Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Florence Price Symphony No. 3 blends traditions

Florence Price wrote this about her third symphony, "No attempt has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner." 

In other words, her symphony wasn't a collection of spirituals. Rather, it was her own original musical vision. And one that blended European symphonic and African-American musical traditions.

This 1940 work has a fresh sound. And a uniquely American one. Dvorak predicted that true American classical music would grow from Black roots. 

This symphony does just that. The structure and orchestration are European. But the chord progressions and melodic turns come from African-American traditions.

The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra directed by John Jeter gives some fine performances. Their recorded sound is a little thin for my taste, but the playing is first-rate. 

Also included are two shorter works by Price. "The Mississippi River" may be this country's equivalent to Smetana's "Ma Vlast." Price uses African-American melodies to establish atmosphere. The music takes the listener on a journey along the river. As it unfolds, the work seamlessly transitions from scene to scene.

"Ethiopia's Shadow" portrays the Black Experience in America. The first movement depicts the arrival of enslaved Africans.  The second portrays the development of faith. The third shows adaptation into modern society. It's an evocative and beautifully crafted work. The emotional core of this work can hit hard if you actively listen.

A welcome addition to Price's growing list of recordings.

Florence Price: Symphony No. 3 in C minor
The Mississippi River; Ethiopia's Shadow in America
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; John Jeter, conductor

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

100 Menuets showcase Telemann's brilliance in miniature

In music, as with most things, quantity doesn't always equal quality. But sometimes it does. As in the 100 menuets of Georg Philip Telemann. These pieces were published in two collections, titled “Seven times seven plus one Menuet." The first collection appeared in 1728, the second in 1730.

What makes this release so fascinating is what it reveals about the composer. These are brief menuets, between 20-40 measures long. Most are in a very simple two-part form. 

And they're played on the harpsichord. It's about as basic a piece of music as one could devise. And yet Telemann gives us 100 different compositions. 

In these pieces, stripped down to bare essentials, one can hear Telemann's inventive imagination at work. I wouldn't necessarily listen to this two-CD set from start to finish in one sitting. But even sampling it in small doses can give you an appreciation for Telemann's creativity. 

Andre Coen performs to his usual high standards. His previous Telemann recordings establish his expertise. What makes this recording stand out is Coen's dedication. He takes every one of these 100 menuets seriously. His playing reveals what's underneath the surface. 

Granted, these 100 menuets aren't Telemann's greatest works. But they were never meant to be. But Coen gives us reason to take these brief pieces seriously. And when I did, I heard the variety and inventiveness that Telemann even his slightest compositions. 

Georg Philipp Teleman: 100 Menuets TWV 34:1-100
Andre Coen harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 96249
2 CD Set

Monday, December 27, 2021

Baroque Cantatas from Central Germany II continues tradition

This has been a long time coming. Volume one of this series was released in 2015. Volume two finally arrives here in 2021. This installment focuses on the "transitional" German composers. They were of the generations between Heinrich Schutz and Johann Sebastian Bach. 

During this period the Lutheran church began to codify liturgical music practices. This happened in institutions n major cities, such as Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

One such institution was the Royal and State School of St Augustin., a little to the southeast of Leipzig. There, scores were collected, copied, and codified. And this archive provides the musical sources for this recording. 

The pre-Bach cantata had three parts: concerto, aria, and chorale. The concerto was a mix of instruments and voices. Using this simple form, church cantatas of this period were short and to the point. 

And, as it turns out, full of great music, too. Following Martin Luther's dictum for clarity, counterpoint is kept to a minimum. Ornamentation is also minimized. What's left are the melodies -- simple, singable, expressive melodies. 

The Sächsisches Vocalensemble has a good ensemble blend. The Batzdorfer Hofkapelle is a small ensemble, with strings, winds, brass, and percussion. The recorded sound is clean, with minimal hall resonance. To my ears, it's well-suited to the scale of the music. 

Unless you understand German, these cantatas might not sound especially Christmassy. But they do have an inherent appeal. And hearing the musical foundations that Bach would later build upon was enlightening. 

Ehre sie Gott in de Höhe
Musik zur Weihnachtszeit aus der Fürsten- und Landesschule St. Augustin Grimma
Baroque Cantatas from Central Germany II
Sächsisches Vocalensemble
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle; Matthias Jung, director

Friday, December 24, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalHoliday Week 4

Traditionally, #ClassicalChristmas has been the December theme for Classics a Day. This year, it's changed slightly -- #ClassicalHoliday. 

