Friday, May 28, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #APAHM Week 4

May is designated Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. The Classics a Day team adopted that theme as well. For the month of May, the challenge is to post examples of classical music composed or performed by artists who share that heritage.

I limited myself to just posting Asian-American composers. And discovered a seemingly limitless number of composers to choose from -- both past and present.

Here are my picks for the final week of #ClassicsaDay #APAHM

05/24/21 Thomas Oboe Lee - Violin Concerto

Lee emigrated to the U.S. at age 7. On the faculty of Boston College, Lee's music has won two Guggenheim and two NEA Fellowships, as well as first prize at the Kennedy Center Awards.

05/24/21 Stella Sung - Paris 1987

Sung is a pianist and composer. She writes both acoustic and electronic music and has several film scores to her credit.

05/25/21 Shuya Xu - Nirvana

Xu is on the faculty of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. His music has been performed and won awards internationally.

05/26/21 Tonia Ko - Tribute

Ko was born in Hong Kong and raised in Honolulu. She's enjoyed an international career both as a composer and an academician.

05/27/21 Peng Peng Gong - Piano Concerto No. 3

Gong (currently age 29) was a child prodigy, with an international concertizing career. His compositions, including 11 symphonies and 3 piano concertos, have won several awards.

05/28/21 Karen Tanaka - Enchanted Forest

Japanese composer Tanaka has written for the concert hall and film, including an Academy Award-nominated short. Her love of nature is a frequent inspiration in her work.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Anton Bruckner Chamber Music Worth a Listen

For most audiences, the equation is simple. Anton Bruckner = symphonies. And while symphonies may have been the best form of expression for Bruckner, he did write in other genres. This release features two of his chamber works. 

Bruckner's string quartet was composed at the request of Joseph Hellmesberger. Hellmesberger was the director of the Vienna Conservatory and the first violinist for the influential Hellmseberger Quartett. 

Hellmesberger had been impressed with Bruckner's student works. Such an invitation (with a premier by the Hellmesberg Quartett) was a major honor.

The quartet shows a composer in development. This four-movement work follows the model of Beethoven -- and early Beethoven at that. Parts of it reminded me strongly of Beethoven's Op. 18 quartets. 

But this is Bruckner. The themes are developed thoroughly, and in a more through-composed manner than Beethoven. It's a work that hints at Bruckner's potential. 

The string quintet was another commission by Hellmserger. By 1878 Bruckner was a seasoned composer. The quintet was written during a break between the creation of his fifth and sixth symphonies.   

The quintet is all Bruckner. It's not a symphony for five strings -- but it is an expansive work. And one that's entirely Bruckner's creation. 

The Altomonte Ensemble performs well. They seem to perform the string quartet in a late classical manner, underlining the work's debt to Beethoven. 

The quintet is (rightly so) played in a late-Romantic style. In doing so, the ensemble emphasizes how closely the work fits with the symphonies it was written between. 

For many, Bruckner = symphonies. But this release tweaks that equation. Bruckner > just symphonies.

Anton Bruckner: String Quintet; String Quartet
Altomonte Ensemble

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

American Quintets - Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective Debut

There are plenty of quintets by American composers to choose from. But the three presented here by the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective hit that sweet spot for me. They're all first-rate compositions, they're not over-represented either in recordings or in concert, and they're all played exceptionally well. 

The Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective is just that -- a loose collection of performers under the direction of Tom Poster and Elena Urioste. This is their debut recording.

Samuel Barber's "Dover Beach" for medium voice and string quartet is probably the most-performed of the three works (and that's a relative term). The Collective's performance is atmospheric and engaging. 

Amy Beach's 1907 Piano Quintet is a well-crafted work that deserves a wider audience. This isn't pretty music -- it's a composition of substance. And the Collective delivers on the quintet's emotional energy and drama.

The Florence Price quintet was one of the works recently discovered in her old home. It receives its world premiere recording with this release. 

Price may have used Brahms as a model, but she has her own voice. The incorporation of Black musical traditions into the work is seamless. Florence Price's star continues to rise, and this recording should boost it even higher. 

