09 Julius EastmanJulius Eastman – Femenine
Apartment House
Another Timbre at137 (anothertimbre.com)

Julius Eastman (1940-1990) is as fascinating to read about as he is to listen to. This performance of his breathtaking, hour-long work, Femenine takes us to one of the most eloquent members of the 20th-century avant-garde. The performance of this austere work by the ensemble Apartment House is replete with all the virtues that Eastman embodied: unfailing clarity, innate elegance, an unerring sense of proportion, a finely honed mastery of style, melodic finesse and unobtrusive grasp of harmonic rhythm, not to mention a matchless sense of aural geometry.

The work is layered with subtle colours. Each layer – with each hypnotic and intensifying repeat – is daubed with minutely thickening textured music that seems to ebb and flow like a gentle tide that swells steadily from silence before gently building into a soft whoosh of the keyboard, vibraphone, violin, cello and two flutes. Throughout, the uniquely Eastman-like tension between harmonically loaded melody and the essentially neutral, often near-static nature of the metre, has its sense of symmetry quietly disturbed by minute figures played by each instrument as the players recreate the composer’s prevailing tonal palette through appropriately lean, but always beautifully focused, orchestration.

The result proves well worth seeking out. Eastman’s was a diverse style with firm roots in John Cage-like stasis; but there is more heart-on-sleeve Romantic post-avant-gardism than one would expect. Either way the music has an emotional power that Apartment House articulates ever so eloquently.

10 MoyzesAlexander Moyzes – Symphonies Nos.9 and 10
Slovak RSO; Ladislav Slovák
Naxos 8.573654 (naxos.com) 

One in a Naxos re-release series of Slovak composer Alexander Moyzes’ (1906-1984) complete symphonies, this Marco Polo recording was previously issued in the early 2000s. A master of 20th-century techniques and expression, Moyzes developed a style clear in texture, dramatic, and influenced by both his own nation’s and Shostakovich’s music. The three-movement Ninth Symphony (1971) is spare and dissonant; grotesque marches intrude and build to climaxes. In the third movement, solo violin cadenza-like passages cry out. Density, tempo and volume increase till the work ends with a now-subdued violin. Program notes mention the composer’s despair following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, yet I found the work a continuously involving artistic triumph. The Slovak RSO under conductor Ladislav Slovák plays with commitment; woodwinds, including a spectacular piccolo, excel in both lyrical and virtuosic passages.

The Tenth Symphony (1977-78) is more upbeat, though with pensive moments. The opening movement begins slowly and is like the Ninth Symphony in its powerful overture-like dotted rhythms. There are triads and added-note chords now, and fewer bare dyads. A scherzo-type movement is contrapuntal and lively, its trio section featuring realistic woodwind bird calls over hushed strings. Then the long Larghetto caps the work with idyllic, lyrical beauty, but an early slight smear in the strings foreshadows surprising rich and complex polychords. The radiant folk-like finale features colourful orchestration including tinkling percussion; it’s a lot of fun leading to a boisterous close.

11 University WindsThe Other Side
University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble; Matthew George
Innova innova 007 (innova.mu)

We hear string orchestras in concert halls, backing pop artists and even in the supermarket. Alternatively, we may only have heard concert bands at high school performances or marching in parades. The Minnesota-based University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble (Matthew George, conductor) is a highly skilled ensemble of brass, woodwind and percussion that presents a welcome change in timbre and material. They have a long history of commissioning works and this is their seventh album in that series.

One of the album’s highlights is the opening B-Side Concerto – For Rock Band and Wind Ensemble by Spanish composer Luis Serrano Alarcón. This 16-minute work showcases both the wind orchestra and the rock band and contains great rhythmic riffing sections, some odd metre segments and excellent wailing guitar solos. It is a tour de force which manages to incorporate the rock band within the wind ensemble so their distinctive sounds blend to achieve an edgy and exciting effect.

Another highlight, Mysteries of the Horizon (After Four René Magritte Surrealist Paintings) by Nigel Clarke features the virtuoso Belgium cornet player Harmen Vanhoorne. Part 1, The Menaced Assassin, begins with a solo cornet playing a short fanfare and then works into a back-and-forth duel with the wind ensemble containing several angular and sophisticated harmonies and rhythms.

Kit Turnbull’s three-movement Everything starts from a dot (based on a quote from Kandinsky) and a second piece by Alarcón, Symphony No. 2 for Wind Orchestra, are the additional works on this engaging CD.

