Wednesday, July 17, 2019

John Robertson - Vallarta Suite a holiday for ears

It turns out there were two composers who worked full-time in insurance. Their day jobs freed them to write the music they wanted to. But the music that American Charles Ives and Canadian John Robertson produced was very different, indeed.

Ives studied music and pushed against its academic restraints. Robertson is mostly self-taught and seems simply unconcerned with current trends. Robertson writes in a neo-classical style all his own. His works are not pastiches of past masters, nor are they especially ground-breaking.

The Vallarta Suite is a musical portrait of Puerto Vallarta, full of energy and orchestral color. Robertson's 2004 work is instantly appealing, especially in the dance-inspired movements.

Even more energetic is Robertson's symphony march, Strut In. It's a march with something of an attitude. I'd recommend this to any orchestra looking for something to pep up the audience.

The 2014 Symphony No. 2 isn't tied to a program or extra-musical theme. That, I think, makes it the most interesting of the three works. The symphony is a nicely-structured three-movement work.

Roberton's harmonies sometimes hint at modality, adding a bit of spice to the music. His themes are carefully delineated and worked out in logical -- if slightly non-traditional -- fashions.

Anthony Armore and the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra deliver some fine performances. The ensemble has a warmth to it that resonates with the coziness of Robertson's music.

John Robertson's music has a slight outsider quality to it. Melodies don't quite resolve "correctly," harmonies move in highly individualistic ways. And yet it's all accessible -- even inviting -- to the listener.

John Robertson: Vallarta Suite; Strut In; Symphony No. 2
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Armore, conductor
Navona, NV6117

Monday, July 15, 2019

Józef Elsner String Quartets Worth Exploring

Józef Elsner was one of the most important composers in early 19th Century Poland. He wrote 38 operas, eight symphonies, over 70 masses, and oratorios, dozens of chamber works, and more. Yet he's remembered for one thing: he was Fredrick Chopin's piano teacher.

This release helps remove Elsner from his famous pupil's shadow. The Op. 8 string quartets were composed around 1796, placing them more in the Classical rather than Romantic era.

They're interesting works. Elsner is crediting with incorporating Polish folk music into his work, but that would come later. These quartets all use the same language as Haydn and Mozart.

Although all three quartets are about the same length, they vary in structure. Quartet No. 1 in C major has but two movements, the second being a theme and variations. Elsner's use of materials reminded me strongly of Haydn.

Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major has four short movements. The mood here is lighter, with Elsner leaning more towards Mozart.

Quartet No. 3 in D minor reminded me most of Beethoven's early quartets. Perhaps it was the minor key that made the work sound heavier and more serious than the other two. It has a three-movement structure, of which the first is the most complex.

Although the music is interesting, I found this a difficult recording to listen to. The Equilibrium String Quartet performs on period instruments. I'm not opposed to period instruments. I think they do require additional work to sound pleasant.

I'm not exactly what fell sort for me -- the instruments, how they were played, or the way they were recorded. Whatever the cause, I thought the ensemble sounded very thin. The violins had a nasal quality that seemed especially harsh in exposed passages.

I did determine that Elsner is a composer I would like to hear more of. Especially if performed with modern instruments.

Józef Elsner: String Quartets. Op. 8
Equilibrium String Quartet
Accord ACD257
World Premiere Recording


Friday, July 12, 2019

#ClassicsaDay Revisits #NAFTAclassics - Week 2

The Classics a Day team is made up of Americans and Canadians. The month of July has important national holidays for both countries. And so the theme for July is the music of North America. (Mexico doesn't have a major holiday in July, but we decided to be inclusive). 

In my posts for #ClassicsaDay I alternated between the three countries. Of course, July 1 featured a Canadian composer, and July 4 an American. Here are my posts for the second week of #NAFTAclassics.

7/8/19 Kelly-Marie Murphy (Canadian) - Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark

Murphy's work was commissioned for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Glen Gould tribute. It reference's Gould's tracking a Petula Clark song from station to station as he drove across Canada.

