Monday, February 28, 2022

Superb Piano Quintets from Ukraine

Ukrainian musicians play piano quintets from three generations of Ukrainian composers. One would expect top-flight, engaging performances. And one would be right. There's a passion here that's palpable.

The quintets are programmed in chronological order. When I listened straight through, I could hear how each composer built on the foundations of the previous. 

Boris Lyatoshynsky was a towering musical figure -- not just in Ukraine, but also in the Soviet Union. He's credited with composing the first Ukrainian symphony in 1918. 

His Ukrainian Quintet, Op. 42 is a masterwork. His teacher, Reinhold Glière (another Ukrainian), called it a beautiful composition.

Lyatoshynsky builds his quintet from the simplest of motifs. Simple, but durable. Throughout the work, these motifs provide the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic structures. The slow movement is exceptionally beautiful and expressive.

Valentyn Silvestrov studied with Lyatoshynsky. Silvestrov's 1961 Piano Quintet is dedicated to his former teacher. Silvestrov shows some of Lyatoshynsky's influence in his motivic development. 

But his language is more modernist and almost post-tonal. This is expressive music with an edge to it. The fast sections hum with nervous energy. The slow grind uneasily against chromatic dissonances.

Victoria Poleva is the youngest of the three composers on this release. Her Simurgh-quintet is also the most adventurous. The title refers to a bird in Persian mythology. Ancient and wise, the Simurgh serves as a messenger between the earth and sky. 

One would expect an ancient and wise creature to move with slow deliberation. And that's what Poleva's music does. Long, suspended chords connect her musical ideas. These give a sense of slow and stately motion. And the transparent nature of the quintet suggests this motion takes place in the air -- like a gliding bird. 

Poleva has worked with Gideon Kremer and Kronos Quartet on various projects. These associations have carried her name beyond the borders of Ukraine. The quality of the music on this release suggests it's past time for the same to happen with Lyatoshynsky and Silvestrov.

Highly recommended.

Ukrainian Piano Quintets: Lyatoshynsky, Poleve, Silverstrov
Bogdana Pivnenko, Taras Yaropud, violins; Kateryna Suprun, viola; Yurii Pogoretskyi, cello; Iryna Starodub, piano

Friday, February 25, 2022

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth 2022 Week 4

February is Black History Month, and a great opportunity to explore the music of black composers. That's what the Classics a Day team felt, anyway. 

As always, I tried to find works and composers that I hadn't shared before during #BlackHistoryMonth. Here are my posts for the fourth week.

02/21/22 David Baker - Fantasy on Themes from Masque of the Red Death Ballet

Baker started his career in jazz and eventually moved incto classical music. He's often cited as an example of Third Stream Jazz. His Fantasy was composed in 1998.

02/21/22 Olly Wilson - Hold On: Symphony No. 3

Wilson based his 1998 symphony on the spiritual "Hold On." It was inspired by a talk he gave to elementary school students about African American music and spiritual traditions.

02/22/22 Anthony R. Green - On Top of a Frosted Hill

Green originally composed this work for cello and piano in 2011. The version for cello and harp was created in 2014, and the viola and piano version in 2016.

02/23/22 Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges - String Quartet No. 5

Bologne published three sets of string quartets. Each set had six quartets. This quartet comes from the Op. 1 set, published in 1770.

02/24/22 Jeffrey Mumford - a veil of liquid diamonds

Mumford studied with Elliot Carter. According to the composer, many of his works are inspired by cloud imagery.

02/25/22 Rosephanye Powell - The Word was God

Dr. Powell is one of the premiere choral composers working in America today. She's also considered one of the leading authorities on the music of William Grant Still and African-American spirituals.

Next Month:

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Francesco Zappa: 6 Duets for Violin and Cello

Let's be clear: we're talking about Francesco Zappa (1717-1803), not Frank Zappa (1940-1993). Zappa was a Milanese cellist and composer. 

He spent most of his professional life in The Hague. There he served (at various times) as a performer, composer, teacher, and impresario. 

The six duets for violin and cello on this release were published in Paris. They're written in the galant style, with well-defined melodies and pleasant harmonies. 

But they're not trifles. Zappa was a virtuoso cellist.  And he was one of the premier developers of the instrument's technique.

The duets aren't for virtuosi, but they do require a high degree of skill. The duets are written with the violin and cello as equal partners. Whether playing together or individually, the instruments enter into conversations. 

