Duo Stephanie and Saar: Bach Art of Fugue


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New Focus Recordings FCR 181

One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance.  Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.

There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra.  It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few.  In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice.  Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.

Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript.  In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity.  Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision.  They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon.  As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.

Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer.  However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art.  Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way.  This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.

Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music.  The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate.  Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work.  And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era.  Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.

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Exploding Debussy, Kathleen Supové


New Focus FCR 170

Increasingly it seems that new music performers take on a persona which includes a unique selection of repertoire and frequently a distinctive physical presence.  Kathleen Supové is a fine example.  Her distinctive physical appearance and attire becomes a metaphor for her very personal and intelligent choice of repertoire which sets her apart from her peers.  In addition to unquestioned virtuosity and beautiful interpretive skills her persona takes on an adjectival quality which prompts this reviewer to ponder the “Supovian” experience.


I may live to regret that neologism but the present album is offered as exhibit one (of about 20 albums) attesting to the distinctive choices of music that characterize her work.  This two disc album, The Debussy Effect, is a very modern homage (even sometimes with apologies) to the impressionist master.  Twelve tracks on the two discs feature seven contemporary composers.  Only three tracks are for solo piano.  The rest involve electronic enhancements and or “soundtracks”.

Initially I had hoped to be able to say something useful (if not particularly insightful) to prospective listeners/buyers of this album about each of the pieces here but after several listens I can only reliably say that the material makes for a great and entertaining listening experience.  It harbors complexities that cannot be fairly recounted in such a brief review.  (And this reviewer has a limited knowledge of Debussy as well.)

Here are works by some of the finest of the New York “downtown” music traditions that reflect some amazing and very deep appreciations that will likely change the way you hear Debussy.

Here is the track list:

Disc One

1.  Storefront Diva: a dreamscape by Joan La Barbara

2.  Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell by Matt Marks

3.  Layerings 3 by Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark

4.  What Remains of a Rembrandt by Randall Woolf

Disc Two

1-4.  Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind by Annie Gosfield

5-7.  Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld

8. La plus que plus que lente by Jacob Cooper

All are engineered by the wonderful Sheldon Steiger for the New Focus recordings label.

So the take away here is as follows:  If you are a Debussy fan you will want to hear this album.  If you are a Kathleen Supové fan you will want to hear this album.  It is the second reason the seems the most salient here.  I expect to be listening to this many more times.  Enjoy.

 

Ken Thomson’s Restless: a Feast of New Chamber Music


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Ken Thomson is one of the rapidly rising stars of the New York music scene and beyond. His involvement with his group Slow/Fast which includes Ken Thomson, Russ Johnson, Nir Felder, Adam Armstrong and Fred Kennedy as well as Bang on a Can and others in the new music/new jazz community demonstrates his level of drive.  Thomson is a saxophone player and a composer.

The present album showcases his talents as a composer and are different than what I had expected from a musician with roots in free jazz and with saxophone as his principal instrument.  This is a set of two suites in the classical manner, a collection of movements. They do not appear to have any direct influence from jazz but rather they are quite clearly in a classical new music vein.

The first, Restless (2014) is a four movement piece for cello and piano.  It could have been called a sonata for all its complexity and development.  It is a lyrical and very listenable piece which is restless at times (though I think the title actually suggests multiple meanings) and loaded with fascinating musical ideas.  The writing for both the cello and the piano are apparently technically challenging but both are handled very well by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano).  This disc is worth the price if only for the fantastic musicianship of these performers.

ashleybathgate-karllarson_photo1_photographer_gabrielgomez

Ashley Bathgate (cellist) and Karl Larson (pianist) (Photo by Gabriel Gomez, all rights reserved)

The three movement suite, Me vs. (2012) is a pianistic tour de force that makes great use of various pianistic effects involving judicious use of the sustain pedal and the creation of after image type effects which allow the harmonics to vibrate on strings not struck by the keys.  Again the nod to a basic three movement classical piano sonata with a complex first movement followed by a lyrical slow movement and a spritely virtuosic finale which resembles a moto perpetuo.

More about the internal dialogue that went on in the composer’s head is available in his commentary but this music doesn’t really require much explanation.  It is pretty clear and very effective music.  This is simply a wonderful recording of some fascinating new music.

Poems to Sing at Night, New Piano Music by Brian Buch


buch

This is the second album by composer/pianist Brian Buch.  He holds a B.M. in composition with emphasis in piano performance from Indiana University and a Doctorate from Boston University.

He studied composition with a variety of notable teachers including Don Freund, P.Q. Phan, Sven-David Sandstrøm, Nancy van de Vate, Sam Headrick and Richard Cornell.  He lists his mentor as Alla Cohen, a name unfamiliar to this writer but no doubt a significant teacher and composer.

This album was released in 2015 and contains tracks comprising 5 compositions with multiple movements.  These represent a small portion of his output which apparently includes music for various ensembles including vocal, orchestral and chamber music.  All the pieces on the present album were written between 2014 and 2015.

These seem to be very personal pieces and the poetic titles reflect a sort of post-romantic style reminiscent of Bartok and Scriabin and perhaps even Debussy. This music benefits from multiple hearings and his performances are engaging and, no doubt, definitive. His muscular and assertive playing matches the poetic intensity of the music.

Poems to Sing at Night 1 and 2 both have poems which are to be recited before each performance though that is not done on the recording for some reason.  Both pieces are in four distinct movements while all the others are in three movements.

One hears jazz and classical influences here and the medium is basically tonal.He is not afraid of dissonance and unusual harmonies but the listener need not fear either because the music is always listenable.

John Weston recorded and engineered this album which was recorded in April, 2015 at the Futura Studios in Roslindale, MA.  The sound is warm and lucid.

In some ways this album seems to hearken back to the romantic composer/performer of the 19th century with its very personal style and poetic rather than classical forms.  This young man (b. 1984) has established and is developing a very personal style which bears watching/listening.  Very enjoyable album.