03 Tilbury KrauzeGrand Tour
John Tilbury; Zygmunt Krauze
Dux DUX 1288 (dux.pl)

Maybe it’s just me, but I find this album of 60s and 70s post-classical piano-centric music a supremely relaxing listening experience. Then again as a high school senior I used to do homework with John Cage records playing on the stereo. I wanted to get my modernist/postmodernist cred clearly on the table before digging into details of this Grand Tour. It documents the onstage reunion of two old colleagues, the British pianist John Tilbury and Polish composer, educator and pianist Zygmunt Krauze in the studio of the Polish Radio, performing repertoire from the era when they first met.

The liner notes narrate the backstory. Krauze co-founded the avant-garde-leaning Warsaw Music Workshop in 1967 along with other musicians. Tilbury. who was in Warsaw on scholarship at the time. is credited with introducing his Music Workshop colleagues to the latest classical music trends via scores – a scarce commodity behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s – “including many minimalist compositions.” These represented an exciting though quite unknown language there at the time.

All the works here bear repeated pleasurable listening, but my favourite track on the album is Terry Riley’s Keyboard Studies No.2 (1965), in which the two pianists play through a series of notated modal cells of different lengths at their leisure. It’s a repetitive developmental strategy Riley also employed in his better-known In C (1964). It may well have been among the pieces introduced by Tilbury to his Warsaw friends back in the day. Keyboard Studies No.2 receives a lovely, nuanced performance by Tilbury and Krauze. Perhaps it’s a fanciful notion, but I imagine its sonic patina, coloured by the canny application of the pianos’ sustain pedal, is more deeply the result of half a century of living with and performing this charming music. For me 60s-era Riley will never get old.

04 Polish clarinetMusic for Clarinet by 20th Century Polish Composers
Mariusz Barszcz; Piotr Saciuk; Jacek Michalak
Dux DUX 1258 dux.pl

This collection could be renamed music by Mid-20th-Century Polish Composers, roughly following as it does a chronology of three decades beginning in the early 1950s. One finds in many of the selections a homogenous tonal and stylistic range, possibly reflecting the somewhat insular world of Polish composition during the Communist era. Happily, one also hears committed and honest performances by clarinetist Mariusz Barszcz and pianist Piotr Saciuk. While tending sharp in some of the slower and quieter selections, Barszcz has a peckish and puckish articulation, and the rhythmic agreement in the very challenging Dance Preludes by Witold Lutosławski is admirable.

This work, along with Krzysztof Penderecki’s Three Miniatures, are the only ones likely to be performed with any frequency in North America, so it is welcome to hear some of the more avant garde selections toward the end of the disc. Music for magnetic tape and solo bass clarinet by Andrzej Dobrowolski (1980) comes out of the dark corners of one’s psyche and invites itself in for a terrifying and confusing visit. Barszcz can manage the bass clarinet’s registers well and gives a fine accounting of the extended techniques required by the composer. Not Sunday afternoon listening by any stretch, but excellent rainy Monday fare. Krzysztof Knittel’s Points/Lines (for clarinet, tapes and slides, 1973) steps back into the laboratory, a controlled and tidy experiment carried out by a harried researcher.

Wedged between these two works is a Trifle (in two parts), for accordion and bass clarinet by Andrzej Krzanowski (1983).

05 American MomentsAmerican Moments
Neave Trio
Chandos CHAN 10924

“American” moments? Twelve-year-old wunderkind Erich Korngold was living in Vienna when he composed his Trio, Op.1 (1910), a well-constructed, exuberantly expressive piece already evincing some distinctive melodic turns that would reappear throughout his mature music. The Neave Trio seems to approach it from the perspective of those later works, with a sense of nostalgia rather than youthful ardour. (Korngold emigrated to the US in 1938.)

Leonard Bernstein’s Trio dates from 1937, when he was 19, studying at Harvard. Unpublished until after his death, it opens meditatively, leading to an extended Fugato and an exultant climax. The second movement anticipates the jazzy Bernstein, with pizzicato, blue notes and dancing syncopations. The finale begins with a questioning melody, answered by a rousing Jewish-klezmer romp. New to me, I quite enjoyed it.

Arthur Foote, in contrast, was 55 and well-established when he wrote his Piano Trio No.2 (1908). Considered the first significant composer trained entirely in the US, he, like most of his American contemporaries, still drew inspiration from European models. The first two movements, lilting, sweet and sentimental, are perfumes from a Viennese salon; the weightier finale evokes Foote’s much-beloved Brahms.

America, like Canada, is a nation of immigrants, making the Neave Trio, currently visiting artists at Brown University, truly American, with its violinist from the US, cellist from Russia and pianist from Japan. Their performances of these stylistically varied works amount to a concert program for home listening that’s highly entertaining.

