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Tag: symphonic music

A Riveting, Poignant Collection of Alicia Terzian Microtonal Symphonic Works

One of the most spellbindingly edgy orchestral releases of the past several months is violinist Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings, streaming at Spotify. Each is a prime early example of the paradigm-shifting microtonal work she would immerse herself in throughout the decades after she’d completed the former in 1955. Beyond the sheer catchiness yet persistently otherworldly quality of this music, both works are also rich with the slashing chromatics common to Terzian’s Armenian heritage.

The first movement of the Violin Concerto begins with a gorgeously ominous chromatic riff but quickly dips to pensive, sustained violin lines over misty stillness. Orchestra and soloist match Terzian’s determination to cover all the emotional bases here: a dancing heroic theme; vibrato-infused longing; and striking contrasts with the bassoon, oboe and full ensemble of winds against the soloist. After a deliciously blustery crescendo and some deviously orchestrated fugal moments, the music calms and the harmonies grow starrier, microtones coming into closer, uneasier focus. Gintoli’s matter-of-factness in the surrealistic yet ironclad tunefulness of his cadenza toward the end is one of many of his high points here.

The hauntingly windwept second movement is based on a plaintive song from the collection of the great Armenian composer and musicologist Komitas Vardapet, a father telling his daughter that her mother has died. Slowly, conductor Vladimir Lande develops an anthemic drive; again, Gintoli nimbly negotiates between resolve and persistent tension over a dancing pulse, which comes broodingly full circle.

The concluding movement begins with a gusty, astringently enveloping, rather bellicose theme, taking on more of a puckish quasi-Tschaikovskian bounce fueled by percussion, harp and high winds. Gintoli takes centerstage in the bucolic waltz that follows; the ensemble take it out with a defiantly marionettish strut. 

The Three Pieces for Strings date from a year earlier: it is astonishing how Terzian had already concretized her visionary style by then. Few western composers have written such memorable melodies utilizing harmonies more sophisticated than the traditional scale. The first part of the triptych, Sunset Song comes across as a stark Armenian melody in heavy microtonal disguise, calming to hazily echoing atmospherics.

The Pastorale with Variations begins by following a circling trajectory, but more rhythmically, before a lullaby of sorts drifts in. The distantly wary conclusion is one of the album’s most stunningly catchy moments. Momentary stillness and suspense alternate with a jaunty edge in the finale, a country dance.

While Terzian is revered in the microtonal demimonde, and her music has been widely performed, it deserves to be ubiquitous. Almost seventy years after she wrote these pieces, the world is still catching up with her.

Revisiting a Couple of Familiar Beethoven Favorites

How tragic that more than 75% of last year’s planned Beethoven 250 celebrations were all cancelled by the lockdowners. In anticipation of the festivities, innumerable artists and orchestras had recorded an immense amount of Beethoven. One predictably confident, majestic concert recording that inadvertently foreshadowed the glut of live albums that would be dumped on the web less than a year after it was released is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s versions of two of the composer’s greatest hits, the Eroica Symphony and Symphony No. 5, streaming at Spotify. Kurt Masur leads the ensemble in these lustrous performances. This is a view from the back of the hall, individual voices distinct over a backdrop that’s often rather muted and wafts in, with production values approximating the comfortable integral quality of a vinyl record.

Even if you know these works by heart, it’s always fun to revisit them to see what surprises a particular conductor or orchestra can throw at you. This recording is particularly romantic, and Romantic as well. The first movement of the Eroica is as sleek as it is gusty, with pillowy exchanges between woodwinds over hushed ambience, but also precise, almost pointillistically leaping strings.

Eager, budding suspense and a graceful courtship ensue in movement two: this is a particularly suave interpretation. Movement three seems a little fast, yet it’s also remarkably plush. And those horns are announcing a fox hunt, aren’t they!

Masur brings the lush/stormy dichotomy into even clearer focus in the concluding movement, although he doesn’t let the conversations between winds and strings go to waste. As far as gearshifting for The Fifth Symphony, there isn’t much, even though emotionally it’s often 180 degrees the opposite. Masur obviously decided to opt for elegance this time out as well, in lieu of rampaging intensity or fullscale goth gloom in the opening movement.

This blog’s favorite version is a field recording made at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in June of 2011, where the Knights played the symphony with uninhibited passion against a background of tree frogs and passing airplanes while bats divebombed the crowd. Still, Masur’s attention to detail in this one is welcome – the presence of the bass section in the first movement is especially rewarding.

