Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Pelham Humfrey: Symphony Anthems - Music from a Life Cut Short

This release features a selection of the nineteen symphony anthems written by Pelham Humfrey. Humfrey was the first of several English composers to achieve fame during the Restoration. He was well-regarded by Henry Purcell, John Blow, and Matthew Locke. And like Purcell, he died young, at the age of 27.

Humfrey's Symphony Anthems were written in the 1670s for the enjoyment of Charles II in the Royal Chapel. The chapel was small, and so they were written for modest forces. The anthems usually consisted of a solo verse, sometimes with contrapuntal treatment, and full chorus.

Although all seven of these recorded works are all the same type of work -- symphony anthems -- there's a great deal of variety between them. The genre seems to have evolved over time. The counterpoint increases in complexity, and the chorus fades from prominence. Overall, it's an enjoyable program to listen to from start to finish.

The Oxford Concert of Voices sing with clarity and precision. The Instruments of Time and Truth provide appropriate accompaniment for these intimate works. Edward Higgenbottom's interpretation strikes the right balance between delicacy and strength (after all, these are anthems for the king!).

If you enjoy the music Henry Purcell, give these Symphony Anthems a listen. I think you'll detect the same high level of craftsmanship -- and another promise unfulfilled.

Pelham Humfrey: Symphony Anthems
Oxford Consort of Voices
Instruments of Time and Truth
Edward Higgenbottom, director
Pan Classics PC 10388

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Alan Hovhaness - Wind Music Vol. 3

There's still a lot of music by Alan Hovhaness yet to be recorded. With over 450 works in his catalog, there's plenty to choose from -- and many opportunities for world premiere recordings. This particular installment of Hovhaness' wind music has four.

Hovhaness' style was fairly consistent throughout his career. I can always count on meandering melodies, modal harmonies, complex fugal passages, and gorgeous hymn tunes.

Though the works in this release span four decades, all of those elements are there. But to me, they're what makes Hovhaness' music uniquely appealing.

The Central Washington Universty Wind Ensemble perform with accuracy and rock-solid precision. Often collegiate wind ensembles have some intonation problems (compared to ensembles of professional musicians). In this case, I heard none. The musicianship of these young performers served Hovhaness' music well.

If you only know Hovhaness through his symphonies, this release should be in your library. His use of wind instruments is creative and innovative. A wonderful addition to the Hovhaness discography.

Alan Hovhaness: Suite for Band; October Mountain; The Ruins of Ani
Central Washington University Wind Ensemble
Larry Gookin, Keith Brion, Mark Goodenberger, conductors
Naxos 8.559838

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Paul Chihara Takes the A Train and Mixes Genres

Paul Chihara composes for films. Film scores must support the narrative and communicate emotion. And it must do it in a way that instantly connects with the viewer. That skill set works well for Chihara in the classical world, too.

His compositions have a transparency to them that draws the listener in. The surface may be clear, but there's plenty of substance below it.

Chihara wrote that his piano trio is based on the Mobius strip images by MC. Escher. The music moves through a series of variations and transformations. As with a Mobius strip, it's easy to trace the journey, even though each turn adds a new revelation.

The Bagatelles are just pure fun. The average playing time of each bagatelle is around a minute. And each one concise and tightly constructed. Each one is appealing, and collectively they make an enjoyable listening experience.

The Girl for Yerevan was commissioned by Armenian violinist Movses Pogossian. The trio's name references Joao Gilberto's famous piece. It also mixes Armenian folk music into the Latino vibe, with a hint of Khachaturian for good mesure. Movses Pogossian and guitarist David Starbin -- two of the three premiering artists -- perform here.

"Ellington Fantasy" for string quartet is just that -- a weaving together of Duke Ellington tunes. Chihara does a masterful job. His writing works quite well for a string quartet, letting the performers have some fun with the material.

And its music with a purpose. Chihara worked with Mercer Ellington in the show Sophisticated Ladies." Mercer had wanted to arrange his father's music for string quartet, but ended up turning the project over to Chihara.

For audiences who enjoy the light classics of Canadian Brass, the Piano Guys, etc. this is a perfect string quartet piece. Personally, I'm not that enamoured of that genre, so it didn't do much for me. But I thought the rest of the album was terrific. 

Paul Chihara: Take the A Train
Gavin String Trio; Jerome Lowenthal, piano; Lark Quartet
Bridge Records

Friday, September 14, 2018

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalNine Week 2

September is the ninth month of the year. And so the #ClassicsaDay team decided to make the number the theme. For September 2018, the challenge is to post classical works that have to do with the number nine. I chose to alternate between nonets, opus nine compositions, and works with a catalog number of nine.

Here are my posts for the second week:

Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata "Es ist das Heil uns kommen here?" BWV 9

Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis(BWV) organizes Bach's music by category first, then chronologically. BWV 1 through 224 are the cantatas. So BWV 9 isn't the ninth work Bach wrote, just the 9th cantata. BWV 9 was written between 1732 and 1735. It's based on the Lutheran hymn "It is our salvation come here to us."

Franz Lachner: Nonet in F major (1857)

Lachner was an important composer and conductor of the 19th Century. Lachner wrote in a style influenced by both his friend Schubert and his hero, Beethoven. His nonet follows the instrumentation established by Spohr, of a wind quintet plus 1 of each type of stringed instrument: violin, viola, cello, and contrabass.

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Trio in D major, Op. 9 No. 2

Beethoven completed the three Op. 9 string trios when he was 28. At the time, he considered them his best works. They were published in Vienna in 1799.

Heitor Villa-Lobos - String Quartet No. 9, 1945

Villa-Lobos wrote 17 string quartets over the course of his career. No. 9 was completed in 1945 in Rio de Janeiro. Musicologists have cited a number of influences for the work: Haydn, Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok. Bottom line, it's simply Villa-Lobos.