An exceptional program, performed by first-rate musicians. Now that's how you do a debut recording!

American Quintets
Amy Beach; Florence Price; Samuel Barber
Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective
Chandos CHAN 20224

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Elizabeth Llewellyn's Heartfelt Debut with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

For her debut recording, Elizabeth Llewellyn presents a recital of songs by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. In the liner notes, she writes, "I could have recorded some Puccini or Verdi... But I felt passionately that, if I was going to spend much time, energy, and money on an album, it was important to create something which had not existed before." I agree. And I think the resources were well spent. 

The songs come from various phases of Coleridge-Taylor's career. It includes some very British-sounding selections. Six Sorrow Songs, with text by Christina Rosetti, is one such example. Others range a little farther afield. 

African Romances, with text by African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, has an unusual sound. Coleridge-Taylor became aware of African-American music while touring the states. This song reflects that growing interest, though still sounding mostly European. "Big Lady Moon," goes further, with some jazz-inflected melodic patterns.

These selections show that Coleridge-Taylor almost rivaled Schubert in his ability to set text artistically. There's plenty of emotional content for a singer to express. And Llewellyn does just that. 

This project was a labor of love, and that's apparent in every track. Llewellyn sings with a wonderfully expressive and well-rounded tone. Her phrasings shape the texts and tell the stories. 

There is still so much of Coleridge-Taylor's catalog to discover. Thanks to Elizabeth Llewellyn for this heartfelt recital. 

Heart and Hereafter
Collected songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Elizabeth Llewellyn, soprano; Simon Lepper, piano
Orchid Classics ORC100164

Monday, May 24, 2021

Johann Gottlieb Graun Chamber Works - Music in Transition

The title for this release is a little deceptive. True, it's a collection of chamber music from Frederick the Great's court. But it's not all by Johann Gottlieb Graun. 

Rather, it's a collection of music from Graun and his colleagues at court: Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, Franz Benda, and brother Carl Heinrich Graun. And that, I think, makes for a much more interesting program.

Collectively these composers were transitioning from the Baroque to the Classical era. The melodic lines, generally free of ornamentation look towards Haydn and Mozart. The use of basso continuo carries on the traditions of Bach and Handel. 

It's an interesting sampling of chamber music, made more so by the performances. Sisters Augusta and Georgina McKay Lodge (violin and viola respectively) lead the ensemble. Both have extensive experience in early music.

Their playing, along with their fellow musicians, nicely captures that feeling of transition. The ensemble has a clear, clean sound foreshadowing the Classical Era. David Schulenberg (harpsichord) and Eva Lymenstull (cello) provide a solid basso continuo, with Schulenberg ornamenting and improvising in a late Baroque style -- as I imagine performers of the day might. 

This is chamber music that captures a moment in time. A moment poised between two style periods. And it's a moment effectively realized by these fine musicians. 

Johann Gottlieb Graun: Chamber Music from the Court of Frederick the Great
Augusta McKay Lodge, violin; Georgina McKay Lodge, viola; Eva Lymenstull, cello; David Schulenberg, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 96289

Friday, May 21, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #APAHM Week 3

May is designated Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. The Classics a Day team adopted that theme as well. For the month of May, the challenge is to post examples of classical music composed or performed by artists who share that heritage.

I limited myself to just posting Asian-American composers. And discovered a seemingly limitless number of composers to choose from -- both past and present.

Here are my picks for the first week of #ClassicsaDay #APAHM

05/17/21 Bun-Ching Lam - Like Water

This Chinese-American composer, conductor, and pianist divides her time between Paris and New York. Her music combines Asian traditions with Western contemporary techniques.

05/18/21 Chan ka Nin - Celebration of Life and Death for Sheng and String Quartet

Chan emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada as a teenager. The Chinese sheng is a polyphonic wind instrument dating back to 1100 BC.

05/19/21 Xian Xinghai - Yellow River Concerto

Xian was one of the first Chinese composers to write in Western classical forms. This concerto is based on his 1939 Yellow River Cantata.

