Friday, February 26, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth Week 4

The Classics a Day team has celebrated Black composers before. This time around, I tried to avoid duplication with previous posts. It was easy to do. There is a lot of classical music by persons of color, both in the past as well as the present. A lot.

Here are my posts for the fourth week of #BlackHistoryMonth for #ClassicsaDay.

02/22/21 Clarence Cameron White - Levee Dance

White was one of the best violinists at the turn of the 20th Century. His race limited his opportunities. His music blended African-American traditions with Western classical forms.

02/23/21 Michael Abels - Urban Legends

This work is credited with jumpstarting Abels' film career. Jordon Peele saw it, and tapped Abels for the score of "Get Out." He followed this with the soundtrack for "Us."

02/24/21 Ulysses Kay - Six Dances for String Orchestra

In 1954 Kay was asked to provide music for a CBS radio program "String Serenade." He wrote two dances. They were hit, and so he wrote two more for the program. Later he added two more to round out the suite for concert use.

02/25/21 Zenobia Powell Perry - Up Over My Head I See Freedom In the Air

This is an aria from Perry's opera "Tawawa House." It was an underground railroad station and later the site of Wilberforce College, one of the first black-owned colleges.

02/26/21 Alvin Singleton - After the Fallen Crumbs

Singleton wrote this work while serving as the composer in residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble premiered the work in 1987.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Airat Ichmouratov Symphony a tonal masterwork

Some of my classical music friends are convinced that the art form died in the 1920s -- and Schoenberg killed it. Contemporary music is uniformly academic, difficult to perform, and even harder to listen to. Airat Ichmouratov is but one of several contemporary composers who refute those stereotypes time and again. 

Ichmouratov is a true eclectic. Born in Russia, Ichmouratov lives and works in Montreal. Though a practicing Muslim, he also has a deep love of Klezmer music, and even plays clarinet in a Montreal-based Klezmer ensemble. 

Ichmouratov fuses classical and popular styles together to create music that's engaging, substantial, and accessible to both serious and casual listeners. Ichouratov is the master of orchestral color, as the three works in this release demonstrate.

Ichmouratov's Symphony is subtitled "On the Ruins of an Ancient Fort." His orchestrations effectively evoke impressions of this fort and its rich history. What I best enjoyed about Ichmouratov's music was its originality. Contemporary tonal music can often sound like movie music. Not here. Ichmouratov's orchestrations are refreshingly different, without sounding derivative.

The Maslentia Overture (2013) evoke the celebrations of the week preceding Lent. Here Ichmouratov uses elements of Gregorian chant to set the stage. The Youth Overture, fittingly, is a high-energy work that seems to brim with optimism. This is its recording world premiere -- performed by the orchestra and conductor Ichmouratov composed the overture for. 

L'Orchestre de la Francophonie has a good recorded sound. The ensemble blend is quite pleasing, and the soloists performed with exceptional musicality. An album of exceptional music, and one I'll be sharing with my anti-modernist friends.

 Airat Ichmouratov: Symphony, Op. 55, "On the Ruins of an Ancient Fort"
"Youth" Overture; "Maslentisa" Overture
Orchestre de la Francophonie; Jean-Philippe Tremblay, conductor
Chandos 20172

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Weber Piano and Orchestral Music in Good Hands

In a way, I suppose, this release was the next logical step. Pianist Ronald Brautigam and the Kölner Akademie have already recorded the complete piano concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Presenting those of Carl Maria von Weber helps fill out that timeline.

Von Weber was a younger contemporary of Ludwig van Beethoven, and his music draws more on the style of Mozart and Haydn. The first of his two piano concertos illustrates that. 

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major is a classically balanced work. The clear textures and straight-forward harmonies seem Mozartian, with perhaps a dash of Mendelssohn. 

Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major seems more strongly influenced by Beethoven. In 1811 the "Emporer" concerto (also in E-flat) premiered. To my ears, it doesn't sound as if Weber is imitated, Beethoven. Rather, it seems as if Beethoven's inspired Weber to be more adventurous -- which he is. 

That adventure continues with the Konzerstücke in F minor from 1821. Here Weber's music leans towards Romanticism.

