04 Curio BoxCurio Box – Berio; Hindemith; Underhill
Ariel Barnes; Fides Krucker; Turning Point Ensemble; Owen Underhill
Orlando Records OR 0037 (orlando-records.com)

This disc is a standout, with terrific performances and a compelling program of works, all confronting the relationship between the past and the present.

In Kammermusik No.3 from 1925, German composer Paul Hindemith looks back to the Baroque, especially to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The Vancouver-based Turning Point Ensemble, under Owen Underhill’s direction, handles the inventive contrapuntal textures with stylish buoyancy, while Canadian cellist Ariel Barnes brings out Hindemith’s lyrical side. Barnes’ restraint with vibrato and Romantic phrasing is especially appropriate to Hindemith, an accomplished violist who was deeply involved in historical performance practices.

At the same time that avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio was creating his pioneering experimental works like Sinfonia, he was working on arrangements – and rearrangements – of music of the past, from Monteverdi to Puccini. In Folk Songs, from 1964, he creates altogether new accompaniments for traditional folk tunes (plus a few composed songs) from around the world. The result is an extraordinary mélange of styles and harmonic languages. Canadian vocalist Fides Krucker’s blazing theatricality and playful brilliance put her in the same league as the fabulous American singer Cathy Berberian, who premiered this work.

Canadian composer and conductor Underhill’s own Cello Concerto from 2016 takes us through the fragmentation and reassembling of memories of the past, triggered by a Chinese curio box full of precious objects. The virtuosic, responsive Turning Point Ensemble under Underhill’s precise direction creates evocative, colourful interplay with Barnes’ adventurous and dramatic cello playing.

I enjoyed the anecdotal liner notes and bios, but I do wish there were texts for the songs – with translations.

05 Shostakovich 4 11Shostakovich – Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11 “The Year 1905”
Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons
Deutsche Grammophon 80028595-02 (deutschegrammophon.com)

It says here there was no greater symphonist of the 20th century than Shostakovich. Don’t @ me, as they say on Twitter. This DG recording of the Boston Symphony, led by Andris Nelsons, is part of their ongoing project to record the complete cycle by the beleaguered Russian artist.

The story behind his Symphony No.4 is relevant to any reading of the piece, although much too involved to fully recount here. Suffice it to say he fell into sudden disfavour with Stalin while working on it, and finally chose to withdraw the work before its premiere. The move, while an illustration of how little freedom an artist had during the era, likely saved the composer from exile to the Gulag. (An excellent fuller version of the story is available here: michaellewanski.com/blog/2014/10/8/shostakovich-symphony-no-4-in-c-minor-op-43).

Too many adjectives can attach to the puzzling work: at turns horrifying, melodramatic, sarcastic, madcap, maudlin, macabre, morose. Shostakovich might have been passing a note to his compatriot colleagues like Alfred Schnittke and Edison Denisov: “Here is as far as you can go, and not in any safety.”

Nelsons wrings a full accounting of the hair-raising piece, all 65 minutes of it, from the redoubtable BSO musicians. I defy anyone to listen to James Somerville’s horn playing here without feeling simultaneously uplifted and devastated.

The second half of the two-disc release makes a curious pairing. Symphony No.11 was composed more than two decades later in 1957, followed an overt “program” in depicting the events of the brutally quashed 1905 Russian workers’ uprising, and was written to satisfy a government-mandated (“suggested”) recognition of the 40th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. Perhaps the idea is to contrast the work of a brash young idealist, an artist who believed he was free, to the more mature output of one who knew he never would be. Clearly in his music he felt the humanity of those starving workers, murdered a half-century earlier by a despot. There are subtexts to all of his music, and the question remains about whether this symphony reflected the composer’s views about more recent crimes.

Programmatically structured to the point of pedantry, it is nonetheless brilliantly played. Hearing these excellent players gives the heart ease.

06 Trio ClavioTrio Clavio
Trio Clavio
ArcoDiva UP 0204 (arcodiva.cz)

Established with the help of Polish clarinetist/conductor Jakub Bokun in 2013, this Czech trio has been performing as Trio Clavio since its successful debut at Wrocław, Poland’s Clarimania Festival. The three talented members – pianist Lucie Soutorová Valčová, violinist Lucia Fulka Kopsová and clarinetist Jana Černohouzová – are each superstar soloists and chamber musicians. In their debut self-titled two-CD release, they demonstrate solid technique, musicality, ensemble playing, personal musical risk-taking, integrity, and the joy of performing music.

CD One has these younger-generation musicians playing music by three 20th-century composers. Highlights from Stravinsky’s trio suite from L’Histoire du soldat include colourful low and high pitches, clear articulation of individual notes, and mood-making intense playing, especially at the almost spooky Danse du Diable closing. Bartók’s three-movement Contrasts features a tighter full-orchestra sound, with classic Bartók dramatic musical conversations between the instruments. Paul Schoenfield’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin & Piano is a four-movement, Jewish-based work. The opening Freylakh has a nice klezmer feel, especially in the held violin and clarinet notes. March opens with exciting low-pitched mysterious piano notes and ascending and descending glissandos, leading to subsequent virtuosic trio performance. Nigun is a fugal klezmer piece and the final Kozatske is an exciting fast klezmer-flavoured movement.

