Thursday, November 30, 2023

House of Belonging - Award-worthy Music

As I write this, "House of Belonging" is up for Best Choral Performance for the 66th Grammy Awards. No wonder. 

Craig Hella Johnson has sculpted his vocal ensemble into a wonderfully expressive instrument. Conspirare can sing with delicate transparency and stentorian authority. Their vocal blend is truly seamless. And there's often a luminous quality to the sound as well.

The album features twelve new choral works (out of seventeen tracks). Collectively they explore the possibilities of expression with the human voice. There are four (or more)-part harmony, wordless humming, vocal sound effects, and more. 

And while the music is new, it's never too academic. Every work can be enjoyed at some level on first hearing. And many yield new insights each time they're revisited. And there's a variety of styles, too. 

Contemporary composers are well-represented. Kevin Puts, Shara Nova and Alex Berko are just a few. And earlier composers such as Margaret Bonds and Ross Lee Finney also fit nicely in the mix. For me, the knockout track was "Reaching" by Craig Hella Johnson. Phenomenal.  

The Miro Quartet joins Conspirare for some works and plays alone on a couple of tracks. They're the perfect match for Conspirare. They, too, have a warm luminous ensemble sound.

This is an album of extraordinary beauty. Beautiful, insightful music sung by master musicians. Oh yes. This one deserves a Grammy nomination (if not the Grammy itself).   

House of Belonging
Miro Quartet
Craig Hella Johnson, director
Delos DE 3601

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Jauchzet Gott: Cantatas by Bach, Graupner, and Zelenka

For me, three things blend very well. They are the soprano voice, the clarion trumpet, and Baroque sacred cantatas. Apparently, I'm not alone, as Accent has released an album of just that. 

When done well, the soprano voice and Baroque trumpet complement each other. Both have about the same range. Plus the valveless trumpet sounds best in the high register.

This is a great album. Soprano Magdalene Harer sings with a smooth, honeyed tone. Her performances give the music a sense of the ethereal. 

Hannes Rux' instrument also favors a smoother tone. It doesn't have the edge of a modern trumpet, which is just fine. 

The Harmonie Universelle plays with both precision and energy. And that keeps the excitement level high throughout these works. And what a selection!

Christoph Graupner, Jan Dismass Zelenka, and Johann Sebastian Bach. All three were contemporaries. And all three were among the best composers of the late Baroque. 

Also included are two instrumental selections. Graupner's Concerto for Two Violins in E-flat major GWV 319 features the ensemble's co-directors. Monica Waisman and Florian Deuter have real chemistry, making this an engaging listen.

Bach's Sinfonia in D major, BWV 1045 is the sole surviving section of a much larger celebratory work. It provides a nice contrast between the cantatas. At the same time, it maintains the overall tone of the album. 

As I say -- these types of cantatas work for me. And these performances really make them work. Highly recommended.

Jauchzet Gott: Bach, Graupner, Zelenka
Magdalene Harer, soprano; Hannes Rux, trumpet
Harmonie Universelle; Florien Deuter and Monica Waisman, directors

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Marc Ponthus' Masterful Beethoven and Stockhausen

I'm of two minds about this release. The playing -- and the recording -- is first-rate. Marc Ponthus' skill and musicality deliver performances full of vitality. 

Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata is a Mount Everest for pianists. It's incredibly challenging to play. And it's almost as challenging to make sense of. There is an underlying structure and logic to the work. But it's not readily discernable as it is in, say, a Mozart sonata. 

The same can be said for Stockhausen's Klavierstücke X. It's derived from a number square Stockhausen developed. This square controls various aspects of the composition process. In this work, he also used a system of seven: chord clusters of 1-7 notes; action/rest durations, note values (1-7), etc.

Both are quite complex pieces. Ponthus has invested a great deal of time in the study and analysis of these works. And it was time well spent. I was particularly struck by his performance of Klavierstücke X. Ponthus instilled a sense of purpose in his playing. 

Superficially the work can sound wild and chaotic. But Ponthus is in control. He knows the function of every note, and how it fits into the structure of the work. With repeated listening, I began to hear hints of that structure, too. 

The Hammerklavier is the more traditional Ultimate Piano Sonata. Many virtuosi have performed and recorded it. Ponthus' interpretation goes beneath the surface. He makes connections between motives that are sometimes surprising. But logical in retrospect. 

I enjoyed this recording very much. But the liner notes, not so much. I appreciate Ponthus for trying to explain how he arrived at his interpretations. And I know it's difficult to talk about music in a non-musical setting (like text). 

