Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Danielpour: Darkness in the Ancient Valley

Richard Danielpour: Darkness in the Ancient Valley
Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Angela Brown, soprano
Hila Plitmann, soprano

Darkness in the Ancient Valley is Richard Danielpour's attempt to return to his Persian heritage. The basis for this five-movement symphony is a 16th century Iranian poem.

To my ears, the opening movement sounds like film music trying to evoke a Middle Eastern setting. But as the work progresses, pastiche gives way to passion, and the music develops its own blended and original voice. The final movement for orchestra and soprano (Hila Plitmann, for whom the part was written) brings the work home with an emotional and transcendent finale.

Rounding out the release are two other orchestral works. Lacrimae Beati sounds a little like Copland with its open intervals. Although based on the first eight bars of Mozart's Requiem (reportedly the last music he ever wrote), Danielpour so completely integrates the source material that there's almost no trace of the original composer. And that's a good thing -- this is a deeply personal work, a musing on mortality. It would be jarring to Mozart's music stick out from the rest of the composition.

A Woman's Life, a setting of eight poems by Maya Angelou, has a distinctively American feel to it. But it's not Copland Americana. While the harmonies may sound similar, the rhythm of the words and the melodic seem to recall African-American gospel traditions. The work was composed for soprano Angela Brown, and her performance here infuses the words with understated drama and urgency. A beautiful orchestral song cycle that deserves a place in the repertoire.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Jean Maillard: A renaissance composer rediscovered

Jean Maillard:
Missa Je Suis Deheritee & Motets
The Marian Consort; Rory McCleery, director
Delphian Records

Jean Maillard was a student of Josquin des Prez, and his music inspired Palestrina. Although little-known today, this French composer's music was highly regarded by his contemporaries. And listening to these performances by the Marian Consort, it's easy to understand why.

Maillard carefully and tastefully builds his contrapuntal compositions in a manner similar to Palestrina, although with a lighter touch. The primary work on this album, the Missa Je suis Desheritee is one of Maillard's largest works, and the most popular during his lifetime. It, like the motets interspersed throughout, show a composer in full command of his talent, able to create ethereal cathedrals from pure sound.

The Marian Consort has a uniform clarity of tone that's well-suited to these works. The ensemble blend is quite smooth throughout, although at times the sopranos seemed to have a slight edge to their voices (especially after a wide upwards leap).

All in all, though, this is a disc that should be in the collection of anyone who loves renaissance sacred music. Maillard may be the link between Des Pres and Palestrina, but he has a style all his own.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Inukusuit - Soundscapes by John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams

If I had to describe Inukusuit, I’d say it sounds like Edgar Varese’s “Ionization” performed in the woods. But that really doesn’t do justice to Adams’ innovative soundscape. Inukusuit is a work intended for outdoor performance The ambient sounds are an important part of the composition, making every performance unique.

Be warned: Inukusuit require a major time investment (about an hour) to be experienced properly. But it will be worth the effort.

The recording starts with about three minutes of ambient sounds of the forest, before the percussion ensemble makes its presence known. Eventually the ensemble builds to a climax, completely drowning out the sounds of nature. Then the man-made music subsides, and in the end, we are left with only the chirping of birds and wind rustling the trees.

Adams’ music seems an organic part of the landscape. There’s a lot of wooden percussive sounds (including a wooden flute), and the ensemble seems to rise and fall, as if breathing. The disc comes with both an audio CD and a DVD version. And that’s a good thing. Because the DVD, played through a 5.1 home theater system, will get you as close as possible to the performance – which, after all, involves heightening the listener’s sense of space.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

John McDonald: Airy - Music for violin and piano

John McDonald: Airy, Music for Violin and Piano
Joanna Kurkowicz, violin
John McDonald, piano

Airy brings together  John McDonald's music for violin and piano, bringing together light-hearted miniatures with more serious long-form compositions. It's an appealing program that's full of variety. Mad Dance, Op. 66 and the Suite of Six Curt Pieces, Op. 326 are just plain fun, while the major work, the Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 219 is more complex composition with greater emotional depth.

In the program notes, McDonald says he considers many of these works to be songs without words -- and it's an apt description. Poem, Op. 12, for example, is based on the poetry of Samuel Beckett. The shape of the music is determined by the poem, although not a word is sung. That's also the case with Lily Events, Op. 97 (inspired by poetry collection),  and the Lines After Keats, Op. 336.

There's an audible chemistry between violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and the composer (who accompanies her). Airy is the title of the release, and airy it is.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Marcel Tyberg: Symphony No. 3 - A Voice Not Silenced

Marcel Tyberg
Symphony No. 3
Piano Trio in F major
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Michael Ludwig, violin; Roman Mckinulov, cello; Ya-Fe Chuang, piano

Marcel Tyberg finished his third symphony in 1943, shortly before his arrest by the Nazis and death at Auswitz. Fortunately, he entrusted all of his scores to a friend and so they survived the war.

