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!

02 WuorinenCharles Wuorinen – Eighth Symphony; Fourth Piano Concerto
Peter Serkin; Boston Symphony Orchestra; James Levine
Bridge Records 9474 (bridgerecords.com)

In his heyday, conductor James Levine was known as a staunch advocate of the American high modern school of practitioners of Arnold Schoenberg’s serial method, commissioning new works from Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen during his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony. Bridge Records, with considerable philanthropic support, has now issued a commemorative disc of two major works from the last man standing of that compositional triumvirate. The first of these, Wuorinen’s Eighth Symphony, bears the arcane subtitle, Theologoumena, defined by the composer as “a private non-dogmatic theological opinion.” Make of that what you will. Formally it is cast in a conventional order of three fast-slow-fast movements, expressed in a no-compromise, often abrasive, language. That language is nevertheless in many ways a very traditional and approachable one; there are no extended instrumental techniques or a smidgen of spectralism to be found in his highly contrapuntal style. The first movement of the symphony is a wild ride of unbridled energy, dense and frenetic; the second movement is marginally more restrained, while the finale brings the percussion and piano to the fore for a thunderous conclusion. The ensemble of the Boston musicians is pushed to the edge in this high tension recording of the 2007 premiere performance.

The performance of Wuorinen’s compelling Fourth Piano Concerto from 2005 is considerably more assured, in large part due to Peter Serkin’s admirable mastery of the demanding solo piano part and the composer’s more lyrical approach in this work. All three movements of the concerto maintain a constant, mercurial energy leavened with explosive outpourings of orchestral frenzy. This is tough music to love, but easy to admire.

03 Wind blownWind blown – Sonatas for wind instruments by Peter Hope
Various Artists
Divine Art dda 25137
(divineartrecords.com)

Review

Wistful sentiments dominate the opening moments of most of the works on this collection of wind music by British composer Peter Hope. His music can be called contemporary in terms of date (all six works were composed in the space of six years, between 2009 and 2015) but in character it’s all unabashedly anachronistic. As capably written as the pieces are, one can only imagine Hope has determined that the harmonic and rhythmic language of the most conservative 20th-century composers is sufficient to his artistic needs. The writing for recorder goes even further back in time, echoing the pre-Baroque era with open parallel harmonies. He ventures into the popular idioms of jazz and klezmer styles, which sadly come off as cliché to such a jaded ear as mine. It is music that remains by the hearth in the library, caftan-wrapped, brandy snifter at hand, faithful hound at its feet. It is comfortable and, for those seeking such, comforting.

All performances are quite good, and the production is untainted by excessive reverb, the sound clean and direct. The piano balances the soloists on all the sonatas, while remaining clear and forthright. The instruments are each presented with all their idiosyncrasies, close-miked enough to catch tone-hole whistles yet not such that any warts are apparent. Kudos to engineer Richard Scott for capturing a soundscape so familiar to the undergraduate ear – that of the academic recital hall – in this case the one at Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

04 A Land So LuminousA Land So Luminous – Music by Richard Causton; Kenneth Hesketh
Continuum Ensemble; Philip Headlam
Prima Facie PFCD051 (thecontinuumensemble.co.uk)

Review

In 1993, two Canadians – pianist-conductor Philip Headlam and pianist Douglas Finch – co-founded Britain’s Continuum Ensemble specializing in contemporary music. Here they present first recordings of works by two prominent English composers, both in their 40s but very different stylistically.

Kenneth Hesketh’s A Land So Luminous for violin and piano and IMMH for solo cello feature fragmentary outbursts, prolonged pauses and directionless meandering. In IMMH, an “imagined shamanic ritual, marking the passage from life to death,” the cellist plucks, bows, vocalizes and knocks on the cello’s body, but with no discernible trajectory. Hesketh’s three-movement Cautionary Tales for clarinet, violin and piano was adapted from his five-movement Netsuke for large ensemble. Both works ostensibly depict literary “events and characters” but offer only more fragments, silences and meandering.

Five engrossing pieces by Richard Causton follow, providing welcome contrast. Threnody for soprano, two clarinets and piano is a moody setting of a Russian anti-war poem from 1915. His 13-minute Rituals of Hunting and Blooding, two movements for large ensemble, would make an effective ballet score, with its wildly syncopated rhythms of the chase followed by the solemn initiations of hunters being ceremonially marked with their prey’s blood. Sleep for solo flute is a dignified elegy, commissioned by a widower in memory of his wife. Finally, Douglas Finch plays two atmospheric piano pieces, Non Mi Comporto Male and Night Piece, contemplative homages, respectively, to Fats Waller and Mozart.

One thumb down; one thumb up.

05 Richard DanielpourRichard Danielpour – Songs of Solitude; War Songs
Thomas Hampson; Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559772

On the day the Twin Towers fell, Richard Danielpour was at the composers’ retreat in Aaron Copland’s former Peekskill, NY, home. His artistic response to 9/11 was to begin work on Songs of Solitude, settings of six scathing Yeats poems. Danielpour’s melodic, rhythmic and colouristic predilections link him to Copland and Bernstein, two fellow New York-based composers of Jewish ancestry. Echoes of Copland appear in the cycle’s orchestral opening and closing; Bernstein is channelled in the jazzy Drinking Song. The longest song, lasting nine of the cycle’s 28 minutes, sets Yeats’s most famous poem, The Second Coming, but the music fails to match the power of these often-quoted lines.

There’s power aplenty, though, in War Songs (2008), inspired, writes Danielpour, by photographs of young soldiers killed in Iraq. Set to haunting Civil War poems by Walt Whitman, four dirge-like, elegiac songs precede the shattering final song, Come up from the Fields Father, at 11 minutes, nearly half the cycle’s duration. I was left both shaken and stirred.

Both cycles were composed for baritone Thomas Hampson, here in characteristically fine voice, fully expressive of the words (texts are included).

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