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Category: classical music

A Colorful, Counterintuitive World Premiere Organ Recording of a Famous Symphony

Every year throughout October, this blog runs a monthlong Halloween celebration of dark music. Much as it’s always fun to think outside the box and include styles that wouldn’t normally be associated with a day of the dead, it’s just as much fun to revisit familiar idioms, and one of those is classical organ music. But today’s album is an especially colorful piece, organist Thilo Muster‘s world premiere recording of Eberhard Klotz’s transcription of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, streaming at Spotify.

Beginning around two centuries ago and for many decades afterward, it was common for European organists to play music written for symphony orchestra, for audiences in small or rural communities who couldn’t make it to the big city to see the genuine item. But this one is special: it’s arguably better than the original, and wouldn’t be out of place in the Charles Widor catalog. Klotz’s transcription is noteworthy for its translucence: themes never get subsumed in bluster. Muster plays with dynamism amid steady pacing, his registrations taking full advantage of the wide, French-toned palette of the organ at the Eglise St-Martin in Dudelange, Luxembourg. Anton Bruckner, who for years made his living as a church organist and earned a reputation as a brilliant improviser, would no doubt approve.

It’s an unfinished symphony: the composer died three movements in. The first rises to a rather cheery, airily anthemic sway, then at the change to minor, Muster pulls out the stops and the effect is breathtaking. A cuckoo phrase over a gentle march gets spun in stately style through a series of increasingly serious variations, stern peaks, calmer valleys and tidal atmospherics. Muster really takes his time after a full stop as the long upward trajectory continues: this is scenic ride, and he wants everybody to be looking out the window.

Muster masterfully alternates a cheery strut with a big, puffy pulse as the second movement gets underway, up to the mighty, torrential Russian dance coda. He pulls back but keeps a matter-of-fact drive going in movement three – the closest thing we have to a conclusion. It’s more of an energetic stroll than a march; likewise, the volleys of eighth notes at the peak are a swirl rather than a torrent, setting up the descent into calm, wistful reflection.

Distantly Melancholy, Catchy, Profoundly Relevant New Symphonic Themes From Max Richter

Although pianist and composer Max Richter’s new album Exiles – streaming at Spotify – is built around a suite that reflects on the trans-Mediterranean refugee crisis which reached horror pitch starting in the mid-teens, not all of it is dark. And when it is, it’s distantly melancholic rather than outright morbid. He supplies the piano and keys here, joined with elegance and lushness by the Baltic Sea Philharmonic under the baton of Kristjan Järvi.

Richter’s themes are as translucent as they are lush – he knows that even reduced to most succinct terms, a hook is still a hook and this album is full of hum-alongs. Henryk Gorecki is a persistent influence here, as is Steve Reich in places. Yann Tiersen‘s more ambitious work also comes to mind frequently as well.

The Haunted Ocean serves as a brief curtain-lifter with its ominously atmospheric, shifting sheets. Infra 5 strongly evokes Gorecki’s iconic Symphony No.3, although this comes across as more of a study in wave motion than a cavatina, as the orchestra follow a long upward trajectory. It ends suddenly and completely unresolved – just like the refugee crisis?

Flowers of Herself, written to reflect a Mrs. Dalloway-like bustle, has a brightly circling, Reichian atmosphere. On the Nature of Daylight comes across as a more incisive variation on the album’s second piece, a resolute violin leading an understated, subtle counterpoint.

Richter plays a simple, chiming four-chord sequence to open the album’s title suite, the strings drifting behind him at a much slower pace. Where one refugee goes, so goes the world, just more slowly? Let that sink in for a moment. Calmly and airily, with an increasingly defiant, striding rhythm, Richter does that at symphonic proportions.