George Onslow - Nonet in A minor, Op. 77a (1848)

Onslow (1784-1853) was a French composer of English descent, a contemporary of Berlioz and Meyerbeer. Most of his substantial catalog is chamber music. His nonet also exists as a sextet for winds and strings.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Halsam American Brick Build - Two Story House

In the mid-1950s' Halsam offered interlocking brick building toys made from pressed wood. I'm assembling each of the models shown in the instruction booklet for their 60/1 and 60/2 building sets. I'm calling it the Halsam American Brick Build.

The second build in the instruction book was a two-story house.

The Halsam book is very carefully laid out. Each structure subtly introduces a core concept in block construction. For example: in the plans above, note that there is an extra yellow brick inside the house. The reason it's there is so you can place another brick on it that will connect it to the two bricks in the door frame. This ensures the exposed yellow bricks of the door don't pull apart.

Also, note the line of yellow bricks separating the two floors. All of the windows on the first floor have a course of red brick on top, then the yellow. All save the window on the left side of the house?

Why? Structural integrity. In order for a brick to span an opening, it needs to be secured with a brick that connects it to an adjacent brick.

In the photo above, you can see the red brick secures both the yellow brick spanning the door frame and the left side window frame. If the window was one course lower (as it is in the rest of the house), it wouldn't be possible to position an 8-peg brick that straddles two other 8-peg bricks to secure it.

Conversely, as you can see in the photo above, it's impossible to move the other windows up a course. There are no 4-peg yellow bricks, so the yellow brick would have to rest solely on the paper window.

Note the right side second story window. Its bottom frame is
yellow brick.

The end result is a house with windows that aren't completely symmetrical. But as you can't see the right and left sides at the same time, it doesn't matter that much. 

On the left side of the house, the first story window had to be moved up a
course. That meant the second story window also had to move up.
It's one row above the course of yellow brick.

The back of the structure. The windows are all in alignment. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

George Lloyd Symphonies in Definitive Live Performances

This release presents two live performances of George Lloyd symphonies. What performances -- and what symphonies!

George Lloyd was a rising star before the Second World War but was largely ignored afterward. Conductor Edward Downes became a champion of Lloyd's music.

 Symphony No. 6, written in 1956, is heard in its world-premiere broadcast from 1980. It's a quintessentially Britsh work, strongly reminding me of William Walton's "Crown Imperial." But it's a superficial similarity.

Lloyd's modestly-scored symphony features some wonderfully inventive melodies.  Fans of William Walton, Arthur Bliss -- and even Benjamin Britten -- will find much to like in Lloyd's score.

Lloyd's Symphony No. 7 is subtitled "Proserpine." According to Lloyd, Proserpine's story "seems to tell us something about the human condition of having one foot on this earth and another somewhere else – wherever that may be."

 The music is equally ambivalent. The first movement is light and cheerful, representing the maiden Proserpine dancing in the sun. The somber middle movement depicts Proserpine, now the wife of Hades, in the underworld. The turbulent finale seems to be a struggle between her worlds of light and darkness.

 Lloyd used an expanded orchestra for this work and uses it to great effect. Downes least the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in a compelling performance that makes the most of the tumultuous emotions embodied in this massive composition.

George Lloyd 
Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7 "Proserpine" 
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra; Edward Downes, conductor 
Live performances 
Lyrita REM.1135

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Czech Choral Works by Martinu, Reznicek, and Fiala

This has to be one of the most unusual albums of choral music I've listened to. The concept is solid -- sacred music by 20th Century Czech composers. What's unusual is the relationship between the composers.

The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno performs two works by Bohuslav Martinu. Rounding out the album are works by the founder of the choir, and by its choirmaster and music director. But don't consider this filler. The compositions of Petr Reznicek and Petr Fiala compare favorably to Martinu's.

The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno has this music in their blood. I can't describe the ensemble sound any other way than it's 100% right for this music. The basses and tenors have a full-bodied sound that's fully articulated in the lower register. The sopranos and altos have an earthy coloration that's unique to Eastern Europe.

Martinu is represented by two works from 1954 -  The Hymn to St. James H.347 and the Mount of Three Lights H.349. Both feature a narrator, choir and organ. Martinu incorporates some folk elements into the Hymn. The Mount of Three Lights is more classically-oriented. Both are classic Martinu. The harmonic motion, the shifting syncopations and folk-inspired melodies are all there.

Fiala's Regina Coeli laetare sound quite different. The harmonies are more complex, while the rhythm is more regular. Here the choir is interspersed with a solo cello.

Reznicek's Dies Irae reminded me quite a bit of Messaien's choral music. Perhaps because it was the only work on the album resembled someone else's I found it the least interesting of the three. Reznicek is the ensemble's choirmaster and knows all its strengths. The Dies Irae receives a superb performance from the choir it was clearly written for.

This release is a case where the music is perfectly matched to the ensemble. And that's what made it so enjoyable for me.

Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno
ArcoDiva UP0188

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Ignaz Brüll - Orchestral Works; Brahms' Friend in the Spotlight

Moravian composer Ignaz Brüll (1846-1907) moved to Vienna in 1856. He was an accomplished composer and pianist and was well-known for both talents. Brüll was a close friend of Brahms. Brahms' symphonies were often first heard in two-piano arrangements -- with Brahms and Brüll at the keyboards.

Although quite successful during his lifetime, his music declined in popularity after his death. Because of his Jewish background, the Nazis tried to erase Brüll from music history altogether. Only recently has his music enjoyed renewed interest and performances.

So what's it like? This adventurous collection from Cameo gives a fair representation. The shorter works are perhaps the most successful. The "Macbeth" Overture of 1884 is a thrilling eight-minute work that conveys the turbulent nature of the drama.

The Serenade No. 1 Op.29 was Brüll's first hit (as it were). This 1877 work is chock-full of appealing melodies, orchestrated in light textures. It reminded me somewhat of Mendelssohn's music.

The second serenade in E-flat major is equally delightful. The harmonies are a little thicker than the first. But that hint of Mendelssohn remains. keeping the music light and charming.

