Sunday, June 30, 2019

Spam Roundup June, 2019

There's spam, and then there's spam so oddly written it's somewhat amusing. Here's a roundup of some of the "best" comments I received this month from spambots around the world.

Words to live by?

This month a large number of comments came in spawned by random word generators. Some of them almost sounded mystical.

 - Go someplace in the piece to settle your literal class for the value on the regime.

 - The tips in commercial instrument to assemble up for nimble stimulate or fanning. ["Nimble stimulation sounds a bit naughty to me.]

 - Knock up the discussions is a masculine manage of fun. [OK, now this one DOES sound naughty.]

Pet Peeves

The next two come from different comments on different posts. Taken together, though...

 -  If you are up to patron animal group you should aim to communicate.

 - It all depends on your personal taste and preferences. It might not seem essential for a dog to wear boots. [I aim to communicate with my dog to get his take on the boots thing.]

"Lumbering along" keeps rolling along

My short post about a vintage Japanese friction toy remains attractive to spambots. The Straco Express Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along has almost received one comment for every word of this quite short post.

 - Good paragraph and nice urging commented at this place. [I just felt the urge to write, that's all.]

 - You need to take part in a contest for one of the highest quality blogs on the net. [I know, right? Where do I sign up?]

 - Buy your own artificer [Same to you, fella! I have all the artifice I can handle, thanks.]

 - It is likewise a fantabulous supposition for your medium of exchange. [Likewise, I'm sure.]

It's back

I guess some words just go in and out of fashion -- and back again.

 - This web page is genuinely fastidious, The people are really sharing pleasant thoughts.

That's all for this month. Pleasant thoughts, everyone.

Friday, June 28, 2019

#ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth Week 4

Since 1979, June has been African-American Music Appreciation Month. The Classics a Day team decided to adopt it for the June 2019 theme as well. Popular music genres will no doubt be well-represented by others. We'll be focusing on the composers, conductors, and performing artists of color who have contributed to classical music.

For my part, my feed features African-American classical composers. Here are my posts for the fourth and final week of #ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth

6/24/19 Rosephanye Powell (1962-) To Sit and Dream

Powell is primarily known as a choral composer. She's also considered an authority on the music of William Grant Still, and African-American spirituals.

6/25/19 Hale Smith (1925-2009) - Contours for Orchestra

Smith studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He won the first BMI Student Composer Award in 1952 and went on to have a successful career as a composer, pianist, arranger, and academician.

6/26/19 Jeffrey Mumford (1955 - ) - "through a stillness..."

Mumford studied with composition with Elliot Carter. Although not a strict serialist, Mumford writes densely complex music that eschews tonality.

6/27/19 George Walker (1922-2018) Lyric for Strings

Walker was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition. Lyric for Strings is dedicated to Walker's grandmother, who died shortly before the work was finished. Lyric remains his most popular work.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Chamber Symphonies Great Intro to Mieczyslaw Weinberg

Mieczyslaw Weinberg's music can be a difficult listen. He was fond of extreme registers and extreme harmonies -- not the best combination for a Soviet Era composer. For someone interested in exploring Weinberg's work (and you really should), this a great disc to start with.

The works on this album are all written in a more conservative (and Party-friendly) style. Weinberg was a close friend of Shostakovich, and that affinity can be heard in Weinberg's music.

Like Shostakovich, Weinberg doesn't fully sublimate his feelings. These chamber symphony works are basically tonal, but there's an undercurrent of subversiveness running through them. 

The Chamber Symphony No. 1 was an arrangement of Weinberg's 1940 String Quartet No. 2. It reminded me of Shostakovich's Op. 110a Chamber Symphony (also arranged from a string quartet). I think Weinberg sublimates his anger better than Shostakovich, without completely erasing it.

Stylistically, I think the Concerto for Flute and Strings No. 1 is closer to Prokofiev than Shostakovich. There's a lightness to the work, with angular melodies that occasionally veer off in unexpected directions.

Weinberg's Chamber Symphony No. 3 seems more modest in scope than the first one. Although about the same length, Weinberg's music shows more constraint than with the first. There's less use of extreme registers and softer dissonances throughout.

The Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of the Polish Radio delivers fine, nuanced performances. In the hands of Anna Duczmal-Mroz, the ensemble brings out the subtext of discontent in these neo-classical works. Accessible music with plenty of emotional depth -- that's why I'll be using this recording as an introduction to Weinberg's work.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Chamber Music
Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 145; Concerto for Flute and Strings, No. 1, Op. 75; Chamber Symphony No. 3, Op. 151
Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio; Lukasz Dlugosz, flute;
Anna Duczmal-Mróz, conductor
DUS 1525

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Listener-friendly Symphony of Leopold van der Pals

At the turn of the century, a man spent the summer in a small "composing shed" near his house writing his first symphony. It's the story of Gustav Mahler, and also of Leopold van der Pals.

