01 KorngoldKorngold – Violin Concerto; Much Ado About Nothing; Suite Op.23
Benjamin Schmid; Wiener Philharmoniker; Seiji Ozawa
Oehms Classics OC 537 (oehmsclassics.de)

This is a set of live performances from the Salzburg Festival of 2004 entirely devoted to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer of extraordinary talent, whose music was forbidden in the Nazi era. He escaped Austria in 1937 and settled in the USA and had a successful career in Hollywood writing film scores, but gave it up and continued writing symphonic and chamber music of the highest calibre – as proven by this recording. Korngold was also the last bastion of tonality, continuing the Romantic vein of Richard Strauss and Mahler as opposed to Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, the atonalists.

I came to Korngold via his opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) a post-Romantic masterpiece that haunted my imagination for years, but his Violin Concerto is a later work written in 1947 and I would rate it after the Sibelius as one of the best in the 20th century. It starts off with an enchanting, heavenly melody on the solo violin that makes us fall in love with it immediately. And the love affair lasts through the wonderful first movement and the ensuing extraordinary harmonies of the celestial Romance and exuberant Finale. It was premiered by Jascha Heifetz, but here Benjamin Schmid gives a more subtle interpretation with his “Lady Jeanne” Stradivarius that “sings and pipes, hops and thrills, languishes yearningly and sings dreamily.” Not to mention the Wiener Philharmoniker under Seiji Ozawa’s subdued and brilliantly integrated support in a performance to be cherished through the ages.

In the chamber Suite Op.23, with a left-hand-only piano part, Korngold is playing with traditional forms in an entirely original manner but with “imagination full of powerful imagery” and “sweet melodies that suggest a R. Strauss-Puccini even Lehár connection.” (Gottfried Kraus)

02 Gloria CoatesGloria Coates – Piano Quintet; Symphony No.10 “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins”
Kreutzer Quartet; Roderick Chadwick; CalArts Orchestra; Susan Allen
Naxos 8.559848 (naxos.com)

Gloria Coates’ mesmerizing music combines Penderecki’s complex textures from the 1960s – glissandi, clusters and microtones – with the trance-inducing repetitions of age-old ritual music, as adopted by today’s “mystical minimalists.” Coates, who turns 80 this October, was born in Wisconsin but has lived in Munich since 1969. She’s composed prolifically across all genres, including 16 symphonies and ten string quartets, many available on Naxos CDs, her abstract-expressionist paintings reproduced on their covers.

In the four slowish movements of her 22-minute Piano Quintet (2013), the Kreutzer Quartet, half of them tuned a quarter-tone higher than the others, sustain solemn, wordless, monkish chants over sporadic bass chords from pianist Roderick Chadwick, evoking a bell tolling each stanza.

Coates’ 36-minute, three-movement Symphony No.10 (1989), subtitled Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins, is scored for brass and percussion, the second movement for percussion alone. Coates writes of “reading how the Celts keened and clapped over their dead with wild, trembling voices.” The symphony ends, she says, “with frightening keening and anxious drumming that seem to harbour the screams and crying of the banshees.”

Every movement of the Quintet and the Symphony has a title taken from Emily Dickinson’s poems. Coates describes how they connect to the music, but I couldn’t hear the connections, hearing only her truly enthralling sonorities. Moreover, not being mystically inclined, I found that even these, eventually, became somewhat tedious.

Hear her unique music, judge for yourself.

04 Harbison RugglesJohn Harbison – Symphony No.4; Carl Ruggles – Sun-Treader; Steven Stucky – Second Concerto for Orchestra
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559836 (naxos.com)

The University of Maryland-based National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic brings together outstanding young musicians who, based on this disc, produce exceptional results. Contemporary American music expert David Alan Miller conducts the orchestra in Carl Ruggles’ classic Sun-Treader (1931) followed by two works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers dating from 2004: John Harbison’s five-movement Symphony No.4 and the late Steven Stucky’s three-movement Second Concerto for Orchestra. The highly dissonant Ruggles even now has an abrupt in-your-face quality, though the composer’s road to completion was long. Achieving consistency of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic aspects in a new idiom is difficult, yet Ruggles achieved it. Great brass buildups to a brutal refrain of pounding timpani symbolize the sun’s power in “giant steps,” alternating with briefer moments of repose. Kudos to the excellent brass and percussion players.

I have always enjoyed Harbison’s bracing music and the Symphony No.4 demonstrates his expanded orchestral mastery. After an invigorating Fanfare, the Intermezzo features enticing pitched percussion and harp in dialogue with declamatory strings, leading to paradisiacal wind and string solos. But a jumpy Scherzo interrupts; the following Threnody is the work’s emotional core.

From Harbison to Stucky we arrive at an overtly virtuosic orchestral showcase of first-rate music-making in every sense of the word – Ravel carried much further! In the Second Concerto for Orchestra, the precision and energy of conductor Miller and the orchestra, and the beauty and variety of sound pictures realized, are breathtaking.

03 Antheil violin and pianoSpecter – The Music of George Antheil
Duo Odéon (violin/piano)
Sono Luminus DSL-92222 (sonoluminus.com)

Praised in 1927 by Ezra Pound, who spoke of him in the same glowing terms as he did the painter Pablo Picasso, sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and writer Wyndham-Lewis – members of the Vorticists – George Antheil was hailed as revolutionary for his methods of harmonic conception. According to Pound, Antheil was annoyed with the term “architecture” when applied to music; he instead preferred the term “mechanisms” to describe his unique structural style.

