New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: stravinsky

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.

Colorful, Entertaining Reinventions of Famous Classical Themes From the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra‘s new album Urban(e) – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most genuinely orchestral jazz records ever made. On one level, it’s all about imaginative, outside-the-box arranging and playing. On another, it’s part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating tunes from every style imaginable: Bach writing variations on country dances; southern preachers making hymns out of old blues songs; the Electric Light Orchestra making surf rock out of a Grieg piano concerto. Here, Fahie takes a bunch of mostly-famous classical themes to places most people would never dare. It’s closer to ELO than, say, the NY Philharmonic.

Is this hubristic? Sure. Fahie addresses that issue in the album’s liner notes, assuring listeners he’s tried to be true to the intrinsic mood of each particular piece. The group’s reinvention of the third movement from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 – from when the composer was still more or less a Late Romantic – is a trip. Guitarist Jeff Miles gets to have fun with a few savage flares before Fahie makes chugging art-punk out of it, trombonist Daniel Linden’s blitheness offering no hint of how much further out the group are going to from there, through Vegas noir, a deliciously sinister Brad Mason trumpet solo, and more. It’s fun beyond belief.

To open the record, the group tackle Chopin’s iconic C minor prelude, beginning with a somber, massed lustre, bassist Pedro Giraudo and pianist Randy Ingram offering the first hints of revelry, Miles adding a word of caution. From there Fahie expands the harmonies many times over and the group make a latin-tinged romp out of it.

Tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas steps into the aria role in an easygoing remake of a piece from Puccini’s opera. There’s plenty of tasty suspense as Fahie’s epic suite of themes from Stravinsky’s Firebird coalesces from lush swells and glittery piano, through more carefree terrain, to a pensive yet technically daunting duet between the bandleader’s euphonium and Jennifer Wharton’s tuba.

Hearing Fahie play the opening riff from Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin on trombone is a revelation: that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! So much for musical appropriation, right? The rest of Fahie’s punchy, lustrous arrangement comes across as vintage, orchestral Moody Blues with brass instead of mellotron.

Fahie turns the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony into a jaunty Swan Lake set piece, with a wistful solo from alto sax player Aaron Irwin and a more sobering one from trombonist Nick Grinder.

The group close the record with a lavish, nocturnal take of a brooding section of Bach’s Cantata, BWV 21. The theme is basically “troubles, troubles, troubles” – from Fahie’s clear-eyed opening solo, the counterpoint grows more envelopingly somber, up to some neat rhythmic inventions and a return back. This inspired cast also includes saxophonists Anton Denner, Quinsin Nachoff and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Brian Pareschi, David Smith and Sam Hoyt; tombonist Matthew McDonald and drummer Jeff Davis.

Karine Poghosyan Finds the Holy Grail with Russian Romantics at Carnegie Hall

“You’re not going to believe how funny this is,” Karine Poghosyan alluded as she lit into a puckishly rhythmic passage in La Semaine Grasse, from Igor Stravinsky’s solo piano arrangement of Petrouchka at Carnegie Hall last night. She didn’t say that in as many words, relating that information with her fingers and her face instead. By comparison, practically every other pianist’s version of the piece seemed at that moment to be impossibly tame.

On the surface, Poghosyan’s modus operandi is simple. Like a good jazz singer, she approaches the music line by line, sometimes teasing out the meaning, other times illuminating it with the pianistic equivalent of fifty thousand watts. Art for art’s sake is not Poghosyan’s thing. She’s all about narratives, and emotional content, and good jokes – even in the case of the evening’s program of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works from her latest album, where humor is so often fleeting. Matching a buttery, perfectly articulated legato to a thunderous lefthand attack, Poghosyan reaffirmed the album’s fullblown angst, and glory and triumph. She’s found her holy grail with this repertoire.

Poghosyan wears her heart on her sleeve: her features are just as entertaining to watch as her fingers. When her eyes grew wide and the muscles of her jaw grew taut, that was a sign to hang on for dear life. That held especially true in the encore, a machinegunning romp through the lightning cascades and jackhammer intensity of Khachaturian’s Toccata, not to mention the most demanding, intricately woven staccato passages of the Stravinsky. But there was just as much rapturous, closed-eyed cantabile reverie (Poghosyan played the whole program from memory) in Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, which she delivered as a contiguous suite.