7/9/19 Silvestre Revueltas (Mexican) - Sensemayá

Revueltas' most popular work is based on a poem by Nicolás Guillén. The subject is a ritual Afro-Caribbean chant, used during a sacrifice to the god Babalu Aye.

7/10/19 Alexina Louie (Canadian) - Changes

Louie is both a composer and pianist. "Changes" is the second of a four-part work, "Music for Piano." It presents contemporary music concepts in music playable by young students.

7/11/19 Amy Beach (American) - Variations on Balkan Themes, Op. 60

Beach premiered her Variations in one of her own recitals. The work was written to show support for the unsuccessful 1903 Ilinden Uprising against their Ottoman rulers.

7/12/19 Healey Willan (Canadian) - Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 76

Willan was organist/choir director of Toronto's largest church from 1921 until his death in 1968. Though most of his 800 compositions were liturgical, he also wrote chamber and orchestral music, like this concerto.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Johann Wilms Piano Quartets receive their due

Johann Wilhelm Wilms (1772-1847) only wrote two piano quartets (that we know of), and they conveniently fit on one CD. German-born Wilms was a major musical figure in the Netherlands As a contemporary of Beethoven, his fame remained more regional than international.

A contemporary reviewer called Wilms a "practiced composer versed in compositional technique." That's an accurate assessment, and that technique is on full display in these recordings.

Wilms was an accomplished pianist (and flutist). And he strikes the right balance between the instruments. Writing for the piano quartet was a challenge. Violinists tended to relegate the piano to an accompanying role for the string trio, pianists the reverse.

Wilms' piano parts are sufficiently meaty, but in both these works, all instruments share the gravy.

The Piano Quartet in C major, Op. 22 was published in 1808 but probably composed much earlier. Stylistically it reminded me of very early Beethoven. The general outline is Mozartian. But the instrumental textures are thicker, and the overall music has a heavier feel to it.

Historically, Wilms' music forms a bridge from Haydn and Mozart to Mendelssohn and Schumann. His Piano Quartet in F major, Op. 30 is closer to the early Romantics than the late Classicists. The harmonies have more chromatic inflections, and the themes are far more expansive. Both quartets take about a half-hour to play. The first has four movements, the second only three.

The Valentin Klavierquartett deliver first-rate performances. Pianist Isabel Lhotzky plays with dexterity and precision, making the piano part sparkle at times. Inka von Puttkamer (violin), David Ott (viola), and Hanno Kuhns (cello) are equally adept in making the most of Wilms' score. And there's a lot there to explore.

Well versed in compositional technique, indeed. The balance Wilms maintains between piano and strings isn't often heard -- even in the works of greater masters.

Johann Wilhelm Wilms
Two Piano Quartets
Valentin Klavierquartett

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Kondonassis in Rapturous Performance of Higdon Harp Concerto

Yolanda Kondonassis does not play pretty harp music. Her performances are marked with intensity and energy -- and her choice of repertoire continually pushes the limits. Jennifer Higdon wrote her a concerto that gives Kondonassis free reign to express herself -- and she does.

The four-movement Harp Concerto has Kondonassis do just about everything with the instrument -- except play dreamy glissandos. I especially enjoyed the third movement, "Lullaby." Higdon pairs the harp with a variety of solo instruments for an intimate chamber piece of quiet beauty.

The fourth movement, "Rap Knock" uses the harp as a percussion instrument, holding its own in a percussion ensemble. It also features some incredibly rapid -- and intricate -- passages. Kondonassis plays it all impeccably. In interviews, she talks about her enthusiasm for this work, and it shows in the performance.

"Rapture" by Patrick Harlan isn't Biblical in the slightest. After weeks underground, cavers lose their circadian rhythms and enter a disoriented emotional state termed the rapture. Harlan's work recreates that experience. "Rapture" drifts from one amorphous configuration to another, with bursts of extreme intensity.

Also included is Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1, which provides a nice stylistic bridge between Higdon and Harlan.

Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra deliver energetic performances throughout. This is their first recording in five years, and well worth the wait.

American Rapture
Jennifer Higdon: Harp Concerto; Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 1; Patrick Harlin: Rapture
Yolanda Kondonassis, harp
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra; Ward Stare, conductor
Azica ACD-71327