“Briefly Noted”

Brief Reviews of New CD Releases

David Liptak: Broken Cries (cello octet), Ancient Songs (baritone and ensemble), Forlane (guitar), Serenade (alto saxophone and strings); Bridge Records 9167; Tarab Cello Ensemble; William Sharp, baritone, Dinosaur Annex New Music Ensemble, Scott Wheeler, conductor; David Starobin, guitar; Chien-Kwan Lin, alto saxophone, Eastman Philharmonia, Bradley Lubman, conductor

This superb release is the first CD release devoted to the music of composer David Liptak (b. 1949). A professor at the Eastman School of Music, Liptak has been an active composer of instrumental music, focusing particularly on chamber music. All of these works display a superb sense of timbre and development – growing out of small musical ideas to build convincing larger structures. Of particular note is Ancient Songs, a work blending traditional and new musical material with a tremendous coloristic sense. Strongly recommended. – J. Thurman

***

Somewhere To Get To: Music of Rodney Lister: The Bear’s Lullaby (viola and piano), Of Mere Being (mezzo-soprano and piano), A Little Cowboy Music (clarinet, violin, contrabass, and piano), Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish (soprano and piano), Everness (soprano and piano), The Birds (soprano, mezzo-soprano, and piano), The Repetitive Heart (violin), Sure of You (piano), Blue Wine (narrator and piano), Somewhere To Get To (mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano); Arsis Audio 144; Collage New Music, David Hoose, director; D’Anna Fortunato, Pascale Delache-Feldman, Ian Greitzer, John Hollander, Denise Konicek, Rodney Lister, Mary Westbrook-Geha, Joel Smirnoff, John Ziarko.

This disc contains a large sampling of music by Boston-based composer Rodney Lister (b. 1951), with a focus on works involving voices and/or texts. Lister shows himself to be a deft craftsman, creating a world in each piece that is appropriate and completely sensitive to its context. Ranging from the Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired Sure of You to the Milton Babbitt and Peter Maxwell Davies inspired Somewhere To Get To, Lister is capable of evoking a huge variety of emotional states and moods.

A special treat is the extended work Blue Wine for narrator and piano in which noted poet John Hollander reads his own extended poem while Lister plays his creative “accompaniment” to it. – T. Abbott.

***

Stephen Paulus: The Five Senses: The Five Senses (narrator and orchestra), The Age of American Passions (orchestra); Arsis Audio 153; Janet Bookspan, narrator, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor

Mass for a Sacred Place: American Choral Works: Mass for a Sacred Place (Stephen Paulus), Pater noster (Dan Locklair), Serenity (Charles Ives), O magnum mysterium (Morten Lauridsen), O magnum mysterium (Gerald Near), hope, faith, life, love (Eric Whitacre), Lux aeterna (Edwin Fissinger), A New Song (James MacMillan); Washington National Cathedral Choral Society and Orchestra, J. Reiller Lewis, music director, Eric Plutz, organ, Kendra Colton, soprano

These two discs feature primarily the work of composer Stephen Paulus (b. 1949). The first disc contains an attractive piece, The Five Senses, for narrator and orchestra based on an original text by Joan Vail Thorne, with whom Paulus had previously collaborated on the similar and very popular Voices from the Gallery. The Age of American Passions is a three movement symphonic work inspired by America’s past and present. The Five Senses joins the small ranks of successful and appealing works for narrator and orchestra –along with works such as Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom,

The second release focuses primarily on the halfhour Mass for a Sacred Place by Paulus, his second full length mass setting. This tremendously exciting work is a major addition to the American choral repertory and utilizes and open and reverberant space of Washington National Cathedral with extreme skill.

The rest of the disc contains various shorter motets by American composer (with the one exception of Scottish composer James MacMillan). Although all beautiful and well-performed, these motets nearly all explore a similar slow and lush sound world. Some greater variety in programming choice would have been appreciated. However, J. Reilly Lewis and the Cathedral Choral Society deserve high praise and commendation for their commission and performance of the Paulus work. – C. Cooman


CD Review:

Arthur Berger: Complete Works for Solo Piano,
Centaur CRC 2593, Time: 66:37

by David Cleary

The death of Arthur Berger in 2003 at age 91 brought the multifaceted and fruitful career of this accomplished Boston-based composer, teacher, and writer to a close. This CD collects up his rarely-encountered oeuvre for piano solo. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the intriguing twists and turns in Berger’s stylistic evolution.