Trio Karénine Play Transformative Music For a Transformative Time

We are in the midst of a shift of ages, watching the final ugly convulsions of centuries-old systems of repression and murder as they self-destruct. To paraphrase Dr. David Martin, the global totalitarians are the brontosaurus that ate itself out of existence since its pea brain couldn’t adapt. At such a transformative time in history, there’s plenty of music to inspire us as we find our way out of the wreckage and regroup. One particularly timely recording is Trio Karénine‘s imaginative version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, from their latest album La Nuit Transfigurée, streaming at Soundcloud.

This group’s take of the piano trio transcription by Eduard Steuermann is an eye-opener. Pianist Paloma Kouider sets an understatedly crushing funereal mood to introduce the first movement, violinist Fanny Robilliard leading the troubled upward drive, cellist Louis Rodde a disquietingly lingering presence. The trio’s gusty but minutely attuned attack lures the inner, surrealist beast out of its comfortable lair in the second movement.

They give movement three a more strikingly emphatic ache, only to watch it sepulchrally flit away. The thread loosens with Kouider’s Romantic glitter and the strings’ matter-of-fact counterpoint in the fourth movement, setting the stage for a wistful if guardedly forward-looking conclusion that fits in alongside the composer’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

The album’s first piece is Liszt’s Tristia, a transcription from his suite Années de Pèlerinage. The sparseness and wounded restraint are stunning, particularly Kouider’s muted, chromatically chilling pedalpoint behind Rodde’s plaintive solo and then the strings’ understatedly conjoined angst. Likewise, the sudden descent from a stately (some might say cliched) pavane into increasingly explosive torment on the wings of the violin and Kouider’s eerily twinkling riffs. In context, the homey sentimentality of the finale comes as a real surprise.

The group also follow a matter-of-fact, dynamically sensitive but also playfully jaunty trajectory through Schumann’s Studies in Canonic Form, op.56

Keeping the Great British Tradition of Choral Music Alive

For today’s installment of this month’s daily celebration of dark music, what could be more appropriate than a spare, elegaic Ukrainian choral work titled Kontaktion of the Dead? Or a haunting suite for choir and organ dedicated to the millions murdered by Axis evil in World War II? That piece is Maurice Durufle’s Requiem: both appear on today’s album, Remembrance, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, recorded six years ago and still streaning at Spotify.

This may be the work of a student ensemble, but they are no ordinary group of college kids. Under the leadership of Graham Ross, this rotating cast of young choral talent have released a series of awardwinning records. They sing repertoire from the Middle Ages to the present day. Some group members go on to careers as professional singers, others take fond memories of their days as Cambridge choristers elsewhere.

Organist Matthew Jorysz provides delicately circling ambience as the men pulse amid the women’s lustre to introduce the requiem. This version is much more ghostly than the full symphonic arrangement (the New York Choral Society sang a rich, saturnine version at Carnegie Hall in February of 2017). The organ and women of the choir fuel the big crescendo in the second movement. The imploring intensity but also the lingering ghostliness of the third are stunning, with bass chorister Neal Davies taking a solo turn as the organ grows more ominous.

Hazy ambience turns blustery and bracing; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston hits anguished peaks and then fades down to Guy Johnston’s cello. The terseness of this arrangement is srriking, the composer often putting the women’s voices front and center in gently lilting, consoling melodies. Macabre echoes of the war linger in the organ melodies of the concluding movements: restraint, but also seething anger.

The album opens with the fleeting, stately Call to Remembrance, attributed to 16th century British composer Richard Farrant, followed by the somber, hypnotic waves of Thomas Tomkins’ early 17th century setting of the hymn When David Heard. A possibly earlier version, by Thomas Weelkes has much more of an upbeat sway.

Remaining in the 17th century, the group cut loose with symphonic intensity and dynamics in Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen. Ross’ world premiere arrangement of Abide with Me offers momentary calm and optimism. The other 20th century works here include John Tavener’s Song for Athene, a muted, brooding farewell for a friend and two William Harris pieces, the first with more lively, tricky changes.

