Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


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The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.

Words Fail and Music Succeeds: Violinist Yevgeny Kutik


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Politics requires words and indeed fails at times but music very much succeeds in this fine recording.  This charming collection organized loosely around songs without words is the third album by this emerging artist.

The music is largely 20th to 21st century (if you count the date of the transcriptions) but the sound and mood of the album ranges from the romanticism of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, the post-romantic Mahler, to the neo-classicism of Prokofiev and a dash of modernism from Messiaen, Gandolfi, Andres, and Auerbach.  No words, no politics, just some really beautiful music.

There are 14 tracks of which the Mendelssohn and the Mahler will be the most familiar to listeners.  What is interesting here is a certain unity in these seemingly disparate works which range over nearly 200 years of compositional invention.  In fact this recital program strongly resembles in spirit the justly popular programs of Jascha Heifetz and his acolytes.  That is to say that this is at heart a romantic recital program sure to please any aficionado of the violin and piano genre.

Two of the tracks, those by Michael Gandolfi and Lera Auerbach are for solo violin.  The unaccompanied violin repertoire best represented by J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas is a relatively small one and one fraught with difficulties for composers as well as performers.  Fear not though, these pieces are well wrought and represent significant contributions to the solo violin literature.

The Gandolfi (1956- ) Arioso doloroso/Ecstatico (2016) was commissioned by Mr. Kutik and this is the world premiere recording.  The composer utilizes a basically romantic sounding style with clear references to Bach at moments to create a very satisfying piece imbued with depth but eminently listenable.  Gandolfi’s eclectic oeuvre is by itself worthy of further exploration.

Lera Auerbach’s (1973- ) T’Filah (2015) is a reverent (though not excessively somber) prayer written in memory of the victims of the Nazi holocaust.  Auerbach shares some Russian roots with the soloist and this brief composition will leave most listeners wanting to hear more from this fine and prolific composer.

Timo Andrés (1985- ) plays the piano on the eponymous track Words fail (2015), the second of the two works commissioned by Kutik and premiered on this disc.  He is a skilled composer using a wide variety of compositional and instrumental techniques (which he mentions in his liner notes) to create a sort of modern song without words that fits so well in this program.  Andrés is certainly among the rising stars both as composer and performer.

One should definitely pay attention to the fine work of Kutik’s accompanist John Novacek whose precision and interpretive skill so well compliment the soloist.  The art of the accompanist shines very clearly here.

Overall a great recital disc from a soloist from whom we will doubtless continue to hear great things.

Unheard Piano Trios, Chicago’s Lincoln Trio Finds Neglected Wonders


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The Lincoln Trio is a Chicago based piano trio (founded in 2003) consisting of Desiree Rushtrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano. Their choice of repertoire is particularly wide ranging and includes basically the entire history of the piano trio including contemporary works.  

The present (already Grammy nominated for chamber music performance) offering, titled “Trios from the Homelands” gives us readings of piano trios by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), and Frank Martin (1890-1974).  All are described as being outsiders whose work is little known outside of their native lands of, respectively, England, Armenia, and Switzerland.  

In many ways this recording is representative of the strengths of the Cedille imprint.  Attention to fine local musicians, a unique ear for truly interesting repertoire from a variety of time periods (largely 20th century), and high quality recording.  Whether or not these selections become incorporated into the common performing repertoire for piano trios is secondary to the fact that these selections are eminently listenable and entertaining.  They may very well find a place in many listeners’ playlists.

The first selection by Rebecca Clarke was premiered in 1922 (the oldest piece here) with none other than Dame Myra Hess at the keyboard.  Clarke’s music is hampered by gender prejudice but not by depth or talent.  This is a substantial work which is highly entertaining and contains material that continues to reveal wonders with repeated listenings.  There are three movements and the style is basically tonal, perhaps post romantic.  