Pals had completed studies with Rheinhold Gliere and was inspired to write big works. His first symphony was completed in 1907. Its creation parallels Mahler's first, but that's where the resemblance ends.

Pals' symphony is much more modest in scope. This four-movement work shows Pal to have an original voice. Post-romantic chromaticism mixes easily with impressionistic chord structures.

It was well-received in its day, which isn't surprising. Pal guides the listener along a carefully delineated path. Unlike the Mahler first, Pals' symphony isn't revelatory, but it's well-constructed. And it's enjoyable to listen to.

This release includes other orchestral works written around the same time. Frühling und Herbst (Spring and Autumn) are two tone-poems about seasons transforming from winter to summer (and vice versa).

Wieland der Schmied is symphonic prelude based on a play by Friedrich Lienhard. In these works Pals seems closer to Debussy than Mahler in style.

The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, directed by Johannes Goritzki give credible performances. The ensemble sound is warm and blended which serve Pals' fluid harmonies well.

Leopold van der Pals: Symphony No. 1
Wieland der Schmied: Frühling · Herbst
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra; Johannes Goritzki, conductor

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Formosa Quartet sample Hungary and Taiwan (sort of)

I really like the selections on this album and the performances. The premise? Not so much.

The liner notes state that the quartet wants to explore cultural and geographic diversity. "In this recording, we begin to focus on two of these regions [of the world] by bringing you music born of Hungarian and Taiwanese soil — much in the spirit of Béla Bartók, the ethnomusicological father of us all, and in tribute to our own namesake, the island of Formosa."

To me, that's really a stretch -- and one that doesn't need to be made. The four compositions in this release complement and contrast with each other nicely, without having much in common (save the instrumentation).

Representing Hungary is Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4 and Dana Wilson's "Hungarian Folk Songs." Bartók's 1928 quartet uses his own take on serialism, with extended techniques for the strings. The Formosa Quartet takes on this repertoire standard with relish, infusing the music with vitality and excitement.

While Bartók's modernist quartet was far removed from Hungarian folk music, Dana Wilson's 2008 work embraces it. Written for the Formosa Quartet, Wilson embraces not just the melodies, but the sound of Hungarian folk music. The violins especially have the rough-hewn quality of Romani fiddles. My impression is the Formosa Quartet has as much playing this work as I did listening to it.

Lei Liang's "song Recollections" is another work written for the quartet. Here the inspiration is the music of the indigenous Taiwanese. It's an engaging work, blending (to my ears) Australian aboriginal drones with Chinese pentatonic scales.

"Four Taiwanese Folk Songs" by Wei-Chieh Lin presents four simple and evocative arrangements of music from several Taiwanese populations (native and immigrant). The quartet delivers expressive and beautiful performances of these songs.

I liked the overall sound of the Formosa Quartet. Their playing, both individually and collectively, has a bit of an edge. And there's a youthful enthusiasm that runs through the album.

And in the end, that's what I liked about the album -- the quality of the performances (and the material). Just not the theme.

From Hungary to Taiwan
Dana Wilson; Lei Liang; Bela Bartok; Wei-Chieh Lin
Formosa Quartet 
Bridge Records, 9519

Monday, June 24, 2019

Martinu and Martin together in The Secret Mass

There's only one letter difference between the names Martin and Martinu. Their music isn't as closely related, but they do share some similarities. Swiss Frank Martin and Czech Bohuslav Martinu were both born in 1890 and were musical contemporaries.

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble performs mostly a capella works by these two men, highlighting both the similarities and the differences.

The album opens with Martin's Mass for Double Choir. Although composed in 1926, Martin did not permit performances until 1963. It was a deeply personal religious statement by Martin, one he felt should "remain hidden from public opinion." Hence the title "Secret Mass."

Martin was inspired to compose after hearing a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The choral writing in this work shows that influence, albeit with more modern harmonies. Martin effectively uses the double choirs to great effect. Sometimes one echoes the other, sometimes they come together, and sometimes they move off in different directions. It's a beautiful work that I'm glad is no longer secret.

Martin's 1950 Songs of Ariel shows traces of the dodecaphonic system. With Martin, it's more of an adaptation than adoption. There's clear melodic movement, and cadences, while avoiding traditional harmony, still have a sense of completeness and inevitability.