The symphony is a marvelous post-romantic work, and reminds me very much of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony without in any way sounding derivative. Tyberg’s melodies are full-bodied and bursting with energy. The Scherzo is a particular delight, and the adagio is absolutely gorgeous.

It’s a bittersweet listening experience. The symphony stands on its own merits, but it makes one wonder what Tyberg might have accomplished had he lived.

Coupled with the Symphony is the piano trio from 1936. Like the symphony, it’s a lush, romantic work with plenty of opportunities for all the players to shine. In a video promoting this release, JoAnn Falletta stated she’s fallen in love with Tyberg’s music. And her performance shows it.

Highly recommended.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Tyberg: Symphony No. 2, Piano Sonata No. 2

Tyberg: Symphony No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 2
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Fabio Bidini, piano

Austrian composer Marcel Tyberg's career (and life) was cut short by the Second World War. Despite being a devout Roman Catholic, he was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 because his great grandfather was Jewish. Fortunately, he entrusted his music to a friend before his death in 1944 en route to Auschwitz.

Tyberg didn't compose many works, but the quality of them makes one wonder how he would have fared in a less toxic atmosphere. His second symphony, finished in 1931 is a big, post-romantic composition and reminded me of Erich Korngold's symphonic works. Tyberg seems more influenced by Beethoven than Brahms, however, with simple motives building and transforming themselves in rigorously logical fashion. The overarching themes were expressive examples of post-romanticism -- not as memorable as Rachmaninov's but still quite moving.

JoAnne Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are thoroughly invested in this work, and that dedication shows. Falletta lets the music stand on its own strengths. The performance presents a well-constructed symphony that should be immediately appealing to  most listeners.

Coupled with the symphony is Tyberg's second piano sonata from 1934. Tyberg was a pianist and organist, and his composition takes full advantage of the instrument. The work ranges over the keyboard, with plenty of Liszt-inspired gestures. If Nicolai Medtner wrote more tightly organized music, he might have composed something along these lines.

Pianist Fabio Bidini performs the sonata with relish, delivering the music with all its inherent drama and brio.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This Friday: A Vivace Christmas!

This Friday, please join us for the Vivace Christmas Special.

We'll start at 6 am with a Sinfonia by Mozart played by an all-star cast of performers, and we'll mix seasonal music and some other goodies. We'll include your favorite carols, some of them sung by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge (above), and some unusual ones as well.

At 8 o'clock, there's a special treat:  John Rutter's new carol, All Bells in Paradise, which was written for the last festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge.  And we'll end with some favorite selections from the Messiah, in case you missed our complete broadcast last Sunday.

Finally, my family and I, along with the dogs and cats, wish all our listeners the joy of Christmas, the gift of loving friends and family, and the very best of everything in 2014. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."  (Luke 2:14)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Penderecki: Works for String Orchestra

Penderecki: Works For String Orchestra
Likasz Dlugosz, flute
Rafat Kwiatkowski, cello
Radom Chamber Orchestra
Maciej Zoltowski, conductor

The purpose of this recording is to showcase the Radom Chamber Orchestra. The CD booklet begins with a letter from the mayor of this Polish city outlining the proud musical history of the town, and its cultural rebirth, of which the Radom Chamber Orchestra is a part.

Well, it's a good start.

The ensemble has a warm, rich blend with strong section leaders. The talent of those first chairs comes to the fore quite often in the works on this program and they perform admirably. The music is also well-suited to the ensemble. There seems to be an intuitive understanding of what fellow countryman Kryzysztof Penderecki had in mind with these works, and the Maciej Zoltowski and the Radon Chamber Orchestra deliver.

In these performances, Penderecki's music doesn't seem as dissonant -- and yet there's an undercurrent of power to them. The 1990 Sinfonietta for Strings, for example, reminded me quite strongly of Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, Op. 100. It had the same overall sound, and carried the same emotional intensity.

The Serenade for Strings is perhaps the most atonal of the works. It gradually builds to a satisfying climax from the simplest of melodic ideas. Pendericki's Sinfonietta No. 2 for flute and strings isn't quite a concerto, although the flute does have a prominent role. Lukasz Dlogosz plays with a plaintive introspection that gives the work emotional weight.

The Concerto for Viola and string, percussion, and celeste (performed here in it's cello concerto version) begins as a very quiet work. The cello develops the melody in short, hesitant gestures. Once the full ensemble enters, though, the work changes character, becoming stormy and brooding. A powerful composition.