Thursday, February 29, 2024

Benjamin Alard Happily Performs Bach

Benjamin Alard's chronological traversal of Bach's harpsichord music continues. Volume 9 features music written while Johann Sebastian Bach was in Köthen. This album is subtitled "Köthen, 1717-1723 - The Happy Years." And rightly so. 

Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, was a keen musician and appreciated Bach's talents. Bach was Leopold's Kapellmeister and could give his musical creativity free reign. This album features some of those efforts, including the English Suites and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major.

Alard plays a 1740 triple-manual harpsichord made by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass. The instrument has five sets of strings and six registers. This allows Alard a great deal of expressive leeway.  The instrument can deliver dramatic changes in volume. Different registers have different timbres, providing contrast for contrapuntal passages.

And the recorded sound of the instrument is remarkably clean. There's no rattling of loose parts, no clack of keys. Just the sound of the plucked string. That pure sound is ideal for Alard's masterful playing. 

His technique seems flawless. And his choice of string and register combinations elevate these performances to a different plane. The music is as expressive as if played on a piano -- only in a more style-appropriate manner. 

A solid addition to this excellent series. 

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Complete Works for Keyboard, Vol. 9
Köthen, 1717-1723 - The Happy Years
Benjamin Alard, harpsichord
Marc Mauillon, baritone
Sien Huybrechts, flauto traverso; Anne Pekkala & Paul Monteiro, violinss; Samantha Montgomery, viola; Ronan Kernoa, bass violin
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902472.73
2 CD set

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Arnold Rosner Orchestral Music Uniquely Powerful

Arnold Rosner is one of my favorite composers. I am thrilled that Toccata Classics has issued a fourth volume of his orchestral music. Here's to many more!

Rosner was a unique talent. His style combined Romantic Era lyricism with Medieval and Renaissance harmonies. His music seems to come from an alternate reality. One where the Baroque never happened.

The works in this release share a similar character. They have a powerful sound that seems timeless. Of special interest is Variations on a Theme by Frank Martin. Rosner admired Martin, another composer who created his own style. Martin's music is very much suited to Rosner's. The work sounds like a collaboration between the two. 

Rosner didn't totally ignore the Baroque period. He borrowed some forms from the era, albeit to rework them. The Concerto Grosso No. 2 is one such work. Here Rosner alternates ripieno tuttis with various melodic fragments. The fragments develop and coalesce in unexpected ways.  

A My Lai Elegy is Rosner at his best. His anger toward this massacre is palpable. And that anger fuels this composition. The work has some tutti outbursts that almost overwhelm the listener. Rosner's harmonies have a raw power to them. Here they unleash a fury of sound.      

The London Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Nick Palmer delivers committed performances. Rosner's music benefits from its powerful ensemble sound. And their ability to drop from fff to ppp in a heartbeat.   

All the works on this release are world premiere recordings. Arnold Rosner was a true individual. But one whose works can be readily enjoyed on first hearing. His music connects. It just needs an audience to connect to. Recordings like this help. 

Arnold Rosner: Orchestral Music, Volume Four
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Nick Palmer, conductor
Toccata Classics, TOPCC 0710

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Charles Villiers Stanford: Irish Song Cycles Return to Roots

I've often described Charles Villiers Stanford's music as Brahms with an Irish lilt. Stanford's Irish roots were never far from his musical inspiration. In this collection, those roots are front and center.

Stanford incorporates Irish melodic turns and harmonies into his songs. "Cushendall," from 1910 sets the poems of Ulster poet John Stevenson.  

"A Fire of Turf" comes from a collection by Winifred Letts. Letts was inspired by the Celtic Revival of the early 1900s. Stanford's music reinforces their cultural identity. 

"A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster" comes from that same collection. Rather than creating a song cycle, Stanford presents a series of stand-alone vignettes.

Stanford is often characterized as a stuffy Victorian, which is a little unfair. His "Blarney Ballads" of the 1890s are satirical songs. The broad humor shows another side of Stanford's personality. 

