Jeremy Gill: Before the Wresting Tides


BMOP 1055

In this writer’s mind there are two types of releases on the BMOP label. Discs with music or at least composers that have some familiarity to these ears and discs of unfamiliar composers.  This disc fits into the latter category.  Jeremy Gill is a new name to these ears but he is hardly new on the scene with at least 3 or 4 CDs already out devoted mostly to his chamber music.

This disc then will give the listener an idea of how well Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project choose and subsequently perform less familiar new music.  There is a lot of music out there and it takes a special ear to choose wisely such that one can expect a given release to keep its place among the other well chosen music that makes up the BMOP label’s catalog.  It would appear that this was and will remain a wise choice.  Three works are presented in chronological order of their composition.

The first is the title work, Before the Wresting Tides (2012), a choral fantasy setting a poem by American poet Hart Crane (1899-1932).  This was written specifically to function as a companion piece for Beethoven’s rarely performed Choral Fantasy Op. 80 (ca. 1808).  This work shares a similar orchestration and formal plan.  There is an obligatto piano solo written for Gill’s friend and colleague Ching-Yun Hu, a large orchestra, chorus, and vocal solos.  All of this fits into a compact 16 minutes or so.  It is decidedly more modern in orchestration and harmony than Beethoven’s work but it shares a virtuosic piano part, lyrical melodies, and marvelously efficient setting of the text handled beautifully by the Marsh Chapel Choir under Scott Allen Jarrett.  There is a lot going on here but I can’t imagine an audience being anything but entertained by this rather bombastic companion which one hopes will continue to be performed alongside the Beethoven model bringing both works to modern ears.

The second work is titled Serenada Concertante (2013) for oboe and orchestra.  It is sort of an enlarged oboe concerto.  The soloist, Erin Hannigan demonstrates the virtuosic and lyric skills that seem to be endemic to this entire orchestra.  Gill’s writing makes large romantic gestures with plenty of painfully virtuosic opportunities (handled beautifully) for the soloist and the various soli and duettini which occur in the course of this full blown concerto.  The composer’s ability to utilize such a large orchestra yet still produce lucid textures is a mark of genius and, no doubt, one of the reasons that Gill’s music was chosen for this series of recordings.

Our finale is another concerto of sorts, the Notturno Concertante (2014) for clarinet and orchestra.  Again we hear an amazing soloist, Chris Grymes, on clarinet.  Again we hear amazing virtuosity and lyricism played against a large and lucid orchestral fabric.  Very satisfying music for both audience and orchestra.  It is clearly a workout for orchestra, soloist, and conductor but the energies expended produce a very satisfying result.

Whether or not Jeremy Gill winds up being a household name, one of the brightest lights of the 21st century remains to be seen but this is an auspicious release.  This largely romantic sounding composer also seems to have a curiously “American” sound which harkens to the likes of William Schuman, David Diamond, and, well choose your own favorite mid-twentieth century American master after you hear this.  Well done.


Classical Protest Music: Frederic Rzewski- The People United Will Never Be Defeated

In an earlier post (Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries, posted on March 20, 2013) I discussed a project in which I would identify what I have deemed significant works in this genre.  I have decided to narrow the topic to those works which are inspired by or are intended to express dissatisfaction with given sociopolitical issues.  This will then leave out works which are friendly to the political situation such as Aaron Copland‘s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. These are both great pieces of music but their presentation is more celebratory than critical.

Dag in de Branding 11 - Frederic Rzewski

Dag in de Branding 11 – Frederic Rzewski (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

So without further discussion (a proposed taxonomy of classical political music will be discussed in a future blog post) I wish to present another blog in that series.  The work up for discussion is the large set of piano variations composed in 1976 for the pianist Ursula Oppens.  Rzewski is well known for his virtuosity and for his support of and definitive performances of new music.  He is also known for quite a bit of music with political themes.  Some of those other works  will likely be the subjects of future posts in this series.