But the entire essay is filled with sentences like this: 

"These two works are so concentrated and charged with deeply organic forces that they stand on their own. relatively detached from their creators, as they demand a level of engagement from both performer and listener that results in experiences of appropriation and unanticipated significance, in taxing perceptions and effects, and in the breakthrough into metaphysics."

Holy moly. That's a lot baggage to saddle any piece of music with. Sorry, these performances were thrilling. But I never broke through into the metaphysical world. I'm sympathetic to what Ponthus was trying to articulate. But my advice is this. Play the album, don't read the booklet. These works can speak for themselves.       

Ludwig van Beethoven: Hammerklavier Sonata Op. 106
Karlhenz Stockhausen: Klavierstücke X
Marc Ponthus, piano
Bridge Records 9584

Friday, November 24, 2023

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalFam Week 4

November means Thanksgiving when families gather together. The Classics a Day team decided to make families the theme. For the month of November, the challenge is to post video performances of musical family members. Post on any social media channel you like. 

What constitutes a musical family? Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn (brother and sister) both composed. As did many in the Bach family tree. 

For my part, I decided to follow the family connections from post to post. Here are my posts for the fourth week of #ClassicalFam.

11/20/23 Wilhelm Hieronymus Pachelbel (1686-1794): Fantasia super Meine Seele, lass es gehen

Wilhelm's father was Johann Pachelbel, whose fame has grown significantly since his death. Wilehlm's younger brother Charles Theodore was also a composer. Only seven works by Wilhelm survive.


11/21/23 Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750): Magnificat

Charles was brother to composer Wilhelm Hieronymus, and both were sons to composer Johann Pachelbel. Charles emigrated to America in 1733. He settled in Charleston, SC where he organized concerts and started a singing school.


11/22/23 Leopold Mozart 1719-1787): Sinfonia Burlesca

Leopold was father to Wolfgang Amadeus, and grandfather to Franz Xaver Mozart, both composers (of differing abilities) In his day Leopold was renowned for his treatise on violin technique -- a work still in use today.


11/23/23 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Violin Sonata No. 26 in B-flat major, K. 378

Wolfgang was the son of composer Leopold Mozart. Two of his sons survived infancy. The younger, Franz Xaver was also a composer.


11/24/23 Franz Xaver Mozart (1791-1844): Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 14

Franz was the youngest son of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He studied composition with Antonio Salieri and enjoyed a modestly successful career as a pianist and composer. His older brother Karl was also a pianist but did not compose.


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Zillacus Quartet Present Collaborative Masterworks


This is a fascinating release of interconnected composers. Edvard Grieg was a close family friend of the Rontgens -- Julius and his wife Amanda Maier. Rontgen would eventually publish a biography of his friend in 1930. And he did more than that.

Grieg had started a string quartet in 1891 and set it aside. He had completed only the first two movements. Rontgen. Rontgen composed two final movements based on Grieg's notes and sketches. 

The completed quartet was performed in the Rontgen home with an all-star lineup. Harold Bauer played the first violin. Pablo Casals played the second violin and his wife played the cello. Julius Rontgen played the viola. His second wife, Abrahamina, was the sole audience member. 

The Grieg/Rontgen quartet was then put aside. It receives its world recording premiere here.

Rontgen's first wife, Amanda Maier was an accomplished violinist and a skilled composer. Her early death at age 41 left her own string quartet unfinished. It would remain so until 2018.  That's when Swedish conductor and composer Bengt Tommy Andersson completed it.

Rounding out the release is Rontgen's own work, his String Quartet No. 12.

Violinist Cecilia Zilliacus has recorded several of Maier's works. And she's specialized in Scandinavian string music. She has a deep understanding of this music.

And that understanding comes through in this recording. The Zilliacus Quartet has a warm, clear ensemble sound. They bring out the emotional content of this music, but never to excess. 

Instead, we're treated to some exciting, well-executed quartet playing. And that playing breathes life into these works. The origins of the music don't matter. The Grieg/Rontgen and Maier/Andersson quartets sound like seamless and organic masterpieces.

The Zillacus Quartet
Grieg, Maier, Rontgen: String Quartets
DB Productions

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Wigmore Soloists Focus on British Music

This is the fourth BIS release from the Wigmore Soloists. And this time they're staying a little closer to home. All three composers represented are from the UK.

The musicians that comprise the Wigmore Soloists are all in top form. And in this SACD recording, they sound great. The ensemble blends are seamless. The recording captures the natural sound of the instruments. 

The release opens with the Octet of Howard Ferguson from 1933. Ferguson was a self-critical composer. He only allowed twenty-one of his works to see the light of day. 

The octet is very much in the English pastoral style. Ferguson doesn't quote folk songs. But his choice of harmonies and melodic turns make this sound very English.  