The earliest of these works, Episodes (1933), is an utterance from his student days. It contains the polytonality and atonality then preferred by ultra-progressives as diverse as Aaron Copland, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Arnold Schoenberg -- though it’s likely Berger only knew the output of the first of these composers at that point. It would be his last piece in some time, too, as Neoclassicism was becoming a dominant force and Berger understandably wished to find a way to come to terms with this more accessible aesthetic.

Berger’s acceptance of that style was grudging at first, as the Fantasy (1942) demonstrates. It’s his largest single movement written for keyboard -- though still lasting less than five minutes -- and employs widely spaced intervals and fractured unfolding while still sporting a pandiatonic pitch focus. The Rondo (1945), Partita (1947), and Four Two-Part Inventions (1948-49) show his most thoroughgoing embrace of Neoclassic conventions. Despite this, Berger’s structural borrowings never go so far as to include dance related formats; less prescribed genres such as the aria, capriccio, intermezzo, and serenade predominate here, allowing for a more absolutemusic oriented interpretation of this mid-century approach.

Three One-Part Inventions (1954) overlays Webern’s fingerprints onto Berger’s earlier writing style, pushing the music toward an Atlantic Seaboard avant-garde ethos. Here, he began to dabble in the twelve-tone vein. This would ultimately come to keyboard fruition in the Five Pieces for Piano (1969) and the Birthday Cards (1980-94), the latter a compilation of individual pieces d’occasion assembled by this recording’s pianist, Geoffrey Burleson. Five Pieces epitomizes pointillist East Coast serialism, though its clean vocal delineation and scattered use of inside-the-piano techniques steer the collection well short of dullness. The Birthday Cards are slightly less spiky and possess a genial warmth not always encountered in such music.

There are a few common threads running through all this work, though, including careful craftsmanship, motivic economy, and concise speech.

Pianist Burleson presents this music with lovingly discerning perception. His playing is unimpeachably accurate, loaded with exquisitely sculpted linear sensitivity, judicious pedaling, sparkling technique, and a clean, bracing tone that never becomes dry or ugly. Editing is excellent and sonics are fine. Highly recommended.


CD Review:

String Music of Allen Brings and Leo Kraft,
Arizona University Recordings, AUR CD 3112, Time: 54:52

by David Cleary

This release brings together string selections by two elder statesman New York tonemeisters, and it’s a noticeably uneven affair. Leo Kraft’s pair of works furnishes by far the better listening experience. His violin/cello duo Cinque Fantasie (1990, revised 2000) and String Quartet No. 4 (1998) are well-etched and evocative. Despite occasional nods to jazz walking basses and Elliott Carter’s independentminded counterpoint, these compositions spring from a neo-Bartok frame of reference, both in terms of harmonic language and rhythmic declamation. The string quartet boasts the same sort of rugged speech and economic confines of Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet, while the Fantasie consist of character pieces ranging from the gutsy to the delightful.

Sadly, neither composition by Allen Brings proves enjoyable. Scored for cello and piano, Sonata after Vivaldi (1981) co-opts the rhythms and phrasing of the older composer’s F major sonata for the same forces, stuffing this casing with dry, dissonant verticals. It regrettably comes off as a weak Hindemith clone. And despite its clearly stated arch form, the Quintet (1979) -- which adds a second cello to the standard string quartet figuration -- lacks harmonic direction and distinctive ideas.

Performances vary considerably. Both alone and with guest cellist Ariane Lallemand, the Meridian String Quartet (Sebu Sirinian and Lisa Tipton on violins, Jessica Troy on viola, and Wolfram Koessel on cello) plays with a lean, athletic style and strong technical prowess. Tipton and Lallemand give an attractive, if not always crisp rendition of Cinque Fantasie. Unfortunately, pianist Brings and cellist Alexander Kouguell do not do well by the former’s Sonata after Vivaldi; ensemble playing is ragged and not well balanced, and Kouguell’s intonation and technique are of substandard quality. Sound and production are generally okay if not perfection. Worth getting for the Kraft pieces.


