01 ConNotationsConNotations
Mei Yi Foo; Philipp Hutter; Bartosz Woroch; Ashley Wass; Britten Sinfonia
Orchid Classics ORCH100065 (orchidclassics.com)

ConNotations is a very impressive disc. It features pianist Mei Yi Foo with a trumpeter (Philipp Hutter), a violinist (Bartosz Woroch) and another pianist (Ashley Wass) together with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clement Power. The superlative recording owes much, first, to the choice of repertoire. The Shostakovich Piano Concerto in C Minor Op. 35 for strings, piano and solo trumpet is a combination as unusual as the concerto’s form, which consists of four through-flowing movements which sound like just one. Foo’s playing makes the music rise up like a ferocious beast and both Foo and Hutter are brilliant throughout.

On Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto for piano and violin with 13 wind instruments there’s a fruitful tension between the soloist’s expansive Romanticism and the no-nonsense rigour of Power, a tension that matches the composer’s ideals. Berg restricts the concerto’s accompaniment to 13 wind instruments, yet he ingeniously produced some marvellously unusual colourings. Foo’s piano is given the solo duties in the first movement, Woroch’s violin in the second and then they finally combine together in a show of rousing, immediate expressiveness in the finale.

While Camille Saint-Saëns may have written The Carnival of the Animals mainly for the amusement of his friends in 1886, its serious beauty should never be underestimated. In the hands of Foo and Wass there are moments of great magic, with the most beautiful and spectacular of all heard during the rippling arpeggios of the mysterious Aquarium (VII).

01 Shostakovich Golden AgeShostakovich – The Golden Age
Bolshoi Ballet
BelAir BAC443

A friend and I watched this video of, as we used to call it, The Age of Gold, with neither of us knowing the story nor what they were dancing about. Nevertheless, it was so brilliant that we watched it with delight for quite some time, simply revelling in the joyous and boisterous music while captivated by the goings-on onstage.

Shostakovich had a gift for musical satire, as his opera The Nose exemplifies. This story plays out on the floor of the Golden Age, a restaurant in the south of Russia and a favorite haunt of petty criminals in the 1920s. Interlaced with a floor show in progress at the restaurant, a young girl, Rita, now known as Mademoiselle Margot, is desired both by Boris, a young fisherman and aspiring actor and Jacques, Rita’s dance partner, in reality Yashka, the leader of a local gang of bandits. Inevitably, as in any good melodrama, eventually someone is stabbed to death. The librettist and choreographer is the legendary Yuri Grigorovich, well known and adored in ballet circles. Thanks to Shostakovich and Grigorovich the action is vibrant and non-stop. There are a few familiar tunes, including the Polka and Tea for Two. For those in the know, the principal dancers are Nina Kaptsova (Rita), Ruslan Skvortsov (Boris), Mikhail Lobukhin (Yashka), Ekaterina Krysanova (Lyuska, Yashka’s accomplice) and Vyacheslav Lopatin (variety show compere at the Golden Age). The high-definition video is, as expected, breathtakingly real, as is the usual astonishing virtuosity of the Bolshoi orchestra as heard in earlier releases.  For fans of Shostakovich and/or Grigorovich this is a self-recommending must-have.

As we are getting to that time of year, here are two apropos serious gift suggestions: The Great Bolshoi Ballets: four Blu-ray discs in one package – Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and The Flames of Paris (BelAir BAC610), breathtaking in every respect; and Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies & Concertos with Valery Gergiev and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre & six soloists (Arthaus Musik 107552, four Blu-ray discs plus hardbound book). These are definitive live performances recorded over the span of a year in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Unique.

02 Antheil 4 5George Antheil – Symphonies 4 and 5
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 10941

Best remembered for his futuristic Ballet mécanique of 1926, the New Jersey-born pianist and composer George Antheil (1900-1959) was in his youth the darling of the Parisian avant-garde and a rising star of American music. Alas, his attempt to replicate his Parisian acclaim with an ambitious, high-profile American remounting of this work at Carnegie Hall in 1927 was a disaster from which the self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” was slow to recover. His scandalous score (originally conceived for an orchestra of player pianos, percussionists and airplane propeller) was not to be heard again for 60 years. Dejected, the pugnacious, pistol-packing composer eventually found work in Hollywood, where he scored films and worked as a journalist. The patriotic fervour of wartime 1940s America brought him back into the spotlight with a catalogue of works radically more conventional than those of his youth. Antheil’s Symphony No.4 (subtitled “1942”) was broadcast nationwide by Stokowski in 1944 to great acclaim and received numerous subsequent performances. Later Eugene Ormandy would come calling to commission his “Joyous” Symphony No.5 (1948) for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Throughout the 1950s however, the quest for the “Great American Symphony” faded along with Antheil’s career. He died suddenly in 1959 of a heart attack.

The numerous tempo changes noted in the track details to the movements of these two symphonies hint at Antheil’s problematic sectional approach to composition. It is a challenge for any conductor to tie so many mood swings together coherently, a task that Storgårds for the most part achieves, though to my mind Hugh Wolff’s CPO recording of the same symphonies with the Frankfurt RSO from the year 2000 is superior in this regard. Despite the patchwork nature of Antheil’s music there is never a dull moment; the listener, though perhaps a tad confused, will find the music consistently engaging and effectively orchestrated. Surprisingly, despite the self-consciously upbeat all-American profile of these works, both symphonies exhibit strong influences from the leading Soviet composers of the era, notably the obsessive dactylic rhythms of Shostakovich and the harmonic twists of Prokofiev. A bonus track brings us the first recording of Antheil’s Over the Plains (1945), a cinematic evocation of the landscape of Texas. All told, an intriguing and enjoyable album, quite plushly recorded and very keenly played.