As with Martin, the choir includes an early and late choral work by Martinu.

Martinu's works invariably have a strong rhythmic pulse and distinctive syncopations. Those syncopations are based on Czech speech patterns. His "Four Songs of the Virgin Mary" (1932) and "Romance from the Dandelions" (1957) are set in Czech.

The blending of language and rhythm gives these work a naturalistic sound, almost as if the choir was talking lyrically instead of singing. Martinu's harmonic language is loosely tonal and remained consistent throughout his career. These two Martinu works share many similarities despite being written twenty years apart.

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble performs with a smooth ensemble blend. The choir is well-recorded. There's no harshness in the sopranos' upper register, and the basses sing with clarity and precision.

This is an SACD release. If you purchase the digital downloads, select the highest resolution offered. It's the only way you can fully appreciate the nuanced phrasing of the choir and the wonderfully rich textures of their blended voices.

The Secret Mass: Choral Works by Frank Martin and Bohuslav Martinu
Danish National Vocal Ensemble; Marcus Creed, conductor
OUR Recordings 6.220671
SACD Release

Friday, June 21, 2019

#ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth Week 3

Since 1979, June has been African-American Music Appreciation Month. The Classics a Day team decided to adopt it for the June 2019 theme as well. Popular music genres will no doubt be well-represented by others. We'll be focusing on the composers, conductors, and performing artists of color who have contributed to classical music. 

For my part, my feed features African-American classical composers. Here are my posts for Week 3 of #ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth

6/17/19 Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004) - Homage (to William Levi Dawson)

Perry studied with Darius Milhaud and wrote "clear, classic melodies." She was well-respected as a composer, teacher, and civil rights activist.

6/18/19 Joshua Coyne (1993 - ) - Daydream

Coyne is an accomplished violinist and studied with Richard Daneilpour. He's composed both concert music and movie soundtracks. "Daydream" won gold at the NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics.

6/19/19 Philippa Schuyler (1931-1967) - Four Little Pieces

Schuyler was a child prodigy. Her first compositions were written at age five. Although she had a successful career as a pianist, she turned to journalism. She was a Vietnam war correspondent when she was killed in action.

6/20/19 Florence Price (1887-1953) - Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major

Price was the first African-American woman to have her music played by a major orchestra. Her orchestral catalog includes 4 symphonies, 4 concertos, and several shorter works.

6/21/19 Regina Harris Baiocchi (1956 - ) - Azuretta

Although she showed musical talent at an early age, Baiocchi has worked both in and outside the field. Most of her instrumental compositions are for solo instruments or chamber ensembles.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Heinrich Anton Hoffmann String Quartets - Music in Transition

When Heinrich Anton Hoffman died in 1842, a colleague wrote: "as a composer, he secured his permanent place among the ranks of major composers with the simplicity and deep feeling of his Lieder, and with his Duets for Violin and Violoncello, in which he combined sophistication and elegance." That statement proved both true and false.

Today few remember the violin virtuoso Hoffmann, though he was well-known during his lifetime. Hoffmann was an exact contemporary of Beethoven and a colleague of Mozart's. In fact, they performed together on occasion, and Hoffmann consulted Mozart on compositional matters. But Hoffman's music quickly faded into obscurity after his death.

While the obituary erred in Hoffmann's place in history, it nicely summed up his style. The qualities of simplicity and deep emotion are both evident in these string quartets.

The Opus 3 quartets were published in 1794. I'd place them stylistically between Haydn and Beethoven. Like Mozart and Haydn, Hoffmann uses simple phrases and motifs to construct his music. His use of chromaticism leans more towards Beethoven, though.

These are well-crafted quartets that compare favorably to those by Hoffmann's more famous contemporaries. This release marks their first recording -- I hope it won't be the last.

The Alte Musik Köln delivers top-notch performances. Listening through a high-performance sound system brought me further into the music. My one complaint is that the balance seemed off, somehow. The violins sounded too bright for my taste.

That's a little surprising, as the quartet performs on period instruments. If gut strings were used, that edge shouldn't be there. A minor quibble, sure, but there it is.

Heinrich Anton Hoffmann: String Quartets, Op. 3
Alte Musik Köln
Ars Produktion 260052

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Ola Gjeilo - Sunrise Mass a Beautiful Start for Any Day

Ola Gjeilo has a gift for writing choral music of exceeding beauty. And while "Sunrise Mass" showcases Gjeilo's music, works by other composers are wisely interspersed for variety.