The idea was always to encourage folks to share works composed for performance in December. The pieces could be either sacred or secular. But the hashtag #ClassicalChristmas suggested music only for one faith tradition. So new hashtag, same concept. During the month of December post works that were meant to be performed in the wintertime.

Here are my posts for the fourth and final week of #ClassicalHoliday

12/20/21 Gaetano Maria Schiassi - Concerto in D major Pastorale per Natale

Schiassi, born in Bologna, spent most of his career at the Lisbon royal chapel from about 1735 to 1754. This Christmas concerto is one of his few compositions to survive.

12/21/21 Giuseppe Valentini - Pastorle per Il Santissimo Natale, Op. 1, No. 12

Corelli retired as concertino director at Rome's San Luigi dei Francesi. Valentini replaced him and remained for over thirty years.

12/22/21 Frederick Chopin - Etude Op. 25, No. 11 Winter Wind

Critic James Huneker wrote, "Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should avoid it."

12/23/21 Morten Lauridsen - Mid-Winter Songs

This cycle of five songs is based on five poems of Robert Graves. They were published in different volumes, and Graves never considered them a group. Lauridsen saw commonalities, and used them to create this song cycle.

12/24/21 Arthur Sullivan - It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

In America, this hymn is known by a very different melody than Sullivan's. David Willcocks' arrangement of this version is probably the best known (in Britian).

12/25/21 Anon. 9th C. - Reno erat Rudolphus

The earliest known example of a very famous seasonal song. (Actually, it was Eyolf Østrem having a bit of musicological fun.)

Next month:

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Singular music from Kalevi Aho

The subtitle for this release is "Seven instrumental solos by the Finnish symphonist." And that's significant. Kalevi Aho seems to naturally think in orchestral terms. To date, he's composed 17 symphonies and almost 40 concertos for a wide variety of instruments. 

That experience comes into play with his series of solos. Aho's collaborated with many performers creating his concertos. 

Those collaborations gave him a deep understanding of what the instruments could do. It also gave him an understanding of what the artist could do, too. 

This release presents five of Aho's solos (works for solo instruments). Some are played by the performer Aho wrote the piece for. A symphonist has many resources to create with. And sometimes interesting tonal color can mask weak ideas or even construction. 

The solos here demonstrate Aho's musical mastery and imagination. Single line instruments, such as the oboe or clarinet lay bare Aho's technique. And it's impressive. 

Each one of these works organically grows from the instruments. The notes, the phrasing, the technical challenges are all unique to the instrument. Every solo has a different character -- as do the instruments. 

I don't know if these works are staples in their respective instrumental repertoires. But they should be. They may be challenging to play, but they're also rewarding to listen to. 

BIS states this is the start of a series. I would very much like to hear all Aho's solos. 

Kalevi Aho - Solo, Volume 1
Sharon Bezaly, flute; Piet Van Bockstal, oboe; Marie-Luise Neunecker, horn; Samuli Peltonen, cello; Simon Reitmaier, clarinet; Hiyoli Togawa, viola;  Bram van Sambeek, bassoon

Monday, December 20, 2021

Tobias Zeutschner "Weihnachtshistorie" worth rediscovery

Two things I'm always on the lookout for. One, composers I've not heard of before. And two, classical Christmas music I've not heard before. So of COURSE I was excited to audition Weihnachtshistorie by Tobias Zeutschner. And I wasn't disappointed. 

Zeutschner (1621-1675) was a Polish composer and poet, active mainly in Silesia. He was a contemporary of Heinrich Schutz, and a generation before J. S. Bach. 

Zeutschner was also a Protestant. He served as organist at St. Maria Magdalena, the second largest church in Breslau.

He took Martin Luther's dictums of simplicity and clarity to heart. The sacred works on this release attest to that. The solo voices sing simple, clear melodies with minimal ornamentation. The choruses are homophonic. And yet there's a beauty in this simplicity. 

The Weser-Renaissance Bremen brings out that beauty in their performances. They recorded at the Stiftskirche Bassum. This small Lutheran chapel provides the right amount of ambiance for this music. The quick decay adds a natural warmth that enhances the sound. 

Period brass and string instruments double the choir, giving them added resonance. Zeutschner valued devotion over art. He strove to write sacred music one could sing in the church and at home.

Cordes and Weser-Renaissance Breman show it's not necessarily an either/or choice. They perform artfully, and in doing so bring out the devout nature of the music. 

