07 JeneyZoltán Jeney – Wohin?
Various Artists
BMC BMC CD 240 (bmcrecords.hu)

Wohin? gives international listeners a valuable insight into the postmodernist Hungarian concert music composer Zoltán Jeney (b.1943), featuring recent works for solo piano, voice, cello and piano, string quartet and orchestra. Jeney has been a major voice in Hungarian concert music circles since the 1960s. In 1970, in collaboration with five other leading Hungarian composers, he cofounded the influential group Budapest New Music Studio, which introduced the aesthetics and music of John Cage and Minimalism at its public concerts.

The most provocative work on this album is the title track, Wohin? (German for “Where?”) A five-minute orchestral score featuring a truncated chorus in its last 30 seconds, it’s his response to the Allied invasion of Iraq. Jeney offers a withering parody in his postmodern mashup of recognizable bits of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. As the anthem of the European Union proclaiming that “All people will be brothers,” Jeney couldn’t have chosen a better subject with which to convey his deeply ironic view of the war.

Pavane (2007) for orchestra, the last and most substantial work here, employs a 128-note melody derived from a fractal series. Its first section recalls Ligeti’s Atmosphères with amorphous, shifting orchestral textures and tight heterophony. The second section, characterized by jagged polyphonic lines is brief, succeeded by a much longer final movement featuring a continuous, harmonized melody. The music builds into a kind of halting secular chorale – punctuated by irregular percussive accents – fading out on a quiet yet ultimately unsettled unison.

08 EotvosPeter Eötvös – String Quartets: The Sirens Cycle; Korrespondenz
Audrey Luna; Calder Quartet
BMC BMC CD 249 (bmcrecords.hu)

Péter Eötvös (b.1944) is a highly respected Hungarian composer of operas and large ensemble works. Musical director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain from 1979 to 1991, he has guest-conducted top European orchestras. The sirens of Homer’s Odyssey have inspired works of writers and composers, including Jörg Widmann, whose excellent Island of the Sirens for solo violin and strings was reviewed here in March 2014. Eötvös joins their company with The Sirens Cycle (2015/16), a complex work operating in a number of dimensions including pre-compositional spectral analysis of the spoken text. Even in this engaged recording by coloratura soprano Audrey Luna and the Calder Quartet, the work is overwhelming and only reveals its secrets gradually! The soprano has an attractive timbre and a three-and-a-half-octave range, here applied, using both conventional and extended vocal techniques, to singing and declaiming texts by Joyce (from Ulysses), Homer and Kafka. By turn they are startling, humorous, erotic and finally dispiriting, as the sirens mysteriously disappear.

In both the above composition and Correspondence: Scenes for String Quartet (1992), the American Calder Quartet displays mastery of extensively used instrumental techniques including harmonics, by-the-bridge (sul ponticello) bowing, and pizzicato; glissandi become almost speech-like at times. The latter bring us to the unspoken text of the work, which is from correspondence between W. A. Mozart and his father Leopold in 1778. Derived in part from a method of assigning vowels to intervals, the uncanny effect is that instruments strive for but don't attain speech.

Listen to 'Peter Eötvös – String Quartets: The Sirens Cycle; Korrespondenz' Now in the Listening Room

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.

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