05/20/21 Vivian Fung - Concerto for two violins and string orchestra

Canadian composer Fung blends Western traditions with Asian music. She's particularly interested in Javanese gamelan music. She's currently an associate of the Canadian Music Centre.

05/21/21 Alice Ping Yee Ho (1960-)

Ho is a Canadian composer and pianist who has won multiple Juno Awards for her music. The Four Seasons Ballade is based on poems by Li Bai, who served the Tang Dynasty in the 8th Century.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Pancho Vladigerov Orchestral Works 2 has the good stuff

This installment of Capriccio's reissues features Pancho Vladigerov's shorter orchestral works. It includes the Bulgarian Rhapsody "Varda" -- Vladigerov's most-performed work.

The collection also includes his Seven Symphonic Bulgarian Dances, his Romanian Dances and Symphonic Sketches suites, and the Bulgarian Suite. 

In his country, Vladigerov's music is the embodiment of Bulgarian classical music. Capriccio's series is helping the rest of the world discover this national treasure.

The Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra is led by Alexander Vladigerov, the composer's son. The performances are first-rate. There's a sense of national pride that infuses these readings (at least to my ears). 

The original recordings were made in the early 1970s. Audio quality isn't the best. The sound is rounded off at the extreme high and low registers, softening its impact. It's not a horrible sound -- just a dated one.

Still, there is simply no other source for this music. And this is music that deserves to be heard.

If you've not listened to Vladigov's music, this set is the best place to start. It includes his best-loved music, and the works most closely associated with Bulgarian culture.  

Pancho Vladigerov: Orchestral Works 2
Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Vladigerov, conductor
Capriccio C8053
2 CD Set

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Josef Labor chamber works of exceptional beauty

Two years ago I reviewed the Joseph Labor Piano Quintets released by Capriccio. I said, "Anyone who enjoys Fin de siècle late-Romanticism should find much to like here." Some of those same artists return to present more of Labor's chamber music. And my assessment still holds. 

Josef Labor was a blind organist, pianist, and composer, active in turn of the century Vienna. He worked with composers such as Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss. And he taught several others, including Arnold Schoenberg.

The works on this release are of exceptional beauty. The 1897 Cello Sonata in A major celebrates the singing tone of the solo instrument. Floris Mihinders performs with deep expression that makes this work such a joy to listen to.

The 1893 Violin Sonata in D minor is also beautiful. Here, though, I heard more of Brahms than perhaps Labor's own voice. Violinist Nina Karmon and pianist Oliver Triendl, who also worked on the quintet album, make a great team. Their performances sounded like a conversation between good friends. 

The real standout for me, though, was the Theme and Variations for horn and piano. The theme was absolutely gorgeous, especially played by Premysl Vojta. His pure, clear tone was a joy to listen to.

 Joseph Labor: Sonatas for Violin and Cello
Nina Karmon, violin; Floris Mijinders, cello; Premysl Vojta, horn; Oliver Triendl, piano
Capriccio C5430


Monday, May 17, 2021

Raphael Wallfisch's fresh take on Martinu Cello Sonatas

There are some things you can count on with a Bohuslav Martinu. It will be tuneful. It will have syncopated rhythms. It will have modal harmonies and unusual chord progressions. 

The three cello sonatas in this release check all the boxes. And, as a fan of Martinu's music, that's just fine with me. 

A lot of Czech culture is bound up in Martinu's style. The harmonies come from the traditional music of the region. The rhythms come from the speech patterns of the Czech language. 

Martinu's three cello sonata span 13 years and a world war. And yet there's remarkable consistency across the three works. 

Raphael Wallfisch's parents were musicians from Eastern Europe. The Slavic influences in Martinu's music are something he seems to connect with.

Wallfisch's playing is usually top-notch. In this recording, it sounded to me as if it was even higher. I would rate this recording on par with the Janos Starker RCA release.

Wallfisch brings a different interpretation to the music than Starker. His playing provides insight into the works. And that makes this recording a standout. 