An Iconic Horror Film For the Ears

What better to kick off this year’s annual October-long Halloween celebration of dark music than one of the alltime great horror movies for the ears? Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1936, when he first earned the wrath of Josef Stalin for daring to create interesting and relevant music that didn’t glorify the genocidal Soviet regime.

Sound familiar?

Censorship and totalitarianism existed long before the lockdown, the needle of death, Facebook and Google. The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was pressured not to premiere the symphony, which wouldn’t see the light of day until 1961. The composer reputedly called it his favorite.

As political satire, it’s one of the most withering pieces of music ever written. It’s a mashup of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Schoenberg, but more venomously political than anything any of those composers ever wrote. There’s a spellbinding live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, streaming at Spotify, that you should hear if you can handle savagely troubled music right now.

This particular album is taken from two concerts at the Barbican in November 2018. Noseda’s dynamics are vast and dramatic to the extreme, as they should be. Whether explosive, or shuddering with horror, or ruthlessly parodying Stalin’s campy pageantry, the orchestra are a force of nature.

The first movement comes in with a shriek, a pulsing post-Sacre du Printemps dance of death and all kinds of foreshadowing of how Shostakovich would expand on this kind of phantasmagoria, far more politically. All the strongman themes in Shostakovich’s symphonies, from the third on, are phony: he never lets a tyrant, whether Stalin or Krushchev, off the hook.

Coy cartoons suddenly appear livesize and lethal. This is a cautionary tale, the composer telling us not to take our eye off the ball, or else. A rite of the dead of winter, intertwined with terrified individual voices, rises to a vicious crescendo. The first of many references to Anitra’s Dance, the Grieg theme, appears. Concertmaster Roman Sinovic and bassoonist Rachel Gough become plaintive and persistent witnesses to history.

Movement two is nothing less than an indictment, a sometimes ghostly, pervasively anxious waltz wafting in and out, the ruthlessness of the regime baring its fangs to a terrorized citizenry. The concluding third movement begins too casual to be true, as the orchestra calmly allude to another macabre Russian classic, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The chase scene early on doesn’t have quite the horror of the KGB pursuit theme in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but it’s close.

The ensemble offer a twisted parody of a Germanic minuet as a spitball at the entitled Russian collaborator classes, Noseda getting maximum cynical gossipy fervor out of the strings. Stormtroopers gather and wreak havoc, the orchestra building a devastatingly phantasmagorical parody of Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Clashes of ideologies, musical and otherwise, grow more combatively surreal. The seemingly ineluctable, gruesome march out doesn’t get to fade down without a series of accusatory ghosts.

As with all of Shostakovich, there are innumerable other details that could take up ten more pages to chronicle: buckle up for this carnival of dead souls. The London Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of live albums comprise some incredible performances and this might be the very best of recent years.

A Carefully Crafted Recording of the Schubert Octet to Give Us Solace in Troubled Times

Until the lockdown, Franz Schubert’s Octet had been a staple of the classical concert repertoire for more than a century. But it wasn’t popular at the time it was written. Reviews of the 1827 premiere were not positive, and it wasn’t revived in concert until more than thirty years later. Let that endurance inspire us in our own struggles to return all the way back to normal. In the meantime, there’s a meticulous, insightful recording featuring the Modigliani String Quartet streaming at Spotify to inspire us.

As the album liner notes conclude, is the Octet an awakening of “A poetic language, in which exuberance and despair meet?” Until the end, there’s far less outright revelry than courtly conviviality, and a recurrent if distant sense of any attainable happiness slipping away. When he wrote this, Schubert was already battling the illness that would eventually kill him.

He nicks the principal opening theme from his song Der Wanderer, Sabine Meyer’s wistful clarinet signaling the suite’s first shift and then serving as a foil, more or less, to the increasingly warmer, elegantly pulsing atmosphere. Listen closely and you’ll hear a moody tarantella bubble to the surface, and then approximations of a harpsichord from the quartet: violinists Amaury Coetaux and Loic Rio, violist Laurent Marfaing and cellist François Kieffer. Very clever.