Violinist Giacomo Coletti and cellist Anna Camporini understand that concept. As a duo, they have chemistry. Their instruments blend well. And their phrasing makes the music sound spontaneous. 

These are short, intimate works. But ones well worth hearing. A fine recording to enjoy on a quiet Sunday morning.

Francsco Zappa: 6 Duets for Violin and Cello
Giocomo Coletti, violin; Anna Camorini, cello
Urania LDV 14075

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Energetic readings of Julius Rontgen choral symphonies

Add three more symphonies to CPO's traversal of Julius Rontgen symphonies. This amazingly prolific Dutch composer wrote 25 in all. 

And most remarkable is how varied they are. Some are compact one-movement works, and others are more expansive multi-movement affairs. 

This release features two Rontgen choral symphonies. Rontgen -- among many other things -- harmonized traditional Dutch tunes for hymnals. His fifth symphony in A minor uses one such tune. "Der Schnitter Tod" was a tune sung during the 30 Years War. 

Rontgen composed his 1926 symphony in reaction to the First World War. This tune provides context and underlines the devastation war causes. 

Rontgen transforms the tune over the course of four movements. Along the way, Rontgen moves from darkness and despair to hope. The choir setting in the final music is exceptionally beautiful. 

"Rijck God, wie sal ic claghen" forms the foundation of Rontgen's sixth symphony. This single-movement work was composed in 1928, and the melody is an old Dutch hymn. Rontgen begins with fragments of the melody, that gradually coalesce. When the chorus comes in with the fully realized tune, there's a satisfying sense of arrival.

Johann Sebastian Bach was the first to use "Bach" (B-flat, A, C, and B-natural in German notation) as a motif. But he wasn't the last. Rontgen was one of many inspired by the master's name.

His 19th symphony, based on BACH, was composed in 1931. It was part of a white-hot burst of creativity. That year Rontgen composed eight symphonies, a violin concerto, and two major works for chorus and orchestra. 

Rontgen knew how to develop thematic material. His use of the four-note Bach motif is imaginative. Rontgen explores both the melodic and harmonic implications of the motif. 

And in the process, he goes off in some unexpected directions. The final movement culminates in an orchestral fugue that pays homage to Bach -- but in Rontgen's own voice. 

The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra performs with authority. Porcelijn is a Rontgen expert. His direction makes these works crackle with energy. Another excellent addition to this ongoing series.    

Julius Rontgen: Symphonies Nos. 5, 6, & 19
Consensus Vocalis
Netherlands Symphony Orchestra; David Porcelijn, conductor

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Pietro Antonio Locatelli Op. 7 Concertos make the transition

This release presents the six concertos Pietro Locatelli published as his Opus VII. The year was 1741, and styles were changing. The concerto form of Vivaldi and Corelli were beginning to show their age. Style galant was on the rise. In this collection, Locatelli transitions from his past into his present.

That's not to say these are full-blown empfindsamer Stil works. Locatelli doesn't completely abandon his roots. But there's a lightness here that seem inspired by the galant style. 

Natale Arnoldi leads his ensemble in some solid performances. The Ensemble Baroque "Carlo Antonio Marino" has a rich, full sound. The recorded sound has a spacious ambiance to it. 

The leisurely decay gives the music some additional volume. I'm used to Baroque instrumental ensembles playing with relatively little reverb. In this case, I found it appealing. 

It doesn't obscure Locatelli's lines. I think it's probably closer to what audiences actually heard. As opposed to acoustically dead recording studios. 

Did Locatelli succeed in transitioning? Not entirely. But he did create some works of exceptional beauty and craftsmanship. I enjoyed this release immensely. 

Pietro Antonio Locatelli: Sei concerti a quatrro opera VII
Ensemble Baroque "Carlo Antonio Marino;" Natale Arnoldi, conductor

Monday, February 21, 2022

George Crumb Metamorphoses -exceptional in every way

The announcement of George Crumb's death came from Bridge Records. It showed the intimate relationship the label -- specifically David and Becky Starobin -- had with the composer. 

This release is the twentieth volume of Crumb's music released on Bridge. And most of it, like this recording, do so in collaboration with the composer. 

The two works featured here are recent. Crumb completed Metamorphoses Book I in 2017, Book II in 2020. Both books include "Ten Fantasy-Pieces (after celebrated paintings)" for amplified piano. 