CD Review:

American Harpsichord Music of the 20th Century,
Albany Records, TROY 457, Time: 73:12

by David Cleary

Unlike some harpsichordists, Boston University’s Mark Kroll does not restrict himself to literature dating from Bach and before. This ambitious disc is devoted entirely to 20th century solo and ensemble music featuring this aristocratic instrument.

Nearly all the works included here have a strong Neoclassical feel, though only Walter Piston’s Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord (1945) and Lester Trimble’s Four Fragments from the Canterbury Tales (1967) are pure exemplars of the style. The former is brief but compelling, consisting of a surprisingly warm and evocative centerpiece surrounded by bubbly, athletic movements that betray jazz-tinged touches in harmony and gesture. Trimble’s piece, scored for soprano and three players, pairs verse from Chaucer’s Medieval classic with music of much warmth, charm, and agility. Passages of awkward text setting are its only flaw. Robert Starer’s Yizkor and Anima Aeterna (1992) strays furthest from Neoclassic approaches. This flute/harpsichord duo revels in more improvisatory, though still solid, formats and a more chromatically dissonant sound world. Fetching and felicitous, it expresses itself well.

Lou Harrison’s terrific Six Sonatas for Cembalo (1934-1943) amply demonstrates this composer’s gift for melodic invention without ever seeming long-winded. But there’s much variety in texture and approach here, including several passages of accomplished contrapuntal writing. Inspired by the binary edifices of Domenico Scarlatti, there’s plenty of effective juggling of eclectic influences, ranging from French Baroque keyboard ornamentation to hints of flamenco, Far Eastern, and Amerind idioms. The remaining compositions, Fantasy for Harpsichord (1983) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Fantasy-Toccata for Solo Harpsichord (1992) by Gardner Read, are odd listens. The former opus proves more satisfying, starting off scattered in its ideas and unfolding but gradually seeing its disparate material coalesce into focused music caught in the upward, then downward sweep of narrative curve processes. Despite its lucid formats and clear-cut ideas, Reed’s opus tends to wander and its material lacks distinction.

There’s much to like in the execution as well. Kroll’s playing, loaded with sensitive phrasing, pinpoint finger work, and turn-on-a-dime control, is absolutely marvelous. Soprano Nancy Armstrong’s delightfully understated singing perfectly suits the low-key elegance of Trimble’s music, while her diction copes well with that composer’s sometimes inelegant word setting. Secure left hand technique and carefully channeled energy lend distinction to Carol Lieberman’s violin performing, while flutist Alan Weiss can be positively cited for his sparkling sound and polished melodic shaping. Clarinetist Bruce Creditor assists well in Trimble’s backing trio. Sound and production are fine.

A most enjoyable release, featuring several hard-to- find gems.


CD Review:

David Rakowski: Etudes,
BRIDGE 9121, Time: 65:27; David Rakowski: Etudes, vol. 2,
BRIDGE 9157, Time: 76:00

by David Cleary

You’re sitting at the piano with pen in hand working on a large opus and have suddenly hit a dry patch. So what do you do? If you’re Brandeis University faculty member David Rakowski, you reach for another notebook and write one or more etudes for piano as a palate clearing exercise. This unusual tactic has in fact paid sizable dividends for both this composer and the piano literature. Numbered currently at six books of ten etudes each plus a few extra, Rakowski has created the most important collection of such pieces yet produced by an American tonemeister.

This pair of CDs contains the complete Books I to IV of these items and over half of Book V, presenting a side of this composer hitherto unencountered. Rakowski’s oeuvre commonly shows predilection for an Atlantic Seaboard ethos, but here we experience him as a scalar if non-triadic stateside eclectic, able to directly quote snippets from Ludwig van Beethoven to Hayes Biggs and filch from popular idioms ranging from boogie to bop, swing to stride. The only bows to a Northeast oriented approach are found in Rakowski’s impeccable craftsmanship and Babbitt-like punning titles (“You Dirty Rag” and “A Gliss is Just a Gliss,” for two).

Most of these miniatures are based on a specific sonority, gestural idea, or piano technique. All are concise, yet brimming with personality. And despite nods to composers as diverse as Debussy, Prokofiev, Berg, Nancarrow, and Messiaen, Rakowski creates a distinctive, highly varied sound world. For example, the ten or so etudes employing a perpetual motion approach carve out their own unique niches -- none copy each other in terms of harmony, texture, or dramatic unfolding. And while some of the larger entries are cast in clear palindromic forms, even those showcasing a more intuitive formal approach satisfy greatly. These splendid little gems are worthy of any keyboardist’s attention.

