“Briefly Noted”

Brief Reviews of New CD Releases

Peter Lieberson: Rilke Songs (mezzo-soprano and piano), The Six Realms (cello and orchestra), Horn Concerto (horn and chamber orchestra); Bridge Records 9178; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Peter Serkin; William Purvis; Michaela Fukacova; Odense Symphony Orchestra, Donald Palma and Justin Brown (63:04)

This disc is a long-awaited release of new works of Peter Lieberson (b. 1946). The three works on this disc all date from the period after his marriage to the amazing mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. He speaks in the notes how LHL’s focus on effortless music-making and musical outcome, without getting bogged down in questions of technique, has been a huge influence on him. Indeed, Peter Lieberson’s music has continued to sound more and more natural, coupling the superb musical imagination he always had with a new clarity of expression and surface. Like Stravinsky or Copland, Lieberson has a tremendous gift for the voicing of chords, and thus creates textures of beautiful sonority, from simple means. For this listener, the highlight of the disc is the romantic cello concerto which paints a diversity of moods, connected to the Buddhist concept of the Six Realms. The Rilke Songs are performed exquisitely by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and pianst Peter Serkin, two of the finest exponents today of their respective instruments. Strongly recommended. – Carson Cooman

***

Aflame in Flight: Robert Cogan: Aflame in Flight (solo violin), Celan Portrait (voice and piano), Pozzi Escot: Three Poems of Rilke (Fourth String Quartet), Lamentus (mixed ensemble), Aria I (soprano, flute, clarinet, saxophone); Centaur CRC 2722; Joan Heller; Jon Sakata; Michael Appleman; Bethany Beardsless and the New Events Ensemble, Jacques-Louis Monod; Claremont String Quartet and Hugo Weisgall; Jennifer Ashe, Orlando Cela, Stefanie Key, and Eric Hewitt. (62:25)

This disc is the latest release devoted to the music of composer and theorist couple Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot. It is one of the finest releases of their work. Of particular note is Cogan’s dramatic song cycle Celan Portrait, which receives a tremendous performance by soprano Joan Heller and pianist Jon Sakata. The only thing better than their performance on this disc is actually hearing them perform this impressive work live. Escot’s string quartet is inspired by poems of Rilke, which are narrated excellently by the late American composer Hugo Weisgall. Lamentus is a Holocaust memorial work and is an excellent example of Escot’s extremely focused expression – never a wasted gesture or moment. The disc concludes with Escot’s evocative Aria I which is the first in a series of significant works with that title, in which she explores the basic properties of the voice in combination with instruments. This disc is an excellent introduction to the work of these significant artists. – Carson Cooman

***

Avner Dorman: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 & 3, Moments Musicaux, Azerbaijani Dance; Naxos 8.579001; Eliran Avni. (62:35)

Avner Dorman’s (b. 1975) music has received a great deal of recent publicity, and I have been very impressed with his orchestral works that I have encountered. Even so, I was still not prepared for the excitement of this new disc of his complete piano music. The work begins with his first sonata of 1998 (subtitled “Classical”), a work which draws on everything from Mozart to Bernstein to Elvis. The disc concludes with his third piano sonata of 2005, in which the Middle Eastern influences that are evident in his recent work have taken firmly hold. It presents a journey through his compositional life in those ensuing years, always revealing a fecund musical imagination and superb craft. Every work is written with supreme craft and performed vibrantly and thrillingly by pianist Eliran Avni. It’s hard to find a new disc of contemporary piano music that is really exciting or freshly invigorating, but this disc of Dorman’s most certainly is. Now, can Naxos please give us some of his superb orchestral music? – Thomas Abbott

***

Ned Rorem: Flute Concerto/Violin Concerto/Pilgrims; Naxos 8.559278; Phillipe Quint; Jeffrey Khaner; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, José Serebrier. (62:42)

Since 1997, Ned Rorem’s (b. 1923) orchestral output has been devoted primarily to a series of concerti. This disc contains one of the most recent, the Flute Concerto (2002), coupled with his earlier Violin Concerto (1985). Rorem’s typical concerto form consists of a series of short movement, grouped together in the manner of a suite. The flute concerto is a beautiful, autumnal work – moments of bitterness contrast with moments of cautious beauty. The humorously titled last moment, “Résumé and Prayer” is especially poignant and moving. The violin concerto is a similar piece in concept, though more straightforwardly lyrical and open. (In 1998, the death of Rorem’s long-time partner, James Holmes, caused a compositional hiatus and resulted in a new tone for the works that have followed.) The violin concerto is a travelogue through the night – beginning with “Twilight” and ending at “Dawn.” Within, we find a variety of expression – from two aggressive toccatas to a gorgeous “Song Without Words” in Rorem’s most characteristic song style. Though it has been available on disc before (with Gidon Kremer, Leonard Bernstein, and the New York Philharmonic), this new recording makes a stronger case for the concerto as a whole. The other piece included is a Pilgrims (1958) – an expressive and yearning work for string orchestra. Naxos’s previous Rorem orchestral release was a disc of his three symphonies. Though those pieces have virtues, they are early works and were written before he had truly found his mature voice and structural paradigm. The three pieces on this new disc are quintessential Rorem and all excellent. Let us hope that Naxos continues to explore the orchestral treasures in his output. – Carson Cooman