Crumb acknowledges the inspiration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." But while Mussorgsky tried to convey the images he saw in his music, Crumb had a different focus. According to the liner notes Crumb responded: "to the ethos, the characteristic tone of the painting, and often to the title as well."

These works were composed for a piano using extended techniques. Some have become common, such as strumming the strings or placing objects on them. But Crumb continues to innovate. There's a passage for toy piano. The performer sings, barks, and chants. 

Every work is different, and each one exists in its own soundscape. A soundscape that works within its own self-contained logical framework. 

Marcantonio Barone is an exceptional pianist. In this collection, he excels. His performances bring out the underlying logic of each piece. He brings together the traditional and unconventional sounds Crumb uses into a cohesive whole. 

Credit should also go to the Bridge Records recording team. In my opinion, they're among the best for solo piano recordings. They make the piano sound natural. 

Every note (or sound) is clean and clear, with just the right amount of resonance. And in this case, that's crucial. Crumbs packs many details into incredibly soft passages. Passages that could just be a smear without careful recording. 

This is an exceptional release. It shows a composer as creative and innovative in his nineties as he ever was. I hope Bridge recorded more with George Crumb before his passing.

George Crumb: Metamorphoses Books 1 & II
Marcantonio Barone, piano

Friday, February 18, 2022

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth 2022 Week 3

February is Black History Month, and a great opportunity to explore the music of black composers. That's what the Classics a Day team felt, anyway. 

As always, I tried to find works and composers that I hadn't shared before during #BlackHistoryMonth. Here are my posts for the second week.

02/14/22 Harry T. Burleigh - From the Southland

This piano suite was published in 1910. Burleigh dedicated it to his friend, the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

02/15/22 R. Nathaniel Dett - Magnolia Suite

This piano suite was published in 1912. Dett's goal was to synthesize African-American music with classical forms in the same way Dvorak did with Czech folk music.

02/16/22 William Dawson - Negro Folk Symphony

Dawson completed this work in 1932, and it was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra two years later. Dawson revised the symphony in 1952 after visiting Africa.

02/17/22 William Grant Still - Symphony No. 2 in G minor, "Song of a New Race"

Still wrote this about his 1937 work: "The Symphony in G minor describes the black people of the current America, a totally new man, as a result of the mixture of white, Indian and black bloods".

02/18/22 Clarence Cameron White - Lament

White recorded his composition in 1920. It was recorded for Broome Special Phonograph Records, the first black-owned label in the States.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Felix Draeseke String Quartets, Vol. 2 improves upon Vol. 1

Felix Draeseke only wrote three string quartets. The first two were released in Volume 1. Volume 2 rounds out the program with two other chamber works by Draeseke. Not to worry -- all these works are worth a listen. 

Draeseke admired both Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. His own composition shows their influences, but only in part. The free-flowing melodies emulate Wagner's. 

But Draeseke seems more concerned with the formal structure of the quartet. And also its tonal centers. For me, this quartet leaned more towards Brahms than Wagner. 

Also included is the Scene for Violin and Piano. This is only one of two works for this instrumental combination by  Draeseke. It's a showpiece for violin, and Emeline Pierre rises to the occasion. 

Draeseke composed the Suite for Two Violins in F-sharp minor when he was 75. He wrote it for two young violinists who performed at his salons. It's an interesting work, quite serious and expressive. Emeline Pierre and Ester Guitierrez Redondo, the Constanze Quartett violinists, perform here. 

 Draeseke's violinists were sisters. The success of the music depends on the strong connection between the performers. Pierre and Redondo have that connection. Their performance makes the piece the dialogue it was intended to be. 

In my review of Volume 1, I complained about the sound quality of the recording. Happily, that's not the issue here. The instruments still have a rounded warmth to them. But the overall sound is clean and clear.

Felix Draeseke: String Quartets, Vol. 2
Quartet Op. 66; Scene Op. 69; Suite, Op. 86
Constanze Quartett
CPO 555 350-2

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Xiaogang Ye - Road to the Republic truly epic


Xiaogang Ye is an important composer both in China and in the world. He does more than just blend Chinese traditional music with Western classical forms. 

He's also an innovator, pushing past the limits of tonality. But doing so in a way that sounds both natural and logical

This is the third release of Ye's music by Naxos. Jia Lu, who conducts the Road to the Republic, led the Macau orchestra on one of those releases. 

Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz and Franck Ollu appeared on the other. These are conductors who are familiar with Ye's aesthetic.

