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Beethoven Symphonies 2/7, Philippe Jordan, Wiener Symphoniker

If I mentioned Beethoven yesterday for his central role in creating the idea of a poetic and brilliant treatment of orchestral forces and so as the true father of orchestration as we know it in the time of New Music, all the better today that we have some new release showing that very thing. Philippe Jordan and the Wiener Symphoniker are a fair ways along in their release of a Beethoven Symphony Cycle. That such a thing is a cause of joy would seem to be the case based on the latest volume I have been listening to very happily, namely the Beethoven Symphonies 2/7 (SONY Music 610 SM).

When you think of a Viennese Beethoven Cycle you might naturally think of an extraordinarily disciplined performance and that beautiful presence of winds and horns like you are unlikely to hear from other orchestras. Not quite like that anyway when you are out of town. Vienna has never been a city who thinks that when it comes to Beethoven, just get the feeling right and do not sweat the details.  These symphonic pairings up today beautifully reflect the Viennese urgency of the details-as-huge-part-of-a careful-whole performance ethos.  Jordan and the Vienna masters give us all we might expect. And then they go a step further and give us the best we might ask for, a kind of making it all seem new again. That is ideal.

And maybe that is especially a surprise with the Second Symphony. As you listen to this version you imagine what it might have sounded like to you before there were Symphonies 3 to 9, instead of how we usually hear it, as a way station on route to the revelations of Symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9. And when listening in sequence as I have often done in my hearing world it passes like the tick of a clock on its way to the midnight of the 9th, or even as a necessary but intermediate step before that burst of feeling and revolution that was and is the Eroica.

I have especially long appreciated an old recording of Toscanini doing the Second, and he does wonderful things with it. Yet nothing might quite prepare you for the Jordan-Wiener take. Suddenly, it seems like its own Eroica, so to speak, that is, a very bold orchestral work for its place in the time of its time. Jordan brings to us the logic of Beethoven's orchestration/scoring, lets us feel how each part vividly takes place within the whole of each phrase, how every part of the orchestra has a hand, an important hand in the making of the sound of the finished whole.  Before this in a way you might just hear the strings run through a Haydn or a Mozart opus and in the end and often enough you would not miss all that much. Not with the Beethoven of the Second! No way. And so with this new reading you sense all the interpenetrations of parts with parts and how as a meta-organism the music thrives with incredibly appropriate touches that Jordan and the Weiner people handle as no one has quite done it before. It is joy.

As for the Seventh we may feel on hearing this fresh re-working that perhaps before we have been guilty of viewing it as more of an afterthought in the high pantheon of the great symphonies than it should be. It stands tall, second to none in the Jordan performances. Well no, second thought nothing can ever quite reach the heights of the 3rd and the 9th, but nonetheless, this reading of the 7th worries over every essential detail and then not only sounds each particle within the whole but also more-or-less makes every particle have a strong musical personality latent within the notes themselves but also pulled out of the air by grasping Beethoven as a very particulate whole!

It is for all these reasons that I do recommend these readings to you most heartily. There is a making new indeed, for virtually every bar rings out with a special clarity that rivals all the very best readings I have heard. The strings phrase as one in individual ways that take away the breath. Horns and winds are ultra-articulate and give us so much, a balanced and creative reading of what Beethoven very much intended we hear.  The recording quality is superior and with these performances you will get a great deal out of this whether you have heard hundreds of performances or none at all before. If you are feeling the need for this then do not hesitate. Or even if you do not think you need it for that matter. You probably do.

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Michael Gordon, The Unchanging Sea, with Film by Bill Morrison, Seattle Symphony, Pablo Rus Broseta, Tomoko Mukaiyama

What does it take to be a great composer? Is it ever the same? Well, what Clementi needed to create the Piano Sonatas in yesterday's program is surely something different than what Michael Gordon brings to us in The Unchanging Sea (Seattle Symphony CA21141 CD and DVD), a remarkable new orchestral work that is the soundtrack to Bill Morrison's film of the same name. Whereas the Clementi sonatas relied upon an acutely inventive linear feel for unspooning melodics and significant form as underlying structural architecture, the Gordon work (as a sort of exemplary world of New Ambiance) takes a kind of all-at-once great idea in sound, which then of course succeeds or not by its sequential unraveling of the very large sonic moment. That does not mean of course that a Clementi kind of musical mind is not welcome in the New Music realms today, but that there are other more canvas-like parameters that also captivate us when works are in this new world of possibilities. So for the sake of my recent posts you might well say that Finnissy is closer to a Clementi in his linear view, and perhaps Gordon ultimately is a working though of the first real insights of the Mannheim School of orchestral music, culminating in a first climax in Beethoven's Symphonies. Two strains, both as New Music is now.