The large-scale works show some Brahmsian influence, I think. Although that influence is more along the lines of structure, rather than sound. Brüll's Symphony in E minor is laid out in proper four-movement form. Brüll uses his material effectively, developing ideas in logical, easy-to-follow lines.

For me, the best work was the Violin Concerto. It was written for Johann Lauterbach, who must have been a ferocious talent, judging by the solo part. While there are plenty of fireworks, there's also some solid music-making here, too. The slow movement is so poignantly beautiful, I'm surprised it's not played more often.

Violinist Ilya Hoffmann delivers a wonderful performance. His playing has an expressiveness to it that's pure Romanticism. His performance of the middle movements matches the beauty of the music. And that's saying something.

Both the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the Belarusian State Symphony perform well. The audience for the BSS was a little noisy, but not terribly so.

An excellent collection of an overlooked composer. And, judging by the quality of the compositions, an unjustly overlooked one at that.

Ignaz Brüll: Orchestral Works
Overture "Macbeth," Serenades Nos. 1 and 2, Violin Concerto, Symphony in E minor
Ilya Hoffmann, violin; Malta Philharmonic Orchestra; Belarusian State Symphony Orchestra; Marius Stravinsky, Michael Laus, conductors
Cameo Classics CC9103
2 CD Set

Friday, September 07, 2018

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalNine Week 1

September is the ninth month of the year. And so the #ClassicsaDay team decided to make the number the theme. For September 2018, the challenge is to post classical works that have to do with the number nine.

 I chose to alternate between nonets, opus nine compositions and works with a catalog number of nine. Here are my posts for the first week:

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Nonet in F minor, Op. 2 (1894)

The standard makeup of a nonet is for five winds and four strings. This nonet is for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, contrabass, and piano. It was published when Coleridge-Taylor was only 19.

Anton Arensky: Marguerite Gautier, Fantasia for Orchestra, Op. 9 (1886)

Marguerite Gautier is the title character of "Camille" by Alexander Dumas. Arensky's tone-poem was inspired by similar works of Tchaikovsky.

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 9 "Saint Vartan" Op. 180 (1951)

Vartan is a major saint in Armenia. It was a natural subject for Hovhaness, who was proud of his Armenian heritage. Written in 24 short sections, the work tells the story of the Armenian (led by Vartan) against the Persians.

Louis Spohr - Grand Nonetto in F major, Op. 31 (1813)

Spohr's Nonet was the first work for nine instruments to use the title "Nonet," His instrumental combination -- flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass -- became the model for nonets throughout the Romantic period.

Ludwig Schuncke - Caprice No. 1 in C major, Op. 9

Schuncke was an extremely talented pianist and composer. His close friend Robert Schumann predicted a brilliant career for Schuncke. But it was not to be. Schuncke died at age 23, leaving only a handful of works behind. His Op. 9 Caprice is dedicated to Clara Wieck.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Halsam American Brick Build - Single Story House

In the mid-1950s' Halsam offered interlocking brick building toys made from pressed wood. I'm assembling each of the models shown in the instruction booklet for their 60/1 and 60/2 building sets. I'm calling it the Halsam American Brick Build.

The first build in the instruction book is a single story house.

It introduces a lot of basic building concepts. Note that the photo is processed to make it easy to pick out individual bricks. This is important. In order to ensure maximum stability for the upper window frames, the brick needs to be sitting on an 8-peg brick, not a 4-peg. 

And the 4-peg bricks are scored in such a way that they give the appearance of single bricks when used properly. Most of the builds favor alternating 8-peg and two 4-peg layers. As you can see from the example below, the alternating method (right) looks more realistic.

The build itself was pretty simple.

Single Story House (front)

Another important concept introduced was the chimney. It's basically three 8-peg bricks and two angled roof pieces. They're turned upside down. If you use three bricks (as the instructions indicate), there's enough weight to hold the angled pieces in place. And the whole assembly helps keep the roof angled properly.

Single Story House (back)

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Heinrich Schütz: Becker-Spalter, Op. 5 - Artistry on Every Page

In 1602 theologian Cornelius Becker wrote a German metrical psalter.  Der Psalter Dauids Gesangweis was published without melodies. The collection proved popular, and  Becker set all 150 psalms for the 1628 edition.

Psalmen Davids: Hiebevorn in Deutsche Reimen gebracht durch was reprinted in 1640 and revised and expanded in 1661.

Several early Lutheran composers set Becker's texts for liturgical use -- Heinrich Schutz being the most successful. Some of his settings still appear in modern hymnals.

The words -- and the music -- were meant for congregational singing. Schütz's artistry is present on every page, making the most of what would seem to be limited materials.

The melodies are tuneful and easy to sing. The harmonies are simple and transparent. These psalms follow the natural rhythms of the text. It gives these hymns a supple lightness.

Hans-Christoph Rademann's interpretation is spot-on. The Dresdner Kammerchor sings with unaffected simplicity, letting the inherent beauty of these settings shine through.

These works were never meant to be heard all in one sitting. Rademann wisely varies tempos and instrumental accompaniments to provide contrast. And it works. Most of the time I was quite happy to just hit play and listen through to the end.

Heinrich Schütz: Becker-Spalter, Op. 5
Dresdner Kammerchor; Hans-Christoph Rademann
Schütz Complete Recording, Vol. 15
Carus 83.276

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Franz Xaver Richter Sinfonias, Sonatas & Oboe Concerto - Mannheim School Masterpieces

This release presents a sampling of Franz Xaver Richter's work while attached to the Mannheim court. it's an interesting choice for a program. By some accounts, Richter was the odd man out at court.

Franz Ignaz Beck, Carl Stamitz, and the other court composers were interested in pushing boundries. This Mannheim School developed the dramatic gestures and four-movement structure that would become the language of the classical symphony.

Richter was somewhat more conservative, and it's easy to hear that in this program. The Sinfonia in B major is a four-movement work, but the drama is somewhat understated. I had the same impression of the Sinfonia in G minor. Richter seems to building on Handel's foundation.