06 GinasteraGinastera Orchestral Works 2 – Panambi; Piano Concerto No.2
Xiayin Wang; Manchester Chamber Choir; BBC Philharmonic; Juanjo Mena
Chandos CHAN 10923

Continuing a 2016 series celebrating the centennial of Argentinian master Alberto Ginastera’s birth, this disc offers an intriguing contrast of compositions from his early and late periods. Beginning with the latter, Xiayin Wang’s elegant and sonorous performance of the Second Piano Concerto (1972) will be a surprise for anyone who associates the composer with pianistic bombast. Her crisp, even touch in both the perpetual motion, repeated-note scherzo and the prestissimo triplet finale is remarkable, yet so is her balance of complex chords and gradual pacing in the tread-like build of the slow movement to a crisis point. The first movement is the most dissonant and complex. Succeeding movements are more accessible; textures and sounds fascinate throughout. Altogether, this work is a major statement of artistic freedom and of identification with both classical and contemporary music for the composer, who had recently moved to Switzerland from the darkening situation in his homeland.

Panambi (1934-37), subtitled Choreographic Legend in One Act, is Ginastera’s Op.1. It is a precocious work from his folkloric years, one which also includes modern tendencies. Notable are the composer’s varied percussion writing and his seeking out of innovative low-register combinations. Rather than dwell on obvious influences from early 20th-century Paris, I would like to emphasize his successful evocation though imagery and sound of the Argentinian pampas, suggesting feelings associated with nature and the past. The BBC Philharmonic led by Juanjo Mena play with verve and sensitivity throughout.

07 ZoharJonathan Leshnoff – Zohar; Symphony No.2
Jessica Rivera; Nmon Ford; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Robert Spano
ASO Media

John Franklin aptly wrote in the autumn 2016 Imago newsletter, “…artists have a capacity to see what is coming in a culture and their work indicates the mood and values of society.” Jonathan Leshnoff’s Zohar and Symphony No.2 “Innerspace” represent part of his exploration of Jewish mysticism. But they also succeed in his attempt to transport us to transcendence, and isn’t that what we need when we feel mired in this current global atmosphere of oppression and alienation?

Symphony No.2 describes a benevolent “G-d,” whose omnipotence quickly becomes apparent in the second through fourth movements in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s bold portrait of divinity. It’s huge and satisfies our need to encounter the incomprehensible. Then, the final movement, Unimaginable, shifts gears with one clarinet playing one note for seven seconds and suddenly we are confronted with 83 seconds of silence which complete the symphony. The silence is surprisingly moving and makes the listener mindful of the Jewish constraint against saying YHWH’s name.

Zohar is Leshnoff’s mystical commentary on the Pentateuch and was commissioned to be performed in conjunction with Brahms’ German Requiem. The text of the eponymous first movement sets the stage for the work: “Master of all Worlds…no thought can grasp You.” The second movement reflects on the puniness of man but for the grace of God’s recognition. In the following Twenty-two Letters, some theolinguistic synecdoche discusses the Hebrew alphabet that was used to create the universe. This Master is so great that the boy in the fourth movement (Shepherd Boy) feels inadequate to pray to Him correctly, and this is given a very sympathetic and informed interpretation by baritone Nmon Ford. The work wraps up with a choral reiteration that He is, indeed, “higher than all that is high.”

This CD struck me as being one that will become very important in the canon of religious choral and orchestral works.

01 Milhaud GinasteraMilhaud & Ginastera
Andrée-Ann Deschênes
Independent (aadpiano.com)

Los Angeles-based Canadian pianist Andrée-Ann Deschênes has a thing for Latin American piano music. Her first CD was a collection of piano music from Cuba and Brazil. And in August, the Humber College grad – presently a doctoral music student at California’s Claremont Graduate University (CGU), with a teaching gig at Cal State LA – released Milhaud & Ginastera. Her second indie effort – in a recent interview with CGU’s magazine, The Flame, Deschênes calls herself an “indie pianist” (followed by, “if there’s such a thing!”) – offers two sets of dances for solo piano: one largely inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s neighbourhoods; the other, a well-known trio of Argentinian dances.

After a two-year stay in Rio (1917-18), French composer Darius Milhaud composed his 12-dance suite, Saudades do Brazil. Untranslatable, “saudade” suggests a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia, a fixture in the music and literature of Brazil. In that same Flame interview, Deschênes says she chose these pieces “because they are such unique little gems of music.” And they are, each one its own, self-contained iteration of saudade, some poignant and dark, others more playful with driving rhythms. All tonally interesting, harmonically colourful and utterly charming. Deschênes captures the essence of saudade, tapping into an emotional connection to the material – you sense she’s both moved by it, yet at the same time, focused on the task at hand, technique crisp and clean.

Alberto Ginastera’s Danza Argentinas are also gorgeous gems, and Deschênes executes them deftly and sensitively; the middle, an achingly beautiful invocation.

Deschênes’ disc is a gem. ¡Fantástico!

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