01_rugglesRuggles – The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles
Buffalo Philharmonic;
Michael Tilson Thomas
Other Minds OM 1020/21-2

Long out of print, this double CD re-issue of the 1980 Columbia vinyl LPs of the complete music of the American iconoclast Carl Ruggles (1876–1971) makes a welcome return to the fold thanks to the efforts of the San Francisco Symphony’s Other Minds project. Michael Tilson Thomas, long-time conductor of that admirable ensemble, was also music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971–79, continuing a golden age for contemporary music in Buffalo dating back to the tenure of his predecessor, the composer-conductor Lukas Foss (1963–71).

Ruggles struggled mightily with his compositions, publishing only a dozen complete works from 1918 to 1944, amounting to a mere 90 minutes of music. Strident, granitic and densely chromatic, Ruggles’ powerful music attracted the attention of the avant-garde of the time who greatly admired his uncompromising vision. Edgard Varèse (none too prolific himself) was a major enthusiast, and used his influence to arrange high-profile performances and solicit new commissions for him. Alas, the cantankerous Ruggles was more fascinated with the process of composition than its termination and left the majority of his projects unfinished. His colleague Henry Cowell recalled overhearing Ruggles pounding out the same crystalline sonority relentlessly for hours on end, and when he gently questioned him about it Ruggles bellowed, “I’m giving it the test of time!”

Ruggles’ distinctive music has indeed passed that test with flying colours, and 32 years after their initial release these performances remain compelling despite the comparatively dated sonics. The voicing of the glowing, closely-packed harmonies in the isolated moments of quiet repose are expertly balanced and the orchestra projects the stentorian passages with chilling conviction. Excellent documentation is included. This is a landmark collection that should not be missed.

02a_schulhoff02b_weinbergSchulhoff – Piano Works 1
Caroline Weichert
Grand Piano GP604

Weinberg – Complete Piano Works 1
Allison Brewster Franzetti
Grand Piano GP603

Music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942) and Miecyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996) raises consideration of totalitarianism’s effects. Jewish composers escaping the Nazi terror transformed and elevated our western musical world, but what about the ones who looked eastward? New discs enhance our awareness of these wonderful artists. Born in Prague, Erwin Schulhoff developed early as a significant pianist and composer. Attempted emigration to the Soviet Union was overtaken in 1939 by Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia and his arrest; he died in a concentration camp. Weinberg grew up between the wars in Poland, barely escaping the Nazi invasion while the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. He settled successively in Minsk, Tashkent and Moscow in 1943, adapting as best he could to the Soviet regime.

Schulhoff has received considerable attention in recent years; his piano works show a tasteful master integrating musical influences into original and deeply felt works. The affecting Variations and Fugue on an Original Dorian Theme (1913) reveals an already-mature composer commanding compositional forms and devices towards his expressive ends. Carolyn Weichert brilliantly captures the idioms of both modernism and jazz in Partita (1922) where 1920s dances replace Bach-era ones. Transcending clichés of decadent Weimar Germany, the depth and seriousness of its jazz scene during the 1920s and ‘30s are evident; I love the charm, quirky humour, fleeting pensive moments and glimpses beyond the ordinary in the Tango-Rag. Schulhoff’s harmony is never just “bi-tonal” or “wrong-note.” Weichert balances chords and brings out subtle voice-leadings in music evocative of the era and more. The Third Suite for the left hand is a work of pianistic genius. Weichert’s fingers crawl “multi-legged” over the keyboard; as her thumb sings out one of Schulhoff’s exquisite long melodies in the Air, fingers carry on a canonic invention below! After the harmonically-adventurous Improvisazione, she delivers the mixed-metres perpetual-motion Finale with flair but without bombast.