And if that is a sort of bold assertion for the first thing in the morning, it is deserved in this instance. For this is a work of true evocative power, nothing quite like anything else, though it stands in relation to another orchestral work of similar power, John Luther Adam's Become Ocean (see review from October 23, 2014).

The intense aural imagination that goes into this work is extraordinary. It is an orchestrational coup d'etat, nothing less. For it creates the aural image of a seascape that has a timelessness and mystery redolent with vast expanses of shifting, splurging, rocking, sprawlingly awesome and endless strength. The piano part is in the beginning hammering and relentless like the continual energy of sea on life. It later in essence becomes a concerted vehicle of expression, then joins the orchestra as a key rhythm instrument, and all quite musically and happily. The strings and winds give us an uncanny blurring of the endless pliable force of the sea. There is incredible depth of field to the changing panorama of sounds. You hear the vast unfolding of many mini-tidal events as they meld together into a widely diffuse unraveling. And the music changes, never remains fixed at any point.

This is Post-Minimal of course, yet that does really have some meaning, in that there are envelopes of endless recurrences and the hugely beautiful swells of oceanic sound. It is what Minimalism sought to do, only it does it without reliance on set changing patterns. There is underlying pulse much of the time but it is there in some ways like it has always been in "pre-Minimalism," as a kind of given that ticks a timeless time underneath  the musical events.

The CD includes a half-hour Sea as we can hear it in the movie. That is followed by the 15-minute Beijing Harmony that is not a part of the film. I have been listening to the music without reference to the liners so all this time my mind has conjoined the two works as a sequence, and perhaps that is all for the better, since to my mind the second work amplifies the swelling drift of sounds in different ways from the title work. They manage to be of a piece in the experience. One follows the other like "Refrain" follows "Kontakte" on the original 1959 instrumental-electronics recordings of Stockhausen's masterworks. Perhaps even more so, in that Gordon's two works are even more of a piece together.

Well and so to turn now to the Bill Morrison film would imply that the DVD that features that is almost an afterthought? It most certainly is not. The film is as hauntingly singular as the music in its own way. Morrison makes a narrative out of diverse pieces of silent-era film directed to the sea in the life of the time. So the narrative goes from man-woman-sea as a triadic thing to the dreaming woman on the rock and what follows is the sea as destroyers of men--footage of shipwreck and rescue dominate the film's central section, played out always as the deliberate and thematic inclusion of time itself as undermining force in our oblivion--the beautiful-horrific sight of film badly deteriorating and at times totally obliterating the image to put on a fascinatingly sculpted play of water damage, celluloid deterioration or light damage competing with standard image, like a vast inferno of meaningless negation threatening to engulf us all.

I can only say that the film-music DVD is unforgettable. Yet in the end the music is something monumental on its own. This disk qualifies to me as a front runner for New Music disk of the year. It escapes from the Faberge Egg endlessness of Minimal repetition to find another linear path outward, to liquidity, water and an endless mass of water! My highest recommendation for this one. Time in the end prevails over endlessness? It is a lesson for us?

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Clementi, Keyboard Sonatas, Op. 33, Nos, 2 and 3, etc., Stefan Chaplikov

Just a couple of days ago we mentioned Clementi's iconic Sonatina in the course of mentioning Satie's delightful pastiche of it in Joana Gama's worthy Satie.150 (see last month's listings). Today we happily encounter him again.  This time with a volume of his Keyboard Sonatas, including Op. 33, Nos. 2 and 3; Op. 46; Op. 25, Nos. 1 and 3 (Naxos 8.573712). It features pianist Stefan Chaplikov, who sparkles and bubbles his way through the five works, giving us a plein air refreshment that may be just what we need after a heavy dose of gloomy Romanticism or giddy sojourns through the outer space of High Modernism.

I was one of those students assigned the iconic Sonatina so many years ago, and I must say I came away with an appreciation of Clementi's sense of form and melodics. I've since never passed on an opportunity to hear more of his music. In the late '70s-early '80s I discovered his symphonies, and I knew then that he was more or less as accomplished as any of his era. (Who topped Mozart and Haydn though? Well they were supermen I suppose!) So fast forward some many years and I now hold in my hand this nice little volume of good cheer as it plays underneath my writing this morning.

If you listen closely to these works you might find as I did that we should probably included these examples among the very cream of Classical Era sonatas, along with those of Haydn, Mozart, CPE Bach, early Beethoven and Schubert and perhaps now we may also add Kozeluch and, perhaps Czerny but I must hear more of his.

The main idea is that these sonatas are uniformly well wrought, melodically inventive in the most freshening and refreshing of ways, and accordingly a beautiful listen when you need a change of pace. And who doesn't?

