Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rarely-heard music, Evgeny Sudbin ... and HM The Queen!

Have you ever heard of Joseph Jongen? No, neither had we, but our first hour will feature his Piano Quartet Op.23 on this week's Vivace

At 7 o'clock, we have a well-known trio by Mozart to enchant you.  Then, after selections by Lumbye and Ponchielli, we'll feature a work by CPE Bach played on a rarely-heard instrument, the tangent piano. And just before 8 o'clock, we have a super-special royal birthday to celebrate.

During the 8 o'clock hour, we'll start a few days of celebration to mark the visit to Charlottesville next week of the great Russian-born pianist, Yevgeny Sudbin, whose concert on Tuesday, April 29 at the University of Virginia will be the season finale for the Tuesday Evening Concert Series. He will join us on Vivace to play one of Beethoven's great piano concertos.

As ever, I hope you'll join us for Vivace, three hours of entertaining and interesting music, this Friday, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

PS.  If you also tune in Sunday morning at about 8 am, Mr. Sudbin will be interviewed by Deborah Murray on Classical Sunrise.  In fact, why not start your Sunday on a gentle note by tuning in from 6-9 am.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Moments of Love - Dominique Labelle and Yehudi Wyner show real chemistry

Moments of Love
Ravel, Saint-Saens, Wyner, Hahn, Britten
Dominique Labell, sporano
Yehudi Wyner, piano
Bridge Records

Dominique Labelle and Yehudi Wyner have put together an engaging program with "Moments of Love." Labelle's voice has a warm lower register and a very clean upper register that she uses to great effect in this musical examination of love's multiplicity. There's a real chemistry between singer and accompanist that makes the listening experience even more enjoyable.

Featured on the recording is Ravel's "Trois Poems de Stephane Mallarme" and a selection of songs by Saint-Saens. Labelle's voice is well-suited to this French repertoire, sounding slightly mysterious in the Ravel, and inviting and charming with Saint-Saens' selections.

There's something about the composer playing his own work -- especially one as accomplished a performer as Wyner. "The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women" was originally written for soprano and chamber ensemble. His adaptation of the work for voice and solo piano is quite effective. The composition seems to borrow gestures from mid-century atonality, but still (to my ears) rooted around tonal centers. The result is music that conveys deep emotion though apparent dissonance -- emotion Labelle expresses quite effectively.

Reynaldo Hahn's youthful art songs are sung with a simple beauty entirely appropriate to the material, and the disc ends with four songs from Britten. Jazz and tin-pan alley rubs shoulders with classical in these numbers, and Labelle delivers with a wink and smile.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Anna Bon di Venezia: Harpsichord Sonatas a welcome rediscovery

Anna Bon di Venezia
Six Sonatas for Harpsichord, Op. 2
Barbara Harbach, harpsichord
MSR Classics

Anna Bon di Venezia is a somewhat mysterious figure -- very little is known about her, save that she, along with her parents (a stage manager and an opera singer) were hired by Count Esterhazy, where (presumably) they worked under his Kappellmeister, Franz Joseph Haydn.

Anna Bon published a set of flute sonatas, a set of keyboard sonatas, a set of trio sonatas before marrying and apparently retired from music.

The harpsichord sonatas, published in 1757, are fascinating. To my ears, they sound similar in style to the ones Haydn wrote around the same time. These are short, straight-forward works that are charming in their simplicity. Barbara Harbach performs them with delicacy and authority, bringing out the beauty and elegance of Bon's carefully crafted melodies.

These works, I think, compare favorably to contemporaneous sonatas by more famous composers. Recommended to anyone interested in early classical music.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Primosch Sacred Songs Blends Old and New

Sacred Songs
James Primosch 
Susan Narucki, soprano
William Sharp, baritone
21st Century Consort
Christopher Kendall, conductor
Bridge Records

"Sacred Songs" these are, but they're not the comfortable platitudes of ordinary church music. James Primrosch draws from many sources to create works that are indeed deeply spiritual, often thought-provoking, and always demanding the listener's full attention.

From a Book of Hours, for example, is angular and aggressive, but with an almost retro-sounding atonality in some movements. The music matches the unsettled and conflicted musings of the narrator's relationship with God. By contrast, Four Sacred Songs is a more elegiac work, drawing on sacred music traditions of the past to create music that sounds both contemporary and timeless.

Dark the Star has a somewhat mysterious air about it, especially as sung by William Sharp. Sharp seems to be holding back his dark, baritone voice, as if refraining from revealing too much. But his performance fits the dark, nocturnal nature of the work. The program concludes with Holy the Firm, a beautiful and lyrical solo cantata. The work's spacious sound and wide-open intervals remind me a little of Copland or Barber in spots.

Soprano Susan Narucki has very expressive voice. It can have a rich, creamy sound in the lyrical passages, yet still develop a steely edge when necessary for the more dissonant sections.