Also included are two songs from his opera "Shamus O'Brien." Stanford wanted to be known as an opera composer but without success.

Sharon Carty and Benjamin Russell give some fine performances. The "Irishness" of these songs varies from work to work. Carty and Russell hit just the right tone time after time. Russell's singing of the "Blarney Ballads," for example, borders on caricature. But his delivery of "A Fire of Turf" is effective and sincere.

A fine addition to Somm's survey of Stanford's music.

Charles Villiers Stanford: Cushendall
Irish Song Cycles
Sharon Carty mezzo-soprano; Benjamin Russell, baritone; Finghin Collins, piano
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0681

Friday, February 23, 2024

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth Week 3, 2024

Classical music originated in Western Europe, but it's not exclusive to dead, white European males. The challenge for February is to post videos of classical music either written or performed by musicians of color. 

There's a lot to choose from. I decided to focus on composers, but there are plenty of conductors and performers going back farther than you might think. Here are my posts for the third week of #BlackHistoryMonth 

02/19/24 Julia Perry: Prelude for Piano

Perry won two Guggenheim Fellowships and studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She was on the faculty of Florida A&M University, a historically black land-grant university.


02/20/24 James Lee III: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Orchestra

Lee studied with William Bolcom and Bright Sheng. He's currently on the faculty of Morgan State University. His Snfonia Concertante was written in 2017.


02/21/24 Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Sonata for Two Violins

Bologne was a virtuoso violinist as well as a composer. In the 1790s he was one of the most famous -- and popular -- musicians in Paris. 

02/22/24 Edmond Dédé: Two pieces for Piano

Dédé was a child prodigy. But as a free-born Creole in the antebellum South, opportunities were non-existent. He moved to France and became an important composer and opera conductor.


02/23/24 William Grant Still: Wood Notes

Still was a ground-breaking artist. He was the first Black to: conduct a major orchestra; have an opera performed on national TV; have a symphony played by a major orchestra; and have an opera performed by a major opera company.


Thursday, February 22, 2024

Chromosphere Explores Woodwind Orchestra's Potential

Let's be clear. A woodwind orchestra isn't a regular orchestra with the strings and brass removed. The Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble has 18 players. This lineup includes four sax players -- a rarity in a standard orchestra.

It's definitely a contemporary grouping of instruments. And this release presents grouping of contemporary British composers.

Judith Bingham is the most prominent of this group. Her work "Mozart's Pets" premiered in 2021. It's a lighthearted blend of instruments depicting animals with Mozart's music.

"Domes" by Kamran Ince is an entirely different kind of music. The work was originally written for orchestra in 1993. Ince reworked it for woodwind orchestra in 2022. He creates long, flowing lines with wavering dissonances. It's somber, ethereal, and thought-provoking.

The works by Keiron Anderson, Charlotte Harding, and Christopher Hussey are of similar quality. This isn't high school band music. These compositions use instrumental combinations in effective and imaginative ways.

These works are written at a level of complexity that engages the listener. And rewards multiple listening.  

Chromosphere: Symphonic Colors of the Woodwind Orchestra
Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble
Divine Art DDX 21117

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Argentinian Contemporary Music Takes Flight

Initially, the album title confused me. But "Alas" (as used here) isn't a lamentation. Rather, it's the Argentinian word for "wings." This release features music by Argentinian composers. And.these works do indeed take flight.

Alberto Ginastera is Argentina's greatest composer (or at least best-known). He's represented with his Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23. This work gives many instruments in the orchestra a place in the spotlight. And the musicians of Orchestre de Lutetia handle them deftly. 

The title track, "Alas" is also the most recent composition on the album. Gerardo Di Giusto's fantasy for violin, cello, and orchestra is a high-octane work. De Giusto uses traditional Argentinian dance rhythms to keep things moving. And they provide a sense of urgency throughout the composition.