Bohuslav Martinu: Arabesques and Sonatas for Cello
Raphael Wallfisch, cello; John York, piano
Nimbus Records NI 8105



Friday, May 14, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #APAHM Week 2

May is designated Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. The Classics a Day team adopted that theme as well. For the month of May, the challenge is to post examples of classical music composed or performed by artists who share that heritage.

I limited myself to just posting Asian-American composers. And discovered a seemingly limitless number of composers to choose from -- both past and present.

Here are my picks for the second week of #ClassicsaDay #APAHM

05/10/21 Zhou Long - Postures Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

This Chinese composer writes, "I have been composing music seriously to achieve my goal of improving the understanding between peoples from various backgrounds."

05/11/21 Chinary Ung - Spiral

Ung emigrated from Cambodia to study clarinet and turned to composition. Spiral won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1989 for American instrumental msuic.

05/12/21 Dorothy Chang - Small and Curious Spaces

Chang teaches music at the University of British Columbia. Her music incorporates Chinese music and instruments into Western classical forms.

05/13/21 Bright Sheng - String Quartet No. 3

Before emigrating to the U.S., Sheng studied and collected folk music in China and Tibet. He has also worked on the Silk Road Project.

05/14/21 Chelsea Chen - The Moon Lady

Most of Chen's compositions are for the organ. Though young, she's enjoyed an impressive international career as an organist and composer.

Friday, May 07, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #APAHM Week 1

May is designated Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. The Classics a Day team adopted that theme as well. For the month of May, the challenge is to post examples of classical music composed or performed by artists who share that heritage.

I limited myself to just posting Asian-American composers. And discovered a seemingly limitless number of composers to choose from -- both past and present.

Here are my picks for the first week of #ClassicsaDay #APAHM

05/03/21 Tan Dun - Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa (1999)

Best known for his film scores, Tan Dun's works combine Chinese traditional music with Western forms. The pipa dates from the 2nd Century, CE.

05/04/21 Keiko Abe - The Wave Impressions Concerto for Marimba and Wind Orchestra

This Japanese marimbist and composer is credited with developing the modern 5-octave concert marimba in conjunction with Yamaha. Several of her works have become standards of the marimba repertoire.

05/05/21 Chen Yi - Percussion Concerto

Chinese-American composer and violinist Chen Yi has an impressive body of work, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated "Si Ji."

05/06/21 Andy Akiho - NO one To kNOW one

Andy Akiho is a percussionist and composer with eclectic tastes. Many of his compositions incorporate pan drums, like the one featured here.

05/07/21 Bright Sheng - String Quartet No. 3

Before emigrating to the U.S., Sheng studied and collected folk music in China and Tibet. He has also worked on the Silk Road Project.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Blue Heron serves savory sounds with 14th C. Salmagundi

What exactly is a salmagundi? According to the liner notes, it's "a savory dish composed of chopped meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, and condiments." In other words, a kitchen sink dish. I'm not sure I'd enjoy such a dish. But I very much enjoyed this release. 

In this case, the salmagundi is a sampling of various 14th Century composers. And with ingredients like Guillaume de Machaut, Phillippe de Bitry, and Francesco Landini, how can you go wrong?

Blue Heron performs to their usual high standards. The ensemble has an exceptionally clear, pristine sound that serves the music well. 

This was the beginning of the Ars Nova movement, and music could be incredibly complex. Isorhythms and the then-new polyphony require a high degree of precision to make the music work. 

Blue Heron has that precision, and not at the sacrifice of musicality. Their phrasing pulses with emotion, bringing these works to life. 

And their recorded sound is superb. There's a little bit of ambiance to provide warmth and cohesiveness. But the overall sound is still clean and transparent. 

I wouldn't mind a second helping of Blue Heron's salmagundi. 

A 14th-Century Salmagundi
Blue Heron; Scott Metcalfe, director
Blue Heron BHCD 1011

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

American Discoveries an exceptional EP

I almost consider this an EP rather than an album. The total playing time is around 30 minutes. But I'm interested in quality over quantity, so the album's length isn't an issue.

Reuben Blundell and the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra present three works culled from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Libary of Philadelphia. "American Discoveries" indeed!

I was not familiar with any of the composers featured on this release. Discovering them -- and their music -- was a pleasant experience. 

Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) is the oldest of the three composers. Her 1928 work City Trees was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. Like Hanson, Beach wrote in a neo-romantic style that somehow seemed uniquely American. Although Beach eventually abandoned composition, this work shows she possessed real talent. 

Linda Robbins Coleman is a composer, conductor, pianist, and music consultant. Her 1996 work "For a Beautiful Land" was inspired by Iowa's natural beauty. It effectively evokes the wide-open spaces and pioneer spirit of the land. While I heard some Copland influences, Coleman's music is both original and engaging.

Alexandra Pierce is a movement educator as well as a composer and pianist. And motion is what I heard in her work "Behemoth". Pierce says the work is "an exploration of musical bas-relief, of the relationship of melody to bass." That it is. And that struggle provides the work's forward motion. 

The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra performs superbly under the direction of Reuben Blundell. My only complaint is that it ended all too soon. 

These are indeed noteworthy discoveries. And now I have three more composers whose music I need to explore.

American Discoveries
Music by Priscilla Alden Beach; Linda Robbins Coleman; Alexandra Pierce
Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra; Reuben Blundell, conductor
New Focus Recordings FCR 286

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Cayetano Brunetti Oboe Sextets whet the appetite

So who was Cayetano Brunetti? He was an Italian composer active in the Spanish courts during the mid-1700s. Although quite prolific (451 works), Brunetti isn't as well-known today as Luigi Boccherini (another Spanish court employee). The primary reason seems to be that Brunetti didn't publish. 

Most of his works were for the entertainment of Charles III and Charles IV. Outside of Spain, Brunetti was virtually unknown. So I'm happy for any release of his music -- especially one as well-performed as this. 

Most of Brunetti's compositions were for chamber groups. This collection of six oboe sextets is part of that body of work. Written for "the amusement of His Catholic Majesty," they are both accessible and charming. But these sextets also have some depth. 

The instrumentation calls for two violins, two violas, cello, and oboe. Having a pair of the higher stringed instruments provided Brunetti with several options. Sometimes the two violins play together, sometimes separately, sometimes only one plays -- and ditto for the violas. 

Brunetti could reduce the ensemble to a string trio, expand it to a string quartet, or deliver the full sound of all five instruments. And although the oboe is the focus, there are plenty of passages where the strings take the lead. 

Oboist Robert Silla plays with a clean, fluid tone. He's especially agile in rapid passages. And he plays with a warm, expressive sound during the slow movements. 

These are works worth exploring. And makes me wonder. If these six sextets are that good, what do the other 445 Burnetti works sound like?   

Cayetano Brunetti: Complete Oboe Sextets
Robert Silla, oboe; Il Maniatico Ensemble
IBS Classical IBS92021
2 CD Set

Monday, May 03, 2021

John Robertson Symphonies Underserved by Performances

John Robertson is a mostly self-taught composer who has really come into his own in recent years. This is the fourth release of his music from Navona. To me, it's something of a mixed bag. 

The major works included here are his last two symphonies. Symphony No. 4 was written in 2017, and Symphony No. 5 a year later. Robertson has steadily grown as a composer. These works are far more complex than his first two symphonies. He also seems more adept at working with his material. 

Robertson sets up easily identifiable motifs but then uses them in unusual ways. The fifth symphony had the most adventurous harmonies (for Robertson). The stacked dissonances gave power and energy to the music.

Robertson is very much a tonal composer, although one with his own individual voice. 

I liked the music, but I felt the performances didn't do it justice. The Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, to me, had a flat sound throughout the album. Not flat intonation, but just sort of a flattened dynamic range. I can't say what the problem was -- I've heard better performances from this orchestra. 

Perhaps more rehearsals would have helped? Or maybe a different placement of the mics? I can't say for sure, but the overall effect was a somewhat anemic presentation.

I am still interested in exploring John Robertson's music. Just a little disappointed with the overall effect of this release.  

John Robertson: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5
Meditation: In Flanders Fields
Bratislava Symphony Orchestra; Anthony Armorë, conductor
Navona Records NV 6325