Arthur Bliss was greatly inspired by clarinetist Frederick Thurston. His distinctive style was very much in Bliss' mind as he wrote his Clarinet Quintet. The work was completed a year before Ferguson's Octet.

The two pieces share a similar style, though Bliss sounds less distinctively British. 

After listening to the Ferguson and the Bliss, Robin Holloway's octet might be a shock to the system. The Serenade in C was written in 1979. And Holloway's aesthetic was far removed from 1930s Britain.

Holloway uses musical cliches to create something new and wonderfully quirky. The listener is never quite sure where the music's going, but the fun is in the journey. 

This is a fine addition to the Wigmore Soloists' catalog. And it would make a fine addition to most listeners' music libraries.

Wigmore Soloists
Ferguson, Bliss, Holloway: Chamber Music

Friday, November 17, 2023

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalFam Week 3

November means Thanksgiving when families gather together. The Classics a Day team decided to make families the theme. For the month of November, the challenge is to post video performances of musical family members. Post on any social media channel you like. 

What constitutes a musical family? Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn (brother and sister) both composed. As did many in the Bach family tree. 

For my part, I decided to follow the family connections from post to post. Here are my posts for the third week of #ClassicalFam.

11/13/23 Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977): Piano Conceto No. 1, Op. 12

Alexander's father Nicolai was an important Soviet composer. Alexander emigrated to the US. Both his sons Serge and Ivan were composers, as were two of Ivan's sons, Serge and Stefan.

11/14/23 Ivan Tcherepnin (1943-1988): Five Songs

Ivan was the son of noted composer Alexander Tcherepnin and grandson of composer/pianist Alexander Tcherepnin. His older brother was also an important composer, as is Ivan's son Sergei.


11/15/23 Sergei Tcherepnin: Subharmonic Thicket

Sergei is the latest in a long line of composers. His brother Stefan is also a composer. Their father (Ivan) and uncle Serge were both internationally known composers, as was their grandfather Alexander.


11/16/23 Stefan Tcherepnin: "Honky Tonk Calamity -- Ms. Fortune"

Stefan comes from a family of composers. His brother Sergei is one, as was their father Alexander, uncle Sergei, and grandfather Alexander. 

11/17/23 Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706): Halleluja! Lobet Den Herrn

Today he's pretty much a one-hit wonder. But Pachelbel was a respected composer in his day, writing over 530 works. His two sons, Wilhelm Hieronymus and Charles Theodore were also composers.


Thursday, November 16, 2023

Reissue collects strong Respighi performances

This reissue brings together releases from two different Koch Schann releases. Violinist Andrea Cappelletii recorded the bulk of these works in 1994. The Poema autumnale was issued a year earlier with violinist Igor Bruppman. 

The Philharmonia Orchestra under Matthias Bamert has a luminosity that's perfect for Resphigi. The San Diego Chamber Orchestra under Donald Barra wasn't quite in the same league. It's a smaller ensemble and the sound's a little closed-in.

But when it comes to performances, all these tracks are on the same high level of musicianship. 

Andrea Cappelletti's violin has a clean, crystalline quality to it. For the Concerto gregoriano, it's the equivalent of light pouring through stained glass. For the Concerto all'antica, Cappelletti adopts a carefree, playful stance.

Igor Gruppman plays with a darker, throatier tone. It matches the melancholy mood of the Poema autunnale. 

Respighi was a master orchestrator. That skill is apparent in all three of these works. And the soloists effectively convey the emotions of the material. 

Another welcome reissue from Alto.  

Ottorino Respighi: Violin Concertos and Suite
Concerto Gregoriano; Concerto all' antica; Poema Autunnale
Andrea Cappelletti, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra; Matthias Bamert, conductor
San Diego Chamber Orchestra; Donald Barra, conductor

Friday, November 10, 2023

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalFam Week 2

November means Thanksgiving when families gather together. The Classics a Day team decided to make families the theme. For the month of November, the challenge is to post video performances of musical family members. Post on any social media channel you like. 

What constitutes a musical family? Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn (brother and sister) both composed. As did many in the Bach family tree. 

For my part, I decided to follow the family connections from post to post. Here are my posts for the second week of #ClassicalFam.

11/06/23 Wilhelm Andriessen (1887-1964): Piano Concerto in D-flat major (1908)

This Dutch pianist and composer was brother to Hendrik Andriessen and Hendrik's two sons, Jurriaan and Louis -- all composers.


11/07/23 Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725): Cantata pastorale per la nascità di Nostro Signore

Alessandro founded the Neapolitan school of opera. His sons Domenico and Pietro Filippo were also composers.