This collection includes several Advent and Christmas season compositions by Zetschner. It's supplemented by some anonymous works found in the St. Maria Magdalena library. The manuscripts suggest they were written (or transcribed) during Zeutschner's tenure. It's very possible they would have been incorporated into services given by Zeutchner. 

This is beautiful music. And a wonderful addition to Baroque repertoire options for the season. I'm not always lucky when I take a chance on unknown music and composers. But this time I was. And you can be, too.  

Tobias Zeutschner: Weihnachtshistorie
Weser-Renaissance; Manfred Cordes, conductor

Friday, December 17, 2021

#Classicsaday #ClassicalHoliday Week 3

Traditionally, #ClassicalChristmas has been the December theme for Classics a Day. This year, it's changed slightly -- #ClassicalHoliday. 

The idea was always to encourage folks to share works composed for performance in December. The pieces could be either sacred or secular. But the hashtag #ClassicalChristmas suggested music only for one faith tradition. So new hashtag, same concept. During the month of December post works that were meant to be performed in the wintertime.

Here are my posts for the third week of #ClassicalHoliday

12/13/21 PDQ Bach - O Little Town of Hackensack

The challenge is to post classical music to be sung in December. Nobody said it had to be good.

12/14/21 Norman Dello Joio - The Holy Infant's Lullaby

Dello Joio wrote this in 1961. It exists in several forms, including a version for women's chorus, and also with orchestral accompaniment.

12/15/21 Arthur Honegger - Une cantate de Noel

This 1953 was Honegger's last completed composition. It was started in 1941 as part of a much larger oratorio. But nothing came of that project, so he reworked it for the 25th anniversary of the Basle Chamber Orchestra.

12/16/21 Georg Philipp Telemann - In dulce Jubilo TWV 1:939

Telemann was but one of many German Baroque composers to use this tune as the basis for an Advent cantata.

12/17/21 Pierre Dandrieu - Joseph est bien marié

Dandrieu composed his setting of this tune around 1714. Its first publication was not until at least 1721 (the original publication is lost). It was included in the expanded edition of 1733. But it's not clear if it was included in the original edition.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Joan Tower scores a hit with Strike Zones

I'm a percussionist by training. And I'm an admirer of Joan Tower's music. So a disc featuring Tower's compositions for Evelyn Glennie was a must-review for me. 

Glennie is one of the foremost percussionists in the world. Her innovative technique is only matched, by her drive to enrich the repertoire. To that end, she has commissioned works from major composers -- like Joan Tower.

Strike Zones is a concerto composed for Glennie. Most concertos feature a single solo instrument. It features a battery of both tuned and indefinite pitch percussion instruments. 

Tower exploits the characteristics of these instruments. In doing so, she weaves them into a dialogue with the orchestra. It's a high-energy thrill-ride, and one I'd love to see live in performance.

Small, also composed for Glennie, is Strike Zones polar opposite. Here Tower confines herself to a small grouping of instruments laid out on a table. Though the music is more intimate, it's no less exciting. Glennie elicits complex, expressive sounds from simple instruments like tambourines and metal bars.

The album is nicely balanced. After the percussion concerto and solo percussion work, there's a piano concerto (Still/Rapids) and a solo piano work (Ivory and Ebony). These, too, bristle with energy and excitement. 

Pianist Blair McMillen is a tireless performer. His high-octane playing never falters. He carries the listener along on a dizzying sonic journey. 

These works were more than just an exhibition of beats. Tower uses her solo instruments percussively. But she also uses them expressively. She makes us aware that one object striking another can create beautiful sounds. 

I loved it. 

Joan Tower: Strike Zones
Small; Still/Rapids; Ivory and Ebony
Evelyn Glennie, percussion
Blair McMillen, piano
Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller, conductor
Naxos 8.55902

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Howard Griffiths presents Cipriani Potter

I find Cipriani Potter a fascinating figure. This composer, pianist, and educator was a major influence in British music. Perhaps more than most people know.

He studied with Joseph Wölfl, a colleague of both Mozart and Beethoven. Potter visited Vienna in 1817. Beethoven declined to accept him as a student. But he did review and comment on some of Potter's music.

Upon returning to England, Potter championed both Mozart's and Beethoven's piano concertos. He joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of music in 1822. As the conductor of its orchestra, he promoted the music of Schumann and Brahms.

So what was his own music like? This release provides a good overview. It includes the first of Potter's nine symphonies. It also features an overture and a short work for piano and orchestra.

Potter's Symphony No. 1 in G minor was written in 1819, and revised twice. It's a well-constructed work. Potter greatly admired Mozart and Beethoven. Yet this symphony doesn't seem to have a lot of their influence (at least to my ears).