Next is the trio by Arno Babajanian.  Most listeners (this reviewer included) have little exposure to Armenian classical composers outside of the Armenian derived works by the fine American composer Alan Hovhaness and perhaps some exposure to the truly wonderful work of Tigran Mansurian, the living ambassador and dean of Armenian composers.  On hearing this substantial Chamber work from 1952 listeners are alerted to the fact that there is much quality music that has seldom been heard outside of a country whose best known attribute at the present moment may rest largely on the 2015 centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide perpetrated at the hands of the Turks.  

The last piece is by the most familiar composer, Frank Martin.  Though not exactly a household name his oeuvre is the best documented in recordings even if his presence in the performing repertoire is still somewhat limited.  Martin is best known for some of his orchestral and choral music.  This “Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises” (1925) is described as a significant early example of the composer’s chamber music and the only work for piano trio.

As with the first two trios this is a substantial work whose three movements provide both technical challenges and very effective musical development.  This is not simply a pastiche of Irish tunes.  It is a very accomplished use of so called “popular” melodies to fashion major piece of chamber music.  

This disc is another fine entry into the Lincoln Trio’s recordings of lesser known repertoire that deserves at least a second hearing if not a promotion to more common live performances.  Their previous releases have included music by Joaquin Turina and a disc of music by women composers.  It would seem they are an ensemble that bears watching/listening.

David Rakowski: Stolen Moments, Fabulous New Orchestral Music


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The spirit of jazz and, in particular, that of Duke Ellington and perhaps George Gershwin seem ever present in this recent release from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  David Rakowski (1958- ) is a new voice to these ears but clearly a highly developed one well schooled in writing for large orchestra and for piano solo within that context as well.

Two works are presented here, the four movement Stolen Moments (2008/2010) and Piano Concerto No.2 (2011).  Both are large, colorful works in a basically tonal/romantic context but with clear modernist influence.  Nothing experimental here, just sumptuous orchestral writing and a challenging and interesting work for piano and orchestra.  It was only from reading the useful liner notes that I learned Rakowski had been a student of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), a composer famous for his hard nosed complexity.  In fact Rakowski actually quotes from Babbitt and this music is a tribute to the education received from this man (keep in mind that Babbitt also taught harmony to Stephen Sondheim).

It is as difficult to grasp that Rakowski was taught by Babbitt as it is to believe that, by his own assertion, he knows very little about jazz.  The first work seems to channel the spirits of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin more than Babbitt for sure.  This four movement orchestral suite, in it’s many moods, is melodic, jazzy and engaging in a way that can’t fail to entertain.

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Amy Briggs (image from the artist’s web site)

Amy Briggs has long been a collaborator with Rakowski and is an artist who has successfully made her career exclusively playing contemporary music.  This second of Rakowski’s concertos for this instrument was written for her and she plays it magnificently.  She clearly has a feel for the jazz rhythms and handles the virtuosic writing as though it were second nature.

The concerto ventures into a variety of moods and provides ample opportunities for many BMOP soloists to have their moments.  It is basically a classical three movement structure with multiple subdivisions within each movement.  These large movements come in at nearly 15 minutes each and are practically works unto themselves though they clearly adhere to the same basic vision.  The second movement is dedicated in memory of Rakowski’s teacher Milton Babbitt.  I’m sure he would have approved.

This is in fact the second time that Gil Rose and his massively talented musicians have chosen to survey some of Rakowski’s music.  That alone should be enough to clue listeners in to a potentially good listen.  Rose has been amassing a catalog of music by modern composers whose work deserves attention and, while this is an example of some pretty recent music, Rose and BMOP have done a fine job of giving attention to composers who have been unjustly neglected as well.   They seem to have a fine ear for quality music and this reviewer will listen to anything they choose to record.

As usual with BMOP, the recording is bright and lucid allowing the listener to hear the fantastic details in these big and intricate but entertaining works.  The production is by Gil Rose himself with recording and post-production by Joel Gordon.  Another great volume in the growing BMOP canon.