The Road to the Republic commemorates China's 1911 Revolution. It overthrew the Qing dynasty ending over two thousand years of imperial rule. The republic that formed became an important part of Chinese identity. And it's an event that China still celebrates yearly.

Ye composed "The Road to the Republic" to mark the 100th anniversary of the event. And it's appropriately epic. 

"China was weak from constant poverty, 

But should not, even for a moment,

forget unselfishness,

And be afraid of power." 

Ye uses the framework of the Western cantata to build an impressive sound structure. Atonal passages denote the angst and uncertainty of the chaotic times. As the work progresses, the music gradually transforms, adopting Chinese scales and rhythms. Like China, the work seems to take Western concepts and adapt them. 

In my opinion, the "Cantonese Suite" is an extraordinary tour-de-force. The Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra commissioned Ye for a composition with a unique challenge. The orchestra wanted a work using folk melodies of the Guangdong province. But the melodies could not change. 

Ye obliged. And in the process, he created a suite that flows naturally. The melodies are intact. But their orchestration and phrasing make them sound fluid and spontaneous. And the harmonies and counterpoint are all Ye's. 

This was the first recording of Ye's music that I've auditioned. I'll be seeking out those other two Naxos releases now. 

Xiaogang Ye: The Road to the Republic (Cantata); Cantonese Suite
Liping Zhang, soprano; Guang Yang, mezzo-soprano; Yijie Shi, tenor; Chenye Yuan, baritone
China National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Beijing Philharmonic Choir; Jia Lu, conductor
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Franck Ollu, conductors
Naxos 8.579089

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Fortunato Chelleri: Six Symphonies Nouvelles entertain

Fortunato Chelleri was certainly a cosmopolitan composer. He was an Italian opera composer initially. And then he was a court composer in Florence, Venice, and Barcelona. 

In 1722 he worked with Giovanni Platti in Würzburg. He served in the Royal Swedish court in the 1730s and returned to Germany to finish his career. All the while he was studying the music around him -- which is what this release is about. 

The Six Symphonies Nouvelles are Chelleri's take on the latest trends (ca. 1740). The symphonies are in the Galant style. They have light, tuneful melodies, and elegant, clear-cut forms. 

My initial impression was that Chelleri was a happy, upbeat composer. The fast movements bristle with energy, and the overall tone is one of high spirits. 

As it turns out, every single symphony is in a major key. That may have something to do with the sunniness of this collection. 

No matter. Chelleri's a master craftsman. These works are well-constructed and tuneful. Vanni Moretto directs the Atalanta Fugiens Orchestra in some spirited performances. I like the way the ensemble seems to bounce off of the downbeat, propelling the music forward. 

I wouldn't classify these works as particularly profound. But they do what Chelleri intends them to. They entertain. 

Fortunato Chelleri: Six Symphonies Nouvelles
Atalanta Fugiens Orchestra; Vanni Moretto, conductor

Monday, February 14, 2022

Aurelio Barrios y Morales let down by performers

If you're familiar with my writing, you know I  give mostly positive reviews. Mostly. I want to support the artists and labels willing to go beyond the same old-same old. 

But in this case, I have ambivalent feelings. The Mexican composer Aurelio Barrios y Morales was rescued from obscurity. Sterling consistently releases recordings that add to the richness of the repertoire. 

But in this case, the end result didn't deliver -- at least for me. My issue is with the ensemble. I heard major problems with the recorded performances. 

There were some serious intonation issues in the strings. This was especially true in the Sinfonia. The horns also sounded weak, and sometimes a little wobbly.

I feel for the producer. These were live performances. So if the ensemble is having an off night (or two), there aren't many options for editing. 

And this music is important to hear.

Barrios was an exceptional talent. His fugue is a masterwork -- as one would expect from an organist. And the sinfonia is a well-crafted post-romantic gem. 

Barrios adeptly combined Mexican folk traditions with classical forms. Barrios' music has a unique sound that celebrates his heritage without being bound by it. 

If you want to explore the music of Barrios -- and you should -- this release is a must. But if you're like me, you'll have to listen past the performances.

Aurelio Barrios y Morales
Antologia de su obra sonfonica
Orquesta Sinfónica de Coyoacán Nueva Era, A.C.; Rodrigo Elorduy, conductor
Sterling CDS 1114-2

Friday, February 11, 2022

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth 2022 Week 2

February is Black History Month, and a great opportunity to explore the music of black composers. That's what the Classics a Day team felt, anyway. 