The end result is a choral album that is first-rate in every regard -- the choice of material, the cohesiveness of the program, the quality of the recording, and the quality of the performances.

Westminster Williamson Voices is an exceptional ensemble. The voices blend so well that it's virtually impossible to pick out the individual sections (unless it's the intent of the music).

That seamless blend and precise voice control help turn Gjeilo's music into something extraordinary.

The title track, "Sunrise Mass" is a half-hour meditation for choir and string orchestra. The work contracts and expands organically. Sections of long, sustained tones are followed episodes of rhythmic intensity.

Gjeilo's rich, consonant harmonies give the work a luminosity that completely wins over the listener (well, this one, anyway). Gjeilo's shorter works on the album share that same quality on a smaller scale.

Director James Jordan wisely leavens all that richness. Included is a Hildegard von Bingen piece, and a Maurice Durufle motet. Von Bingen's music sound suspended in time (as Gjeilo's can), and Durufle's thick harmonies complement Gjeilo's style.

Also included are arrangements of Felix Mendelssohn motets, and a work by Damijan Mocnik. This Slovenian composer's style is similar to Gjeilo's (though perhaps leaning a little towards Arvo Part).

I heartily recommend this release to everyone. This is a masterful recording, both in content and execution.

Ola Gjeilo: Sunrise Mass
Westminster Williamson Voices
James Jordan, conductor
Gia CD-1048

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Hans Gál Chamber Music Volume 3 - Consistent quality

This installment of Toccata Classics' Hans Gál series feature works from very different times in the composer's life. Although there are stylistic differences between them, there's a consistency of quality and craftsmanship throughout.

The earliest (and largest) work is the 1914 Piano Quartet in B-flat major. Gál builds on foundations laid by Brahms and Dvorak. The themes are big and broad. Gal manipulates his material in interesting ways, especially harmonically. It's a wonderful encapsulation of the Viennese aesthetic that war would soon sweep away.

In 1934, Hans Gál wrote a Sonatina in F major for his son. This musical present was composed at a time when the Gáls and other Austrian Jews were in extreme danger. Not a hint of that can be found in this music. The sonatina -- written with his son's abilities in mind -- is simple and charming.

The technical demands of the Three Sonatinas for violin and piano, Op. 71 are set quite higher. Gál composed these in 1956 for professional players. The works are quite tonal, but the harmonies pared down from the lushness of the 1914 Piano Quartet.

Violinist Katalin Kertész plays in a clean, understated manner. Her performances give the late sonatinas a somewhat elegiac and wistful quality. Pianist Sarah Beth Briggs matches her restraint, bringing just the right emotional weight to these violin and piano works.

Not so the Piano Quartet. Here the full ensemble embraces the late-Romantic aesthetic. This is the music of big emotion and big gestures, and the musicians dig into it with gusto.

Hans Gál: Chamber Music, Vol. 3
Katalin Kertész, violin; Nichola Blakey, viola; Cressida Nash, cello; Sarah Beth Briggs, piano
Toccata Classics TOCC 0433

Monday, June 17, 2019

Barney Google Birthday Cameos

Barney Google meets Spark Plug, 1922.
Monday, June 17, 2019, marked the 100th anniversary of the comic strip character Barney Google. It was an odd anniversary to mark, and it was marked oddly.

Who was Barney Google?

"Take Barney Google F'instance" launched in 1919, written and drawn by Billy DeBeck. DeBeck was one of the developers of the "big foot" style of comic art (Robert Crumb paid homage to it).

The strip initially appeared in newspaper sports sections. Google was a sportsman of sorts -- a plunger who hung around boxing matches and horse races.

In 1922 he became the owner of a broken-down plug names Spark Plug. And that's when the strip took off. During the 1920s and 1930s "Barney Google" soared in popularity. The franchise spawned movie cartoons, toys, and even some Tin Pan Alley songs.

I think the 100th-anniversary celebrations would have made sense had the strip remained essentially unchanged. But it didn't.

One of the Barney Google-themed songs
to enter the Hit Parade.
In 1934 Barney Google visited his hillbilly cousin Snuffy Smith. Gradually Snuffy took over the strip. The title transitioned from "Barney Google" to "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" to just "Snuffy Smith" (only the Sunday strips retain the longer title).

Postwar readers of the strip have only seen Snuffy Smith, with rare appearances by Barney Google and Spark Plug. ( I suspect those appearances are only to keep the copyright current.)

So this anniversary celebrates the former star of the strip -- kind of an odd thing.