This ensemble – which also includes Bruno Schneider on horn, Dag Jensen on bassoon and Knut Erik Sundquist on bass – really bring the lights down for the nocturnal second movement. The third is also on the muted side even as the rhythms pick up. Horn and bassoon move closer to the sonic center amid the lustre of the fourth movement until Meyer returns, unwaveringly in character.

Movement six’s minuet has an especially delicate quality, the strings often stark against the wind instruments rather than simply building luxuriant atmosphere. The rattle of Kieffer’s foreshadowing beneath the wafting, distantly cautionary melody as the conclusion gathers steam is a refreshingly dynamic touch. After teasing the listener with a Beethovenesque series of false endings, the ensemble wrap it up in a cheery ball at the end.

And the quartetalso have a new album of Bartok, Mozart and Haydn works.

A Neglected Russian Romantic Orchestral Treasure From Pianist Irena Portenko

While the heroes of last year’s lockdown were working long hours at hospitals where staff had been cut by fifty percent in order to engineer the illusion of a crisis, there was a much humbler kind of triage going on at this blog: sorting out the equally imperiled digital part of a constantly growing archive. A brief listen revealed that one album which had slipped through the cracks and didn’t deserve that fate was pianist Irena Portenko‘s 2016 performance of Prokofiev and Tschaikovsky concertos with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko. The recording quality of the album, Versus – streaming at Spotify – is very old-world: for a digital production, the sound is very contiguous, in the spirit of a vinyl record. This is the kind of album that you can listen to over and over again and discover something new every time.

The balmy, Debussyesque introduction to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 offers no clue where this beast is going to go, Portenko’s emphatic upward cascades against increasing lushness punctuated by an anxious, searching flute. But Prokofiev remains one of the kings of phantasmagoria, and Portenko and the ensemble quickly sink their fangs into a marionettish strut and then a distantly macabre haze before bringing back the Asian diatonics.

That’s just the first half of the first movement. The way she hangs back and lets the increasing unease speak for itself pays off mightily when she slams into the big, grim crescendo afterward, the orchestra circling like a hungry condor. The gusty, stricken second movement is over in a flash; the third, a processional written as a requiem for a friend of the composer who killed himself, is far more sinister in places. The flute and staccato strings in tandem with the piano are creepy to the extreme. Again, the restraint of both soloist and orchestra enhance the mysterious intensity of the concluding movement, Portenko’s sabretoothed ripples and icepick chords finally gaining traction as the orchestra linger and pulse behind her.

They shift gears for Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the most ravishingly beautiful (curmudgeons might say treacly) pieces of classical music ever written. It’s been ripped off by thousands of pop songwriters over the decades. Portenko doesn’t let it go there, with a clenched-teeth attack that raises the drama factor several times over, matched by Sirenko’s lavish touch in front of the orchestra. Yet there’s great subtlety from the ensemble: a bass breaks the surface, then flourishes from the reeds, matched by Portenko’s coy bit of a fugue in the first movement. Her gritty, intricate proto boogie-woogie in the movement’s third part screams out for the repeat button.

The second movement is balletesque yet replete with longing, Portenko rising to the challenge of the composer’s machinegunning rivulets. Starry, starry night! The third movement is where the Ukrainian bandura melody that Tschaikovsky polishes up and rips off throughout this piece really gets a workout: folk-rock, 19th century style. There are passages here that seem breathtakingly fast, compared to other orchestras’ interpretations: they seem to want everybody to hang on and enjoy the ride, up to the warmly familiar coda.