Instead, Potter provides his own take on the early 19th-Century symphonic style. It has the lightness of Mozart and Mendelssohn, with some of Beethoven's drama. I found it quite enjoyable. 

The Introduction and Rondo Alla Militaire for piano and orchestra seems inspired by Beethoven. Judging by the solo part, Potter was a talented pianist. While he didn't have Beethoven's fire, his music is still quite engaging. 

Claire Huangci performs with lyrical dexterity. I found her good-natured approach both charming and entertaining.

Howard Griffiths gives this music some spirited readings. Potter the composer had something to say beyond homages to Mozart and Beethoven. Griffiths lets him say it.

Well-performed and worth listening to.

Cipriani Potter: Symphony No. 1
Overture Cybelene; Introduzione e Rondo for Piano and Orchestra
Claire Huangci, piano
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Howard Griffiths, conductor

Monday, December 13, 2021

Rheinberger's Der Stern von Bethlehem shines in reissue

Why isn't "Der Stern von Bethlehem" a holiday staple, like that Handel joint? I have a theory. 

Joseph Rheinberger composed his cantata in 1890. During his lifetime it was one of his most-performed choral works. After his death in 1901, though, it lapsed into obscurity.  

Rheinberger's style was influenced by the German greats: Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Bach. "Der Stern" has the rich, late-Romantic harmonies of Brahms. They support flowing Schubert-like melodies. 

I suspect that by the 1910s Rheinberger's work sounded old-fashioned. And it's taken a very long time to re-evaluate that assessment. And it should be reassessed. This is well-crafted music. 

Rheinberger was a church organist and knew how to write for choirs. The choruses in "Der Stern von Bethlehem" show the hand of a master. The harmonies are full, and yet the text is easy to follow. Rheinberger was sparing in his use of counterpoint, ensuring clarity.

The text is by his wife, the poet Franziska "Fanny" von Hoffnaass. It's a simple retelling of the Christmas story, illustrated by the music. It's a gorgeous work that should enchant any listener (well, it did me). 

This is a reissue of a 1999 release. Although the sound is quite good, it lacks the fine details of modern recordings. That's not a disadvantage. Rheinberger's late-Romantic style benefits from the slight softness of the sound. To me, it adds to the warmth of the music. 

The Universitatschor Dresden has a creamy ensemble blend. Dilek Gecer and Michael Jungeare fine soloists. Gecer's delivery seemed a little dated by 2021 standards, but not horribly so.

I applaud Ars Produktion's decision to release this remastered classic. And especially to do on a high-resolution multi-channel disc. The rich harmonies can wash over the listener in surround sound. 

If you purchase a download of this release, be sure to opt for the highest resolution offered. It does make a difference. 

Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger
Der Stern von Bethlehem; Advent Motets
Dilek Gecer, soprano; Michael Junge, baritone
Universitatschor Dresden, Maja Sequeira, director
Vogtland Philharmonie Greiz/Reichenbach; Stefan Fraas, condur
Ars Produktion SACD

Friday, December 10, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalHoliday Week 2

Traditionally, #ClassicalChristmas has been the December theme for Classics a Day. This year, it's changed slightly -- #ClassicalHoliday. 

The idea was always to encourage folks to share works composed for performance in December. The pieces could be either sacred or secular. But the hashtag #ClassicalChristmas suggested music only for one faith tradition. So new hashtag, same concept. During the month of December post works that were meant to be performed in the wintertime.

Here are my posts for the second week of #ClassicalHoliday

12/06/21 Georg Philipp Telemann - Der Herr hat offenbaret, TWV 1:262

"The Lord has revealed" was written for Christmas services, 1762.

12/07/21 Thomas Tallis - Missa natus est nobis

Tallis wrote this Christmas mass in 1554. It's possible he composed it for a combination of English and Spanish musicians (Philip I had come to England with a retinue to marry Queen Mary).

12/08/21 Gustav Schreck - Advent Motet

Schreck was the Thomaskantor at the Thosmasschule in Leipzig from 1893 to 1918 (a post J.S. Bach had held from 1723-1750). Most of his compositions were for choirs.

12/09/21 Morten Lauridsen - Magnum Mysterium

Lauridsen is one of the most contemporary American choral composers. And this is one of his most popular works.

12/10/21 Gottfried August Homilius - Siehe, der Herr kömmt mit vielen tausend Heiligen, HoWV II.3

Homilius wrote in the empfindsamer style. He was considered the most important German church composers of the generation following J.S. Bach.