A strange collection of cameos

"Snuffy Smith" -- er, I mean "Barney Google" -- is distributed by King Features Syndicate. Some other King Features comics marked the anniversary with varying degrees of success.

I found the first and next-to-last examples especially odd.

I'm not sure what this one's all about. Where's Spark Plug?

Without a doubt, this is the oddest tribute. So Barney Google and Snuffy Smith
are in the same universe as Mark Trail!?

Giovanni Ristori Missa in C major to be taken seriously

A commenter took me to task for my recent review of Jan Dismas Zelenka's Missa Omnium Sanctorum. "The point of a mass setting is not to be "fun" and Zelenka would probably abhor that characterization of this work... Anyway, it was his friend [Giovanni Alberto] Ristori who was responsible for the "fun" masses in Dresden."

Ristori did serve at the court of the Saxon Elector along with Zelenka. Based on this recording, I'm not sure I'd call him the fun one. (Actually,  in my review "fun" was the description of the performances, not the music).

Still, Ristori has a distinctively different style than that of his colleague. It draws more on the Italian operatic tradition and centers around the beauty of the human voice.

The Missa in C major features some beautiful choral set pieces with sparkling counterpoint. Not fun, but heartfelt, and perhaps joyful.

Far more serious in character is the Litaniae de Sancto Xaverio and the Miserere in C minor. In both these works, the Sächsisches Vocalensemble seems to have a thicker, darker texture. Yes, some of it's in the music (minor vs. major), but some of it's in the performances.

Soprano Heidi Maria Taubert sings with a clear tone that has a little bit of edge. It's especially effective in the Miserere. The alto part is sung by countertenor David Erler. The blend of Erler's voice with Taubert's enhances that brassy edge even more. And, I think, it works well.

Although this album was recorded in a church, ambiance was kept to a minimum. Overall, that's a good thing. The contrapuntal passages could easily be muddied. My only complaint was the decay at the end of movements. It just seems to fall off too abruptly.

Overall, though, a good recording of some well-performed music. I found it a very satisfying listening experience. But not fun.

Giovanni Alberto Ristori
Missa in C major; Litaniae de Sancto Xaverio; Miserere in C minor
Heidi Maria Taubert, soprano; David Erler, countertenor; Andreas Post, tenor; Cornelius Uhle, baritone 
Sächsisches Vocalensemble; Batzdorfer Hofkapelle; Matthias Jung, director
CPO 555 200-2

Friday, June 14, 2019

#ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth Week 2

Since 1979, June has been African-American Music Appreciation Month. The Classics a Day team decided to adopt it for the June 2019 theme as well. Popular music genres will no doubt be well-represented by others. We'll be focusing on the composers, conductors, and performing artists of color who have contributed to classical music. 

For my part, my feed features African-American classical composers. Here are my posts for Week 1 of #ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth

6/10/19 Adolphus Hailstork (1941 - ) - "Sonata da Chiesa" for String Orchestra

Hailstork studied with David Diamond and Nadia Boulanger. His music seamlessly blends European and African-American traditions together. "Sonata da Chiesa" was premiered in 1979.

6/11/19 Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) Fantasy Variations

Kay studied with Paul Hindemith in the 1940s. Some of that influence can be heard in the way Kay develops his variations from the theme.

6/12/19 Dorothy Rudd Moore (1940 - ) - A Little Whimsy

Moore is one of the founders of the Society of Black Composers. Included in her catalog is the 1985 opera, "Frederick Douglass."

6/13/19 Derrick Spiva, Jr. (1982 - ) - American Mirror

In addition to Western classical music, Spiva has also studied Hindustani, Balkan, Persian, and West African music. His own work incorporates all of these musical traditions and more.

6/14/19 Olly Wilson (1937-2018) - Trilogy for Orchestra

In addition to being a composer, Wilson was also a pianist and double bassist. He established TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) at Oberlin.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Robert Furstenthal - A composer redeemed

The story behind Robert Furstenthal's music is compelling. It might even be the stuff of movies. But in the end, the music has to stand (or fall) on its own merits.

The first part of Furstenthal's story isn't new. He was a young Jewish composer forced to flee when the Nazis annexed Austria. He emigrated to America, but the damage was done. His career as a composer was derailed, and he ceased writing music.

In the 1970s Furstenthal reconnected with his first love from prewar Vienna. She encouraged him to return to composing. He did, picking up where he left off.

The works on this release were all composed in the 1970s (or later). Yet they all sound as if they were written in the 1930s. Stylistically they remind me of Ernest Wolfgang Korngold, or perhaps Franz Schmidt.