Patrick Langot, cello, and Alexis Cardenas, violin make a fine team. They make the rhythms snap, and their playing has a fresh, raw sound. 

Langot is also featured on Alejandro Iglesias Rossi's Llorando silencios. This work for solo cello also incorporates many concepts of Argentinian music. , It makes for an effective showpiece. Langot's performance is assured and engaging.

Langot is also the soloist for Gabriel Sivak's Descaminos. This is a more contemporary work. Sivek uses masses of sound to create a mysterious world for the cello to explore. 

Four composers, four compositions. All are Argentinian, and that's really the only common denominator. Recommended.

Patrick Langot, cello; Alexis Cardenas, violin
Orchestre de Lutetia, Alejandro Sandler, conductor
Evidence Classics

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Richard Flury String Quartets of Interest

Toccata Classics previously released eight volumes of Richard Flury's music. These albums featured his orchestral music, choral works, and even an opera or two. 

This release begins a survey of his chamber music. It presents two of Flury's seven string quartets. He composed the first in 1926. No. 4 was written in 1940.

Flury was a Swiss composer and conductor. He studied composition with Hans Huber and Joseph Marx. He also studied conducting with Felix Weingartner. In 1931 he joined the faculty of the Solothurn Canton School. Flury remained there until his death. 

Flury composed steadily and prolifically. His seven string quartets span a half-century. No. 1 shows the 30-year-old composer finding his voice. 

It's an attractive work, with some modernisms thrown in. I could hear hints of Hindemith, Bartok, and even a little Schoenberg. But it's all mixed together in a well-constructed composition. And at no time does it sound derivative. 

By 1940 Flury had found his voice. And that voice spoke the language of the late Romantic period. In some ways, I think it's a stronger work. It seemed more relaxed, and more organic in its development. 

The Colla Parte Quartet delivers some fine readings of these works. Their playing is both animated and engaged. The quartet gives the impression that these works are fun to play. And that is not a bad thing.

Richard Flury: Chamber Music, Volume One
String Quartets, Nos. 1 and 4
Colla Parte Quartet
Toccata Classics TOCC 0712

Friday, February 16, 2024

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth Week 2 2024

Classical music originated in Western Europe, but it's not exclusive to dead, white European males. The challenge for February is to post videos of classical music either written or performed by musicians of color. 

There's a lot to choose from. I decided to focus on composers, but there are plenty of conductors and performers going back farther than you might think. 

Here are my posts for the second week of #BlackHistoryMonth

02/12/24 William L. Dawson: Soon Ah Will Be Done

Dawson arranged several African-American spirituals that quickly entered the choral repertoire. "Soon Ah Will Be Done" was written in 1934, when he was at Tuskegee Institute.


02/13/24 R. Nathaneil Dett: Ave Maria

Dett was born in Canada but spent most of his life in America. He was the first Black composer to join ASCAP. He's one of many American composers to study with Nadia Boulanger.


02/14/24 Jose White Lafitte: La Bella Cubana

Lafitte was a Cuban-French violin virtuoso active in the late 19th Century. Most of Lafitte's works were written for the violin.


02/15/24 Jessie Montgomery: Strum

Montgomery is a violinist as well as a composer. She's served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony and is on the board of Chamber Music America.


02/16/24 Undine Smith Moore: We Shall Walk Through the Valley

Moore is known as the "Dean of Black Women Composers." Much of her work was inspired by African-American spirituals and folk music.


Thursday, February 15, 2024

Solomiya Ivakhiv Masterfully Performs Ukrainian Sonatas

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Ivakhiv's playing since I reviewed her debut recordings. And I follow her on Facebook. So I know first-hand her work to get the music of her native land before new audiences.

Ivakhiv plays with a full, rich sound that often bristles with intensity. And perhaps never more so when she's playing music by Ukrainian composers.

The three composers represented here draw deep inspiration from Ukrainian culture. And Ivakhiv taps into that inspiration.

Seven Beck makes an able partner. I've always been impressed with his solo recordings and his work with Quattro Mani. He plays with energy and feeling, a perfect complement to Ivakhiv's performances.