The ARC Ensemble Continue Their Quest to Resurrect Neglected Jewish Composers

Canadian group the ARC Ensemble are in the midst of a heroic project, resurrecting music by underrated or undeservedly forgotten Jewish composers, Their latest album – streaming at Spotify – is the debut commercial recording of three works by Russian composer Dmitri Klebanov. Like all of his contemporaries in the Soviet era, his themes were circumscribed by Stalinist repression. There’s a sense of an inner modernist longing to cut through the doctrinaire Romanticism, and it’s rewarding to hear that fearlessness unleashed in so many places here.

String Quartet No. 4 opens as a swinging, folksy, wintry theme and variations. The second movement begins as a stark, windswept tableau, anchored by the lingering harmonies of cellist Thomas Wiebe and violist Steven Dann, violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard picking up the pace with a graceful counterpoint, growing more insistent, alternately joyous and stern.

Puckish pizzicato cedes to more of an autumnal dance in movement three, which continues and rises to a triumphant coda in the concluding movement. It’s an enjoyable if not particularly substantial piece.

There’s a similarly dancing quality but considerably more gravitas to Klebanov’s Piano Trio No. 2, which actually turns out to be much more of a work for strings. Pianist Kevin Ahfat provides a precise lilt in the first movement as Berard and Wiebe add wistful color, with close echoes of an iconic Rachmaninoff piece throughout. The three musicians light into the sudden, furtive interlude afterward with relish, violin cascades against mutedly assertive, rhythmic piano.

The trio have fun negotiating the tension between Beethovenesque glitter and a jagged Russian dance in the second movement. Movement three is the real stunner here, plaintive strings over tolling, low-key piano, rising to an aching waltz that grows more hypnotically troubled as the rhythm straightens out. Debussy visits Borodin on the steppes as the unsettled conclusion pounces along, somewhat hesitantly, Kudos to the ensemble for unearthing a piece that deserves to be vastly better known.

The four strings return to an assertive, martially-tinged Russian dance theme to introduce Klebanov’s considerably more adventurous String Quartet No. 5, with a meticulous, persistently uneasy counterpoint. It would be an overstatement to call the thematic development demonic, but a gremlin definitely could be involved.

There’s a Bartokian vividness and astringency in the second movement The third and final movement strongly brings to mind Shostakovich’s middle-period quartets, in terms of persistent grey-sky atmosphere and exchanges that darkly wind their way back to Haydn, all the way through the deviously jaunty ending. What a joy it is to discover music like this: it only makes you wonder what else this ensemble have up their collective sleeves.

A Lush, Impassioned, Majestically Symphonic Celebration of the Astor Piazzolla Centenary

2021 being the hundredth anniversary of Astor Piazzolla’s birth, there’s been a wave of new albums celebrating both the iconic Argentine composer, and nuevo tango in general. Uruguayan conductor Gisele Ben-Dor has made a career out of championing South American composers, and has commissioned bandoneonist Juanjo Mosalini for new works and arrangements of Piazzolla classics. The result is a lavish, breathtaking, passionate new album, Piazzolla Cien Años, with Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, streaming at Spotify.

Their new version of the Concerto for Bandoneon (also known as Aconcagua) is a real stunner, with even greater majesty and colorful contrasts than the composer’s own recordings. Opening with bursts and bubbles from the strings, the ensemble build in a flash to an insistence that borders on anguished, in keeping with a familiar Piazzolla trope. There’s a bittersweet lull before the stabbing rhythm kicks in again: Ben-Dor teases the orchestra up, but plaintively. The crescendo with timpani, insistent piano and bursts from the string section at the coda is breathtaking.

Mosalini parses the moody chromatics of the moderato second movement judiciously, giving way to a similarly wary, stellar harp solo, the orchestra brightening this deep-sky scenario somewhat, a consistently gripping dichotomy,. The final presto movement is combustible, the flames of the strings flickering in over the relentless insistence of the rhythm section before Mosalini’s wryly reflective solo. Bellicose, rumbling suspense and the wave motion of the strings echo the rising tide of big chords on the bandoneon as it winds out.