Furstenthal's music isn't derivative. It's just using a language that's no longer spoken. So how should his music be evaluated?

Personally, I think they're well-crafted and -- within their style -- quite imaginative. Furstenthal has a gift for melody and uses his motivic materials effectively.

The backstory helps explain why Furstenthal sounds closer to Robert Fuchs than Ernst Krenek. I don't think it matters. Old-fashioned as they may be, these chamber works have a charm and an appeal that works on a purely musical level.

The Rosetti Ensemble delivers some heartfelt performances. Cellist Timothy Lowe brings out the nostalgic nature of the Cello Sonata in F minor, giving it poignancy.

Sarah-Jane Bradley imbues the Viola Sonata in D minor with a flavor of Hungarian/Romani expressiveness that perfectly suits the music. Violinist Sarah Trickey treats the Violin Sonata in B minor as an offshoot of Brahms, digging into the music with relish.

For me, the most successful work on the album was the Sonata for Two Oboes and Piano in D minor. It had an unusual combination of instruments, and so sounded the most original to me.

The backstory helps explain why Furstenthal sounds closer to Robert Fuchs than Ernst Krenek. I don't think it matters. Old-fashioned as they may be, these chamber works have a charm and an appeal that works on a purely musical level.

Robert Fürstenthal: Chamber Music, Volume One 
The Rossetti Ensemble 
Toccata Classics, TOCC 0519

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Artyomov paints with clouds of sound in Sola fide

There's only one way to fully appreciate the genius of Vyacheslav Artyomov. You have to listen to everything he's written.

Case in point: this third Divine Art release features Solo Fide: scenes from the ballet after Tolstoy's "Road to Calvary." But Solo Fide isn't just a suite of ballet numbers. It's parts three and four of a massive five-part ballet-requiem. And parts of that work are shared with Artyomov's Requiem.

That's not to say the suites don't work as stand-alone compositions. They do. The forces assembled are the same as one might expect for a requiem mass -- four soloists, choir, and orchestra.

Tolstoy's story, as adapted for the ballet, centers on the death of the Poet. The Poet, a metaphor for culture, also strongly resembles Christ in his martyrdom. Although the story may be heavily cloaked in metaphor, the choir and soloists sing portions of the Latin requiem mass.

Mixed with the orchestral movements, these settings take on a different function. The Latin text brings historical weight to the grief it expresses, coloring the decidedly contemporary context of the music.

Artyomov masterfully uses bold swatches of orchestral color. The instrumental lines slowly diverge chromatically, presenting a smear of sound that makes the emotional content even more visceral.

The album also includes "Tempo costante" from 1970. Artyomov writes that it "plays with an idea of unchangeable, eternal Time." Over an unrelenting pulse, Artymov constructs a work that seems somehow fluid in its meter.

And although it's an effective composition, Tempo costante is part of a set. This work based on the concept of unchanging time, prompted Artymov to write companion work. The Symphony of Elegies, with evokes "the total disappearance of time."

This is volume three of Divine Art's reissue series from Melodya. Collect them all.

Vyacheslav Artyomov
Sola Fide (Only by Faith): Scenes from the ballet after Tolstoy's "Road to Calvary" -  Inna Polianskaya, soprano; Elmira Kugusheva, mezzo-soprano; Aleksey Martinov, tenor; Mikhail Lanskoi baritone; Kunas State Choir; Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow State Philharmonic; Dmitri Kitaenko, conductor
Tempo Consante - Moscow Chamber Orchestra "Musica Viva"; Murad Annamamedov, conductor
Divine Art DDA 25164

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Orfeo reissues Spohr Clarinet Concerto recordings

Orfeo first released these recordings of Louis Spohr clarinet concertos in 1984. And they sound like it. The overall sound is somewhat dulled in the extreme registers (compared to contemporary recordings). It casts the orchestra and soloist in soft focus.

Despite this, I would still recommend this reissue. Karl Leister is an exceptional clarinetist, and his performances here are quite appealing. He plays the intricate passages and extended runs with fluid gracefulness.

Notes seem to blend together and yet are fully articulated even in rapid passages. Spohr wrote all four concertos for Johann Simon Hermstedt, the foremost clarinetist of the early 19th Century.

Leister matches him, I think, in virtuosity. Leister not only masters the technical challenges but also brings out the musicality buried in them.

Spohr was a younger contemporary of Mozart, and these works have a trace of Mozartian sensibilities. And that trace gives these works a certain good-natured tunefulness.