Antheil, however, remained on the fringe of French music of the early 20th century and, despite attempts by performers to redress this situation, much of Antheil’s music remains very much in the shadows. This impressive disc might just change the equation if enough commercial muscle is put behind its promotion. Duo Odéon, comprising violinist Hannah Leland and pianist Aimee Fincher, have – first and foremost – selected important repertoire from Antheil’s canon. The dramatic Sonatina for Violin and Piano, together with the diabolically challenging Concerto for Violin and Orchestra – originally written for Pound’s violinist-mistress Olga Rudge – and the lyricism of Valses from Specter of the Rose present Duo Odéon in devastatingly good form throughout.

Every layer of Antheil’s inventive orchestration can be heard in Leland’s fiery double-stops which make the music leap off the page, and with the remarkable physicality of Fincher’s pianism, Duo Odéon brings Antheil’s genius to life again in an utterly memorable performance of his works.

05 John Robertson SymphonyJohn Robertson – Symphony No.1
Janáĉek Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Armoré
Navona Records NV6167 (navonarecords.com)

Judging from this CD, the music of Kingston-based John Robertson has long been unfairly neglected in his adopted country. Arriving in Canada from New Zealand in 1967, Robertson, who turns 75 this October, was a late bloomer, receiving no significant public performances until 1987, when the Nepean Symphony presented his Variations for Small Orchestra, Op.14.

The 18-minute Variations opens with an original theme filled with quirky pauses, syncopations and intervallic leaps. The six variations that follow feature prominent solos for clarinet, trumpet, French horn and timpani. There’s a tango and a waltz leading to a triumphant finale containing reminiscences of earlier variations.

Robertson’s 34-minute Symphony No.1, Op.18 dates from 1988 but was unheard until a 2014 performance in Bulgaria. Two brightly scored, energetic movements bookend a gorgeous slow movement, music that should be welcomed by Canadian orchestras and audiences.

The 25-minute Suite for Orchestra, Op.46, was premiered in 2010 by the London (UK) Gay Symphony Orchestra. The opening Fanfare for brass and percussion is followed by the Waltz, at first wistful as played by woodwinds and strings, becoming raucous when the rest of the orchestra joins in. Elegy, the longest movement, again shows Robertson’s lyrical gift, while the March ends the Suite in celebratory fashion.

In these neo-Romantic works, Robertson displays a sound of his own – colourful and inventive scoring, unpretentious and essentially cheerful. This music deserves to be heard and heard again.

Emergence Trilogy Vol.2: Elegeia
Flicker Ensemble
Flicker Art Collaboratory FAC 201702

Emergence Trilogy Vol.3: Spectral (Golden) Lyric
Flicker Ensemble
Flicker Art Collaboratory FAC 201703
(store.cdbaby.com/Artist/FlickerEnsemble)

06a Ken Newby ElegeiaI first encountered BC composer Kenneth Newby’s ambitious Emergence Trilogy, consisting of three albums of his compositions, online. I reviewed Chambers: Volume 1 in The WholeNote summer 2018 issue. Flicker Art Collaboratory has now released all three albums on CD, prompting me to explore the fascinating, multivalent music on Volumes 2 and 3.

Newby’s discography reaches back to the early 1990s when he co-founded the group Trance Mission. The San Francisco world fusion quartet incorporated elements of fourth world, ethno-ambient, improvisation and jazz, releasing four albums. Faint echoes of some of those elements still reverberate in Newby’s music today. In addition, his compositions make reference to 20th-century modernism, various branches of electronic sound synthesis and acousmatic music, plus his in-depth studies and performance of Balinese and Javanese gamelan music.

Elegeia showcases Newby’s quest for discovering complexity and multicultural identities in his work. It extends to the instrumentation of the five works here. Swarm I is scored for string octet; Snark for muted trumpet and orchestra; Swarm II for string octet and brass; Khôra for Pauline Oliveros for mixed ensembles, and Crépuscule for Barbara for prepared piano and strings. Not unexpectedly, the effect of the works varies tremendously. For example, the asymmetrical melodic motifs – methodically organized via numerical sequences found in English bell ringing – in Symmetries II, movement IV of Khôra for Pauline Oliveros, are performed exclusively on the Semara Dana. A type of Balinese gamelan, it’s the sole work for gamelan on these albums. The sensuously recorded Crépuscule for Barbara directly appropriates the piano preparations from John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). Newby then cannily adds what sounds like pizzicato and harmonics played on high orchestral strings. The result is an elegant Cagean tribute – with a Newby twist.

06b Ken Newby SpectralThe last album, Spectral (Golden) Lyric, with ten works in total, is even more eclectic in instrumentation than the others. The brief Orchid March, scored for Chinese erhu, guzheng and percussion, is another instrumental cultural outlier. On the other hand, given that these Chinese instruments effectively perform Newby’s personal compositional language, this work exemplifies his 21st-century transcultural musical aesthetic. Adopting a less overt approach, Newby has given several works titles borrowed from Javanese gamelan performance practice. There are four (spectral) pathetan, a palaran, and the last string quartet is titled Toccata and Imbal. Imbal refers to a technique in Javanese gamelan music in which two (or more) players perform interlocking melodies, thereby producing a dense, highly energized musical texture.

Newby’s Toccata and Imbal was for me the particular high point of these three exhilarating albums.

Listen to 'Elegeia' and 'Spectral (Golden) Lyric' Now in the Listening Room

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