Ronald Brautigam performs with a fortepiano modeled after an 1819 Conrad Graf. It's a good choice, as all three works fit nicely to the instrument. Brautigam's playing is precise and expressive. His powerful gestures heighten the stormy dramas in the second concerto and Konzertstucke.

The Kölner Akademie, directed by Michael Alexander Willens also delivers some spirited performances. The ensemble also uses period instruments, but that doesn't lessen their impact.

I have heard period-instrument performances of Weber that seem flat. Not here. There's plenty of dynamic contrast. And even though the ensemble has a different color to it than a modern chamber orchestra, it still engages the ear.

Some of that may be due to the recording. The SACD version delivers exceptionally fine detail through a good system (or headphones). 

A fine addition to the catalog of these musicians.  

Carl Maria von Weber: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra
Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano
Kölner Akademie; Michael Alexander Willens, conductor

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Dreams of a New Day - Songs of the Black Experience

This is an important album. Its concept and execution make it so. Baritone Will Liverman has assembled a program of art songs by Black composers spanning over a hundred years. 

Each composer used the foundation of the classical art song. And each created something different that enriches the genre.

Liverman commissioned Shawn E. Okpebholo's "Two Black Churches." The two movements reference a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. This powerful work receives its world premiere recording. It's worth the price of the album alone. 

The release also includes "Five Songs on Poems by Laurence Hope." The composer, Henry Burleigh, studied with Antonin Dvorak and is credited with introducing him to Black music. The style is late-19th Century, but the lyrics lift the music above the commonplace. 

For "Three Dream Portraits" Margaret Bonds set poems by her friend Langston Hughes. The text goes right to the heart of the Black experience, as true now as when it was written.

Leslie Adams's "Amazing Grace" isn't a rehash of the familiar hymn. Rather, it's an original poem by Adams, set to original music. This 1992 composition is one of exceptional beauty.

Will Liverman has a rich, powerful voice that commands attention. His voice, especially in the upper register, is beautifully expressive. Liverman effectively conveys the emotional substance of these works. 

And that's what makes this such an important album.

Dreams of a New Day
Songs by Black Composers
Will Liverman, baritone; Paul Sanchez, piano
Cedille Records CDR 90000 200

Monday, February 22, 2021

Niccolò Zingarelli Milanese Symphonies Surprise


Niccolò Zingarelli is best remembered as a composer of operas. Over the course of his career, he composed around 37, mostly comic operas. But he also wrote other in other forms, too. This release presents four of his "Milanese" symphonies.

The works were given this name by musicologist Rey Longyear. It references the Conservatory of Milan, where the manuscripts are housed. Zingarelli arrived in Milan in 1793 and composed for La Scala through 1803. These symphonies date from an earlier time, around 1780. 

Zingarelli was about 28 years old, and the Sturm und Drang movement was in full bloom. These four symphonies show some of those traits, especially with the wide dynamic contrasts between sections.

The symphonies are all in three movements, and concise. What sets them apart from, say, the symphonies of Johann Stamitz are their melodies. Zingarelli the opera composer brings his skill to these instrumental works. The slow movements especially have beautifully crafted melodies.

The Atalanta Fugiens Orchestra directed by Vanni Moretto performs in a refined Classical style. There's plenty of drama, but none of it is overwrought. The melodies have an Italian lilt to them, revealing their kinship to Zingarelli's operas. 

The ensemble is recorded in a somewhat spacious venue, giving the music an expansive sound stage. It softens the sound a little, but I think it makes complement's Zingarelli's style.

Niccolò Zingarelli: Sinfonie Milanesi Nos. 5-8
Atalanta Fugiens Orchestra; Vanni Moretto, conductor
Urania Records LDV 14068

Friday, February 19, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth Week 3

The Classics a Day team has celebrated Black composers before. This time around, I tried to avoid duplication with previous posts. It was easy to do. There is a lot of classical music by persons of color, both in the past as well as the present. A lot.

Here are my posts for the third week of #BlackHistoryMonth for #ClassicsaDay.

02/15/21 Julius Eastman - Feminine

Eastman performed with Peter Maxwell Davies, Meredith Monk, and Pierre Boulez. As a composer, he used minimalism to develop his music organically.