Christopher Kendall and the 21st Century consort are in top form. Of the four works on this album, only one was originally scored for chamber orchestra, and it's the only one whose chamber orchestra version wasn't premiered by the Consort. This ensemble knows these works intimately -- and it's apparent in their performances.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Barabara Harbach: Orchestral Music -- an appealing collection

Barbara Harbach :Orchestral Music
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kirk Trevor, conductor
Frantisek Novotny, violin
Cynthia Green Libby, oboe
MSR Classics

Barabara Harbach is perhaps better known as a pianist and harpsichordist (and a champion of women composers), but this new release shows she's equally accomplished as a composer -- and not just as a composer for the keyboard.

Venerations for Orchestra, is, according to Harbach, is a three-movement symphony celebrating "love, beauty, attractiveness and desire" -- and the veneration of those themes. So it seems. Overall, this is a pleasant work, orchestrated with a soft focus that keeps it a little removed emotionally. Harbach has a gift for evocative melody, and there were some imaginative orchestral touches that made this an attractive work.

As the name suggests, Frontier Fancies for Violin and Orchestra has a vaguely American cast to it. But don't expect distilled Copland. Harbach has her own ideas about what Americana music sounds like. The violin and orchestra maneuver about each other like to protagonists -- or two lovers. Solo violinist Frantisek Novotny makes the most of the gorgeous material Harbach gives him -- especially in the slow movement, "Twilight Dream."

One of Ours - A Cather Symphony was inspired by Willa Cathar's book of the same name. The work conjures up the sprawling plains of Nebraska in its opening movement with the orchestra's wide-open harmonies and soaring melodies. The second and third movements skip to the end of the novel, set on the battlefields of the First World War. But don't expect an overt depiction of war a la Shostakovitch's "Leningrad" symphony. Harbach, like Carther, is more concerned about the emotional effect of the conflict. The symphony ends, not triumphantly, but in an elegiac and life-affirming fashion.

The Rhapsody Jardine for Oboe and String Orchestra is the most adventurous score on the album. The oboist, Cynthia Green Libby, has worked with Harbach before, and is able to bring substantial insight to the score. The melody goes through several transformations, but Libby never lets us lose sight of the thread. Her performance really brings this work to life.

And it also highlights the one flaw with this recording. As good as the Slovak Radio symphony Orchestra is, their performance overall sounds flat, as if they were sight-reading. Using Eastern European orchestras to make a contemporary music recording is common practice these days -- without these relatively inexpensive and competent ensembles, a lot of deserving American music simply wouldn't get recorded. Conductor Kirk Trevor does what he can, but he can't fully compensate lack of adequate rehearsal. I'd love to hear these works done by an American orchestra after playing them in concert.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Bernard Rands: Piano Music 1960-2010

Bernard Rands 
Piano Music (1960-2010) 
Ursula Oppens, Robert Levin, piano
Bridge Records 

By presenting a selection of piano works spanning 40 years, Bridge makes it easy to hear how Bernard Rands matured as a composer, from strict serialist to a more intuitive (albeit still non-tonal) style.

The release opens with his 1960 composition, "Tre Espressioni." This is an early work, and to my ears, the pointillist atonality sounds a little to academic and emotionless. "Espressione IV," written just four years later for two pianos seems more fully developed. In this case, the two pianos start off with completely contrasting material and gradually work towards a confluence by the end.

In "Memo 5," composed in 1975, I thought I could detect a little bit of humor amid the disjunct tone clusters and rapid passage work. According to the liner notes, Rands wrote it to express his displeasure with "PPP -- pretty piano pieces." His displeasure is made quite clear.

The largest work on the album is Rands' 2007 "Preludes." This collection of 12 preludes was dedicated to composer and pianist Robert D. Levin, and the first letter of each prelude spells out his name (Ricecare, Ostinato, Bordone, Elegia, Ritornello, Toccata, etc.).  Collectively, the set has a greater range of musical expression than the earlier pieces on the album. Some are just as spiky as "Tre Espressioni," but the writing seems more sophisticated and authentic, somehow. Some of the preludes are even somewhat lyrical (but never sentimental).

"Impromptu," finished in 2010 concludes the program in a satisfying fashion. In contrast to the opening work, the contour is smoother, the dissonance less aggressive, and the overall tone more amiable. To me, it sounded like Rands had completely internalized his compositional process, and the work had a naturalness to it that the early piano pieces lacked.

Ursula Oppens and Robert Leven do excellent work bringing Rands music to life. The technical requirements are steep, but both artists never lose sight of the overarching musical organization of the works.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Leif Ove Andsnes: The Beethoven Journey Continues

The Beethoven Journey
Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Sony Classical

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes continues his highly personal exploration of Beethoven's piano concertos. The second release in this series features the second and fourth concertos, which work well paired together.

Andsnes plays and directs the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard. The use of a small ensemble give these works an unusual lightness and transparency. And by combining solo and conducting duties, Andsnes is able to have the orchestra do precisely what he wants, instead of relying on his wishes being relayed through a third party (who may have some artistic ideas of their own).