Miecyslaw Weinberg’s major piano works are ably performed by Allison Brewster Franzetti, some in premiere recordings. Weinberg was an excellent pianist whose creative leanings showed in his Lullaby composed at 16, which carries the genre to remarkable heights. Nazi totalitarianism threw him towards the Soviet sphere and he was strongly affected upon hearing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. His First Sonata (1940) retains adventurous musical possibilities: bi-tonal passages, extreme registers, stark and dissonant sonorities. Franzetti’s performance of the magical close of the Andantino is touching, seemingly wandering into the distance before the fearsome Finale emerges. Official pressure against Shostakovich’s experimentalism forced him towards the Symphony No.5’s more “positive” idiom; comparing Weinberg’s Second Sonata (1942) to the first shows similar movement. Harmony is organized around familiar scales, the music lilts and sings. Franzetti builds perfectly towards the slow movement’s climax, and the quiet return of the opening mood is breathtaking. Again in 1948 Stalinism reared up, demanding folk-like themes and simple forms. In the Sonatina (1951) Weinberg incorporated some of these changes; unsatisfied, he revised it in 1978 as Sonata Op.49A. The effects of totalitarianism can be long-lasting.

03_overheardOverheard – Music for Oboe and English Horn
Michele Fiala; William Averill;
Martin Schuring; Donald Speer
MSR Classics MS 1403

Overheard is a refreshing disc of contemporary music for oboe and English horn, by composers born between 1952 and 1986. A professor of oboe at Ohio University who has performed internationally, Michele Fiala’s playing on this, her second recording, is certainly “world class,” in both display of solid technical facility and musical expression, with equally able piano accompaniment provided by William Averill and Donald Speer; but congratulations are also in order on the choice of repertoire which covers a gamut of styles from jazz to the incorporation of electronics.

One of three commissioned works on this disc is by Toronto composer Beverly Lewis — her Fundy Temperaments for English horn and piano is a dramatic work evoking the landscape of the Bay of Fundy, including a foghorn depicted through the use of multiphonics. Another commission, Peaches at Midnight, is a delightful work by Theresa Martin evoking the playfulness of childhood. Sheer technical brilliance is displayed in Gilles Silvestrini’s Three Duos for Two Oboes, in which Fiala is joined by Martin Schuring; the movements are named for works by French impressionist painters.

The concluding work on the disc is a personal favourite — Mark Phillips’ Elegy and Honk for English horn and electroacoustic music uses only processed English horn sounds for the background soundtrack of the slow and moody first segment, while Honk employs manipulated sounds of geese, ducks and a bicycle horn as a rhythmic backdrop to the live instrument. I found myself chuckling along with this last track on what is a thoroughly enjoyable and important contribution to the recorded repertoire for oboe and English horn.

04_andre_moisanAfter You, Mr. Gershwin
André Moisan; Jean Saulnier
ATMA ACD2 2517

I used to like jazz. Then something happened. Perhaps I’ve heard too many similar versions of the standards. Maybe I just realized that none of it was necessary after Monk. I also used to enjoy clarinet music but now too often I just curl up from over-exposure.

Nevertheless, there is hope for others, and it comes in the form of this wildly impressive collection of jazz-influenced repertoire performed by the estimable clarinettist André Moisan together with his frequent collaborator Jean Saulnier. Good lord these two can play, and have fun while at it too!

Odd that the disc opens with a recital encore, one of Béla Kovác’s Homages series. It is of course the title track, but in its sparkling brevity it delivers what might be the final word for the whole compilation. The next cut is the highly effective Cape Cod Files, a sonata by Paquito D’Rivera, the most substantial selection. For the first while my jaded ear was persuaded to attend, especially during the beautiful unaccompanied third movement. The conventional finale suggests the composer wanted to get on with other things.

The rest of the material ranges from heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality (Daniel Mercure’s Pour mon ami Leon) to the clear and incisive Time Pieces by Robert Muczynski. This one is probably the least overtly jazz-inspired, but it’s got that crazy syncopated rhythm goin’ on. Joseph Horowitz’ Sonatina starts off sounding like watery British recital literature until the flashy third movement makes its argument for inclusion.