The Postcard Sessions, Saxophone and Piano


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Ravello RR 7934

 

It has always seemed to me that the saxophone has had a difficult time integrating into the mainstream of classical performance.  Since its invention by Adolphe Sax in the mid 19th century this family of instruments has amassed a somewhat limited solo repertoire and has only really made it as an orchestral instrument in the twentieth century.  The subsequent adoption of these instruments at the forefront of jazz and pop has forever changed the perception of this hybrid woodwind/reed/brass instrument which, for those who segregate musical genres, complicates matters even more.

It is the twentieth century that this album represents and it is the classical voice, not jazz or pop which speaks here.  This intelligently chosen set of pieces is like a little tour of the saxophone and piano literature representing some of the best of the early to mid twentieth century repertoire.  If that makes it a niche market then so be it, it is a lovely niche.

Now Robert Schumann (1810-1856), whose work opens this disc, is hardly a twentieth century composer but these transcriptions by Frederick Hemke (long time saxophonist of the Chicago Symphony and a highly respected teacher) are definitely contemporary and work well for saxophone and piano.  Drei Romanzen Op. 94  (1849) are originally for oboe and piano.

Tracks 4 and 11 contain pieces by Astor Piazolla (1921-1992), the Argentinian composer best known for his work with the tango forms.  Here we have two film music excerpts in apparent transcriptions.

There are four other sets of pieces on this recording by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958), Jean Francaix (1912-1987), Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) and Paule Maurice (1910-1967). The Vaughn Williams Folk Song Suite is originally for cello and piano and is vintage Vaughn Williams at his English folk song best.  The Ibert and the Francaix are suites of the sort of nervous, jazz inflected music that characterized an era between the wars.  Paule Maurice is a new name to this listener and the artists are to be commended for their part in saving her work from obscurity.

The Aeolian Song by Warren Benson (1924-2008) is probably one of the best known (and deservedly so) pieces on this disc.  This is actually the slow movement of a concertino for saxophone and orchestra but has become a sort of recital classic in its incarnation for saxophone and piano.

The Harrington/Loewen Duo are based in Canada and that may be their only flaw.  The curious but annoying lack of attention to the musicians who are our neighbors to the north is certainly mitigated to some degree by this release.  It is a lovely recital and the musicians are both committed and creative.  One hopes for another volume of recital pieces to follow this delightful release.

Lara Downes Making Magic at Noon in San Francisco


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Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco

A much needed light rain fell as I ventured out to hear Lara Downes play at the noontime concert series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.  I had just recently reviewed this artist’s new CD release (here) and I jumped at the opportunity to hear her live.

The trip from my home in Alameda to this venue, a distance of some 15 miles took me almost two hours.  Construction rules right now.  In the course of the concert Ms. Downes commented that it took her 45 minutes to get there from her hotel in San Francisco (no doubt less than 2 miles).

Being familiar with this trip I managed to arrive at about 12:15PM.  When I arrived I was a bit surprised to find a service in progress so I sat quietly observing this beautiful little church.  Though raised Catholic I haven’t ventured into a church in some years.  The experience did place a sort of spiritual context on my concert experience.

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Priest saying mass at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

The service ended a little after 12:30 and, after some of the congregants left I moved closer to the front.  Technicians moved the piano in place and Ms. Downes was introduced.

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Downes intensely focused as she plays Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces

She chose to open with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Op. 12 Fantasy Pieces Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 (1837).  I have but a passing knowledge of Schumann’s music.  It is highly virtuosic romanticism. Beautiful melodies, classical harmonies with just a dash of dissonance and a very high level of technical difficulty which characterizes these pieces.  Downes played them with confidence and ease seemingly casting a spell as she did.  She played the set without interruption and received much deserved applause from the somewhat sparse audience of perhaps 50 or so people.

She followed with a selection from her upcoming release America Again, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s (1875-1912) setting of the spiritual Deep River Op. 59 No. 10 (1905), one of a set of 24 so-called “Negro Melodies”. Coleridge-Taylor was a black British composer of the late 19th century sometimes referred to as the “African Mahler”.  This setting, very much in the same spirit as the Schumann was pretty much what one might have expected had Schumann encountered black spirituals.  This selection added again to the spiritual dimension.  Deep River is a majestic and celebratory piece which, like the Schumann, was well received.