Masur works top-to-bottom dynamics here even more than in the Eroica, particularly in the starry moments of the second movement and ominous portents of the third. The matter-of-fact bittersweetness in both really shines through as well. The finale brings the whole album full circle, the brightness and delicacy of the high strings just enough to bob up over the waves before a remarkably methodical, even restrained coda.

Jordi Savall Unearths a Vault of Secret Beethoven

As both a musician and conductor, Jordi Savall has made a career of rediscovering lost treasures from the Americas to the Middle East. When he finally turned his attention to recording works by the best-known composer in the history of the western world, the treasures he found were hidden in plain sight. If you think you know Beethoven, the level of detail in Savall’s latest recording with the orchestra Le Concert Des Nations will take your breath away. It’ll make you laugh, and give you chills.

Savall’s modus operandi for the massive six-disc set Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5 – streaming at Spotify – was to play the composer’s first five symphonies as they would have been performed contemporaneously, with period instruments and a considerably smaller ensemble compared to today’s orchestras, just sixty players. Yet the music is no less vigorous, and there are elements that will jump out at you for the first time because unless you’ve played this music with a chamber orchestra this closely attuned to the score, you simply haven’t heard them before. Even in concert, more often than not they get subsumed in the bluster. This is not Beethoven as relaxing wine-hour music, or innocuous background for multitasking. This is headphone music.

A lot of the hidden details that Savall brings to the foreground are jokes. Other than the violinists who play it, who noticed how frequently Beethoven uses glissandos as a punchline, especially in Symphonies 4 and 5? Or, for that matter, in Symphony No. 1? All that leaps out, not to mention the jagged flurries in the fourth movement of No. 1 – or, for that matter, how that movement foreshadows the introduction to No. 2? We now know that Beethoven wrote No. 2 before he wrote No. 1 – and obviously liked that gusty riffage to the point where he thought it was worth recycling. After all, only those who’d seen the scores at the time, or played them, could have picked up on that.

Call-and-response is another device that Beethoven loved to have fun with, and nobody has fun with it like this crew. The fugal moments between strings and winds, or strings and brass, are in particularly high definition throughout the entire set of symphonies, notably in the opening movement of No. 2 and the third movement of No. 4. And when’s the last time you heard an orchestra working contrasting loud/soft conversational dynamics in No. 4? Beethoven was writing  the so-called Razumovsky string quartets around the same time and was obviously having a jolly good time with that trope.

In lieu of timpani, there’s a single bass drum played with sticks rather than mallets. Who knew how prominent, or how deviously funny, the percussion in No. 5 actually is? This crew does.

And the details bristle as much as they tickle. Fleeting words of warning that go rubato and then hint at a complete stop in the first movement of No. 3; the starkness of the cellos introducing that iconic descending progression in the second movement of No. 4; and the sheer beefiness of the second movement of No. 5, which most orchestras play as a straightforwardly courtly dance. All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Listening to all of this in a single setting is overwhelming: stream these one a night for a week and your perspective on other recordings will be changed for life.

A Fascinating Album of New Music From the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s Home Turf

One of the most consistently interesting and richly diverse albums of symphonic music released in the last couple of years is the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording, Contemporary Colours, a collection of new works by Maltese composers streaming at Spotify. Malta may be a relatively small place, but the country clearly has no shortage of orchestral or compositional talent. Many of these pieces reflect an edgy Arabic influence; the rest run the gamut from neoromanticism to horizontal music.

Led with striking attention to detail by maestro Sergey Smbatyan, they open with a triptych by Euchar Gravina inspired by the manufacture and then the deployment of fireworks. The first two segments are a a microtonal study in slowly rising, occasionally crushing wave motion against a recording of a brass band playing a much smaller-scale arrangement; most of the third is much more low-key.

Waiting, by Mariella Cassar-Cordina is exactly that, still horizontality from the high strings with a pensively minimalist, increasingly troubled cello solo floating overhead. Christopher Muscat’s magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key Mesogeios – a portrait of the Mediterranean – features soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance.

Veronique Vella’s colorful, artfully orchestrated, Romantically tinged Fine Line has a Rimsky-Korsakov sonic expanse and triumphant bustle. Alexander Vella Gregory’s short, Tschaikovskian five-part suite Riħ (Wind) evokes everything from calm sea breezes to winter storms, via pulsing counterpoint, disquieting close harmonies, percussive drama and whispers from the strings.

The orchestra close with Albert Garzia’s Xamm (Scent), a largescale arrangement of a dance piece about a murder mystery. The orchestra have fun with all the classic Bernard Herrmann-ish tropes: sharp tritones over stillness, sudden furtive swells, chase scenes and a surprising amount of Dvorakian windswept calm. Classical music as entertainment doesn’t get any better than this in 2021. Now if we could only see this live!