I cannot say to you that all must drop everything and get this volume. It is not that kind of release. However if you enjoy a very pianistic romp through some nicely turned works, you are sure to find this a pleasurable go. Definitely recommended.
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Michael Finnissy, Choralvorspiele, Andersen-Liederkreis, Juliet Fraser & Mark Knoop

With my reading glasses perched atop my face once again I jump into the fray this morning, sure in my ability to read small type and large!

On the docket for today is a program of works by the ever Modern music titan Michael Finnissy. On the CD are paired together his Choralvorspiele with Andersen-Liederkries (Hat [NOW] ART 212). The two works are well situated together, both involving works within a larger whole, Choralvorspiele a set of chorales for piano based on Norwegian and American melodies, and Andersen-Liederkreis as the title suggests a group of lieder based on texts by Hans Christian Andersen.

The artists involved in the program, pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, seem especially right for this music, which has a lyric-Modern beauty in its fragility and whimsicality. One might note at this point that Finnissy's setting of  "The Emperor's New Clothes" is quite timely since it may be the fable most relevant to the age we live in now. It is well done.  I have nothing but the highest praise for Knoop's poetic, definitive readings, and to my mind Juliet Fraser shows herself the ideal Modern lieder exponent. For the Finnissy she is rather perfect. I would look forward to hearing her do any number of works in the Modern pantheon. She as I think is right does not accentuate that kind of operatic power of volume, overly pronounced vibrato, and sentimental overkill that mars the worst of those who take on the Modern song. Every work may call for something different but to my mind too much operatic hoist is never wholly appropriate to the Art Song today. Moreover  Fraser is  reassuringly, textually oriented, pitch perfect in her execution of the many twists and turns, and fully able to control artfully the presence or absence and the delivery of vibrato as a color. Her reading of the lieder here sounds so musical and style appropriate that I would recommend it be heard by anyone needing an object lesson in how things can go when they go well!

Juliet Fraser does not just sing remarkably well. She also gives us an insightful view of Finnissy's musical ways in the liners. She notes "the flawless technique, the innate vocality, the lyricism (albeit extreme), the loving attention paid to text, the serious engagement with music of the past that somehow always bears forth a new music that is recognizably idiosyncratic, the 'fleshiness,' the visceral punch it packs." All this we can hear readily on the program.  What also immediately hit me when I first listened to this program is a telling attention to sounding smaller simultaneities like seconds and thirds on the piano, almost like an avant Floyd Cramer on a  Last Date into another world? Well that is surprising and also quite enjoyable to me. Mind you it is more present in the chorale work. Still it paves the way for the many charms of this program and grabs your ears immediately.

Both works pack a good deal into themselves and end up supplying a fresh landscape that is neither self-consciously advanced nor deliberately archaic, but enchanted, magical in its refusal to land on the more well-traveled parts of the troposphere of New Music concerns. It goes its own way in the most lovely terms one could hope for.

It is a volume I do not hesitate to recommended to you. A good place to embark on a Finnissy discovery trip. Or to continue on it. Very heartening.
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Roger Reynolds, Aspiration, Irvine Arditti

When life goes on every day, it sometimes manages to gather forces of entropy to hinder you in the simplest of tasks. This morning the combination of lost reading glasses ("They are somewhere.") and  a broken reading lamp means I absolutely cannot make head nor tail of the CD textual matter. For so many years designers have done their best to disguise all text and render it all unreadable, put that together with the current state of affairs and I am crippled.

The current album, from what I can make out and what I hear is a series of works for violin with or without accompaniment. The album highlights the Inauthentica chamber outfit, conducted by Mark Menzies, Paul Hembree on computer realizations. and most importantly Irvine Arditti on violin. It is a two-CD set of Roger Reynold's violin works written for Arditti, all fashioned between 1992-2015. The set is entitled Aspirations (Kairos 0015051KAI 2-CDs).

"Shifting/Drifting"  for violin and real-time algorithmic transformation (2015) kicks off the program. "imagE/violin  imAge/violin" for solo violin (2015) occurs next. The title work "Aspiration" follows for solo violin and chamber orchestra (2004-5). "Kokoro" for solo violin (1991-92) concludes the program.

All that must suffice as the nuts and bolts of this release. On the listening level it is above all a truly unpretentious monument to latter-day Modernist music for solo violin. The half of the program involving some form of accompaniment shows a totally sympathetic additional musical voice or voices. Nevertheless  it all is very squarely centered on the very idiomatically original modern expressiveness of the violin part.  It is exploratory and virtuoso in its subtle dash, and it seems tailored to what corresponds nicely to the musical personality of Arditti himself, not showy for its own sake, very much imbued with the urge toward expressive elegance and brilliance of means, and in a harmonically expanded High Modernist idiom for which of course Reynolds is a natural master. This is not music as contrived in some arch manner by the composer. It is as natural as speaking and as eloquent as brilliant word flow.