02/16/21 Helen Hagan - Concerto in C minor

Hagen was a pianist and composer, who studied at Yale. She premiered this concerto in 1912. Horatio Parker conducted. She was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale. Her concerto has yet to be recorded with an orchestra.

02/17/21 Adolphus Hailstork - Piano Concerto

Hailstork's 1992 concerto was premiered in Norfolk with JoAnn Falletta conducting the Virginia Symphony (which co-commissioned the work). Leon Bates was the soloist.


02/18/21 Undine Smith Moore - We Shall Walk in Peace

Moore became known as "The Dean of Black Women Composers." She wrote over 100 works, many for chorus. This is an arrangement of a traditional spiritual Moore published in 1977.

02/19/21 Philippa Schuyler - Five Little Pieces

Schuyler was a child prodigy, playing and composing at age 5. In her early 30s, she gave up the piano, weary of continually fighting prejudice in the classical music world.

Friday, February 12, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth Week 2

The Classics a Day team has celebrated Black composers before. This time around, I tried to avoid duplication with previous posts. It was easy to do. There is a lot of classical music by persons of color, both in the past as well as the present. A lot.

Here are my posts for the second week of #BlackHistoryMonth for #ClassicsaDay.

02/08/21 Florence Price - Ethiopia's Shadow in America (1932)

According to Price, the work's three movements portray the Negro arriving in America as a slave, his resignation and faith, and finally his adaptation, fusing his native and acquired cultures.

02/09/21 Irene Britton Smith - Sonata for Violin and Piano

Smith pioneered music education methods for young children. She also studied composition with Leo Sowerby and Nadia Boulanger. This sonata is one of her grad school compositions.

02/10/21 Josh Coyne - Soon

Most of Coyne's works are inspired by the African-American experience. "Soon" is based on the spiritual "Soon Ah Will Be Done."

02/11/21 Kenneth Amis

Jamaican-born Amis is a tuba player and an important composer for brass. He's held the International Brass Chair at the Royal Academy of Music.

02/12/21 Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson - Movement for String Trio

Perkinson was a true eclectic. In addition to his classical works, he also played piano for Max Roach, arranged for Marvin Gaye, and wrote film and TV scores.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Michal Bergson Piano Concerto revived

Michal Bergson's piano concerto receives its world recording premiere -- thanks to a chance discovery. Polish composer and pianist Michal Bergson (1820-1898) spent most of his life abroad, retiring to England. 

The manuscript for this 1868 concerto was recently discovered in a London antiquarian bookstore. Little is known of the circumstances surrounding the composition, save that Bergson was the soloist for the premiere in Paris. 

Pianist Jonathan Plowright specializes in the Polish Romantics. He makes this concerto his own. Bergson's concerto isn't quite as big as Grieg's (premiered a year later), but it points in that direction.

The orchestration sounds Mendelssohnian, but the themes are Brahmsian. This is not just a historical curiosity, but a fine Romantic piano concerto that rewards the listener time and again. 

Also included are selections from Bergson's 1847 opera "Luisa di Montfort." Bergson arranged one of the arias for clarinet, and that has become a standard pedagogic work for the instrument. And the only part of the opera still performed. 

This release includes that selection (which is rather nice), as well as the overture -- which is also quite nice. Nice enough to make me wish more of the opera had been included. 

The album concludes with a concert aria, sung by Polish soprano Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk. "il Ritorno" reminded me of Donizetti. It provides a perfect opportunity for this coloratura soprano to show off her skills, and she does with elan. 

Great stuff!

Michal Bergson: Piano Concerto
Music from the Opera "Luisa di Montfort"
Jonathan Plowright, piano
Jakub Drygas, clarinet; Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk, soprano
Poznan Philharmonic Orchestra; Lukasz Borowicz, conductor
DUX 1704

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Ensemble Klingekunst artfully perform Martin Christian Schultze

Martin Christian Schultze may be somewhat of a mystery, and the purpose of his collection may not be entirely clear. But there's no doubt -- at least to me -- about the quality of these six sinfonias. They're well-crafted works, played with enthusiasm and energy. 

The Trattamento dell'Harmonia was published in 1733, and the title page credits "M.C,. Schutze, D.B." This may or may not be Martin Christian Schultze. 