The Silkroad Ensemble Release a Haunting, Surreal New Osvaldo Golijov Epic

Over the past practically three decades, the Silkroad Ensemble have been the world’s great champions of a blend of music from south Asia, through the Arabic-speaking world and the west. Their latest album, Falling Out of Time – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises a single, lavish, thirteen-part tone poem by contemporary classical composer Osvaldo Golijov, which hauntingly dovetails with the group’s esthetic. It may be the most stunningly accessible orchestral work the composer has ever written. It’s certainly the most eclectic, drawing on such diverse idioms as Indian music, classical Chinese theatre, jazz balladry and sounds of the Middle East.

This is a frequently operatically-tinged work, tracing a surreal, grim narrative surrounding the death of a child. Mythical creatures and archetypes are involved. The introduction, Heart Murmur rises from a brooding, skeletal Arabic-tinged taqsim to a darkly catchy, circling ghazal-like melody over a dancing, jazz-inflected pulse and the achingly intertwining voices of singers Biella da Costa and Nora Fischer.

Night Messengers is a stark, increasingly imploring nocturnal tableau, the womens’ voices wary and enigmatic over an all-star string quartet comprising half of Brooklyn Rider – violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords – with violinist Mazz Swift, and cellist Karen Ouzounian.

That sudden, stratospherically high harmony in the enigmatic Come Chaos is a real shock to the system: is that a voice, Wu Tong’s sheng, or a theremin? No spoilers!

Uneasy, fragmentary flickers from the strings followed by Wu Man’s pipa join to introduce the simply titled Step, rising to a harrowing intensity. The Lynchian dub interlude afterward comes as another real shock.

Shane Shanahan’s tabla and the singers’ acidic harmonies take over the hypnotic ambience as In Procession, a portrait of mass bereavement, gets underway, Kayhan Kalhor’s muted, desolate kamancheh solo at the center amid the string quartet. Troubled atmospherics waft and eventually permeate Walking, the suite’s drifting, central elegy, lowlit with echoey kamancheh, Dan Brantigan’s desolate trumpet and Shawn Conley’s spare jazz-inflected bass

An ambient lament featuring spiky pipa in contrast to Jeremy Flower’s synth foreshadows Fly, which with its aching ambience and jazz allusions mirrors the centerpiece. Go Now, the suite’s most immersive, restlessly resonant track, features a long, plaintive kamancheh intro, a similarly aching, vivid duet with the violin. Da Costa reaches for the rafters with the pipa trailing off morosely at the end.

Akeya (Where Are You) is a dissociative mashup of orchestral 1950s Miles Davis, Etta James moan and kabuki theatre, maybe. The ensemble hint at rebirth and redemption in the closing tableau, Breathe. Is the nameless dead boy at the center of the story a metaphor for the hope and joy that was stolen from us in 2020? What a piece of music for our time!

A World War II Symphony Offers Solace and Hope For These Times

It was 1943, and the Allies were battling the Nazis and their collaborators on several fronts. In bomb-cratered England, Ralph Vaughan Williams stepped in on short notice for his one and only performance as conductor for the world premiere of one of his symphonies. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Considering the conditions under which it was written, it’s no surprise that his Symphony No. 5 is the most smallscale in his notoriously lavish cycle. Contemporary accounts called the premiere a success. There’s a new recording with Martyn Brabbins leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose often transcendent performance resonates just as strongly in our even more troubled era.

The ensemble open with a familiar Vaughan Williams trope, a constant, increasingly turbulent round-robin of windswept counterpoint. Led by the brass in its most somber moments of foreshadowing, this is the pinnacle of British Romanticism. If you wonder where the towering angst of the art-rock bands of the 1970s, particularly the Moody Blues, came from, the source material doesn’t get richer than this. How absolutely heartbreaking it is to hear these panoramas, knowing that the citizens of the countryside that so profoundly influenced this music are now under siege and largely unable to see those landscapes in person. Where is this era’s Martin Niemoller?

The orchestra execute the swirls and leaping riffs of the second movement with a poinpoint precision across the spectrum, drawing equally on Sibelius and a series of themes the composer had written around the same time for a broadcast of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. The distantly disquieted, nocturnal vastness and aching lustre of the third movement packs a wallop in this era: when will this be over, Vaughan Williams seems to be asking. Bringing the circling intensity of the introduction full circle, the orchestra offer hope with the mighty, prayerful fourth movement.