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rzewski took as his starting point a popular song by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), a Chilean composer and pianist.  He wrote the song in 1973 with lyrics written by members of the musical group Quilapayún who subsequently recorded it.  Quilapayún recorded no less than 26 studio albums from 1966-2009 along with several live albums.  They are a part of the Nueva Canción Chilena which sought political change through new songs defining those changes.  The Nueva Canción movement became a subset of Latin American and Iberian folk-inspired protest music which saw groups form worldwide producing songs which became part of the soundtrack of political protests in those various countries.

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo ...

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo Inti-Illimani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the 1973 coup which deposed and likely assassinated Salvador Allende the song was popularized also by another Chilean group, Inti-Illimani.  Both groups along with many political dissidents sought and found asylum in other countries.  Inti-Illimani found refuge in Italy, Ortega and Quilapayún settled in France.

This major opus was written on commission for Ursula Oppens who asked for a companion to the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, certainly a tall order.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 no doubt inspired at least in part by the 1973 coup which deposed Salvador Allende and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet.  The piece consists of 36 variations grouped in 6 sets of 6 variations each.  In a nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations the final variation is a restatement of the theme.  In addition to the main theme there are quotations from an Italian socialist song, “Bandiera Rossa” and “Solidarity Song” with words by Bertold Brecht and music by Rzewski’s former teacher, Hanns Eisler.

Oppens premiered the piece on February 7, 1976 at the Bicentennial Piano Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington, D.C.  She made a grammy nominated recording of the work in 1979 and the piece has enjoyed numerous subsequent performances and recordings.

The piece is structured symmetrically in six sets of six variations each.  It also allows for a bit of improvisation.  But this is an eminently listeninable piece which seems rightfully to be gaining its place in the repertoire.  This is evidenced most recently in Sony’s decision to include this set of variations along with those of Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) in a boxed set which I reviewed here.

Rzewski himself has recorded the piece four times (1977, 1990, 1999 and 2007).  The last recording is a video of the performance. Having seen Rzewski perform this piece live in 1989 I can tell you that his performance is a pleasure to behold.

Several other pianists have released recordings (not counting several good ones on You Tube) including Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Drury, Kai Schumacher,  I look forward to other recordings hoping to hear interpretations from Sarah Cahill, Bruce Brubaker, Lisa Moore, R. Andrew Lee and Nicolas Horvath to name a few.

Whether this work had any impact on the atrocities of the repressive Pinochet regime is certainly doubtful but the fact that this piece has essentially entered the repertoire for virtuoso pianists and stands as a monumental achievement in the variation form will pretty much guarantee that the atrocities and their perpetrators will be recalled and hopefully reviled at each and every performance.

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The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski



Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection.  To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.

Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one  of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes.  A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance.  The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.

So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia.  The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request.  The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.

It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public.  The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.

Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten.  Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.

Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety.  Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists.  It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.

In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations.  Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976.  Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven.  He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.

Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende.  Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.

There are  36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times.  Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.

This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th.  Bravo, Sony!

The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.

I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps.  His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire.  What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances.  There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.

In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general.  Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent  their composers as well as any I’ve heard.


Music by Gerhard Schedl, a New Recording by the Walden Chamber Players

Suicide, the artificial ending to a life is an inscrutable act, especially so when it takes the life of a talented individual.  So it is with Austrian composer Gerhard Schedl whose life was ended by his own hand in 2001.  I had never heard of this man and his work and I always welcome the opportunity to hear music new to my ears and such an opportunity presented itself recently.

By good fortune and the kindness of cellist and current artistic director Ashima Scripp I received a copy of the Walden Chamber Players latest CD: ‘A Voice Gone Silent too Soon: The Music of Gerhard Schedl.  The disc contains 4 chamber works for various combinations of strings, piano and clarinet.schedl

As it happens I had not been familiar with this ensemble before either so a word about them would seem to be appropriate.  Founded in 1997 this flexible sized ensemble consists of eleven musicians including strings, piano, harp and woodwinds.  The musicians are all highly accomplished and most are on faculty at area Universities.  Their choice of repertoire distinguishes them as they seem to choose new and/or lesser known music that the musicians feel deserve a hearing and hopefully a wider audience.  Their fascinating catalog at the time of this writing consists of 6 discs and includes music by Beethoven, Debussy, Vaughn Williams, Francaix, Gubaidulina and Reger to name a few.