The Oboe Concerto in G minor also sounds modeled on Baroque templates. The two trio sonatas, on the other hand, seemed more lively. If the sinfonias are post-Baroque, then the trios are pre-Classical.

Wild dynamic contrasts are still missing, but there's a natural and less formal expressiveness in these works.

The Capricornus Cosnort Basel have a warm ensemble blend. Xenia Löffler playing of the baroque oboe is exception. The sound is smooth and full. Her expressive reading of the music makes the melodic lines seem to undulate at at times.

Richter may not have been as cutting edge as his Mannheim colleagues, but he was still a skilled composer. Recommended to anyone intersted in the music of the 1700s (early or late).

Franz Xaver Richter
Sinfonias, Sonatas & Oboe Concerto
Capricornus Consort Basel; Peter Barczi, conductor

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Clementi Piano Sonatas, Opp. 25, 33 & 46 - more than mechanical

Mozart wrote, "Clementi is a good clavicembalist and with this, there is no more to say. He plays well with his right hand, his strong point is the passages in thirds. For the rest he has no sentiment or taste, - in a word he is simply a mechanicus."

I'm not sure I entirely agree with that assessment -- especially after listening to this recording. Yes, Clementi often uses thirds. But his music is technically challenging. And in the right hands (as they are here), quite interesting.

Most of the sonatas on this release come from the early 1790s when Clementi was in direct competition with Mozart. The textures of the Op. 25 and Op. 33 sonatas are transparent. Clementi does favor the right hand, giving it the complicated runs while the left outlines the harmonies (or in some cases simple melodies).

I found the Op. 46 sonata especially interesting. It was written in 1820, fifteen years after the previous sonatas. It's a more complex work, with thicker textures and more of a balance between the hands. And yet, it's a sonata that was published the same year as Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109. Clementi's sonata pales in comparison. It's a simpler work and one that almost sounds old-fashioned. Advanced for Clementi, but lagging compared to his contemporaries.

However, these works lack neither sentiment nor taste. All are skillfully constructed. And taken on their own merits, are quite attractive.

Stefan Chaplikov plays elegantly, and with a light touch. The rapid passages flow smoothly and seemingly without effort. Chaplikov favors soft rather than loud dynamics, but that's in keeping with the music. If you like Mozart and Haydn piano music, you should enjoy this release as well.

Muzio Clementi: Keyboard Sonatas
Op. 33, Nos. 2 & 3; Op. 46, Op. 25, Nos. 1 & 3
Stefan Chaplikov, piano

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Havergal Brian Symphonic Series Concludes in Fine Style

The sales sheet for this release notes that "This issue completes the commercial recording of all 32 of Brian’s symphonies." Well, that may be true, but it's a little confusing.

First, not all the symphonies have been recorded by Naxos/Marco Polo. Although with 17 of Brian's 32 symphonies in their catalog, Naxos has definitely recorded the most.

There are a few others available on other labels, but eleven of the symphonies reside in out of print recordings. Here's hoping Naxos takes the extra step and finishes their own traversal of Brian's symphonies.

None of that diminishes this release. The three works presented represent three milestones in Brian's career. The Symphony No. 8, completed in 1949, was the first performed in public. Symphony No. 21 was the first to be commercially recorded, and Symphony No. 26 the last. This is its world premiere recording.

Brian may be best remembered for his 1919 record-breaking first symphony, the"Gothic." With over 200 performers and a playing time close to 2 hours, it's a massive work. But Brian's style evolved dramatically over time.

By the early 1950s, Brian had condensed his musical language into an efficient, compact form. Symphony No. 8 is one of three he completed in short order that consist of a single movement. It's a wonderfully succinct work, with no wasted motion.

Fast forward a decade, and Brian's language becomes more expansive, but not excessively so. The Symphony No. 21 is a model of classical form, with four distinct movements. Of the three symphonies in this program, I think it has the most innovative orchestration. To my ears, most of the symphony has a chamber music quality to it.

Symphony No. 26 from 1966 condenses the symphonic form from four movements to three. Brian pushes the limits of tonality with this work. And while it's highly chromatic, the lyrism that's the heart of Brian's style still shines through. The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra has a fine sound in these recordings. Alexander Walker knows what he's about. Each symphony has its own well-defined narrative flow.

Even if you're not especially interested in British music, these works are worth a listen.

Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 8, 21, and 26
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Walker, conductor

Friday, August 31, 2018

#ClassicsaDay #Bernsteinat100 Week 5

August 2018 is the centennial of Leonard Bernstein's birth. Many classical radio stations, performance groups, and writers marked the occasion. And so did #ClassicsaDay.

Bernstein was known as a composer, conductor, performer and an educator. Since #ClassicsaDay is primarily a music feed, I concentrated on the first two of those roles (and occasionally the third).

My contributions alternated between Bernstein the composer and Bernstein the conductor. And I tried to steer away from the more obvious choices for Bernstein compositions. His catalog is quite extensive, and I found it interesting to explore some of the lesser-known (and in some cases, less-successful) works.

Here are my posts for the fifth and final week:

Leonard Bernstein - Chichester Psalms (1965)

This work was commisioned for the Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester Cathedral (hence the name). Berstein recorded it with the New York Philharmonic in 1965, and again in 1977 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Bela Bartok - Concerto for Orchestra

Bernstein programmed this work for the New York Philharmonic's 1959/60 season. He first conducted movements of it in a Young People's Concert on March 28, 1959. He later conducted it November 26-28, as part of the orchestra's subscription series. Bernstein and the NYP recorded the work November 30. Bernstein and the orchestra also performed the concerto in two runout performances in early December 1959.

Leonard Bernstein - Concerto for Orchestra (1986)

This was one of Bernstein's last completed compositions. He reworked a previous composition, "Jubilee Games," adding two new movements. Bernstein dedicated the work to the Israel Philharmonic. The orchestra, conducted by Bernstein, recorded the concerto in 1989 for Deutsches Grammophon.