In this "Treatise on Harmony" are the sinfonias merely didactic examples? They don't sound that way. 

Rather, they sound like legitimate music expression. There are interesting cross-rhythms and other little touches that (I think) would seem out of place in purely pedagogical music. 

And I think that's how the Ensemble Klingekunst approached these sinfonias -- as "real" music. They seem to enjoy playing these works. And perhaps because of that, I enjoyed listening to them. 

All six sinfonias receive their world recording premiere with this release. I'm glad I had an opportunity to hear them. Schultze was a composer with something to say. 

Martin Christian Schultze: Trattamento dell'Harmonia
Six Sinfonias
Ensemble Klingekunst
CPO 555 225-2

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Ciurlionis Orchestral Works in Fresh Performances

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis was a star that burned brightly, yet briefly. This Lithuanian composed almost 400 works, painted over 300 pictures and died at the age of 35.

Ciurlionis is considered one of the pioneers of abstract art and possibly had synesthesia. He's certainly a pioneer of Lithuanian music. This recording features Ciurlionis' complete surviving symphonic works (many exist only in piano sketches or short scores).  

The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra directed by Modestas Pitrenas do their countryman proud. The orchestra has a lush, warm sound that suits Ciurlionis' music well. The works presented here --  to my ear -- share some qualities with Scriabin, Richard Strauss, and perhaps even Mahler (somewhat). 

"Miske" (In the Forest) is absolutely gorgeous. Ciurlionis slowly gathers his material together, as if we're seeing the forest through a mist. As the fog dissipates, shapes become clearer. Or in this case, motifs coalesce and the orchestra becomes more expansive. 

Ciurlionis' work "The Sea" has become a cultural touchstone in Lithuania. As with Bruckner's symphonies, others have tinkered with the score over the years to improve the orchestration and make cuts!

This release features Ciurlionis' original score, with all those, um, improvements stripped away. Like Bruckner, it turns out Ciurlionis didn't really need any help. 

Ciurlionis masterfully evokes the expansiveness and motion of the sea in a somewhat abstract fashion. And that's what makes the piece so effective. It's music that draws the listener in, to make of this creation what they will. 

Highly recommended.

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis
The Sea; In the Forest; Kestutis Overture
Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra; Modestas Pitrenas conductor
Ondine ODE 1346-2

Monday, February 08, 2021

Benno Ammann - Missa Defensor Pacis blends new and old

Swiss composer and conductor Benno Amman embraced the full range of 20th Century composition -- from neo-classical to experimental. That eclecticism is, I think, what makes the Missa Defensor Pacis so successful. It's a work that could only be written in the 20th Century, and yet it seamlessly incorporates traditions of the past. 

Ammann was commissioned to compose a work for the canonization of Nicholas of Flue, the patron saint of Switzerland. This was for a service in St. Paul's Cathedral in Rome -- a ritual in a space with centuries of tradition. Ammann's mass uses techniques of the past. 

He used a cantus firmus as the basis for the work (a Medieval technique). His counterpoint follows Renaissance principles for voice-leading. But his harmonies are mid-20th Century in their complexity, and the harmonic motion is almost post-tonal. 

Ammann scored the work for an a capella choir of 6-12 voices, another nod to Vatican tradition. It's a work of singular beauty, an almost timeless expression of religious devotion.

The Basler Madrigalisten have a good ensemble sound. When necessary, the voices blend seamlessly. And when the polyphony thickens, they can cleanly articulate each line, ensuring clarity. There's not a lot of room ambiance in this recording, which is a good thing. Ammann's music is beautiful, but it's not simple.

My only complaint is that sometimes the sopranos sounded a little harsh, especially in exposed sections. To my ears, it sounded like an issue with the recording rather than the performance. And it didn't detract that much from the overall effect of the music. 

Just as Palestrina did with the Missa Papae Marcelli (according to legend), Ammann demonstrated that historical tradition and modernity can combine to create something beautiful.  

Benno Ammann: Missa Defensor Pacis
Basler Madrigalisten; Raphael Immoos, conductor
Capriccio C5415

Friday, February 05, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth Week 1

The Classics a Day team has celebrated Balck composers before. This time around, I tried to avoid duplication with previous posts. It was easy to do. There is a lot of classical music by persons of color, both in the past as well as the present. A lot. 

