Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Far in the Heavens -- Heavenly collection of Stephen Paulus choral works

The choral works on this release were all composed or revised within the last four years of Stephen Paulus' life. Their originality, quality, and expressiveness show just how great a loss the classical music world suffered with Paulus' early death.

“Prayers and Remembrance” is the largest work on the album, written to commemorate 9/11. According to Paulus, it was written to be "spiritual without being religious." In that, he was successful. The work is elegiac and uplifting, without referencing the music of any faith tradition. Lush harmonies and deft orchestrations support the smoothly flowing melodic lines. Soprano Kathryn Mueller is a particular standout in the third movement, making the seemingly simple melody a song from the heart.

Shorter choral works make up the rest of the album, but don’t consider them mere filler. “Nunc dimittis” (rev. 2013) is an effective setting of the text -- an excellent example of Paulus at his best.  "The Incomprehensible,"  "I Have Called You by Name" "Little Elegy" and "When Music Sounds" all demonstrate why Paulus was considered one of America's premier choral composers.

The Concord of Voices & Orchestra, directed by Eric Holtan perform these works beautifully.  The chorus has a good blend, and the performances -- as to be expected from Reference -- are impeccably recorded.

Stephen Paulus: Far in the Heavens
True Concord Voices & Orchestra; Eric Holtan, conductor
Reference Recordings FR-716

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Barney & Clyde Desert Peanuts

Long-time readers of this blog know how I feel about "Peanuts." Yes, it was a great strip and Charles M. Schultz influenced an entire generation of newspaper cartoonists with his inventiveness and imagination.


Schultz died in 2000, and for the past 15 years his comic strip has been in reruns, taking up space that should be used to showcase the current generation of comic strip creators.

I wonder if the moribund nature of this zombie strip (it's dead, but it's still moving) is what creators Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten and David Clark had in mind with their September 29, 2015 sequence in "Barney and Clyde." (click on image to enlarge)

 For those not overly familiar with the world of Peanuts, it's a reference to Spike, Snoopy's brother who lives in Needles, Arizona. His sole companion is a cactus.

Yep, 15 years after the end of the strip, that's how I imagined Spike would end up.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Roger Sessions: Music for Violin and Piano

For me, this release works on many levels. First, it chronicles an important phase of Roger Session's career when his style moved from neo-classical to embrace -- however lightly -- serialism. It also is an enjoyable listening experience, as pianist David Holzman and violinist David Bowlin perform together and separately, bring some variety to the program. And there's a mix of well-known important work and some (relatively) light occasional pieces that provide some emotional balance.

The album opens with the 1942 Duo for violin and piano. It's a work cast in a single movement of continual contrast. While the piece is highly chromatic, Sessions never quite crosses over into atonality.

By contrast, Sessions does cross that line in his Sonata for Violin written nine years later. It is indeed a twelve-tone work, but one that still borders on tonality. Bolin brings out the inherent lyricism in this sonata, smoothing out some of the spikiness of the piece, and showing just how close to line Sessions remains.

According to the composer, Sessions' Second Piano Sonata was supposed to be "not only short by easy to play." I think he missed on both counts (the work's about 13 minutes long). Nevertheless, Holzman handles the dense, complex score with apparent ease.

Two short piano pieces round out the program. The 1936 Waltz for Brenda is a delightful little piece written to commemorate the birth of a neighbor's child (who was writer Brenda Webster), and a 1947 Adagio given as a retirement gift to a colleague.

The recording quality is very good, as are the performances. In fact, I really only had one quibble. This is a disc of solo and duo music for violin and piano. So why does the cover show Sessions conducting from a podium?

Roger Sessions: Music for Violin and Piano
David Holzman, piano; David Bowlin, violin
Bridge 9453