Her approach underscored how these relatively early works comprise some of the composer’s most ravishingly beautiful, shapeshifting melodies. But Poghosyan was just as attuned to momentary glee or sudden stressors as longscale thematic development. A sotto voce strut and a couple of emphatic “Take THAT!” riffs stood out amid spacious, achingly anticipatory resonance, several tributaries of ripples that would eventually coalesce to rolling rivers of notes, and eerie proto-Satie close harmonies and chromatics. Her gentle, endearing take of Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5 made considerable contrast, a rare carefree moment in the notoriously angst-ridden Rachmaninoff catalog.

She went deep into that with his Piano Sonata No. 2, spotlighting its persistent, unsettled quality. She really let the introduction breathe, taking her time, parsing the dichotomy between struggle and guarded optimism. Similarly, when the clearing finally came into view in the first movement, the effect was viscerally breathtaking. Others tend to interpret it as sentimental. To her, it seemed like genuine relief, knowing that the turbulence would return in full force, if balanced by moments of relative calm and even dancing ebullience.

Poghosyan’s precision throughout the daunting, icepick staccato of the trio of pieces from Petrouchka was astonishing. Other pianists with the virtuosity to play the Danse Russe tend to make a Punch and Judy show out of its relentless phantasmagoria. Generously employing the pedal, Poghosyan approached it as the grandest guignol imaginable, Stravinsky’s sardonic call-and-response notwithstanding. And her take of the first three movements of the Firebird was unselfconsciously revelatory: the famous symphonic hooks seemed practically muted amid the rest of the bustling, sometimes stampeding, often starkly distinct countermelodies.

The spectacle didn’t stop with the music. After big codas, Poghosyan didn’t throw her arms up quite as dramatically as she usually does, but she had her usual striking stagewear. This time, it was shimmery black slacks and a matching top for the first half, then after the intermission she switched to an ornate red gown. And she could have started a wholesale florist business with all the bouquets after the encore: in a world where people onstage and off are too often expected to behave sedately, this fan base didn’t hold anything back.

A Darkly Glorious, Poignant New Album of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky and a Carnegie Hall Gig by Pianist Karine Poghosyan

It’s as validating for an audience or a critic to watch an artist move in a direction that maximizes that musicians’s talent, as it ultimately is for the artist. One ravishing example of an artist who followed her muse to a nirvana state is pianist Karine Poghosyan‘s new recording of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky is streaming at Spotify. It’s repertoire she may not have been destined to play – but choosing that destiny was a stroke of brilliance. “If it doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t exist,” Poghosyan asserts, and she goes deep into the dynamics of some of the most challenging material in the Romantic repertoire for all the poignancy and exhilaration of those narratives. She’s playing the album release show on Nov 4 at 7:30 PM at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall; you can get in for $25.

She begins the record with Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16. In the first, Andantino in B Flat Minor, a suspenseful, subtle rubato permeates the nocturnal lustre, Poghosyan’s starry triplets in contrast with the steady undercurrent. Then she eases the rhythm for the plaintive, Satie-esque theme that follows. The blend of bittersweetness and tenderness is exquisite. What a way to open the album.

Poghosyan plays the rivulets and daunting cascades of No. 2 in E Flat Minor with a dramatic sway, then lets the spaces in between the somber notes of No. 3, Andante Cantabile in B Minor resonate equally, ramping up the misterioso factor. But counterintuitively, she takes a muted, furtively scampering approach to the rapidfire chromatics of No. 4, Presto in E Minor, first in the righthand and then the left: the exchange of power throughout the piece is magnetic in every sense of the word.

With its understated wave motion, No. 5, Adagio Sostenuto in D Flat Major comes across as a genial canal boat theme – or Volga riverside promenade, maybe. The last in the series, Maestoso in C Major is clearly a triumphant love song, as Poghosyan sees it, rich with understatement and siklen legato, resisting any temptation to go for bombast as others might.

All that is a setup for the daunting virtuosity of Stravinsky’s own piano arrangement of three movements from Petrouchka, a Poghosyan concert favorite. The first, the Danse Russe, has a stunningly fleet-fingered pointillism: it’ balletesque in the best sense. Again, Poghosyan’s use of space to set up the phantasmagoria and funhouse-mirror disquiet of Chez Petrouchka is stunning, particularly as it sets the stage for her richly resonant approach as the music grows more lush and enveloping. So the return to pinpoint precision in La Semaine Grasse is a stark contrast – but an unexpectedly wry one. What a ridiculously funny romp some of this music is: Poghosyan can’t resist a good joke when she can find it.