"Masters" is an accurate word for these composers. Viktor Kosenko is one of the fathers of Ukrainian classical music. He melded classical traditions with Ukrainian folk music. His 1927 Violin Sonata is indeed a masterwork.

Myroslav Skoryk goes a step further. In addition to folk, he draws from jazz and pop for his musical creations. In the case of his 1991 Violin Sonata No. 2, he gives us a cheeky little work that's full of good humor and attitude.

Sergei Bortkiewicz's Violin Sonata in G minor is the most traditional-sounding of the three. His 1922 work has a Rachmaninov-like post-Romantic sound: lush and gorgeous.

Highly recommended.

Ukrainian Masters
Kosenko, Skoryk, Bortkiewicz
Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin; Steven Beck, piano
Naxos 8.579146

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Daniel Gortier Debuts With Favorites

This is Daniel Gortier's debut on Propero Classical. He presents his favorite Lyric Pieces by Edvard Grieg. And it makes quite a nice program -- and a strong debut.

Grieg wrote 66 of these short characteristic pieces. They were composed over 34 years and published in ten volumes. Some are among the best-known works by Grieg. And many are notoriously difficult.

Often pianists show off their technical expertise with the virtuoso-level selections. Gortier takes a different route. All twenty-one of the selections are favorites of the pianist. And many of those are easy to play.

But Gortler's purpose isn't to show off his chops. Rather, it's to express himself through these works. And that purpose elevates even the simplest pieces in this program. Gortier is a thoughtful performer. His playing is expressive and lyrical.

As recorded, the piano has a warm, rounded sound. It's well-suited to the music and Gortier's playing.

Gortier's put together an enjoyable program and a well-executed one.  

Edvard Grieg: Lyric Pieces
Daniel Gortler, piano
Prospero Classical PROSP0082

Friday, February 09, 2024

#ClassicsaDay #BlackHistoryMonth Week 1 2024

Classical music originated in Western Europe, but it's not exclusive to dead, white European males. The challenge for February is to post videos of classical music either written or performed by musicians of color. 

There's a lot to choose from. I decided to focus on composers, but there are plenty of conductors and performers going back farther than you might think. 

Here are my posts for the first week of #BlackHistoryMonth

02/04/24 Julia Perry: A Short Piece for Orchestra

Perry already had a strong reputation in Europe when she went to study with Nadia Boulanger. This 1952 work was written during that time.


02/05/24 Undine Smith Moore: Afro-American Suite for flute, cello, and piano

Moore based this suite on five traditional spirituals. It was premiered in 1969.


02/06/24 Rosamond Johnson: Lift Every Voice and Sing National Negro Hymn

James Weldon Johnson wrote the hymn "Lift Every Voice" in 1900. His brother Rosamond set it to music. It's since become the unofficial Black National Anthem.


02/07/24 Julius Eastman: Stay On It

Eastman used advanced aleatoric techniques with this work. It can be played by any combination of instruments. Musical cells can be repeated ad-lib, and players can jointly determine when to move from one section to the next.


02/08/24 Harry T. Burleigh: The Lord's Prayer

Burleigh studied with Antonin Dvorak and was renowned as a singer as well as a composer. Most of his works were for solo voice or choir.


Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Gerald Cohen: Voyagers Explores String Quartet Possibilities

What I like best about this release is the program. Gerald Cohen's three works all involve the string quartet -- but used in three very different ways. 

"Voyagers" was written for the 40th anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft launch. It quotes from a Beethoven string quartet, a Renaissance galliard, and an Indian raga. Cohen's original music ties these disparate sources together into a cohesive whole. 

Cohen uses the dark, resonant character of the clarinet and bass clarinet effectively. The instruments blend well with the string quartet. Together they create something that sounds homogeneous, yet exotic.  