Johannes Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

Glenn Gould performed the concerto with the New York Philharmonic in 1982. Bernstein created a minor scandal with a speech before the performance, seemingly distancing himself from Gould's interpretation.

Leonard Berstein - Overture to "Candide" (1956)

Lilliam Hellman suggested to Bernstein that they adapt Voltaire's novella as an operetta. The work underwent continual script and musical revision, with numbers being added, dropped, and reshuffled. At one point Hellman withdrew her adaptation. The Overture, though, has remained virtually unchanged since its debut.

Spam Roundup August, 2018

Even with spam filters, some comments manage to make it through. Some of it's so oddly written, that it's oddly amusing. Here's a roundup of some of the "best" comments I received this month from spambots around the world.

Say what?

 - You may be missing out on the commercialize. Houses that hold had the trump tools for selling lemons and grapefruits you design end up fitness your put down properly. [Tell me more about how I can commercialize my designer lemons and grapefruits!]

- You are expiration to consider court game in effect. [Consider me expired, then.]

 - If you aren't precisely gifted when it comes to goals is to maintain to welfare from the oral cavity and some its edges. [I must not be precisely gifted, then.]

"Lumbering along" continues along

This month's challenge: try to find any way this toy
is even remotely relevant to the comments left about it.
The Straco Express Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along remains a popular post for spam. It's just a brief post about a 1960s Japanese friction toy. And yet...

- You appear to know a lot about this like you wrote the book or something. [That would be about the shortest book ever.]

- After reading this awesome post I am as well happy to share my experience here with my friends. [And then he links to a George Foreman indoor grill review. Some experience.]

- You may be missing out on the commercialize. [Yes. I'm sure there's big money in writing about antique friction toys.]

 - Great that you are getting ideas from this piece of writing as well as our argument made here. [I disagree.]

A word of advice

 - If you acquire a Facebook diplomat, but be genuinely innovational fill make their own videos. This offers a superfluous bonus.

If I could find a Facebook diplomat for sale, I assure you my offer would not be superfluous! 

That's all for this month. Remember, if your oral cavity still has some edges, work on lowering your golf score. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Halsam American Brick Build - Blocked!

In the mid-1950s' Halsam offered interlocking brick building toys made from pressed wood. I'm assembling each of the models shown in the instruction booklet for their 60/1 and 60/2 building sets. I'm calling it the Halsam American Brick Build.

My first surprise with the Halsam Brick Build happened before I had even started. I wasn't sure I had enough bricks to complete some of the larger structures. So I went shopping on eBay. Halsam wooden bricks are easy to find. They're sometimes pricey, though. That's not because they're collectible -- they're heavy.

The bricks are made of pressed wood. Get a bunch of them together and you've got a package that weighs a few pounds! I found a set that was within my price range (including shipping) and awaited its arrival.

To store the bricks, I stacked them in small groups. It was then I noticed that some of the bricks didn't fit precisely together. When I looked closely, I saw the reason.

The bricks in my old set had slightly different dimensions than my new purchase. Specifically, the new ones were 1/16" shorter and narrower than the old.
Top: 1-11/16"W x 1/4"H x 13/16"D
Botton: 1-3/4"W x 1/4"H x 7/8"D

My suspicion is that a running change was made, possibly during the Second World War. Decrease the dimensions slightly, and you can get more bricks from the same amount of wood.

That 1/16" difference matters. It's just enough to offset the knobs
so they don't line up properly with the holes.

And it means I need to be careful not to mix the two sets.

It's a surprise, but not necessarily an unpleasant one. I learned a little bit more about the history of this vintage toy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Alec Frank-Gemmill Shows the Merit of Horn Concertos Before Mozart

Alec Frank-Gemmill is making a point with this recording. For many horn soloists, Mozart's concertos are the earliest works in their repertoire. Frank-Gemmill contends that there was plenty of good material that predates them.

Frank-Gemmill opens with a 1740 concerto by Christoph Förster. Although primarily an organist, Förster wrote about 50 concertos. Forster was a younger colleague of Telemann, and his music is similar in style.

The Horn Concerto in D major by Telemann follows. Compared to Forster's light and breezy work, it seems somewhat more formal and elegant.

 Also included is a Sinfonia da Camera by Leopold Mozart. It features an interesting interplay between the horn and the first violin. Frank-Gemmill's trills are immaculately executed, beautifully ornamenting the melody.

The Horn Concerto No. 1 by Haydn is technically "before Mozart," as it dates from 1762. And yet stylistically it's closer to Mozart than any of the other works. The extreme dynamic shifts of Sturm und Drang are in play. That, plus the expanded range of the horn makes this an ideal work to end the program. Frank-Gemmill's codas are impressive -- check out the harmonics at the end of the first movement!

Yes, none of these horn concertos is by Mozart. But as Frank-Gemmill demonstrates, they hold up quite well on their own merits.

Before Mozart: Early Horn Concertos
Christoph Förster: Horn Concerto [No. 1] in E flat major
Georg Philipp Telemann: Horn Concerto in D major, TWV 51:D8
Johann Baptist Georg Neruda: Horn Concerto in E flat major
Leopold Mozart: Sinfonia da camera (Sinfonie in D major, VII:D5)
Joseph Haydn: Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major, Hob. VIId:3
Alec Frank-Gemmill, horn
Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan, conductor<
BIS Records 2315

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Judge Parker - The Wurst Story

I've written before about the imaginative ways writer Francesco Marciuliano and artist Mike Manley approach a daily adventure strip. They've taken Judge Parker from a somewhat staid dramatic strip into the realm of international intrigue -- and then some.

Most recently I wrote about the sequence surrounding the off-stage death of a supporting character, Godiva Danube. It's revealed that the purpose of Danube's death was to lure April Parker and her father (both ex-CIA agents) back into the country. Their former employers, a rogue branch of the Agency, wanted them eliminated.

And you thought the daily funnies were just for kids.