As she also likes to do, she pulls out a rare gem: Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5, a rare carefree moment from someone best known for his most haunting works. A growing storm lingers as Poghosyan makes her way cautiously into his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor, then turning the drama and angst loose before spaciously backing away again. The relative calm Poghosyan brings to the rest of the first movement is a rarity: was it hard for her to resist rampaging through it, or is this (more likely) the case of someone determined to create a full portrait rather than simply going for adrenaline?

Gentle hesitancy slowly moves toward joy in the similarly restrained second movement before Rachmaninoff darkens the skies: that grimly gorgeous theme is one of the album’s most striking passages. In the final movement, Poghosyan maintains the understatement, especially when the most Stravinsky-esque, distantly carnivalesque melodies appear.

Poghosyan returns to Stavinsky to close the album with the Agosti arrangement of three movements from the Firebird Suite: a glittering, gleefully precise tour of the carnivalesque Dance Infernale, a steady, portentous Berceuse and an almost allusively regal Finale.

Whatever slight imperfection might exist in this rich interpretation of some of the most difficult music in the repertoire disappears in light of Pogosyan’s erudite, richly insightful, crepuscularly thrilling interpretations. Fans of Vladimir Horowitz’s virtuosically passionate approach to this music will find Poghosyan’s own individualistic take on it to be equally rewarding.

A Visceral, Marathon Performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall

There was electricity in the air Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, where a sold-out crowd witnessed conductor Pablo Heras-Casaldo leading the Orchestra of St. Luke’s through a marathon performance of two symphonies, a famous piano concerto and a clever mini-suite that should be more popular than it is.

There’s always a curmudgeon somewhere. “They’re playing the Prokofiev first?” an older guy in the orchestra section scowled to his date, a pretty young brunette in a tight black sweater. “That’s anticlimactic.”

“That’s daring,” she deadpanned. Both turned out to be right.

From the quasi-Haydn of the exchanges in the opening movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, it sparkled with distinct voicings, jaunty accents and sotto-voce humor. It’s not Bohemian Rhapsody, but parts of it are close: the composer clearly had a great time toying with short, punchy, late 18th century-style Germanic phrasing. The pseudo-Mozart of the third movement was the most irrestistibly funny part, yet tellingly, Heras-Casaldo and the ensemble glimmered most memorably in the saturnine second movement. That’s where Prokofiev leaves no doubt as to who wrote it – and that bittersweetness will prevail at least for the time being. The coda seemed a little fast; then again, it’s hard to argue with how much fun the group were having, running red lights all the way.

Pianist Hélène Grimaud earned several standing ovations for a breathtakingly visceral take of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. From its gleeful opening glissandos, through plenty of the ravishing bolero and flamenco-tinged phrasing that the composer loved so much, to the sharply polished, steely interweave of the third movement, she matched meticulous precision to mighty joie de vivre.

It was going to be hard to top that. By now, it was all the more impressive how seamlessly the orchestra had negotiated a rugged road, constantly shifting gears between the early classical period, Russian Romanticism, the early modern, and foreshadowing flickers of flamenco jazz. There would be even more new terrain in Stravinsky’s Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra, a whistle-stop tour of tarantella, flamenco and finally Russian folk influences fleshed out with an arrangement that’s carnivalesque if not completely phantasmagorical.

They closed with an old warhorse, Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E Flat, from 1795. Once again, Heras-Casaldo and the group seemed to be having a ball with the endless volleys of call-and-response from both individual voices and segments of the orchestra. In the same vein as their rendition of the Prokofiev, this turned out to be more boisterous and beery than – as the curmudgeon groused to his companion – simply banquet music for the landed gentry of Napoleonic Europe.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s next show is April 25 at 8 PM at New York City Center, joining soprano Victoria Clark in a performance of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark; $30 tix are available.

Brilliant Grey-Sky Themes and Savage Irony From Andrew Rosciszewski

Bassist/composer Andrew Rosciszewski’s music vividly evokes his primary influence, Shostakovich, from a persistently grim, grey-sky sensibility to a devious, sometimes cruelly ironic sense of humor. Other obvious touchpoints are the terse minimalism of Gorecki and the phantasmagoria of Stravinsky. Rosciszewski’s richly dynamic new collection of chamber works, Sonic Real Estate, is streaming at Bandcamp. His deft use of false endings is unsurpassed: Beethoven would be jealous.

