03 Shostakovich 13Shostakovich 13 “Babi Yar”
Alexey Tikhomirov; Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Male Chorus; Riccardo Muti
CSO Resound CSOR 901-1901 (naxosdirect.com)

In January of 1970 Ricardo Muti conducted the first performance in Western Europe of Shostakovich’s controversial 13th Symphony written in 1962. The orchestra in Rome was the RAI Symphony Orchestra and the soloist was bass Ruggero Raimondi. One of Italy’s most highly regarded and enlightened artistic directors succeeded in securing a microfilm of the forbidden symphony and translated the poetry into Italian. A tape of the performance was sent to the composer who liked the translation. That very tape had been presented to Muti by Shostakovich’s widow as a gift a few months before this powerful performance in Chicago, making for a real sense of occasion. Muti certainly knows the music, as many of us who have seen the video of this same live performance of this thrilling, cantata-like symphony posted on YouTube will attest. The YouTube sound, of course, pales again this CD release. The CD booklet gives an account of how and why the symphony was banned. Here is an outline.

The symphony is set to texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The composer was drawn to his poem Babi Yar, written in 1961, that tells of the 1941 massacre of 34,000 Jews in 36 hours on a hillside in Kiev. Shostakovich selected four other poems for a five-movement symphony. The selection was made by Shostakovich and was in no way intended by the composer to be a song cycle. Upon its first performance on December 18, 1962 the work was immediately banned with no review. For Khrushchev and the Presidium and others whose antisemitism was ubiquitous, this was an open condemnation. Yevtushenko eventually undertook to emend Babi Yar so that not only Jews were slaughtered in Kiev, and that the Russian people fought the Nazis. There was however one more performance using the unchanged text two days after the first; Kirill Kondrashin conducted it in the Conservatory and that powerful performance was recorded and is available on all formats from Praga Digitals.

Audiences today are once again hearing Yevtushenko’s original poem.

04 Weinberg FluteWeinberg – Flute Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; 12 Pieces for Flute and Orchestra; 5 Pieces for Flute and Piano
Claudia Stein; Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra; David Robert Coleman
Naxos 8.573931 (naxosdirect.com) 

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer who came of age just as Europe was plunged into the inferno of the Second World War. Moving first to Minsk to escape the Nazi occupation of Poland, he subsequently moved to Tashkent and then, with some help from Shostakovich, to Moscow where he lived for the rest of his life. The music on this recording, composed between 1947 and 1987 is a window into the musical culture, nipped in the bud by World War II, emerging in the 1930s in Eastern Europe.

The first thing that struck me about Weinberg’s music was his prodigious mastery of technique. For example, the first movement of Flute Concerto No.1 is an exciting, dramatic and technically challenging dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. The second movement, an elegiac soliloquy for the flute, is supported by a simple but profoundly expressive chord progression played by the orchestra: the two movements couldn’t be more different, but both display equal mastery.

The first of the Five Pieces for Flute and Piano, begins by quoting the opening of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, but moves on seamlessly into Weinberg’s own wonderfully original and expressive flight of melodic invention.

Flutist Claudia Stein, pianist Elisaveta Blumina and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Robert Coleman, are equally up to the challenges of Weinberg’s music. Kudos also to Naxos for introducing us to Weinberg’s music for flute.

05 Michael ByronMichael Byron – Bridges of Pearl and Dust
Ben Phelps
Cold Bllue Music CB0057 (coldbluemusic.com) 

This CD single features Bridges of Pearl and Dust, a 16-minute four-vibraphone work by “second-generation West Coast minimalist” American composer Michael Byron. It’s dense, contrapuntal and polyrhythmic music which generously rewards repeated listening.

I first met the Los Angeles-raised Byron at Toronto’s York University around 1973. He came to study composition with American Richard Teitelbaum, as well as to teach music. Byron had already studied with maverick composer James Tenney in LA, and had formed close musical friendships with influential post-modernist, minimalist composers Harold Budd and Peter Garland. At York Byron worked closely with music professor, composer, musician and biofeedback-music pioneer David Rosenboom. Very quickly Byron became an integral member of the vibrant mid-1970s Toronto avant-garde performing arts community. Byron moved to New York City a few years later, and there too found an influential place in the downtown experimental music scene.

Byron’s compositions are marked by those varied influences, yet even his earliest works project a unique musical voice. One reviewer called itshimmering minimalism.” The four vibraphones in Bridges of Pearl and Dust (2011), all played with élan by LA percussionist Ben Phelps, combine to express a complex, harmonically shifting sound field. Challenged on the first listening, I replayed the album four times. Over time, the logic and aesthetics of Byron’s musical imagination were revealed.