After a few listen one falls into the spell of it all, the beautiful rightness of Arditti's playing, the perfect thus-ness of accompaniment and the spare profundity of the solo space.

This program is in every way a winner--with excellence of sound and sound staging, performance brilliance and compositional inspiration, together sequencing and smarts.

Aspiration demands your attention and rewards with high complexity-in-continuity. It is a Modern gem for all who want to know where we are today. I suggest this is a do-not-miss! I am happy to have it.

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Alexander Kastalsky, Memory Eternal (1917), The Clarion Choir, Steven Fox

You live your life and things happen, mostly in the middle of everything else. Just a week ago I fell rather ill at the same time as the CD at hand today was on the regular rotation of listens I give the music I plan to review. It turned out to be music that spoke to me vividly in the unwell state. Well I might say along with Woody Allen that the Russian creative mind has perhaps a unique window onto death. That I have felt ever since I read "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch" just after high school. All this however is ultimately the context within which this music came to me. It found me in  a mood that certainly was sympathetic to what the program of music is about.

And what is that? An album of music centered on an early 20th-century Modern approach toward a present day rethinking of the music of the Russian Orthodox church. This in the hands of the leading exponent of such things then, before the Russian Revolution cut it all short.  I speak of composer Alexander Kastalsky (1856-1926) and his reworking of the Orthodox Memory service to note the victims of WWI. Memory Eternal (1917) (Naxos 8.573889)  was the liturgical reworking of a Requiem the composer wrote at the time. The very gravitas Memory Eternal comes to us in its World Premiere Recording as do several shorter Premiere Recording works from  1897-1905.

The Clarion Choir under Steven Fox sounds angelic, deeply sonorous, everything you might hope in a performance, And the Memory Eternal work, running some 40 minutes, gives the listener a broad spectrum of styles amalgamated without unsightly stitch. From monodic chant passages and drones of great gravitas, we hear too middle ground choral material that has a more elaborate harmonization and or complex part writing and then too a fully Romantic-Modern contemporary (for the mainstream of 1917) florid complexity. And it all fits together. I love how the composer at times integrates the ancient Dies Irae hymn into the music.

I am very pleased with this. It is not at the edge of what one might have written in 1917, but it is very fine writing, beautifully performed. So I definitely do recommend this to you.

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Lansing McCloskey, Zealot Canticles, An Oratorio for Tolerance, the Crossing, Donald Nally

Now and again some contemporary vocal works come along that create story and meaning well, yet by so doing they synthesize a contemporary state-of-the-art view of where the Progressive Modern world has come so far. And it is not quite there until the work bulks and builds it together as a "this is now" gesture. I suppose looking back in my lifetime it was Bernstein's Mass that did that more dramatically than maybe any other work. Today we have something that less overtly but in its own way thoroughly defines and synthesizes the moment  for us.

I speak of Lansing Mcloskey's Zealot Canticles (Innova 984). It is performed without flaw by the choral group The Crossing, with soloists and a quintet of instrumentalists who feel almost orchestral in their breadth and contrast to the choral group, which in turn shines with brilliance throughout.

This music is edgy yet markedly tonal, Modern in a synthetic way, with a kind of sum-uppance, creating powerful musical mood with a sure hand. The proceedings are based upon the writings of Nigerian poet-novelist Wole Solinka. It centers around the radically destructive potential of zealotry, its playing out in events and ultimately a plea for a widely ranging inclusiveness of tolerance. Of course in our day the mainstreaming of zealotry is very much with us, sadly and alarmingly in the very highest places of power and influence.

Well the dramatic plot here in the Canticles plays out the working through of such an action upon our general world. What matters most is the very palpable outpouring of excess and destructive emotionality in the spinning out of the work. The musical expression of extraordinary misgiving is most moving, bleak in a very beautifully expressive way.

In the repeating hearing of Zealot Canticles, An Oratorio for Tolerance  we can recognize how fully Mcloskey has unveiled for us the remarkable expressivity that the later Modern stance has put together, and which comes to fruition so tellingly here. We experience how powerful and moving it can be.

The performers under Nally bring to us exactly the push and pull of excess versus abhorrence that makes of this work so compelling. Things can go to the very edge of despair, yet the opposite pull towards transformation and regeneration is never far away.

Like Picasso's Guernica, something can come along to comment on decisive tendencies that re-express deep feelings about contemporary historical developments. And so for example there was Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in Dooryards Bloomed, dealing with the death of FDRBernstein's Mass which tries to capture the giddy excitement, despair and uncertainty felt during tumultuous times, and now Zealot Canticles, about which we almost dare not name what it refers to in contemporary events. Yet you listen and think and you recognize.

It is a work of extraordinary beauty, filled with knowing worldliness and inner certainty. Outstanding.
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