11/08/23 Pietro Filippo Scarlatti (1679-1750): Toccata in G minor

Pietro was the eldest son of Alessandro Scarlatti, and his brother Domenico. Both have overshadowed him, as little of Pietro's music survives.


11/09/23 Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757): Stabat mater

Domenico was the son of Alessandro Scarlatti and brother to Pietro Filippo, both composers. Domenico is famous for his 555 keyboard sonatas, although he did write in other genres.


11/10/23 Nikolai Tcherepnin (1883-1945): The Enchanted Kingdom

Nikolai's son Alexander was also a renowned composer. Alexander's two sons, Serge and Ivan were also composers. And Ivan's two sons, Sergei and Stefan are composers as well. Quite a dynasty!


Friday, November 03, 2023

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalFam Week 1

November means Thanksgiving when families gather together. The Classics a Day team decided to make families the theme. For the month of November, the challenge is to post video performances of musical family members. Post on any social media channel you like. 

What constitutes a musical family? Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn (brother and sister) both composed. As did many in the Bach family tree. 

For my part, I decided to follow the family connections from post to post. Here are my posts for the first week of #ClassicalFam.

11/01/23 Hendrik Andriessen (1892-1981): Ricecare (1949)

Andriessen was a Dutch composer and organist. His brother Wilhelm was also a composer, as were Hendrik's two sons, Louis and Jurriaan.


11/02/23 Jurriaan Andriessen (1925-1996): Music for an Imaginary Play (1987)

This Dutch composer had several relatives who also composed: his father Hendrick, his uncle Wilhelm, and his younger brother Louis.

11/03/23 Louis Andriessen (1939-2021): Tapdance - Percussion Concerto (2013)

This Dutch composer pianist was brother to composer Jurriaan Andriessen. Both his father (Hendrik) and uncle (Wilhelm) were also important composers.


Thursday, November 02, 2023

David Biedenbender Chamber Music Impresses

I first became aware of David Biedenbender's music this past year. I attended a Garth Newel Piano Quartet concert, and they performed his "Solstice." I was impressed. 

It was a wonderfully evocative work. Biedenbender takes the listener through the four seasons in the country. His string writing recreates the sounds of summer, and the piano the flurry of snow (to cite two examples). 

I was very excited then, to have this release cross my desk. Especially as it contained "Solstice."

The album includes a second work played by the quartet. This one includes clarinetist Mingzhe Wang. "Red Vespers"  was commissioned to celebrate the Capitol Reef National Park. It's an expansive, though thinly-textured work. And it captures the essence of absorbing the beauty of a vast landscape.

The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble performs "Shell and Wing, " which they commissioned.  It reflects the anxiety of parents in the wake of almost continual school shootings. Who says classical music isn't relevant?

Robert Fanning provided the text for "Shell and Wing," as well as the title track. "All We Are Given We Cannot Hold" reflects on the fragility of life.

To my ears, Biedenbender's music effectively blends several elements. He writes strong melodic lines that are tonal, but free of the major/minor straightjacket. He uses the motivic energy of minimalism at times. And often the music simply hangs in space, not moving, but just existing.

I hope there are more recordings coming from this remarkable composer.

David Biedenbender: All We Are Given We Cannot Hold
Garth Newel Piano Quartet with Mingzhe Wang
Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble; Haven Trio


Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Giovanni Battista Casali Fills in Historical Gap

The liner notes for this release make a point. And on reflection, I had to agree with it. They assert that for many, the history of Roman Catholic church music has an arc.

The history starts with Medieval chant. It develops through the Renaissance with polyphony. And it stops with Palextrina in the early 1600s. 

At this point, we turn our attention to the Protestant church music of the North. And the presumption is that nothing further happened to church music in Italy.

But musical development didn't stop. Italian composers continued to innovate and experiment right into the Age of Enlightenment. Composers like Giovanni Battista Casali.

Casali was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn and was choirmaster at the church of St. John Lateran in Rome.

One of the characteristics of Casali is his clarity. The text is sung in four-part harmony. There's a lot of homophonic singing, with clear enunciation of the text.

The internal lines are easy to make out. In fact, most of these selections have a clean, transparent ensemble blend. Counterpoint is present, but the interwoven melodies sound clear and easy to follow.

Casali was also an opera composer. To me, his sacred choral music bears a strong resemblance to opera choruses of the day. And that's not a bad thing.

The Constanzi Consort is directed by Peter Leach. The soloists are very good and sing in a straightforward manner. A welcome addition to our collective knowledge of the Classical Era.

Giovanni Battista Casali: Sacred Music from 18th Century Rome
Costanzi Consort; Peter Leech, conductor
Toccata Classics TOCC 0429