The playing is fine to fantastic. On occasion Moisan allows his tone to get thin and reedy, edging sharp in the higher range, but generally his sound is lovely, warm and expressive when it needs to be, and fluid and free for the assured passage work. I was glad to hear the clicking of his keys on some of the tracks, an effect as charming as close-miked guitar.

Claire Chase
Focus Recordings, FCR 122 DDD

Despite the cover image — Claire Chase, flute on her shoulder, staring directly into the camera — this CD is not all about Chase. It is an exhilarating ride through the music of five “modernist” composers; it is all about the music, which the high-voltage interpretations of Chase and her five equally capable collaborators render incandescent.

The title track, Terrrestre by Kaija Saariaho, moves from twitchy virtuosic bird songs in the opening movement, L’oiseau dansant, to luminous dreaminess in the second, Oiseau, un satellite infime. In both, the contribution of percussionist Nathan Davis must be mentioned.

Franco Donatoni’s Fili (Threads) and Elliott Carter’s Esprit Rude; Esprit Doux are both series of rhythmically erratic conversations, the first between the flute and the piano, played by Jacob Greenberg, the second between flute and clarinet, played by Joshua Rubin, with effortless ease and rhythmic agility equal to Chase’s.

Chase and Greenberg navigate Pierre Boulez’s now classic (ground-breaking at the time — 1946) Sonatine Op.1 with aplomb: it sounds as new as if it had been composed yesterday.

Kai Fujikara’s Glacier for bass flute concludes the CD. Chase plays the bass with exceptional fluidity and a lovely shakuhachi-like sound. The ending, a haunting figure repeated more and more quietly until it disappears, is exquisite.

The superb technique of the performers and their commitment to the “modernist” musical genre give us the opportunity to hear this very difficult music as (I imagine) the composers would want it to sound.

06_kagelKagel – Das Konzert; Phantasiestück; Pan
Michael Faust; Sinfonia Finlandia;
Patrick Gallois
Naxos 8.572635

Throughout his life the Argentinean-German composer Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008) explored every aspect of the evolving musical language of his time, including free improvisation, open form, electronic music, music theatre and purely instrumental music. He taught and organized forums for new music and was a masterful conductor of his own works. He also held an exceptional interest in broadcast media, completing several thought-provoking films in the 1960s for German television and producing radio programs of new music. His appearances in Toronto with New Music Concerts are fondly remembered by all who experienced them.

In his later years Kagel’s music took on an aspect one might call “post-modern,” freely incorporating the extended instrumental techniques of the 20th century in a frequently ironic dialogue with traditional musical conventions. These shadows of the hallowed past occur frequently in the late period works on this disc. Kagel’s 1988 Phantasiestück, a quasi-Schumannesque work that devolves from an atonal to a purely diatonic realm, appears in two versions, one for flute and piano with pianist Paulo Alvares and an expanded version with string quartet and two clarinets performed by Michael Faust’s own Ensemble Contrasts conducted by Robert HP Platz. The brief and delightful Pan for piccolo and string quartet (1985) is a pastiche on Papageno’s pan-flute solo from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Das Konzert is a theatrical work that was written at the request of Michael Faust and premiered by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 2003 with a dozen performances in Duisburg and Düsseldorf. It is a schizophrenic “anti-concerto” for flute and chamber orchestra expertly performed here by the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväsklä, sympathetically led by fellow flutist turned conductor Patrick Gallois. This is an entertaining yet thought-provoking disc that repays repeated listening.

Editor’s Note: As a long standing friend of the composer, Canadian flutist Robert Aitken was invited to share the soloist’s role in the creation of Kagel’s Das Konzert, alternating the first performances with Michael Faust and giving the Düsseldorf premiere. Aitken went on to give the world premiere performance of the concert version of the work with Esprit Orchestra in Toronto in January 2004.

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