To put the symphony in even more resonant context, the album also contains a series of short themes from Vaughan Williams’ postwar operatic epic Pilgrim’s Progress. The excerpts here were recorded in 2019 (a year after the symphony) with a considerably different cast of musicians. Vocal soloists Emily Portman, Kitty Whately and Marcus Farnsworth are bolstered by the BBC Chorus and BBC Singers Quartet in these thirteen selections, ranging from fleeting set pieces to folksy dances and more expansive songs, many of them echoing themes recycled in the symphony.

A Spirited Irish Orchestra Tackles Inspiring British Classical Rarities

Charles Villiers Stanford is revered as a composer in the UK, but is lesser known beyond his home turf. His stately organ works are frequently performed on this side of the pond. His orchestral music was an foundational influence on Ralph Vaughan Williams and falls solidly in the Romantic camp, full of drama, dynamism and colorful orchestration. Howard Shelley conducts the Ulster Orchestra in a new album comprising several Stanford works including A Song of Agincourt, which hasn’t hit the web yet.

They open with a robust, emphatic version of his Overture in the Style of a Tragedy, a relatively recent rediscovery which this orchestra premiered in 2010. From its initial Beethovenesque pulses, through numerous plaintive oboe solos, it’s evocative of the more heroic-themed work of Cesar Franck.

As World War I was drawing to a close, Stanford orchestrated his Organ Sonata No. 2 and retitled it Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue. Its majestic counterpoint translates well to the steady, brassy processional and rather wistful interpretation which the orchestra follow with in the former, and the victorious swells and dips (and wry Marseillaise quotes) of the latter.

The women’s choir Codetta under the direction of Donal Doherty join the orchestra for a plainchant-inspired yet soaring take of Stanford’s Fairy Day triptych. The nocturnal segments of the concluding movement are particularly celestial.

The Song of Agincourt – commemorating Henry V’s invading army taking advantage of the defending French, who were struggling under one of the most corrupt regimes in that nation’s history – is a strong centerpiece. Shelley and the ensemble work Stanford’s variations on a 15th century troubadour waltz with lithe energy and surprisingly subtle foreshadowing throughout its many calm, woodsy moments, up to a brief, insistent coda. Bellicose backstory aside, this is a strikingly anthemic, optimistic piece of music that deserves to be better known.

An Exhilarating Live Album of Anna Clyne Symphonic Works

It’s criminal how the BBC – until this past spring a fairly reliable source of information that American corporate media would never dare go near – was transformed overnight into just another sycophantic lockdowner fake-news channel. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra are not to blame – in fact, they can’t play right now because of the lockdown, and if Boris Johnson gets his way, they never will again.

Assuming the British wake up and overthrow his fascist regime, we will be able to look forward to more concerts and recordings by this colorful, diverse ensemble. Until then, we have a passionate, exhilarating live album of Anna Clyne works, titled Mythologies and performed under the baton of four separate conductors – and streaming at Spotify – to tide us over.

Marin Alsop leads the group in a concert performance of a swooping, suspenseful, electrifyingly crescendoing short work, Masquerade. Those massed glissandos are best appreciated at loud volume!

Sakari Oramo conducts the similarly brisk and colorful This Midnight Hour. Clyne cites two poems – a Juan Ramón Jiménez depiction of a naked woman running madly through the darkness, along with Baudelaire’s creepy Harmonie du soir. A lithely leaping waltz with echoes of Saint-Saens’ Bacchanal from Samson and Deiliah ends cold; distant boomy bass drums signal a series of tense, mysterious swells. With its brooding, chromatic trumpet solo, the lush neoromantic waltz afterward could be Dvorak.

The Seamstress, an imaginary one-act ballet on themes of loss and absence with vivid Appalachian tinges, is a concerto for violinist Jennifer Koh and also includes Irene Buckley’s voiceover of William Butler Yeats’ poem A Coat. Stark, folksy, leaping figures give way to steady, pizzicato-fueled starriness and then a fleeting Balkan-toned crescendo. Raga-like variations on a twelve-tone row are a clever touch for Koh’s steady hand. She reaches to the heights over the orchestra’s muted cavatina in the concluding movement, which is where Buckley comes in.

Andrew Litton conducts For Night Ferry, for which Clyne also painted a lurid mural. She takes the title from Seamus Heaney’s Elegy for Robert Lowell, the American poet who like Schubert was manic-depressive. Through a long series of gusts, swirls and cascades, the orchestra hit a series of insistent, brassy peaks that alternate with warmly sparkling, nocturnal passages. The cynical dance of death and rollercoaster ride afterward are spine-tingling; the ending is hardly what you would expect.   

André de Ridder takes the podium for the album’s final piece, <<Rewind<<, a wryly microtonal, darkly majestic romp evoking a battered videotape being rewound, glitches and all. This is hands-down one of the half-dozen best classical albums of 2020.