The album opens with his Piano Trio No. 1. The first movement comes across as a radical deconstruction of the first couple of bars of the famous Mars theme from the Planets, by Gustav Holst, flickers of what was once bellicose drama drifting endlessly through space with a funereal pulse. Cellist Timothy Leonard’s amazingly consistent, loopy phrases contrast with Wen Yi Lo’s stern, fragmentary piano, violinist Izabella Liss Cohen eventually making a similarly somber entrance.

The gleefully creepy Balkan dance of the second movement provides striking contrast. Deep-space belltone gloom introduces a series of hypnotically emphatic, circling phrases straight out of Gorecki’s Third Symphony in the third. The concluding Allegro is a feast of darkly carnivalesque tropes: devilish glissandos, a bit of Bartokian boogie, a Balkan danse macabre with some breathtaking lows from Leonard and a marionetttish strut for a coda.

Leonard and Lo team up for the Pieśń Wdowy for Cello & Piano, a diptych that opens with Rachmaninovian glimmer and angst and swings back into the Balkans – and is that a distortion pedal that Leonard’s playing through?

Music for Three Instruments is a three-part suite, opening with a particularly animated Andante, Tamara Keshecki’s twistedly dancing flute against a backdrop of Joseph d’Auguste’s clarinet and Lucy Corwin’s viola. The sheer desolation of the Russian folk theme afterward and then the animatedly sepulchral conclusion both strongly echo Shostakovich at his darkest and most cynical.

Meg Zervoulis plays the Impromptu for Piano solo, a sly neoromantic parody that drifts off into Philip Glass territory. The title piece is a cinematically suspenseful, occasionally buffoonish, chamber-rock number with the composer on electric bass and Moog pedals alongside percussionist Vincent Livolsi, Leonard, Keshecki and Lo, who switches to synth. In a best-case scenario, this album ought to raise Rosciszewski’s profile beyond cult-favorite status: somebody give this guy a grisly historical epic to score!

Abraham Brody Brings His Mystical Reinventions of Ancient Shamanic Themes to Williamsburg

Lithuanian-American violinist/composer Abraham Brody covers a lot of ground. In a wry bit of Marina Abramovic-inspired theatricality, he’ll improvise as he stares into your eyes, a most intimate kind of chamber concert. He also leads the intriguing Russian avant-folk quartet Pletai (“ritual”) with vocalist-multi-instrumentalists Masha Medvedchenkova, Ilya Sharov and Masha Marchenko, who reinvent ancient Lithuanian folk themes much in the same vein as Igor Stravinsky appropriated them for The Rite of Spring. The group are on the bill as the latest installment in Brody’s ongoing series of performances at National Sawdust on Oct 5 at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $20 and highly recommended.

Brody’s album From the Dark Rich Earth is streaming at Spotify. It opens with the methodically tiptoeing It’s Already Dawn, its tricky interweave of pizzicato, vocals and polyrhythms bringing to mind a male-fronted Rasputina. The ominously atmospheric Leliumoj goes deep into that dark rich earth, disembodied voices sandwiched between an accordion drone and solo violin angst.

Green Brass keeps the atmospheric calm going for a bit and then leaps along, Brody’s wary Lithuanian vocals in contrast with increasingly agitated, circular violin. Aching atmospherics build to a bitterly frenetic dance in Orphan Girl.  In Linden Tree, a web of voices weaves a trippy round, joined by plaintively lustrous strings.

Father Was Walking Through the Ryefield begins with what sounds like an old a-cappella field recording, then dances along on the pulse of the violin and vocal harmonies, rising to a triumphant peak. Oh, You Redbush, with its hazy atmosphere, and insistently crescendoing bandura, reaches toward majestic art-rock and then recedes like many of the tracks here. Likewise, the mighty peaks and desolate valleys in The Old Oak Tree.

Spare rainy-day piano echoes and then builds to angst-fueled neoromanticism in the distantly imploring I Asked. Strings echo sepulchrally as the ominous, enigmatic Litvak gets underway. Then the band build an otherworldly maze of echoing vocal counterpoint behind Brody’s stark violin in Trep Trepo, Martela.

The group revisit the atmosphere of the opening cut, but more gently, in Green Rue, at least until one of the album’s innumerable, unexpected crescendos kicks in. The final cut is the forcefully elegaic piano ballad A Thistle Grows. Fans of Mariana Sadovska’s bracing reinventions of Capathian mountain music, Aram Bajakian’s sepulchral take on Armenian folk themes or Ljova’s adventures exploring the roots of The Rite of Spring will love this stuff.