As always, I tried to find works and composers that I hadn't shared before during #BlackHistoryMonth. Here are my posts for the second week.

02//7/22 Margaret Bonds - Troubled Water

This is one of Bond's most-performed works. She wrote the arrangement of this spiritual in 1967.

02/8/22 Julius Eastman - Stay On It

Eastman wrote in a style he called organic music. "Stay On It" (1973) is credited with being one of the first compositions to integrate pop tonalities and improvisation.

2/9/22 Julia Perry - Stabat Mater as we grieve together

Perry wrote this work in 1951. It established her reputation as a classical composer.

2/10/22 Undine Smith Moore - Before I'd Be a Slave

Moore composed this work in 1952 for the Virginia State College Modern Dance Group. She wrote, "It follows a program which I hope is evident in the music without verbal explanation."

Regina Harris Baiocchi - Miles per Hour (for solo trumpet)

The composer wrote that MPH has a message: "Listen, I have something to say about the lineage of trumpet players and their impact on literature."

Friday, February 04, 2022

#Classicsaday #BlackHistoryMonth 2022 Week 1

February is Black History Month, and a great opportunity to explore the music of black composers. That's what the Classics a Day team felt, anyway. 

As always, I tried to find works and composers that I hadn't shared before during #BlackHistoryMonth. Here are my posts for the first week.

02/01/22 Shawn Okpebholo - Two Black Churches

This song cycle is about two black churches, attacked by white supremasists. The first is the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama (1963), and Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina (2015). Okpebhol's work focuses on a community that chose faith and hope over hate and fear.

02/02/22 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - Overture to Hiawatha

"Hiawatha" was the work that made Coleridge-Taylor's reputation as a composer. This trilogy of cantata was based on Longfellow's poem.

02/03/22 James Lee III - Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan

This work celebrates the accompilishments of Harriet Tubman. After escaping slavery, she repeatedly returned to the South to free others again and again. Lee uses spirituals of the day plus battle songs from both the North and South to tell Tubman's story.

02/04/22 Florence Price - Symphony No. 1 in E minor

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered this work in 1932. It was the first symphony by a Black female composer to be performed by an American orchestra. It fell into obsurity shortly after the premiere, until rediscoverd in the 2010s.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Lyrita concludes Daniel Jones symphonic cycle

This release completes Lyrita’s series of Daniel Jones symphonies. As with the previous volumes, the recordings come from BBC broadcasts. The recording quality — as always — is quite good. And the material, even better.

Welsh composer Daniel Jones had a long-range goal. Each symphony he wrote would be based on a different note the twelve-tone chromatic scale. And each would have a different character, as suggested by that tone. His first symphony premiered in 1945. The twelfth, featured here, in 1985.

The Twelfth Symphony brings the cycle to a close. And it shows Jones’ growth as a composer. The work is compact and concise. It’s a four-movement symphony with a mere 16-minute playing time. Compact it is, but also tightly constructed. Jone’s themes are succinct and perform multiple melodic and harmonic functions.

The performance is a BBC studio recording from 1990. Bryden Thomson conducts the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. The overall sound is a little soft, as I expect from a recording of this vintage. But the performance is crisp and precise. Thomson’s interpretation yields new insights with each hearing.

The Twelfth Symphony completed Jones’ 40-year project. The Thirteenth was a one-off. Jones completed it in 1992, a year before his death. The work was written in memory of a friend. It has an elegiac quality. The capriccioso movement provides some joy, but it’s joy remembered.

Tecwyn Evan conducts the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra in a live 2017 broadcast. The sound quality is excellent, as is the performance.

Also included is “Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life.” Jomes wrote this 1987 cantata also in memory of John Aeron-Thomas. Thomas founded the Swansea Festival and had commissioned Jones’ first symphony. The performance comes from the premiere performance at the Swansea Festival in 1987.

The sound is a little lacking in detail, yet has an appealing warmth to it. Sir Charles Groves conducts the BBC Welsh Chorus and Orchestra. This is an old-school British reading and seems to suit the material quite well.

The album cover is a photograph of Jones raising a pint. It’s an appropriate image for the end of this remarkable series. Cheers, Mr. Jones.

Daniel Jones: Symphonies Nos. 12 &13
Come, my Wy, my Truth, my Life
BBC Welsh Chorus and Orchestra; Bryden Thomson, Charles Groves, conductors
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Maldwyn Davies, tenor; Tecwyn Evans, conductor
Lyrita SRCD 391