Monday, December 06, 2021

An Oxford Christmas With All the Trimmings

This release is the companion volume to Albion's 2016 "Vaughan Williams Christmas" album. This time, the selections come primarily from the Oxford Book of Carols. 

This 1928 publication was extremely influential. Vaughan Williams' carol arrangements for this book turn up in many protestant hymnals. Some that is, but not all. 

And that's what makes this collection so rewarding to listen to. There are the familiar tunes, such as "The Bellman's Song," "Wassail Song," and "The First Nowell." 

But then there are all these other gems. "Job," "Come all ye Faithful Christians," and "If Ye Would Hear the Angels Sing," are but three examples. 

Vaughan Williams had internalized English folk traditions. His settings of these carols show their origins. The harmonies sometimes are modal, the melodies retain their non-standard rhythms. And even though these are four-square SATB arrangements, there's nothing square about them. 

The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea performs these works beautifully. The choir has a warm, luminous sound. And yet their articulation is laser-precise. The recording venue is also well-suited for this music. There's enough decay to enrich the sound, but not enough to obscure it. 

If you want to know what choral music should sound like, get this album. And if you, like me, are always looking for top-quality Christmas music, look here. The Oxford Book of Carols was published in part to raise the standard of seasonal music. This recording raises the standard of its performance.   

Ralph Vaughan Williams: An Oxford Christmas
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea; William Vann, director
Joshua Ryan, organ
Albion Records

Friday, December 03, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalHoliday Week 1

Traditionally, #ClassicalChristmas has been the December theme for Classics a Day. This year, it's changed slightly -- #ClassicalHoliday. 

The idea was always to encourage folks to share works composed for performance in December. The pieces could be either sacred or secular. But the hashtag #ClassicalChristmas suggested music only for one faith tradition. So new hashtag, same concept. During the month of December post works that were meant to be performed in the wintertime.

Here are my posts for the first week of #ClassicalHoliday

12/01/21 Vitezslava Kapralova - Prélude de Noël

Kapralova wrote this for a Christmas Eve broadcast in 1939. Her orchestration reflects the influence of her friend and teacher, Bohuslav Martinu.

12/02/21 Christoph Graupner - Gott sei uns, Gott sei uns gnädig, GWV 1109/41

The cantata "God be us God be gracious to us" was composed for the First Sunday in Advent, 1740.

12/03/21 - Tomás Luis de Victoria - O magnum mysterium

This is one of Victoria's most-performed works and is considered an outstanding example of late-Renaissance polyphony.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

A Festival of Light Classical Music

I recently found a Reader’s Digest collection at my parent’s home. It was too good not to share. 

So Wednesday, December 8, 2021, be sure to tune in for “A Festival of Light Classical Music” on WTJU, FM 91.1 (or From 7 am to 9 am I’ll be playing sections from these LPs and having some fun. 

 You might not know the names of all these pieces, but I guarantee they’ll sound familiar! 

What we can’t share on-air (but I can here) is the packaging. Everything about this set makes the buyer feel cultured and sophisticated. — even if they knew nothing about classical music. 

 There’s an introduction by Arthur Fiedler (the one conductor non-classical listeners might recognize). No Fiedler recordings appear in this set, BTW. Fiedler’s message is both invited to the novice, and loaded with cultural baggage.

“Every piece here selected is music of quality, music composed with passion and enthusiasm, music written by great composers. It is therefore light music which one can take seriously.” 

He does end with some practical advice. “How can you best listen to this Festival? Any way that you enjoy it is the best way for you… No special knowledge, no magic formula, no ‘open sesame’ are required; all one needs in an open heart.” 

The set includes an impressive booklet that informative and accessible liner notes. 

It also included a guarantee of quality and satisfaction. it assures the purchaser that, among other things, “each set of records is completely new.” Well, that’s a relief. I wouldn’t want to pay good money for some second-hand vinyl! 

 There’s a handy guide for those new to long-playing albums. It recommends using a diamond needle, as opposed to a sapphire needle or (heavens!) a metal needle. “Most lovers of good music consider [the diamond needle] well worth the extra cost.” 

The set also has a promo sheet with detachable postcard order forms to share with friends. It features some celebrity endorsements from notables like Bennet Cerf and Arlene Francis. Although I do wonder why they put the word listeners in quotes. 

 “A Festival of Light Classical Music” was more than a set of records. It was an easy way to add sophistication to your life, and impress your friends!