03 Facets Cline duoFacets
Cline/Cuestas Duo
Independent (clinecuestasduo.com)

There are many fine flutists in the world these days, and Jenny Cline of the Cline/Cuestas Duo is definitely one of them. She and guitarist Carlos Cuestas have put together a terrific program which combines four substantial contemporary compositions balanced by music from the late 19th and the early- and the mid-20th centuries.

At 15 minutes, Maximo Diego Pujol’s Suite Buenos Aires is the longest of the four contemporary pieces. Composed in 1995, its four movements depict different parts of the city after which it is named. The slow second movement is particularly exquisite, opening with a guitar solo beautifully played by Cuestas, setting up Cline for the heartrending solo which follows. The last movement too, is particularly noteworthy, bristling with excitement and precise teamwork.

Among the earlier compositions are six of Bartók’s Romanian Dances and Enrique Granados’ Danza Española No. 5: Andaluza, from which the duo draws haunting nostalgia for times past in pre-cataclysm Eastern Europe and Spain respectively.

Daniel Dorff’s Serenade to Eve, After Rodin (1999), beginning passionately lyrical and moving to an astonishing virtuosic conclusion, is yet another great addition to the contemporary repertoire for flute and guitar. So too is Gary Schocker’s Silk Worms, music of great refinement commissioned by the duo in 2013 and interpreted here with warmth and conviction.

Credit also goes to Oscar Zambrano, who mastered the recording, for really getting the balance between the two instruments just right. Congratulations to all who were involved for an excellent first CD.

06 Wuorinen Vol 3Charles Wuorinen Vol. 3
loadbang; Anne-Marie McDermott; Group for Contemporary Music; Charles Wuorinen
Bridge Records 9490 (bridgerecords.com)

Among the most prolific of contemporary American composers, the 79-year old Charles Wuorinen’s catalogue of 260-plus compositions includes works for opera, orchestra and chamber music, as well as solo instruments and voice. He has received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. The 2014 Madrid premiere of Wuorinen’s opera, set on Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, was covered by international media and has had several subsequent European productions.

Anthony Tommasini in his 2014 New York Times review characterized Wuorinen as an “unabashedly complex Modernist.” And while in 2008 Wuorinen called the term serialism “almost without meaning,” nevertheless his career-long commitment to 12-tone composition is clear, with Schoenberg, Berg, late Stravinsky and Babbitt cited among primary influences. Fractals and Mandelbrot mathematical sets are also central to Wuorinen’s recent compositional procedures.

Much of Wuorinen’s music makes great technical demands on musicians, including tonal leaps, extreme dynamic contrasts, and rapid exchange of pitches, all requiring extreme precision and virtuosity. This is all on ample display in the three works on Charles Wuorinen, Vol. 3.

The album opens with Alphabetical Ashbery (2013) a song cycle/motet marked by the free-flowing, playful and often disjunctive poems by the American poet John Ashbery performed by the unique forces of loadbang: Jeffrey Gavett, baritone, Carlos Cordeiro, bass clarinet, Andy Kozar, trumpet and William Lang, trombone. The muscular and substantial Fourth Piano Sonata (2007), the latest and most traditionally structured of Wuorinen’s works in this genre, is definitively rendered by the brilliant pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. It Happens Like This (2010) closes the CD. At just over 39 minutes in seven bite-sized movements, this four-voice cantata is set to American modernist James Tate’s surrealistic poems, providing a charming close to our musical visit with one of America’s enduring elder statesmen of composition. 

07 Rhapsodies Around the WorldRhapsodies Around the World
Guy Yehuda; Deborah Moriarty
Blue Griffin Records BGR441 (bluegriffin.com)

An ambitious project launched by clarinetist Guy Yehuda resulted in six new works for clarinet and piano, all somehow influenced by Claude Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie. Rhapsodies Around the World is a fair description of the contents, as all the continents are represented by the diverse set of composers Yehuda chose to commission.

The disc opens with his performance of the model work, and Yehuda demonstrates a decent finesse with this always-difficult piece. His reading is marked by certain injections of personality, if that’s the right word. Over time a well-worn piece might seem to beg for reinterpretation, and one is always free to provide one, just as a listener is free to like or dislike the layering of liberties pasted on the original.

I’m grateful nonetheless to the performer for this collection. The various spinoffs most resemble the original only in duration, each between eight and ten minutes in length. The composers provide an accounting of their approach to the project’s requirements, some more prolix than others. The essay by Michel Petrossian describing his Timkat Song bears so much analysis on its own that one might forget the fine piece of music it describes. American violinist/composer Piotr Szewczyk’s Luminous Rhapsody reminds me of the music of Joan Tower. Yao Chen almost literally recalls the original Rhapsodie at the outset of Through Waters, By Mountains. Clare Loveday of South Africa wrote Heatwave during a real heat wave, gave up on trying to find a connection to the model work, and came up with a brilliant, jazzy number. It, Parish Ode (attention anagram lovers), by Liduino Pitombeira of Brazil, and The Three Alcids by Melody Eötvös are my favourites.

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