Here's what I found for the first week of #BlackHistoryMonth for #ClassicsaDay.

02/01/21 Harry T. Burleigh - Go Down Moses

This recording was made in 1919 by George W. Brooome Company -- the first Black record label. Burleigh is credited with introducing Black music to Antonin Dvorak.

02/02/21 Shawn Okpebholo - Kutimbua Kivumbi

Okpebholo wrote this work after a sabbatical in Kenya. The title means Stomp the Dust in Swahili.

02/03/21 Leslie Adams - Prayer

Adams is best known for his vocal compositions. "Prayer" is part of his 1961 song cycle "Nightsongs." The text is by Langston Hughes.

02/04/21 Thomas Kerr - Anguished American Easter

Kerr wrote over 100 works and was on the faculty of Howard University. Anguished American Easter was a reaction to MLK's assassination. Kerr originally improvised it during a Good Friday service in 1968.

02/05/21 Dorothy Rudd Moore - Dirge and Deliverance

Moore studied with both Thomas Kerr at Howard U. and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She later co-founded the Society of Black Composers.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

London Brass excel with Edward Gregson release

Edward Gregson is world-renowned for his brass compositions. This release features some of his best. In 2008 Gregson retired from the Royal Northern College of Music to compose full-time. I think it significant that most of the works here are post-retirement.

The Symphony in two movements, for example, was written in 2012, and revised in 2014 for symphonic brass. It's both expansive and compact. Expansive, as most works for brass ensemble aren't this ambitious. Compact, as the work has but two movements that develop their material with economic efficiency. 

Gregson uses an 11-tone row to create four themes. Each is distinctive, and yet all are interconnected. I found the work seemed to reveal something new with each hearing.

The other post-2008 works also show Gregson's compositional mastery. Even something as simple as his Fanfare for a New Era (2017) is far more than flourishes and arpeggios.  

The disc also includes some of Gregson's earlier work. The Quintet for Brass (1967) was a graduation piece that established Gregson's career (thanks to Philip Jones' support). Even at the start, Gregson uses brass instruments effectively and with originality. 

Gregson's Three Dance Episodes dates from 1974, and the Music of Angels from 1998 (revised in 2015). Both show Gregson's development as a composer. The music, to me, sounded more sophisticated somehow.    

The London Brass is a world-class ensemble, and this recording shows them at their best. The sound stage is spacious. The horns often sound powerful but never overpower. A world-class ensemble playing music written by a world-class composer for those instruments. Highly recommended (obviously). 

 Edward Gregson: Music of the Angels
London Brass; Rumon Gamba, conductor
Chandos 20127

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Friedrich Gernsheim Piano Music Volume 2 delivers

Jens Barnieck continues his survey of Friedrich Gernsheim's piano music. This volume includes Gernsheim's first piano sonata and several smaller works -- all receive their world recording premieres with this release. 

Barnieck's performances are just as satisfying as they were with volume one of this series. Gernsheim began composing around the time of Mendelssohn and continued through the era of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Barnieck adjusts his playing accordingly. 

The Piano Sonata No. 1 was composed in 1853 when Gernsheim was fourteen. Barnieck plays the work with a light touch, showing the influence of Mendelssohn on the young composer. The 1872 Fantasie, Op. 27 receives a different treatment. 

Gernsheim wrote the work for Hans von Bülow. This is bigger, brawnier music. Von Bülow was a champion of Brahms, and Gernsheim seems to move in that direction. Barneick's powerful expressiveness reinforces the similarities. 

Gernsheim composed for the piano throughout his career. The shorter works on this release attest to his abilities, which are considerable. While he was influenced by the major composers of German classical music, he didn't simply imitate them. 

There's plenty of original material here to satisfy the listener. Well, at least this listener. I'm looking forward to auditioning volume three.

Friedrich Gernsheim: Piano Music, Volume Two
Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor; Vier Klavierstucke; Capriccio in E minor; Gerschwind-Marsch; Romanze, Op. 15; Fantasie, Op. 27
Jens Barnieck, piano
Toccata Classics TOC 0594