen Stubbs and their musical friends to seek out, recreate and re-establish this repertoire in its first complete recording. The balance and nuance of this outstanding ensemble is as refined as the workings of s Swiss time piece. Ever mindful of his or her role in the weave of this musical fabric, each player seems to understand as by second nature when to play out, when to lead rhythmically or when to take a back seat, waiting for his or her turn to come again to the fore.

The music itself is packed with variety, shifting easily from slow, graceful and sometimes mournful Pavanes and Fantasies to the more spritely dances of the suites. Interestingly, the ensemble has chosen to group the works by key center instead of by their (one supposes) chronological order. One might wonder how the contrast of keys would affect a complete listening of well over seventy minutes.

One of the biggest appeals of this performance lies in the music’s ability to function in both background and foreground. You can put it on and go about your business, or you can listen intently and find a wealth of fascinating melody and interplay between the instruments. Regardless of how you choose to listen, this fully packed disc is a garland of delights. After you this charmer, you’ll certainly want to explore further examples of consort music from this period by the likes of Coprario, Purcell, Dowland, Jenkins and Hume. There are abundant recordings of this music for you to enjoy. But start here. This music making is as close to perfection as you’ll ever get.