Intriguing, Edgy Cross-Genre Compositions From Dai Fujikura

One of the most eclectic and consistently gripping new instrumental albums of recent months is composer Dai Fujikura’s surreallistically titled Turtle Totem, streaming at Bandcamp. The image was inspired by the historic Nagara no ZaZa garden in Japan, where a bridge over a pond supposedly allows visitors to visit the afterlife and then return. All around, there are stone figures of turtles, some piggybacking on others who carry them to the next world (and presumably back as well).

The material here is a mix of orchestral pieces, unorthodox solo works and an opening number that’s essentially jazz. Will all this transport you like a turtle? With a little imagination, yes. As diverse as the sounds are here, Fujikura’s passion for strange tonalities and translucent tunes is contagious.

That first number, Three, is a triptych, which Australian trio Ensemble Three (trumpeter Joel Brennan, trombonist Don Immel and guitarist Ken Murray) tackle expressively in a live performance. The first part is lusciously Lynchian: Murray’s grim chords, awash in reverb, pulse in and out as the horns filter uneasily through the mix. The second part has the horns doing faster wah-wah than the guitar; the third part begins as muted psychedelic funk and ends with a long, acidic guitar solo that brings to mind Gordon Grdina. The composer calls this the happiest piece of music he’s ever written.

The performance of Fujikura’s Horn Concerto No. 2 by Ensemble Nomad with soloist Nobuaki Fukukawa was also recorded live in concert. Fujikura found other horn concertos rather strident, so he and Fukukawa experimented with special mutes for unexpected wah-wah and whale-song effects. And the ensemble mimic them as well, throughout calm, atmospheric passages, chattering acidity, shivery suspense and artful echo riffage for playfully astringent variations on a wobbly sound.

Tamami Tono plays Obi, for sho and electronics. In the liner notes, Fujikura boasts that this is the fastest that the Japanese reed instrument can be played. As he discovered, the answer is midtempo: Tono performs this trippy, immersively meditative piece in her natural upper register, echoed in the lows by what’s essentially a pitch pedal.

Ensemble Nomad bassist Yoji Sato plays another solo work, Scarlet Ibis, in an alternate tuning, evincing natural harmonics and overtones with a mix of fierce plucks and bowed echo phrases (and a ton of reverb) .Clarinetist Makoto Yoshida plays the album’s title track, an unexpectedly brisk, circling solo work utilizing plenty of low register and gritty extended technique.

The album ends with a third concert recording, Antoni Wit leading the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra in Fujikura’s Umi for Orchestra, an oceanic new tone poem based on an excerpt from his opera Solaris. Opening with nebulously atonal vastness, the ensemble shift between waves shiveringly reaching onto the shore, bracing swells that suddenly subside, and a twinkling nightscape anchored by bassoon and cellos. It’s a calmer Hebrides Overture for a new idiom in a new century

Epic, Sweeping, Gothic Nocturnes From the Moon and the Nightspirit

Don’t let the Moon and the Nightspirit’s name, or the title of their new album, Aether, lead you to think that this is hippie-dippy new age bullshit. Gothic psychedelia would be a more accurate way to describe the Hungarian band’s sound. They sing in their native language. The record is a suite, more or less; it comes with lyrics and English translations, which have a mystical focus. They like long, hypnotic, slowly crescendoing tableaux with both folk and classical influences.

Stately piano and frontwoman ‘Agnes Toth’s misty vocals blend with a whirl of white noise as the album’s opening, title track gets underway. From there Mihály Szabó takes over the mic, rising from a whisper to a roar as this one-chord jam hits a pummeling, imaginatively orchestrated sway. It comes full circle at the end.

That pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the record – streaming at Bandcamp and available on both purple and black limited-edition vinyl. The second track, Kaputlan Kapukon At (Through the Gateless Gates) has spare, circling twelve-string guitar and eerily tinkling piano over the slowly swaying neoromantic angst.

Toth moves back to lead vocals as the drifting minor-key vamp of Égi Messzeegek (Celestial Distances) gathers force; that bagpipe guitar is a tasty touch. Ringing twelve-string poignancy returns along with graceful, incisive harp above the oscillating loops and disquieting close harmonies in A Szarny (The Wing): it’s the album’s best and most majestic track.

With a deep-space twinkle from the harp and the keys, the album’s most hypnotic soundscape is Logos. The group follow a slow series of layers rich with somberly picked guitars, spare piano, keening microtonal violin and a wash of vocals in A Mindenseg Hivasa (Call of the Infinite). The suite ends with Asha, its Balkan folk illusions and a loop receding to the edge of the universe. Turn on, tune in, you know the rest.