Wednesday, September 17, 2014

George Perle Portrait in Eight Pieces

George Perle: Eight Pieces 1938-1997)
Michael Brown, piano
Bridge Records


Every composer should have a champion. For George Perle, that champion is pianist Michael Brown. As a teenaged virtuoso, Brown fell in love with Perle's music and had an opportunity to meet the composer. That developed into a close personal and professional relationship over the years, culminating in this release.

Brown collects not only Perle's published works for solo piano, but some earlier works still unperformed at the time of Perle's death. Brown has a deep understanding of Perle's music, and that makes this collection so exciting to listen to. The eight works span Perle's creative output. The earliest work, the 1938 "Classical Suite" receives it's world premier recording here.

In many ways, it's similar to Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony." While using traditional forms and mostly tonal harmonies, Perle continually plays against expectations as his melodies veer off into unexpected directions.

The "Six Celebratory Inventions" (1989-1997) is the collection that Brown played for Perle as a teenager. Each invention honors a different composer by imitating his style. And while one can hear the dedicatee in each movement -- Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Ernst Krenek, et al -- it's all filtered through Perle's inventive imagination, giving this set an overarching sense of cohesion.

Michael Brown has lived with some of these works for a while, and he plays with authority and sensitivity. Perle isn't primarily known for his keyboard compositions. Brown's performances suggest they should be reassessed.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Poul Ruders, Vol. 9 - Amiable Chamber Music

Poul Ruders, Vol. 9
David Starobin, guitar; Daniel Druckman, percussion; David Holzman, piano; Amalia Hall, violin; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, Sara Rothenberg, piano
Bridge Recrods

The two words that sprang to mind as I listened to this collection of Poul Ruder's chamber music was "amiable atonality." These chambers works move well beyond tonality, without a hint of academic dryness. Every work had real personality, often full of warmth and gentle humor.

Guitarist David Starobin and Poul Ruders have enjoyed a long and fruitful collaborative relationship, and Starobin brings his deep understanding of Ruders' music to two works. The "New Rochelle Suite" for guitar and percussion is a witty composition, and Starobin and percussionist Daniel Druckman perform it with a sometimes wink at the audience. Ruders scores imaginatively for percussion, making non-tonal instruments such as the castanets and tom-toms (among many other) add nuanced shading to the guitar's wide-ranging melodies.

"Schrödinger's Cat" is a set of 12 canons for violin and guitar that reflect the ambivalence of the title. In quantum mechanics, Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment illustrating the paradoxical concept that particles can be in two states simultaneously until observed. So, too, these canons seem to shift back and forth until they suddenly collapse into a final cadence. Starobin and Amalia Hall perform these canons in an unadorned fashion, just presenting the facts -- which seem to change before our ears.

"Romances for viola and piano" is romantic in nature, but the expressive yearnings of the melody get their poignancy from decidedly post-tonal chromatic inflections. Violist Hsin-Yun Huang and pianist Sarah Rothenberg make a great team, though, bring out the emotion in the music without being too emotive.

David Holzman performs "Twinkle Bells - Piano Etude No. 2" with a light, deft touch. He makes the cascading thirds that make up the bulk of the etude shimmer and tinkle like tiny bells. He also brings the album to a close with Ruders' "13 Postludes." These are wonderfully-crafted short little works that evoke the spirit of Chopin -- in an amiably atonal way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lior Ronser: Awake and Dream

Awake and Dream
Works by Lior Rosner
Janai Brugger; soprano
Katia Popov, violin
The Hollywood Studio Symphony
Steven Vanhauwaert, piano
Lior Rosner, conductor, piano


Lior Rosner is best known for his film and TV scores, which show the wide range of styles he's mastered. This collection of his classical works betrays some of that background -- the music is mostly tonal, and is more about conveying atmosphere and emotion than being concerned about formal structure. And yet these works aren't just fleshed-out film cues. Rather, they're compositions of real substance -- post neo-romantic, if you will.

Rosner's featured soloists are real standouts. Katia Popov performs with a clean, slightly steely tone that's well-suited to these modernist works. Awake and Dream is an impressionistic work that seems to float between dream and reality. Popov spins forth the long, flowing melodies effortlessly, moving from motive to motive seamlessly. The solo violin work "G-Pull" lets Popov display some of her technical skills, but it's her shaping of phrases and subtle articulation that holds the piece together.

Soprano Janai Bugger has a rich, warm voice, with an upper register that sounds well-rounded and clear. She beautifully performs "In time of Silver Rain," a song cycle based on Langston Hughes' poetry. Rosner's settings sound more like Copland and Barber than Duke Ellington, giving these poems a universally American character, rather than African-American. Bugger performs them in a simple, straight-forward fashion, letting the words themselves deliver the emotional impact. By contrast, Bugger provides the emotion for "Three Poems by Sappho." Her singing communicates the full range of emotions this cycle expresses, from ecstatic love to deep mourning.

While the soloists shine, the ensemble could use some polishing. The Hollywood Studio Symphony is a pick-up ensemble, made up of session musicians contracted for the project. There's nothing wrong with that -- but sometimes the ensemble doesn't quite jell. Attacks are a little imprecise and some entrances seem a little tentative. It's not a horrible sound, just a little rough around the edges. I'd be interested in hearing these works performed by an orchestra that has lived together for a while. I expect it would really make the music come alive.