The Cassatt String Quartet commissioned "Playing For Our Lives." That gives their performance here a degree of authority. It premiered in a concert of music by Holocaust victims. The work is a contemporary memorial to the musicians and composers murdered in the camps. 

Cohen reproduces all the emotions tied up in the music of Terezin. It meant temporary escape for the prisoners. It meant propaganda for the Nazis. It meant entertainment for the guards. And for the performing inmates, it meant another day of life (as the title suggests). 

Those conflicting emotions blend in a work that's sad and restless, with outbursts of rage. It's a powerful work. And it successfully memorializes the Holocaust experience of both survivors and victims. 

Cohen wrote the "Preludes and Debka" in 2001. The melody comes from the Sephardic tradition. Balancing the trombone against the string quartet is a challenge most composers avoid. Cohen bests the challenge masterfully. 

Part of his solution is to keep the trombone reigned in. Although it carries the bulk of the melodic content, it seldom plays at full volume. Cohen doesn't try to blend the brass instrument with the strings. Rather, he uses the opposing timbres to sharpen contrasts. 

Cohen's overall style is modernist but very accessible. This is contemporary music at its best. The composer created this music in response to the world he lives in. He used the language of his time. And he did so in a way that connects with contemporary audiences. And it's well-crafted, ensuring this music continues to connect with future audiences.

Gerald Cohen: Voyagers
Cassatt String Quartet
Narek Arutunian, clarinet and bass clarinet
Colin Williams, trombone

Friday, February 02, 2024

#ClassicsaDay #Classical1924 Week 5

 It's become an annual tradition. For the first month of the new year, the Classics a Day team looks back a century. So the challenge for January 2024 is to post performances of classical works that were either composed, premiered, or first recorded in 1924.

It turns out 1924 was a landmark year for classical music. Here are my posts for the fourth week of #Classical1924.

01/29/24 Edward Elgar: Arthur Suite

Elgar had composed incidental music for Laurence Binyon's "Arthur." Elgar created an orchestral suite from the score, which premiered in 1924.


01/30/24 Heitor Villa-Lobos: Choros No. 7

This was the third Choros Villa-Lobos composed. He completed it in Rio de Janeiro in 1924. The septet calls for flute, oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, violin, cello, and optional offstage tam-tam.


01/31/24 Bela Bartok: The Wooden Prince Suite, Op. 13

Bartok's musical pantomime premiered in 1917. Bartok was unsatisfied with the score and felt it had a lot of padding to accommodate the scenario. In 1923 he began work on a trimmed-down orchestral suite. He finished it in 1924.


Next month:

Thursday, February 01, 2024

A Century of American Viola Sonatas (sort of)

I like everything about this recording save the title. Because it isn't quite true. "A Century of American Viola Sonatas" does include viola sonatas written by Americans. 

But the earliest is Ulysses Kay's 1939 Sonatine. The latest are the sonatas by David Tcimpidis and Libby Larsen. Both date from 2004. So there's a 65-year span between the earliest sonata and the latest -- not a century.

And that 65-year survey is a little uneven. Ulysses Kay has two works, one from 1939 and the other from 1942. In addition to sonatas by Tcimpidis and Larsen, there's one by Eric Ewazen. His piece is from 1991. So two from the beginning, then a 49-year gap, then the remaining three.

Hardly the century-long survey the title suggested to me! But that's the only negative I have with the release. The works are all first-rate compositions. Kay's two works and Tcimpidi's sonata receive world recording premieres. All three are strong additions to the viola's repertoire. 

Both Larsen and Ewazen have solid reputations for music that connects with audiences. Their viola sonatas are no exception. Both have an immediate appeal that draws the listener in. 

The performances are also solid. Basil Vendryes plays with assurance and authority. Pianist William David makes every work seem like a collaboration. This raises the overall performance to a new level. 

This release isn't a survey. But it is a collection of American viola sonatas. And ones that are well-constructed and pleasingly performed. 

A Century of American Viola Sonatas
Basil Vendryes, viola
William David, piano
Toccata Classics TOCN 0026