CD Two showcases diverse works by living composers. Love Czech Lukáš Hurník’s witty work, Alphabet. After a short introduction, each capital letter of the alphabet is given a musical score resulting in a piece packed with diverse ideas and sounds. E is a fugue with three instruments emulating its three horizontal lines; D is all played on the violin D string; G is brought to sound life with a florid piano line. Czech Martin Brunner composed his self-described childishly playful Like Children while thinking of trio-member Valčová’s son. The three movements delight with touches of lullaby, reflection and running-around sounds. Trio Clavio commission “Chiaroscuro” Trio by Slovak Juraj Filas is a single-movement, tonal, expressive, Romantic-flavoured sonata reminiscent of film music, including subtle and sudden dramatic musical shifts from loud rhythms to slower reflective sections, high pitches and lengthy held notes. Closing is Czech Sylvie Bodorová’s Vallja e malit “Dancing Mountain,” a folk-music rooted work with a tight Ballata opening, and a faster, closing, toe-tapping, intense, rapid line-filled Danza movement.

Trio Clavio is musically wonderful, unique and breathtaking in all they play!

01 KorngoldKorngold – Violin Concerto; Much Ado About Nothing; Suite Op.23
Benjamin Schmid; Wiener Philharmoniker; Seiji Ozawa
Oehms Classics OC 537 (oehmsclassics.de)

This is a set of live performances from the Salzburg Festival of 2004 entirely devoted to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer of extraordinary talent, whose music was forbidden in the Nazi era. He escaped Austria in 1937 and settled in the USA and had a successful career in Hollywood writing film scores, but gave it up and continued writing symphonic and chamber music of the highest calibre – as proven by this recording. Korngold was also the last bastion of tonality, continuing the Romantic vein of Richard Strauss and Mahler as opposed to Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, the atonalists.

I came to Korngold via his opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) a post-Romantic masterpiece that haunted my imagination for years, but his Violin Concerto is a later work written in 1947 and I would rate it after the Sibelius as one of the best in the 20th century. It starts off with an enchanting, heavenly melody on the solo violin that makes us fall in love with it immediately. And the love affair lasts through the wonderful first movement and the ensuing extraordinary harmonies of the celestial Romance and exuberant Finale. It was premiered by Jascha Heifetz, but here Benjamin Schmid gives a more subtle interpretation with his “Lady Jeanne” Stradivarius that “sings and pipes, hops and thrills, languishes yearningly and sings dreamily.” Not to mention the Wiener Philharmoniker under Seiji Ozawa’s subdued and brilliantly integrated support in a performance to be cherished through the ages.

In the chamber Suite Op.23, with a left-hand-only piano part, Korngold is playing with traditional forms in an entirely original manner but with “imagination full of powerful imagery” and “sweet melodies that suggest a R. Strauss-Puccini even Lehár connection.” (Gottfried Kraus)

02 Gloria CoatesGloria Coates – Piano Quintet; Symphony No.10 “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins”
Kreutzer Quartet; Roderick Chadwick; CalArts Orchestra; Susan Allen
Naxos 8.559848 (naxos.com)

Gloria Coates’ mesmerizing music combines Penderecki’s complex textures from the 1960s – glissandi, clusters and microtones – with the trance-inducing repetitions of age-old ritual music, as adopted by today’s “mystical minimalists.” Coates, who turns 80 this October, was born in Wisconsin but has lived in Munich since 1969. She’s composed prolifically across all genres, including 16 symphonies and ten string quartets, many available on Naxos CDs, her abstract-expressionist paintings reproduced on their covers.

In the four slowish movements of her 22-minute Piano Quintet (2013), the Kreutzer Quartet, half of them tuned a quarter-tone higher than the others, sustain solemn, wordless, monkish chants over sporadic bass chords from pianist Roderick Chadwick, evoking a bell tolling each stanza.

Coates’ 36-minute, three-movement Symphony No.10 (1989), subtitled Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins, is scored for brass and percussion, the second movement for percussion alone. Coates writes of “reading how the Celts keened and clapped over their dead with wild, trembling voices.” The symphony ends, she says, “with frightening keening and anxious drumming that seem to harbour the screams and crying of the banshees.”

Every movement of the Quintet and the Symphony has a title taken from Emily Dickinson’s poems. Coates describes how they connect to the music, but I couldn’t hear the connections, hearing only her truly enthralling sonorities. Moreover, not being mystically inclined, I found that even these, eventually, became somewhat tedious.

Hear her unique music, judge for yourself.

04 Harbison RugglesJohn Harbison – Symphony No.4; Carl Ruggles – Sun-Treader; Steven Stucky – Second Concerto for Orchestra
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559836 (naxos.com)

The University of Maryland-based National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic brings together outstanding young musicians who, based on this disc, produce exceptional results. Contemporary American music expert David Alan Miller conducts the orchestra in Carl Ruggles’ classic Sun-Treader (1931) followed by two works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers dating from 2004: John Harbison’s five-movement Symphony No.4 and the late Steven Stucky’s three-movement Second Concerto for Orchestra. The highly dissonant Ruggles even now has an abrupt in-your-face quality, though the composer’s road to completion was long. Achieving consistency of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic aspects in a new idiom is difficult, yet Ruggles achieved it. Great brass buildups to a brutal refrain of pounding timpani symbolize the sun’s power in “giant steps,” alternating with briefer moments of repose. Kudos to the excellent brass and percussion players.

I have always enjoyed Harbison’s bracing music and the Symphony No.4 demonstrates his expanded orchestral mastery. After an invigorating Fanfare, the Intermezzo features enticing pitched percussion and harp in dialogue with declamatory strings, leading to paradisiacal wind and string solos. But a jumpy Scherzo interrupts; the following Threnody is the work’s emotional core.

From Harbison to Stucky we arrive at an overtly virtuosic orchestral showcase of first-rate music-making in every sense of the word – Ravel carried much further! In the Second Concerto for Orchestra, the precision and energy of conductor Miller and the orchestra, and the beauty and variety of sound pictures realized, are breathtaking.

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