It's revealed that April and her father's handler, Wurst, set them up. But not by choice. What happens next is the subject of this sequence from August, 2018,

It's a sequence that would have worked in any current spy movie. Once he knows his sister is safe, Wurst takes his revenge. And it turns out his sister is in the business, too.

Two people die violently in this sequence, but it's implied rather than shown. And, given that only one strip is revealed each day, Marciuliano and Manley artfully keep the tension high and the pacing tight.

Artistry such as this is why I keep reading the daily comics page.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Jaroslav Krcek - Instrumental Music from a Czech Master

Jaroslav Krcek is an important musical figure in the Czech Republic. He's an authority on Czech folk music, as well as Medieval and Renaissance music. He's a classical composer and has written "an electronic opera." Krcek has been a music editor for Supraphon. And he's also invented an instrument or two.

Listening to this release of Krcek's instrumental music, I could easily hear the influence of Czech music traditions.

The 1981 Oboe Concerto is full of the highly syncopated rhythms of Czech dances. Krcek treats the oboe almost like a cross between a bock and shepherd's pipe. The melody lightly skips around, playing with simple figures that evolve over the course of the work.

By contrast, the Violin Concerto seems inspired by Stravinsky and Bartok, rather than folk music. Written just a year before the Oboe Concerto, the work has an other-worldly character. Long, suspended melodies are interrupted by sharply dissonant chords. And yet this is also music of great originality. Krcek's orchestrations have an unusual sound, especially his writing for winds.

Music to the Lusatian Sorb fable "The Secret of the Old Mill" is a suite from the film score. Here, Krcek the musicologist is in his element. The work is almost a  parallel to Respighi's "Ancient Aires and Dances." We're treated to Renaissance-style dance numbers, coupled with evocative folk tunes and a dash of 20th-Century polytonality.

The Three Dances in the Old Style is equally appealing -- and for the same reasons. These dances are highly rhythmic, blending modal harmonies with short, folk-like melodies.

All in all, a delightful album. And one that makes me want to explore Jaroslav Krcek's catalog further.

Jaroslav Krcek: Instrumental Music
Concerto for Oboe; Three Dances in Old Style; Music to "Secret of the Old Mill"
Gabriela Krckova, oboe; Kenka Kouhkova Torensen, violin; Musica Bohemia Prague, Jaroslav Krcek conductor; Slovak Chamber Orchestra, Bohdan Warchal, conductor

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Rautavaara Works for Cello -- Crystalline Masterworks

If you're only familiar with Rautavaara's orchestral works and love them as much as I do, you should listen to this release. With only one or two instruments to work with, the essence of Rautavaara's music is laid bare.

As the artists write in the liner notes, "Rautavaara’s music surprised us with how violently it struck us. We were both enormously attracted to its mysterious melancholy and its sustained and relentless pain and anger, combined with a feather-light beauty and caressing sensuality."

The works on this release cover most of his career. Rautavaara's style evolved over time, yet the emotional content remained a constant.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 sets the tone. It was originally written in 1972 when Rautavaara leaned toward the neo-romantic. The long, lyrical melodies are often supported by modal harmonies. And yet there's an edge to this music. Perhaps it comes from Rautavaara' revisions in 2001. Or perhaps they were there all along.

The second sonata for cello and piano, completed in 1991 is even edgier. It sounds almost experimental. The material sounds fragmented as if broken apart and jumbled back together. And yet there are moments of icy calm, a hallmark of Rautavaara.

Rautavaara's music is demanding. Cellist Tanja Tetzlaff and pianist Gunilla Süssmann are more than equal to the task. I was especially impressed with Tetzlaff's performance of the Sonata for Solo Cello. Her command of the extreme upper register -- in harmonics -- was astounding.

Also included are the Two Preludes and Fugues, student pieces from 1955. These are simpler, less introspective works. And even in these lighter, more conventional pieces, there's a hint of something darker just below the surface.

If you know Rautavaara's music, this release belongs in your collection. If you don't, give this a listen.

Einojuhani Rautavaara: Works for Cello
Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Gunilla Süssmann, piano
ODE 1310-2

Friday, August 24, 2018

#ClassicsaDay #Bernsteinat100 Week 4

August 2018 is the centennial of Leonard Bernstein's birth. Many classical radio stations, performance groups, and writers marked the occasion. And so did #ClassicsaDay.

Bernstein was known as a composer, conductor, performer and an educator. Since #ClassicsaDay is primarily a music feed, I concentrated on the first two of those roles (and occasionally the third).

My contributions alternated between Bernstein the composer and Bernstein the conductor. And I tried to steer away from the more obvious choices for Bernstein compositions. His catalog is quite extensive, and I found it interesting to explore some of the lesser-known (and in some cases, less-successful) works.

Here are my posts for the fourth week:

Ludwig van Beethoven - Egmont Overture, Op. 84

Berstein and the New York Philharmonic performed this overture in 1959. Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic recorded it for CBS in 1970. Bernstein would do another recording of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1981 for Deutsches Grammophon.

Leonard Bernstein - Trouble in Tahiti (1951)

Bernstein wrote this one-act opera about consumerism during his honeymoon. It was rushed to completion for its premiere. Bernstein was not happy with either the performance nor the finale. He revised the work and it was presented in a TV broadcast later that year. "A Quiet Place" (1983) was conceived as a sequel. It was later revised to incorporate parts of "Trouble" as a flashback.

Franz Joseph Haydn - Symphony No. 88 in G major

Bernstein recorded Haydn's "Paris" and "London" symphonies. He recorded Symphony No. 88 with the New York Philharmonic in 1963, and with the Vienna Philharmonic 20 years later.

Leonard Berstein - Symphonic Suite from "On the Waterfront" 1955

Berstein won an Oscar for his original score to "On the Waterfront." He didn't just string themes together to create his concert version. Bernstein reworked the material to create a single movement tone poem. He wrote, "the main materials.. undergo numerous metamorphoses, following as much as possible the chronological flow of the film."