Listen to 'The Other Side' Now in the Listening Room

12 Germot WolfgangGernot Wolfgang – Vienna and the West, Groove-Oriented Chamber Music, Vol. 4
Various Artists
Albany Records TROY1760 (gernotwolfgang.com)

If you are searching for a fresh and distinct fusion of styles, something classically based yet different, this is the album you might want to consider. Gernot Wolfgang, an Austrian-born composer now based in Los Angeles, masters an idiosyncratic fusion of the elements of the Second Viennese School with contemporary jazz in this selection of chamber music pieces featuring various combinations of instruments. In a way, these pieces take inventory of the stylistic as well as geographical influences on Wolfgang’s compositional style. Music on this album has a firm and clear classical music foundation but what makes it interesting is the interweaving of the rhythmical jazz grooves, occasional country western music motives (especially in strings) and the cinematic quality of some sections.

Passage to Vienna for piano trio, the second piece on the album, is a story told in fragments, and exemplifies why this unique fusion works so well. It opens with a beautifully flowing, seductive melody in the piano and repeated unison in the strings. Groovy rhythms precede a jazzy violin solo, done with flair and style. We are then transported to Vienna at the turn of the century, and non-linearity takes over along with strong cinematic colours. The mood shifts back to America toward the end and the opening theme comes back but this time it is coloured with dissonance. Another jazzy violin solo, with added country-style motives and propelling rhythms in the piano bring this piece to a conclusion. The textures are simply divine.

All the compositions on this album are engaging and atmospheric and a strong cast of musicians adds individual flavours to Wolfgang’s music.

01 InvitationInvitation – Trios for Clarinet, Violin and Piano
Christine Carter; Duo Concertante
Marquis Classics MAR 81489 (marquisclassics.com)

Having to declare an interest in the subject of a disc review is an unalloyed pleasure when said conflict involves praising the work of a former student. Together with Tim Steeves and Nancy Dahn (Duo Concertante), clarinetist Christine Carter has released Invitation, an album of trios for clarinet, violin and piano. Alongside the witty and spirited Suite by Darius Milhaud is Aram Khachaturian’s almost emo Trio; Tango, a chestnut by Canadian Patrick Cardy (1953-2005); and last of all, Francis Poulenc’s L’invitation au château.

The latter is new material to me, as I’m sure it will be to many listeners. It’s a curiosity, beautiful raw material that Poulenc never got around to turning into a suite, unlike his colleague Milhaud. Both composers wrote the music on this disc as integral backdrops for plays by Jean Anouilh, but where Milhaud sifted his score down to four movements, the Poulenc remains in its original form of 16 musical installments, some extremely short, others stretching to between one and two minutes in length.

Nothing detracts from the pleasure of listening to the performances on this disc. The Khachaturian stands out as particularly compelling, but no doubt others will find their own favourites. Tasteful style, courteous and elegant musicianship, and technical ease are featured throughout by all three performers. One supposes, or hopes, this won’t be their last such collaboration.

The liner notes are helpful, packing a good deal of information into an interview format.

Listen to 'Invitation: Trios for Clarinet, Violin and Piano' Now in the Listening Room

02 lori freedmanExcess
Lori Freedman
Collection QB CQB 1923 (actuellecd.com)

On Excess, distinguished Montreal-based clarinetist Lori Freedman presses the boundaries of contemporary musical discourse, challenging the clarinet’s, the individual composer’s and her own expressive depths. Pressing a point, she focuses on bass and contrabass clarinet, perhaps the most vocal of orchestral instruments, with every pitch ready to bend and break, a spray of overtones seemingly ever at the ready. Oh, yes, she challenges the listener as well.

The program is bracketed by its most radical and expansive adventures. British composer Richard Barrett’s Interference requires the performer to sing over a four-octave range and play a kick-drum as well as turn in a virtuosic explosion of wild burbling lines from the contrabass clarinet. It’s shamanic work, an invocation of spirits, a depth of expression that tests the limits of performance. At the opposite end of the CD, there’s French composer Raphaël Cendo’s Décombres, a work of “saturation” that fills the sound space with roaring contrabass clarinet and abrasive electronics.

In between, Freedman reaches back to Brian Ferneyhough’s daunting Time and Motion Study I (1977) and explores three recent pieces. Freedman worked closely with Vancouverite Paul Steenhuisen on Library on Fire and Paolo Perezzani on Thymos, the former mixing vocal sounds with bass clarinet, the latter the sonic potential of the contrabass, elephants and all. It’s her own Withwhatbecomes that’s most remarkable: almost unvoiced, it’s filled with the quietest, most fleeting, evanescent sounds, more challenging in its own way than anything else here.

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