The minus: old-fashioned sound. The plus: top-notch playing.

Louis Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1-4
Karl Leister, clarinet
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor
Orfeo MP1091
2 CD Set

Monday, June 10, 2019

Ars Antiqua Austria energize Georg Muffat

Georg Muffat studied with Lully in Paris early in his career. In 1680, he journeyed to Venice to study with Corelli. Influences from both composers can be heard in his 1682 collection Armonico Tributo.

The structure of the proto-concerto grossi resembles those of Corelli's Opus 4, written around the same time. And the dance movements resemble those found in Lully's instrumental suites.

In this recording, the Ars Antiqua Austria brings out that dancelike quality to great effect. These works sound light and elegant. Some of the movements have a bounce to them as if encouraging the listener to get on their feet.

The ensemble has a clean, transparent sound I really like. The cello provides a solid low end with rich, full tones. The upper strings play with clarity and expressiveness (bringing out the Corelli influence).

Gunar Letzor and the Ars Antiqua Austria successful bring these works to life, imbuing them with energy. Well performed, and well recorded. Muffat's music was well-served.

Georg  Muffat: Armonico Tributo
Ars Antiqua Austria; Gunar Letzbor, director
Pan Classics PC 10407

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Johann Friedrich Fasch Sacred Works on par with Bach's

This release features a thoughtful program of music by Johann Friedrich Fasch. Two major choral works are separated by an instrumental suite.

The Mass in G major is fascinating. Fasch breaks the text down almost to its component phrases. He then seems to treat each phrase differently, moving seamlessly from choral contrapuntal passages to vocal quartet. The choir and instrumental ensemble exchange phrases, and soloists weave in and out.

Johann Sebastian Bach admired Fasch. Both composers wrote with a high degree of complexity. And yet Fasch's seems more accessible. Even when the choir, soloists and instrumental ensemble all seem to go their own ways, the polyphony remains light and transparent.

Das Kleine Konzert turn in a refined, almost understated performance of the Orchestral Suite in A major, FWV K.A3. It provides a welcome relief from the almost overwhelming sonics of the mass. I thought their performance both elegant and charming.

The 1732 cantata "Ich danke dem Herrn von ganzem Herzen" is an imaginative setting of Psalm 111. Fasch uses every technique at his disposal. There's a fair amount of word-painting, especially in the recitatives. Fasch's choral polyphony is thinner than that of the mass, but still dazzling (as the liner notes hints it was meant to be).

For anyone who enjoys the High Baroque, these works are not to be missed. The performances are top-notch, and the recording quality does them justice.

Johann Friedrich Fasch: Sacred Works
Missa in G major; Suite in A major; Cantata "Ich danke dem Herrn von ganzem Herzen"
Veronika Winter, soprano; David Erler, countertenor; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Matthias Vieweg, bass
Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert
Hermann Max, director
CPO 555 176--2

Friday, June 07, 2019

#ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth Week 1

Since 1979, June has been African-American Music Appreciation Month. The Classics a Day team decided to adopt it for the June 2019 theme as well. Popular music genres will no doubt be well-represented by others. We'll be focusing on the composers, conductors, and performing artists of color who have contributed to classical music. 

For my part, my feed features African-American classical composers. Here are my posts for Week 1 of #ClassicsaDay #BlackMusicMonth*

6/3/19 Michael Abels (1962) Urban Legends

Abels is best known for his movie scores, "Get Out," and "Us." He's also an accomplished classical composer, his first premiered work written at age 13.

6/4/19 Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) Troubled Water

Bonds often collaborated with Langston Hughes and studied composition with Roy Harris. "Troubled Water" is based on a spiritual recast as a piano sonata.

6/5/19 Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) "In Dahomey" Overture

Cook was one of Dvorak's composition students in America. His greatest successes came in theater and dance music. His 1903 musical "In Dahomey" was the first produced with an all-black cast on Broadway.

6/6/19 Leonard De Paur (1914-1998) Au Place Congo: Fomme La Dit, Mo Malhéuré

De Paur was a prolific composer and arranger of choral music. The De Paur Chorus did a goodwill tour of Africa in the 1960s. De Paur's arrangement of the Congo song "Fomme La Dit" premiered in 1967.

6/7/19 Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954) Voodoo

Known as "the black Wagner," Freeman wrote and produced operas. His opera companies performed works by Freeman and other black composers. His opera "Voodoo" premiered in 1928.