When they choose Beethoven they choose the seldom played string trios and their other choices seem to involve late romantic and early 20th Century composers with a focus on pieces that are little known and rarely played.  From what I have heard they bring a real passion to their performances.  In addition they have a variety of educational and outreach programs that serve to increase interest in chamber music and support new artists in playing this repertoire.

Now to the disc at hand.  At first I did what I usually do after a quick read of the liner notes.  I put the CD in my car stereo to begin some relatively casual listening so I can begin to form some initial impressions.  However this is music of wide dynamic range and some of the most beautiful moments are the quieter ones so I found that it is best heard in a quiet environment and preferably with headphones.  Most of the gestures in this music are the familiar sounds of chamber music.  The music is sometimes melodic, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic.  Schedl seems to be a sort of modern post-romantic who is well-schooled in what a chamber ensemble can do and is apparently influenced by the expressionism of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as well as by Mahler, Debussy and perhaps Messiaen.  This being said his music does not actually resemble any of these influences too strongly.  The music is rarely dissonant but there are grand fortissimo gestures as well as glissandi and what sounds like some playing inside the piano and some extended techniques which my ears could not identify with certainty.  But this is not what I would call “experimental music”.  Indeed the music sounds very well planned with an ear for subtleties that the ensemble lovingly interprets.  It sounds like this music is as enjoyable to play as it is to hear.  Though virtuosic it is also expressive if agonized at times and the recording is fantastic.

The first piece, String Trio (1991) for violin, viola and cello is in three movements.  I did not find the tempi descriptions particularly useful as a listener since this composer’s music seems to sustain a variety of tempi and expression within each movement.  Inevitably comparisons to Schoenberg, Webern and perhaps Ernst Krenek will come to mind and it is difficult to predict this piece to stand with those models but it definitely bears additional hearings and would be welcome on any good chamber music program.

The next piece, “A Due”, a Duo for Violin and Cello (2000) is from the last year of the composer’s life.  It is in four movements and is the most angst ridden of the pieces on the disc.  This combination of instruments is relatively rare.  I personally know only the Ravel duo which resembles this piece though that is largely due to the instrumentation, not the style.  This is a concentrated and deeply felt piece which seems to reflect some painful emotions.  Here I am reminded more of Webern and perhaps Wolfgang Rihm with their spare textures and emphatic fortissimi amidst the quieter moments.   As with all the pieces on this disc the execution reflects the intense concentration and dedication of the musicians.

The five movement, “A Tre” for clarinet, violin and piano of 1984 is the earliest composition here.  It comes as a welcome relief emotionally from the previous “A Due”.  This is by far the most whimsical of the pieces featured on this album.  It has an almost orchestral feel to it at times.  Multiple techniques (and, no doubt, careful execution) result in textures that are sometimes rather expansive.  Shades of Messiaen appear to be present sometimes.  They contrast with the more chamber music like gestures familiar from the previous works.

The disc concludes with the 1996-7 “A Cinque” for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano.  It is a very serious post-romantic, even neo-classical take on the quintet format.  The piece consists of three movements.  The first two are serious but not terribly dark and showcase the ensemble well.  The last, an adagio, has a sadness mixed with nostalgia that reminds this listener of Mahler. There are none of the abrupt dynamic changes heard in the previous works on this CD, only a soft and gentle ending.

If you enjoy well-performed and recorded chamber music and are interested in exploring something besides the old war horses of the standard repertoire then this disc is for you.  Multiple listenings reveal more detail about the pieces and make this writer curious about this man’s work for larger ensembles as well.

Thank you Walden Chamber Players for a wonderful CD.  I look forward to hearing more from this fine and adventurous ensemble.