***

David Stock: A Little Miracle (mezzo-soprano and orchestra), Yizkor (string orchestra), Y’rusha (clarinet and ensemble), Tekiah (trumpet and ensemble); Elizabeth Shammash, Rudfunk- Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Gerard Schwarz; Seattle Sympohony, Gerard Schwarz; Richard Stoltzman, Stephen Burns, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, David Stock. (76:23)

American David Stock (b. 1939) is best known for his direction for many years of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and for his time as composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony. Stock’s Jewish heritage has influenced a great deal of his work, as evidenced by this release in the Milken Archive of Jewish Music series on Naxos. This is a very well-played release of deeply felt music. The opening monodrama, A Little Miracle, is a serious work on a libretto by Beth Weidon, exploring a tender story of survival and courage amidst the Holocaust. The highlight of the disc is the trumpet concerto, Tekiah, a buoyant and delightful piece that shows Stock’s love for the instrument (his background was as a trumpeter). The clarinet concerto, Y’rusha, is filled with Klezmer influences and is performed with zest by the charismatic Richard Stoltzman. – Gilbert Masone

***

Luciano Berio: Sequenzas I-XIV; Naxos 8.557661-63; Various performers. (3 discs; 3:01:59)

Finally! An affordable recording of the complete Sequenzas of Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003). The only previous recording of this landmark set of contemporary works was released on Deustche Grammophone in their 20/21 Series. However, that series did not include Sequenza XIV (2002) for cello, which had not yet been written. This new set from Naxos, using primarily Canadian performers, is thus the first recording of the complete set – including the alternate transcriptions for saxophone. Performances are strong and have the virtuosity required for these significant and well-known works. Devotees of Berio will want both sets (since many of the performers in the DG set are those for whom the works were originally written or were Berio’s chosen interpreters), but for any listener who wants an introduction to these works, or a chance to get the whole set in one place, there is no better opportunity than this affordable 3-disc set from Naxos. – Thomas Abbott


CD Review:

The Garden Suite: David Olen Baird,
Symsonic 1001, Time: 62:04

by David Cleary

In a time when it seems every composer has lofty ambitions, it’s rare to hear music from someone who purposely eschews lapelgrabbing statements. David Olen Baird, resident of Kansas City and a visible presence in music-based usenet newsgroups, seems wedded to keeping things low-key.

The Garden Suite (1999) is an hour-long twelve movement quartet for flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, bassoon, and piano. This is guileless, melody-driven fare, essentially a jazz-pop updating of Neoclassicism that nevertheless is able to unobtrusively employ serial procedures on occasion. It’s not akin to an arrangement of pop songs for traditional instruments however -- Baird has craft enough to develop material and build formats beyond verse/chorus. For example, the movement labeled “December,” is a rudimentary set of variations on the Christmas tune “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Don’t expect any major epiphanies here, but for simple, unassuming listening, this sweet little release has some merit.

Flautist Shannon Finney, clarinetist Elena Lence Talley, bassoonist Ann Bilderback, and pianist Robert Pherigo perform quite well. Sound is acceptable and production is okay. For those who play this disc at a computer, there are accompanying photos, poetry, and the like.

CD Review:

Lee Hyla: Trans, New World,
Records 80614-2, Time: 53:36

by David Cleary

Your reviewer has heard the three works on this disc live and it’s a pleasure to encounter them now in this format. New England Conservatory faculty member Lee Hyla is arguably our country’s most significant midcareer composer, and recorded documentation of these orchestral pieces is long overdue.

The attributes of Hyla’s oeuvre are many, among them gestural economy, compelling architecture, and a dissonant harmonic language that is simultaneously consistent and multi-faceted. His slow music is ethereal, deep, and timeless in feel, while his busier moments pack a punch and a half -- raw, intense, and seething with energy. The full-throttle works of Jason Eckardt, Ken Ueno, Curtis K. Hughes, and other notable younger composers testify to his music’s persuasive influence.

The Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra (1988) clearly points up the most important progenitors of Hyla’s style, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Economic in speech and duration, it’s grouchy, spiky stuff that demands virtuosic solo playing. Triads and otherwise more consonant sonorities (among other things, a quote from Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto) permeate the fabric of Hyla’s Violin Concerto (2001). But this is no indication of softening soloist demands – the fiddle part proves incredibly challenging, though still idiomatic – or a lessening of intensity. Trans (1996) lacks the prominent percussion, piano, and bass clarinet parts this composer often relies on to point up his gripping, demonstrative manner of speech. Here, Hyla shows he doesn’t need them. It’s all a bit like looking at Picasso’s “Guernica” through blue tinted lenses, still wonderful but now cast in an unfamiliar context.

Sonics and editing are excellent and performances are splendid. Tim Smith’s punchy bass clarinet playing features excellent technique and solid tone with just the right dollop of grit. Violinist Laura Frautschi puts forth sparkling bow and digital work, spot-on interpretive instincts, and a substantial sound that cuts through the ensemble beautifully. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, directed by Gil Rose, sounds first-rate whether alone or backing its guests. A topshelf CD that should have a place on everyone’s shelf.

CD Review:

Shadow Bands: Music for Strings and Piano by Scott Wheeler,
Newport Classic NPD 85672, Time: 61:35

by David Cleary

Founder/conductor of the Dinosaur Annex Ensemble and faculty at Emerson College, Scott Wheeler has also built a strong reputation as a composer over the years. As this CD of music for strings and piano demonstrates, his notoriety is well deserved.

Unlike that of several Boston-area tonemeisters, Wheeler’s muse most comfortably nestles within a uniquely expressed post-Neoclassic ethos. Pitches are clearly scalar in origin, arrayed in a somewhat more dissonant version of pandiatonicism that still readily admits triadic configurations. With its older formats and stylized rhythms and phrasing, the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1985) most resembles music from the 1930s and 40s. But this is a substantial, not derivative listen thanks to its unusually clangorous harmonies and driven manner of speech.

Both Piano Trio No. 2: Camera Dances (1996/1999) and the string trio Shadow Bands (1991) prominently feature pointillist textures, though neither piece is a clone of the other. The intensely stuttering material that opens Camera Dances initially contrasts with a section of expressive counterpoint – the opening movement outlines this dichotomy clearly – and in subsequent movements finds clever ways to have the two concepts interact. The single-movement Shadow Bands treats the fractured music at its outset in a bouncy, genial fashion suggesting syncopated jazz, then proceeds to flesh this bare-bones basis out with ingenious elaborations of varying kinds -- in essence being a subtly etched variation set.

The piano quartet Dragon Mountain (1992/93) has the most tonally focused sound of all these selections, at times notably recalling Celtic idioms. This is rootsy, evocative stuff which, despite remarkably attractive colorist writing, has its share of gutsy energy.

Performances are first-rate. The Gramercy Trio (Sharan Leventhal on violin, Jonathan Miller on cello, and Randall Hodgkinson on piano) features wonderfully balanced and nuanced ensemble abilities as well as accomplished individual prowess of technique and tone quality. Pianist Donald Berman and violists James Dunham and Edward Gazouleas match their colleagues stride for stride. Production values are top-shelf good. Sonics are cavernous on Dragon Mountain but fine otherwise. An excellent release well worth obtaining.

CD Review:

Beth Wiemann: Why Performers Wear Black,
Albany Records TROY 675, Time: 49:26

by David Cleary

Beth Wiemann, faculty at the University of Maine, has composed works in several media over the years. This release focuses on a narrow slice of that oeuvre: pieces for solo bass clarinet, an electronic music offering, and songs for soprano accompanied by one or two players – all brief in duration and mostly economic in speech.

The vocal compositions make up the bulk of this CD, and despite their fairly low-key approach, demonstrate a good bit of variety. All are cast in a scalar, if not usually tonal, harmonic language mildly suggestive of Ives or Stravinsky; there are also subtle nods to Broadway show tunes in the declamatory approach to word setting. Textures and ideas are clearly delineated. Certain songs, such as “Post Office,” “Queen Anne,” and “A Fixture,” (this last unusual in having clarinet instead of piano backing for the singer), put forth a quietly charming sense of humor. Others such as “Italy” and “A Soul Selects” possess seriousness leavened with engaging warmth. The most thoroughgoing entity, Four Ambitions, is a cycle setting verses by Lola Haskins that obliquely reference musical subjects; clarinet and violin combine to accompany the singer here.

Poem and Postlude Revisited goes beyond the aforementioned idiom into electronic territory. Here, a recorded performance of Wiemann’s clarinet-voice duet “Poem and Postlude” sits atop a carpet of digital enhancement. The highlighting, however, amounts to little more than reverb embellishment and similar unobtrusive effects, making minimal difference in the overall aural experience. It’s best to experience this enjoyable song straight, without interference.