Filled with rhythmically percolating, interpenetrating melodic lines, the resulting tightly interwoven texture elicits, as the composer aptly put it, “a musical experience in the present tense.” And as I found out, one which richly rewards deep listening.

06 Patrick YimMemory – Patrick Yim plays works for solo violin
Patrick Yim
Navona Records nv6268 (navonarecords.com)

Championing contemporary works for violin by living composers has become an integral part of Patrick Yim’s performing career in recent years. This Honolulu-born violinist displays both dazzling technique and passionate interpretations of solo violin works on his new release, Memory. Among five pieces, four are commissioned for this occasion and premiered on the album, and three are inspired by Miles Upon Miles: World Heritage Along the Silk Road, an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History.

Memory features works by a talented array of composers – Chen Yi, Kai-Young Chan, Yao Chen, Austin Yip and Michael-Thomas Foumai. Their music is both an engaging showcase of inventive musical ideas and treatises on contemporary violin techniques. Through the exploration of cultural identity and the role of memory in preserving it, they bring out a delicate tapestry of ideas on the significance of sound in both past and present-day settings. Field recordings processed through granular synthesis in combination with amplified violin in Miles Upon Miles by Yip is a perfect example of accord between relics of the past and rich expressions of the modern language.

Yim is very attuned to each of these pieces. His skill in highlighting the minute nuances and details is fiercely supported by an understanding of the musical language and ideas of each composer. His sound is encompassing and penetrating at times, lyrical and poetic when needed, adding a special dimension to this album.

07 DreamersDreamers – The Music of Jeffrey Jacob
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6248 (navonarecords.com)

The disc, Dreamers, is a collection of pieces written by composer/pianist Jeffrey Jacob. The pieces are all earnest expressions of melancholic feeling, moving through discord towards reconciliation. He often pits the brightest register of the piano against sombre lower strings, and he uses short melodic motifs that sometimes recall a familiar strain of someone else’s: the lilting adagio in 6/8 time of his Sanctuary One, almost quotes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in the solo piccolo; there’s a gesture somewhat like Debussy’s Syrinx in some of the woodwind lines in The Persistence of Memory; in the same work the piano and the cello give voice to Schumann-esque nostalgia (although in his notes the composer freely admits this last reference).

The writing is assured, and Jacob’s performance skills are fine (he appears as piano soloist or ensemble member on most of the tracks). He also receives (takes?) oboe credit for the final track, somewhat puzzlingly, as it’s a synthesizer, not the real thing.

The disc opens with the title work, a three-movement concerto dedicated to the cohort of American immigrants known as Dreamers. The first movement is subtitled Rain, Lagrimas (Tears). The piano solo provides the persistent drops of sound to generate this image, an evocative technique if somewhat heavily present in the mix, a comment that applies for much of the disc. The string orchestra provides the melancholy.

Jacob confines much of his syntax to the four-bar phrase. This is just a quibble, one from someone who gets easily bored of the repeated trope.

08 Shadow DancerElliott Miles McKinley – Shadow Dancer
Janáček Trio; Auriga String Quartet
Navona Records nv6264 (navonarecords.com)

As I write this review on Valentine’s Day (despite any personal reservations about this day) it seems fitting – and strangely serendipitous – that I am writing about a collection of pieces centred around the common theme of remembered love. Elliot Miles McKinley’s Shadow Dancer contains three chamber works from the well-known American composer: a quartet performed by the Auriga String Quartet, a duo for cello and piano, and the title work, a piano trio in six movements performed by the eminent Janáček Trio.

Sentimentality is a term thrown around in many negative contexts – and rightly so when a surplus of emotion is offered in excess of the object itself. That said, McKinley provides easily recognizable moods through varying angles that in turns assume flourishes of jarring dissonances, agonizing punctuation and repetitive thoughts that somehow create a welcomed atmosphere of sentimentality. These shifts in emotional temperament are most expertly woven in the String Quartet No.8 – a work that ignites a journey of doubt and eventual spontaneous resolution. The aforementioned duet, A Letter to Say I Love You, and Goodbye, is most fittingly titled in its obvious dramatic purpose and longing. Shadow Dancer attempts to create a sense of purpose through love and understanding – wordless poems that are expertly performed by the highly accomplished musicians.

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