Downes deviated from the printed program to play another selection from that forthcoming album, Morton Gould’s (1913-1996) American Caprice.  This short piece was a delightful foray into jazz reminding us of Gould’s connections with his contemporaries like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin.  Gould is a composer whose work deserves more attention and this listener is grateful to the artist for bringing this little masterpiece back into the light.

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Downes making Rhapsody in Blue sound anew.

In some ways this functioned like a precursor to the next piece on the program, Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) in the composer’s arrangement for solo piano. Downes, whose speaking was as comfortable and natural as her playing, asked the audience to try to hear this oh so familiar piece with new ears.  Indeed her fluid and dynamic playing put her own stamp on this popular gem and demonstrated again her seasoned virtuosity.  She played the work with passion but also with ease and confidence.

The ample applause and standing ovation brought her back for a wonderful encore.  It was Gershwin again for sure but this time in an amazing arrangement by Nina Simone (1933-2003) whose spirit seemed to be channeled by Downes.  “I loves you Porgy” from Porgy and Bess is featured on her new CD and it brought the afternoon to a very pleasing close.

I took the opportunity to meet and thank Ms. Downes who was, in turn, gracious and pleasant.  I went back out to the ordinary world charmed and invigorated and that is what I had hoped for.

 

Not Your Momma’s Theremin: Carolina Eyck’s Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet


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Butterscotch BSR-015 featuring cover art by Carolina Eyck

The Theremin, named after its inventor Leon Theremin (1896-1993), is an early electronic instrument which is controlled by the positioning of the performer’s hands in relation to two antennae.  One controls volume, the other pitch.  That’s it, a simple instrument but one which has had a tremendous impact on music and on the subsequent development of more sophisticated electronic instruments.  Perhaps it is best known for the brilliantly chilling effect created by Bernard Hermann’s use of it in his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).  Its subsequent appearance in the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations (1966) was a testament to the instrument’s durability.

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Lydia Kavina with Leon Theremin

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Clara Rockmore on her Bridge Records album

While several people, most notably Clara Rockmore (1911-1998) and Lydia Kavina (1967- ), have performed as soloists with the instrument it seems to have remained a niche phenomenon as a solo instrument.  This release by Carolina Eyck (1987- ) appears to begin a new era (or at least wider niche). Eyck is a gifted composer as well as a virtuoso and she uses a modified instrument, apparently with midi controlling capabilities (she uses an instrument made by Robert Moog of Moog Synthesizer fame). Many composers have also written new works for her Including Kalevi Aho whose Concerto for Theremin and Orchestra has been recorded by its dedicatee.  Lydia Kavina was a protege of Leon Theremin as well as Eyck’s first teacher thus creating an unbroken musical lineage.  This youngest practitioner now leads the way to the next generation of performance and composition for this 1919 invention.

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Recent photo of Lydia Kavina at a concert

The present release Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet (2016) is Eyck’s ninth album in eight years.  I have not heard the previous eight albums but after hearing this one I do plan to seek them out.  The works presented here showcase both virtuosity and compositional invention of a high level.  I have enjoyed this album immensely.

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Carolina Eyck in performance (from Wikipedia)

The six works on this disc have a post-minimal/impressionistic quality and do much to showcase the vocal like qualities of the instrument as well as the extended capabilities of Eyck’s customized personal choice of instrument.  She is accompanied here by the string quartet of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) consisting of Caroline Shaw and Ben Russell, violins; Caleb Burhans, viola; and Clarice Jensen, cello.  They play beautifully together.

There is an “essay” by recording engineer Allen Farmelo which goes more into the conceptual context of the recording than the music.  Much is made of this disc being conceived for (vinyl) LP though it has not been issued as such as far as I can tell.  (Correction:  It has been brought to my attention that this recording is available on vinyl) The recording is lucid and listener friendly and the “LP” concept might explain why this disc is shorter than the average CD.  It is, despite its brevity, a lovely production and well worth your time.  Eyck, who also created the beautiful cover art, is an interesting artist at the beginnings of what looks like a great career as both composer and performer.