Pianist Amy Dissanayake’s performance here is superb. A rich tone quality, impeccable finger work, scintillating voice delineation, and tasteful pedaling contribute to some of the most beautifully musical keyboard playing this critic has heard in some time. Editing and sound quality are wonderfully good. Both releases are a definite must-hear.


CD Review:

American Classics: George Rochberg,
Naxos 8.559120, Time: 73:59

by David Cleary

Your reviewer had wanted very much to like this disc. A composer of sturdy reputation, a topflight orchestra devoted to cutting-edge repertoire -- and all on a budget label! How can it miss? Sadly, this is not a release likely to be revisited here in future.

At his best, the late George Rochberg was an accomplished tonemeister able to hold his own with the finest in the business. These three works do not rank among his best, however. Both Black Sounds (1965) for wind/percussion ensemble and Phaedra: A Monodrama in Seven Scenes (1974) for soprano and orchestra are darkly intense, even bleak. But both items prove static and stodgy, achingly slow to unfold and numbingly repetitive. And neither entry speaks with a distinctive voice. Phaedra is heavily imbued with Stravinsky’s sound world, the vocal portions strongly redolent of the Symphony of Psalms while the instrumental interludes owe plenty to Petrouchka and, to a lesser extent, Le Sacre. And Black Sounds resembles Varese’s mature oeuvre so closely that it comes across as a style study.

The remaining selection, Cantio Sacra (1953) is a faithful arrangement of an organ variation set composed by Samuel Scheidt. As transcriptions go, it’s attractive enough, though no special insights are shed on the original such as those heard in Ravel’s version of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Webern’s rendition of the “Ricercar” from J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering. And the Scheidt, while quite good, does not fit the profile of “Baroque composition most in need of a rescue from oblivion.”

The performances at least are commendable. Gil Rose draws fervent, yet disciplined playing from his group, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger presents a strong sound and nimble technique, the better to put forth Rochberg’s at times highly athletic vocal enunciation is good despite occasional vowel distortion. Editing and sound are okay.


CD Review:

Yehudi Wyner: The Second Madrigal, Oboe Quartet, Horntrio,
BRIDGE 9134, Time: 67:41

by David Cleary

Yehudi Wyner, recently retired from the faculty of Brandeis University, has had a long, illustrious, and fruitful career as composer and pianist. This excellent release collects three of his finest chamber works from the late 1990s.

One of two items dating from 1999 heard here, the Quartet for Oboe and String Trio is cast in a single sizable movement. The cello’s opening pizzicato ground bass serves as inspiration for a large binary structure, the first half consisting of several loosely outlined sections which later give way to a more formally delineated clutch of variations. As a result, Wyner’s liberal incorporation of contrasting material is expertly grounded by motivic and architectural craft.

Adding piano and violin to the title instrument, Horntrio (1997) is a bit more clangorous in sound than the other pieces on this disc, though the grittiness is softened with jazz-derived verticals. Despite its fast/slow/fast movement array, no moldy formats are employed. Movement one, for example, tacks an extensive coda both slow in tempo and grave in feel onto a fast, nervous, often angry main body that’s through-composed. Material is lovingly etched and highly compelling.

Like the aforementioned oboe quartet, The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women (1999) showcases a seemingly bottomless grab-bag of textures and colors. It too harnesses all this copious variety to a large overarching plan, here delineated by its text subjects and the resultant musical mirroring of its moods -- essentially outlining a tripartite schema. Vocal writing lies comfortably for the soprano soloist, and the accompaniment furnished by the eleven-member ensemble never obscures the singer. This terrifically evocative composition unfolds with both beauty and purpose.

The players, a who’s who of Boston’s best freelance musicians, put this music across wonderfully well. Special citations go to Peggy Pearson (oboe), Jean Rife (horn), Bayla Keyes and James Buswell (violin), Mary Ruth Ray (viola), and Rhonda Rider (cello) for particularly inspired chamber music making. Soprano Dominique Labelle is stunningly good, featuring textbookclear enunciation, deft register navigation, and a clean, expressive tone quality. Wyner’s piano playing in Horntrio is superb, as is his conducting of Second Madrigal. Production and sonics are top-notch.

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