*President Jimmy Carter initiated Black Music Month in 1979. President Barack Obama changed its name in 2009. We use the older hashtag #BlackMusicMonth simply because it's shorter, and frees up more characters for the body of the tweet.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Alexander Moyzes Symphonies 11 & 12 - fitting finales

This release completes Naxos' reissue of Alexander Moyzes symphonies. Their sister label, Marco Polo, first released these recordings nineteen years ago. As I said in the reviews of the previous volumes, it's good to have these works available again.

Ladislav Slovak and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra share the same cultural background as Moyzes. And that understanding informs their performances, enabling them to bring out some of the more subtle points of Moyzes' writing.

That being said, these definitely aren't audiophile recordings. Although I could hear a fair amount of detail, the overall sound of the ensemble seemed a little soft.

There's nothing soft about the symphonies, though. Moyzes wrote in a mostly tonal style throughout his career and used it to great effect. Symphony No. 11 was completed in 1979. It was completed months after Symphony No. 10.

The two works share the same general structure and emotional themes. But this work seems to go further. The dissonances seem sharper, and the thematic material more tightly connected.

Moyzes' Symphony No. 12 was completed in 1983, months before his death. Moyzes is economical in the use of his material, each note placed to telling effect. Here Moyzes isn't as concerned about grand gestures as he is about stopping to take in the details. It's a fitting finale to an extraordinary career.

Of course, I recommend all six volumes. But at the very least, invest in volumes 5 and 6. That way you can hear Symphonies 10 & 11 back-to-back. The comparison is revelatory.

Alexander Moyzes: Symphonies Nos. 11 and 12
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ladislav Slovak, conductor
Naxos 8.573655

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Brouwer and Bellinati Concertos: Masterworks masterfully played

This release features world premiere recordings of two works by master guitarists played by two master guitarists.

Music by Cuban guitarist Leo Brouwer has become mainstays of the repertoire. His 2003 Book of Signs uses Western classical music as a foundation.

The first movement deconstructs the theme to Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor. The third, with its Afro-Cuban dance rhythms, references Brouwer's Decameron Negro.

Brazilian guitarist Paulo Bellinati based his Concerto Cabolco on traditional music. It was commissioned by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and the Brasil Guitar Duo.

Fittingly, Bellinati incorporates elements of folk music from the São Paulo State. This music is also guitar-based, making it a natural fit for the duo.

The Brazil Guitar Duo perform both works with a firey precision. They understand the traditions behind these works and incorporate them into their playing. It's a perfect match of music and musicians.

I especially loved the perfectly shaped tones they coaxed out of their guitars in the slow, lyrical passages.

The Delaware Symphony Orchestra does a credible job as well. At times, I thought the full ensemble sounded a little thin. But that just might be the way they were recorded.

Whether you enjoy classical guitar music, Brazilian music, Cuban music, or just well-written classical music, there's plenty for you here in this recording.

Leo Brouwer: The Book of Signs
Paulo Bellinati: Concerto Caboclo
Brasil Guitar Duo
Delaware Symphony Orchestra; David Amado, conductor
Naxos 8.573603

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Boffo performances in "Il segreto di Susanna"

Spoiler alert: "Il segreto di Susanna" è che fuma sigarette.* Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari perfectly captured the spirit of opera buffa with "The Secret of Susanna." As the genre dictates, the cast consists of only three roles (one non-singing). The action is quick, farcical, the story concise.

Wolf-Ferrari's work follows the consequences of Suzanna hiding a secret from her increasingly jealous husband. The secret, mildly shocking for 1909, was that Suzanna smoked.

The 50-minute work is packed full of near-misses, misunderstandings, and misdirections. For this opera to work, the comedic timing has to be dead on.

 And this performance succeeds on all counts. Friedrich Haider and the Oviedo Filarmonía play with energy and enthusiasm. They dig into the large, overwrought dramatic passages. But they do so with a lightness and transparency that undercuts any serious intent.

Baritone Àngel Òdena sings in a similar fashion. His near-exaggerated vibrato and phrasing just add to the fun. Judith Howarth also delivers a light, frothy performance. It's easy for the listener to image these two singers interacting onstage with comic effect.

Wolf-Ferrari's Serenade for Strings rounds out the album. Haider and the Oviedo Filarmonía deliver a solid performance. The interpretation seems to share some of the lightness and energy of the opera, making it an ideal companion work.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari
Il segreto di Susanna; Serenade for Strings
Judith Howarth, soprano; Àngel Òdena, baritone 
Oviedo Filarmonía; Friedrich Haider, conductor 
Naxos 8.660385

 *Translation: "The Secret of Susanna" is a cigarette.