Larry Austin - Improvisations for Orchestra and Jazz Soloists (1961)

Austin built-in places for free improvisation. Bernstein conducted it in a 1964 New York Philharmonic concerto with Don Ellis, Barre Phillips, Joe Cocuzzo. According to music critic Harold C. Schonberg, "Mr. Austin really had little to say, though he said it most fashionably." He did have high praise for the jazz soloists, noting that Don Ellis "had the whole horn section of the Philharmonic hanging over their stands to see how he achieved his effects."

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Introducing the Halsam American Brick Build

Halsam American Bricks only had three different shapes.


I had so much fun doing the 100 Toys Build that I decided to start another vintage toy build project. This time the subject is Halsam American Bricks. Its a building toy with a somewhat convoluted history.

Early days

Halsom Products Co. was established in 1917. Their specialty was wooden toys. Early on they perfected a method of making pressed wood shapes. From the 1920s through the sale of the company in 1962 Halsam was best known for their dominos. In fact, that fame continued on after the sale. Playskool, which had acquired the company, continued to make Halsam-branded dominos. Halsam dominoes were also offered briefly by Hasbro, who bought Playskool in the 1970s.

The pressed wood process Halsam used for their dominos was used for their building sets. In 1938 they introduced American Bricks. These rectangular bricks interlock like Legos.

The Simplicity of American Bricks

The Halsam system was very simple: there were only three types of blocks: a rectangle with eight pegs, a square with four pegs, an angled piece with four holes. All the blocks were painted red. Some eight-peg bricks were painted yellow for accent pieces.

This sheet shows everything you need to know about constructing houses
with Halsam bricks. The inset box notes that the bricks are
scored so that each rectangular brick appears to have three bricks
on its facade. When the bricks are interlocked properly, these brick
lines are staggered, just as they are in real structures.

Windows and doors were embossed cardstock. Each brick had small slots between their pegs. The windows and doors had tabs that fit those slots to secure them in place. As you can imagine, once those tabs started to wear, keeping windows in place became a problem.

The set was meant for building small structures. The windows and doors represent 1930s prototypes. The building plans included with the sets have models that look very much like Craftsman-style homes and small-town buildings.

From Wood to Plastic

In the late 1950s the company moved American Bricks to Elgen, its plastics division. The bricks were completely redesigned and were made with injection molded plastic. Colors were still basic. Bricks were red. Capstones, doors, and windows (now plastic instead of paper) were white.

The American Brick Build

For this project, I'm using the Halsam wooden American Bricks. They're not as well-known as the Elgo bricks. Elgo often gets mentioned as a precursor to Lego bricks. According to ToyHistory.com, Lego met with Halsam when they entered the U.S. market so they could co-exist peacefully. The bricks were of different design, but Elgo can be an anagram of Lego.

Personally, I like the way Halsam's wooden bricks resemble real ones in their proportions. And while they don't snap together the way plastic bricks do, when interlocked,  the Halsam bricks make a pretty sturdy structure.

As with the 100 Toys build, I'll just be going through the instruction book.

I don't anticipate any of the challenges I experienced with the Line Mar set. But I am curious to see how closely my builds will resemble the carefully photographed and heavily processed examples in the instruction book.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre Complete Harpsichord Works - Très Bon

Though barely known today, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was hailed as "the wonder of our century" in the 1690s. At age five De La Guerre sang for Louis XIV and remained at court until her marriage.

She was a keyboard virtuoso, with impressive improvisational skills. Contemporaries judged her on par with Marci-Antoine Charmpenie, François Couperin, Jean-Féry Rebel and just slightly below Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Her solo harpsichord works are very much in like with Couperin's and Rebel's. They're collections of short dances grouped by key. The melodies are fairly simple, providing ample opportunities for ornamentation.

De La Guerre published her first collection in 1687, and her last in 1707. One can hear the development of her style. Her final suite sounds more tightly organized It also seems a little closer to the Italianate style that was gaining popularity at the time.

Francesca Lanfranco performs in a straightforward manner. Her delicate touch makes the ornamentations sound organic rather than fussy. The harpsichord recording is exceptional. There's virtually no sound of the instrument's action to detract from the music.

Lanfranco's readings helped me understand why contemporary audiences thought so highly of de La Guerre's work.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: Complete Harpsichord Works
Franchesca Lanfranco, harpsicord
Brilliant Classics 95555

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

CPO Revives Anton Urspruch, Contemporary of Brahms

Anton Urspruch (1850-1907) is hardly a household name -- even among classical music aficionados. In the 1880s, though, he was a rising star. Urspruch studied composition with Joachim Raff and Ignaz Lachner. He was a star piano pupil of Franz Liszt. As a scholar, he's credited with the revival of Gregorian Chant.

Urspruch enjoyed an international reputation during his lifetime as a pianist, musicologist, and composer. After his death at the age of 56, though, Urspruch virtually vanished from the music scene.

CPO hopes to correct that with a 2-CD set of Ursprurch's major instrumental works -- his piano concerto and symphony.

Urspruch's 1878 piano concerto is filled with technical challenges worthy of Liszt. Yet Urspruch's music seemed more reserved than that of his teacher. The concerto is carefully constructed, more in keeping with the ideals of Beethoven and Brahms (whom Urspruch knew well).

Oliver Triendl delivers an excellent performance. His playing brings out the beauty of Urspruch's melodies. Triendl has clearly mastered the difficulties of the concerto, making them sound almost effortless (while still quite impressive).

Urspruch's Symphony, written just three years later, reminded me quite strongly of Raff's symphonies. There's the same clarity of form. Urspruch, like Raff, is a masterful orchestrator and knows exactly what he wants to do with his material.

A critic of the day wrote after a performance, "Brahms is the only other composer who could have written it!" I wouldn't go that far. Urspruch's voice isn't quite the same as his colleague's. But I understand the sentiment.

Like Brahms, Urspruch constructed his works without extra-musical considerations. Urspruch, like Brahms, seems comfortable to use the symphonic form to develop his musical ideas. And the end result is a work well worth hearing.