Andsnes plays with delicacy and an almost liquid smoothness. In these performances, the concertos aren't stormy contests of wills, but rather a group of musicians acting in one accord. Andsnes makes the plain the influence Mozart had on Beethoven, especially in the second concerto. The rough-hewn edges of Beethoven's style are smoothed over and polished to a sheen, revealing the underlying beauty of the music. Music which seems somehow more elegantly simple through Andsnes' performances.

It's always a challenge to present works that have been recorded countless times in a new and original fashion -- and remain true to the music. Yet Andsnes does just that in this successfully completed leg of his Beethoven journey.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Gliere Symphony No. 3 - An epic journey

Reinhold Moritsevich Gliere
Symphony No. 3 "Il'ya Muromets"
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor

Gliere's sprawling symphony takes the listener on an epic sonic odyssey. From the somber opening bars that foreshadow the arrival of the heroic Il'ya Muromets, to the closing chords where Muromets and his brave Bogatyrs knights are defeated and turned to stone, Giere weaves a tightly-constructed narrative that's both coherent and immersive.

The first recording of this work was with Stokowski, who (with Gliere's permission) trimmed the work down from 70+ minutes to a svelte 38 minutes. Although it's a thrilling performance (it is Stoki, after all), it didn't do the work justice. Because Gliere's third symphony has no filler -- every note is there for a reason, and every note helps further the story.

Others have recorded the complete version of this work, but somehow failed to completely communicate overarching dramatic motion of the music. There are plenty of beautifully written sections that its tempting the linger over, but just as with the organic music of Wagner and Mahler, they're most effective in context.

And JoAnn Falletta understands that context. Her performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is one that delivered new pleasures every time I listened to it. The story for this programmatic work is quite detailed -- but you really don't need to follow it with this recording. Falletta and the BPO effectively paint each scene completely.

The release is beautifully recorded, allowing the listener to hear Gliere's subtle orchestrations. A joy to listen to from start to finish.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Things You Already Know - Chris Campbell's personal soundscape

Things You Already Know
Chris Campbell

Composer Chris Campbell has created an album of deeply personal music. Campbell's carefully constructed soundcapes use a variety of sources -- acoustic instruments, electronics, found objects, and home-made instruments. The result is an intriguing journey for the ear. Campbell's music manages to hover between contemporary classical music and electronica without fully landing in either camp.

And that's what keeps it interesting. It's music that almost reminds me of something I've heard before, but I can't quite place it -- so I just have to keep listening.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Stanislaw Moniuszko: Overtures - Polish treasures

Stanislaw Moniuszko: Overtures
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra; 
Antoni Wit, conductor

In Poland, Stanislaw Moniuszko is a national hero. Like Dvorak, he was able to retain the characteristic sound of his country's folk music in classical works, creating music that sounded distinctively Polish. Most of Moniuszko's composition are for the human voice; songs, cantatas, anthems and especially operas.

This new release features ten opera overtures from "the Father of Polish Opera," and what a treat they are. Tuneful, straightforward, and full of energy -- to my ears they sounded like a blend of Weber, Suppe and Dvorak. And there's plenty of variety. some, like "The Hetman's Mistress" are real curtain-raisers, uptempo and sprightly. Others, like "the Raftsman" are quieter, setting the stage with long, languorous melodies of tender beauty. And almost all have slightly unusual chord progressions or rhythms that give them a distinctively Polish sound.

Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra are admirably suited to these works. Just as a Viennese orchestra instinctively knows how to add a little something to a Strauss waltz, this Polish orchestra knows what Moniuszko's referencing, and play it as it should be.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys mid-century romantic music -- especially opera.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Toward a Season of Peace - Richard Danielpour's masterwork

Ricahard Danielpour
Toward a Season of Peace
Hila Plitmann, soprano
Pacific Chorale
Pacific Symphony, 

Carl St. Clair, director

Richard Danielpour's "Towards a Season of Peace" is an ambitious work -- and one that succeeds in that ambition. Danielpour combines texts from Jewish, Christian and Persian (Arabic) sources in his oratorio for peace. By doing so, he shows the parallels and common ground between the three major religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Muslim -- currently at war with each other in the Middle East.

Unlike Bernstein's "Requiem Mass," Danielpour never gets preachy. He lets the inherent beauty of the poetic texts, supported by his music, speak for itself. The work is tonal and quite easy to follow -- which I suspect was Danielpour's intention. This isn't an esoteric work for the cognescenti, but rather a work that can be heard and enjoyed by a much wider audience. If you enjoy "modern" composers such as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, or Michael Tippett, then you should find much to like in Daneilpour's composition. Not that he sounds like any of those composers, but Danielpour seems to be coming from the same place.

In the liner notes Danielpour talks about reconnecting with his Persian musical heritage, and several parts of the score reflect that, adding a verve and excitement not found in works sticking to just Western traditions.

Hila Plitmann's in fine form, letting her clear soprano voice float lightly above the orchestra in her solos. The overall performance by the Pacific Chorale, Pacific Symphony and conductor Carl St. Clair benefit from their close working relationship with the composer. This may be a world-premier recording, but the ensemble performs it as if it were a work they had been playing for years.