Wiemann is also an accomplished clarinetist, so it’s not surprising that Waver and Rustle are wonderfully idiomatic utterances for bass clarinet. The latter, busy but genial, first contrasts and then combines fragmented scalar material with jumping motifs. Waver begins with tremolos and trills both regular and enharmonic, first gradually and then more extensively interpolating linear figuration.

Performances are excellent throughout. Strong singing is provided by soprano Susan Narucki; an attractively full sound, felicitous execution, and solid diction are her chief attributes. Pianist Christopher Oldfather furnishes accompaniments that are supportive, yet personable. And Wiemann’s first-class clarinet/bass clarinet playing boasts supple technique, mellifluous tone, and clearheaded interpretive skills. Sound quality is fine. Editing is generally good, though a few splices remain audible. Much recommended.

CD Review:

Nicolas Flagello: Piano Concerto No. 1, Dante’s Farewell, Concerto Sinfonico,
Naxos 8.559296, Time: 65:23

by Carson Cooman

Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) has been dubbed by some as the last true American romantic composer. Flagello’s rich and deeply felt musical language is rooted in traditional romantic musical principles, while displaying an awareness of the then-developing modernist languages in the 20th century. Through a series of recent recordings, his works have become known to a broader and receptive public. His musical style coupled true emotional depth with a supremely impressive sense of craftsmanship and true symphonic development. (www.flagello.com contains more information about his work.)

This is Naxos’s second disc devoted to Flagello, and the three works cover the entire period of his mature writing career. The disc begins with his first piano concerto of 1950 (the second and third concerti are available on an Artek CD release) and ends with Concerto Sinfonico (1985) for saxophone quartet and orchestra – Flagello’s last completed work.

To those who have encountered Flagello’s music in the past – music which tends towards the dark and brooding – the first piano concerto’s temperament may be a bit of a surprise. Where the second and third piano concerti are indeed darker affairs, a sunny spirit runs throughout the entire first concerto – particularly notable in the sumptuous Puccinian climax of the slow movement or the buoyantly thrilling theme of the finale. In this writer’s opinion, the three Flagello concerti are (along with the four of the quite different composer Charles Wuorinen) the most important “piano concerto cycle” by an American composer. The romantic repertoire is a mainstay of current concert pianists, and they would do well to look to the three Flagello concerti – particularly now that excellent recordings of all three are available.

Dante’s Farewell (1962) for soprano and orchestra is a dramatic scena – dating from the peak years of Flagello’s writing career. From this work we get a glimpse of the lyric treasures that await us in the unrecorded Flagello operas. (Left unorchestrated at Flagello’s death, Anthony Sbordoni provided a compelling orchestration, a task he has undertaken for most of Flagello’s unorchestrated compositions.)

The disc concludes with the saxophone quartet concerto, one of Flagello’s best known works. Although the concerto does not have the same force of musical ideas that are displayed in Flagello’s best work, it remains as the only true romantic concerto in this small musical genre and thus has won many adherents.

The Ukraine National Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of John McLaughlin Williams provides strong performances of the first two works. Pianist Tatjana Rankovich and soprano Susan Gonzalez are likewise excellent. The Rutgers Symphony Orchestra under Kynan Johns with the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet performs Concerto Sinfonico with commitment.

This disc, along with Naxos’s first Flagello release (containing his first symphony, among other works) is strongly recommended. For those interested in the piano concerto genre, this disc along with the Artek release (AR- 0002-2) are absolutely essential.

***

CD Review:

Tom Heasley: On the Sensations of Tone,
Innova 566, Time: 56:04

by David Cleary

When folks consider the tuba at all, they likely think of the unwieldy metal monster that furnishes ponderous platforms for Oktoberfest combos, marching bands, and symphony orchestras. But the tuba is Los Angeles based composer Tom Heasley’s instrument, one that he uses to produce striking, unique music.

His On the Sensations of Tone (2001) consists of two tracks, one of moderate length and the other gargantuan, both improvised live without overdubs or splicing. The sound world is West Coast ambient, but with an unusual frequency range staying pretty much south of Middle C. Heasley adds loops, digital processing, and throat singing to his instrument of choice to produce plush, layered, soothing textures that are dropdead beautiful -- one might not even guess there’s a tuba involved in the sonic fabric, in fact.

Like much music of this sort, everything unfolds at a glacial pace. Those with the patience to stick with it will likely find this release rewarding for the fascinating timbres alone.

Sound quality is very good. Program notes and a bio would have been useful to include. Here is a CD that’s a must for anyone who likes music in this style.

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