Will Anton Urspruch's symphony and piano concerto replace one of the late Romantic repertoire standards? Probably not. But they are well-crafted works that do deserve to be heard again.

Anton Urspruch: Piano Concerto Op. 9 in E-flat major; Symphony No. 14 in E-flat major
Oliver Triendl, piano
Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie
Georg Fritzsch, Marcus Bosch, conductors
2 CD Set

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Funiculus Triplex: Franz Xaver Hassl Rediscovered

The title of this release comes from a collection of trio sonatas by Franz Xaver Hassl (1708-1757). Funiculus Triplex is the only known surviving work of

Fleshing out the program are three sacred arias by Johann Ludwig Steiner (1688-1761). Also included are canzonettas by Johann Friedrich Agricola (1722-1744) -- not to be confused with the Flemish Renaissance composer Alexander Agricla.

The release is a nice collection of Style Galant music. Style Galant gained popularity with the generation following J.S. Bach. It favored simple, song-like melodies over complex polyphonic textures.

Agricola's Canzonettas are excellent examples of the genre. These miniatures charm with their tuneful melodies. Soprano Ulrike Hofbauer sings with delicacy and an unaffected delivery that's immediately appealing.

Steiner's sacred arias may be more serious in their subject matter, but they invite the listener in with their straight-forward harmonies and four-square phrases. Hofbauer seems to be singing with a smile. This is the music of joyful worship and praise.

The centerpieces of the album are Hassl's trio sonatas. It's a shame not more of his music survived. (The Funiculus Triplex is his Opus 2, so I'm assuming there was an Opus 1 at least.) If I had to describe these works, I'd say they resemble Handel's trio sonatas -- if Handel had lightened up a little.

The Galant style is all about lightness -- and Hassl delivers. These are featherweight trios, with the transverse flute and violin trading melodies with delightful abandon. And yet they're also tightly constructed. Hassl's building blocks may be simple, but he uses them in some imaginative ways. These works retained my interest from beginning to end.

L'Arcadia deftly performs this material to perfection. The playing is airy without being frivolous. The ensemble demonstrates the appeal of STyle Galant after the heaviness of the late Baroque.

Funiculus Triplex: Rediscovered "Style Galant" for Chamber and Church
Franz Xaver Hassl, Johann Friedrich Agricola, Johann Ludwig Steiner
L'Arcadia; Ulrike Hofbauer, soprano
Guild GMCD 7806

Friday, August 17, 2018

#ClassicsaDay #Bernsteinat100 Week 3

August 2018 is the centennial of Leonard Bernstein's birth. Many classical radio stations, performance groups, and writers marked the occasion. And so did #ClassicsaDay.

Bernstein was known as a composer, conductor, performer and an educator. Since #ClassicsaDay is primarily a music feed, I concentrated on the first two of those roles (and occasionally the third).

My contributions alternated between Bernstein the composer and Bernstein the conductor. And I tried to steer away from the more obvious choices for Bernstein compositions. His catalog is quite extensive, and I found it interesting to explore some of the lesser-known (and in some cases, less-successful) works.

Here are my posts for the third week:

Leonard Bernstein - Slava! A Political Overture, for Orchestra (1977)

Bernstein wrote "Slava!" for Mstislav Rostropovich's inaugural concert as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. In the original version, a tape with snippets of Presidential political speeches is played in the background.

Richard Wagner - Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde"

Bernstein conducted many of Wagner's big orchestral hits. He recorded "Liebestod" with the New York Philharmonic in 1968. He also recorded it with the Bavarian Radio Symphony for Philips in 1981.

Leonard Bernstein - Piano Trio (1937)

The piano trio is a student piece, written while Bernstein was at Harvard. Ever the recycler, he reused part of the second movement seven years later in his score for "On the Town."

Samuel Barber - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14

Bernstein first conducted Barber's concerto with the New York Philharmonic in 1960. Aaron Rosand was the soloist. He recorded it with the orchestra four years later with violinist Isaac Stern.

Leonard Bernstein - Three Meditations from "Mass", for Orchestra (1972)

"Mass" was written for the inauguration of the Kennedy Center, and involved over 200 performers. Two instrumental interludes were arranged for cello and piano for Mstislav Rostropovich. Bernstein later added a third, and the orchestral arrangement was premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1977 - with Berstein conducting and Rostropovich as the soloist.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Line Mar Match Box Construction 100 - Regulator

I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

100. Regulator

The final toy in this series proved relatively easy to build. And I could build it with the pieces that came with the set. If you've been following the series, you know that was not always a given. 

Although it's called a regulator, it looks more like a governor to me. The idea's the same, of course. If this were a working model the assembly with the two hanging dowels would spin around. The dowels would pivot outward, siphoning excess energy out of the system. 

Final Thoughts

This building set was very much of its time. As such, it gave me some insights into that time.

I had always thought cheap Japanese imports a post-WWII phenomenon. The U.S. actively encouraged Japanese manufacturing to rebuild the economy. America was the primary market for the goods produced.

This set was produced by Line Mar, the Japanese subsidiary of Louis Marx Co. in 1936. So even before the war, Japan was a source of inexpensive toys and goods. 

This Line Mar construction set simply couldn't be sold today. In 1963 the United State began enacting child safety regulation for toys. This one has too many small parts that can be easily swallowed. The corners those bent metal boxes could scratch the skin.

The toys illustrated reflect the world of the 1930s. The buildings echo the modernist city structures of the 1920s and early 1930s. Many of toys are hand-cranked machines. These machines -- or ones like them -- were common in small shops and factories throughout the country. 

And one more thing. This building set would be considered inappropriate for children today. Yet it is very much a child's toy. My fingers were often too big to manipulate the pieces. I often used jeweler's tools to slide collars into place or hold a dowel steady as I added pieces to it. 

Overall, it was a satisfying project. This set had never been used. It had sat forgotten in a stock room until it was found and put on eBay. It's a toy. And it was meant to be played with. I'm glad I did.