Mosalini’s first piece here is Toma Toca, his steady, rapidfire lines awash in a vast mist that picks up with a determined bounce. The other is Cien, dedicated jointly to Piazzolla and Mosalini’s grandfather:. The latter’s Pugliese traditions come to the forefront, an often ambiguous dance amidst trickily punching syncopation and pillowy ambience in the background. Tantalizingly brief solos from violinist Kristina Nilsson, violist Anne Black and cellist Steven Laven complete this cosmopolitan tableau.

Ben-Dor’s choice to record Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires as a suite, as the composer eventually did after taking decades to complete them, pays off mightily in the context of Mosalini’s turbocharged arrangement. Ben-Dor lets the tension go to redline as Verano Porteño gets underway, setting up a poignant moment passed from Laven to Mosalini. The perils of the fall, wintry reflection and disquiet, and finally a distantly Vivaldiesque, guarded optimism appear in turn. Mosalini’s choices of turning over pivotal moments to moody cello and impassioned violin, in addition to the expected, lilting moments for solo bandoneon, add depth and textural richness.

The ensemble wind up the record with Mosalini’s new arrangement of Libertango, rising from a hushed, practically Lynchian suspense to a mutedly string-driven anthem. Other bands blast headlong through this piece, playing up the political subtext. Mosalini’s decision to leave that as a bristling undercurrent – as the composer typically would – packs a much more subtle wallop. It’s characteristic of the freshness that pervades the album, a lock for one of the best of 2021.

Ieva Jokubaviciute Explores the Color and Disparity of New Nordic Music on Her New Album Northscapes

Musicologists have a history of obsession with the relationship between terrain and musical traditions. Conventional wisdom is that Nordic composers tend to focus on the dark side, considering the length of winter and winter nights there. And yet, in the summer, that same turf becomes the land of the midnight sun. On her new album Northscapes – streaming at Bandcamp – Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute plays a mix of 21st century works by a terrific cast of well-known and more obscure composers from that part of the world, seeking to capture the influences of landscape, and a lowlit or unlit milieu, rather than reaffirming any preconception of Nordic traditions. The record turns out to be much more colorful than you might think.

Case in point: the two works by Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen, which bookend the album. The former, Pristine Light, begins with energetically rolling ripples that give way to steady minimalism punctuated by sparkling figures. Subtly, Jokubaviciute balances rhythm and glittering forward drive as the composer reverses the effect of the two devices

Both pieces are taken from Thoresen’s Four Invocations suite. In the finale, Rising Air, Jokubaviciute has fun contrasting a spacious, reflecting-pool minimalism with a spritely hailstorm of upper-register riffage bristling with thorny accidentals.

In keeping with her signature, vast expanses, Icelander Anna Thorvaldsdottir‘s Scape blends disquieting flickers at either end of the keyboard with long, sustained notes, sometimes enhanced by an ebow guitar effect, at other times by prepared strings. A thimble is also involved.

A trio of pieces from Danish composer Bent Sorensen‘s 12 Nocturnes are next, drawing on the character Mignon from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Jokubaviciute takes her time developing the distantly Romantic allusions of Mignon and the Sun Goes Down, cuts loose considerably more in the miniature Night River and lets the altered love ballad Midnight with Mignon linger enigmatically.

She follows a dichotomy similar to the one in the Thorvaldsdottir piece, if more elaborately cascading and intertwined, in Kaija Saariaho‘s 2007 Prelude. Jokubaviciute also explores contrasts in the lone late 20th century piece here, Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė’s Fantasia, shifting between registers, a rather stern longing, playful leaps and bounds, challenging pointillisms and a coy expectancy. It’s the most entertaining piece here.

Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks‘ Music for a Summer Evening is a picturesquely energetic, shifting, seemingly Satie-influenced sunset prelude. Describing the music, he writes, “Towards the end, a kind of folksong is heard: ‘We have survived the time of tyranny and have kept our identity.’” May we all live to do that and more on summer evenings next year.