08 John AdamsJohn Adams
Berliner Philharmoniker; Gustavo Dudamel; Alan Gilbert; Kirill Petrenko; Sir Simon Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 170141 (berliner-philharmoniker-recordings.com)

This set of recordings is uniquely presented in an elegant, creatively designed package of quality. In his forward, Simon Rattle writes “John Adams is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first official composer-in-residence during my 15 years as chief conductor of the orchestra. We have known each other for more than 30 years. I was in my late 20s when I first became aware of his music. Ed Smith, who ran the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with me, played me Harmonium. It made a huge impression on me. It’s one of his earliest works for orchestra and chorus and it packs a huge and ecstatic punch. His music has unbelievable energy and joy and hunger for life that transmits itself to people of all ages…. John is such an open, generous, self-deprecating person that it’s sometimes hard to believe that he is a great composer as well. He’s managed to keep a special depth of humanity, and I think that comes through in the music.”

There are seven works in this collection, including the three larger works on CD, all duplicated with extras and documentaries on the Blu-ray video discs. Harmonielehre, for orchestra is conducted by Adams and the dramatic symphony, Scheherazade.2 has Adams in charge with an astounding Leila Josefowicz, violin. The Gospel According to the Other Mary is an oratorio in two acts devised by Peter Sellars who selected the texts. Rattle conducts three prime soloists, three countertenors, chorus and orchestra.

It is predictable that a conversation between Adams and Sellars would be both fascinating and enlightening as they discuss The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The meaning and message of the oratorio’s text and its impact inevitably leads to reflections on much of the world today.

Here is what the others batoneers did: Alan Gilbert, Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Lollapalooza; Gustavo Dudamel, City Noir; Kirill Petrenko, The Wound-Dresser.

This is a most enjoyable creative concept, with authoritative performances in state-of-the-art sound and vision.

01 HovhanessAlan Hovhaness – Music for Winds & Percussion
Central Washington University Wind Ensemble; Larry Gookin; Keith Brion; Mark Goodenberger
Naxos 8.559837 (naxos.com)

This spellbinding, beauty-filled CD, featuring several world premiere recordings, will delight Hovhaness’ fans (like me). For anyone unfamiliar with Hovhaness’ luminous exoticism, these ten short, varied works spanning the years 1942-1985 are a perfect introduction.

Hovhaness’ amazing output over his long life (1911-2000) includes 67 symphonies (!) among 434 opus numbers (!), many drawing upon his father’s Armenian heritage, as well as other Eastern musical traditions. Mystically inclined, the Massachusetts-born composer revered mountains as sacred, referencing them in the titles of over 30 works, including two on this CD.

October Mountain for six percussionists highlights the marimba in music recalling Balinese ceremonial song and dance. In Mountain under the Sea, a chanting saxophone floats above throbbing harp and percussion, suggesting magma welling from an underwater volcano. The Overture to Hovhaness’ opera The Burning House, scored for flute and percussion, evokes the austere stateliness of Japanese court and theatre music. Vision on a Starry Night for flute, harp and percussion is sweet and dreamy, while melancholy informs Meditation on Ardalus for solo flute and The Ruins of Ani for eight clarinets, a threnody for a medieval Armenian city destroyed by the Turks.

The most lustrous gems in this musical jewel box are works for band. Hovhaness exulted in solemn, incantatory brass and woodwind melismas, spotlighted in the Armenian processional Tapor No.1, Three Improvisations on Folk Tunes (from India and Pakistan), Hymn to Yerevan and the six-movement Suite for Band.

A truly entrancing disc!

02 Daugherty DreamachineMichael Daugherty – Dreamachine; Trail of Tears; Reflection on the Mississippi
Amy Porter; Evelyn Glennie; Carol Jantsch; Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559807 (naxos.com)

Among the younger composers prominent in the fecund musical topography of the United States, Michael Daugherty stands out as being fascinating, compelling and yet profoundly revolutionary in his ability to use the timbral palette of orchestral instruments, squeezing haunting and intuitive, drone-like modalities to evoke feelings of sadness and joy, nostalgia and anticipation, on a grand and sweeping scale. His music on this disc has been rendered with urbane and stylish theatre by the Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller.

The cloudy sound masses of Trail of Tears have been created out of microscopic tangles of intrepid instrumental lines. These gradually become clearer as the work progresses through its ferociously revelatory second movement. This micropolyphony of the melodic line, pursued by flutist Amy Porter, entwined with the percussive outbursts of the Albany Symphony, comes to a mighty resolution in the finale.

In Dreamachine and Reflections on the Mississippi – considerably darkened by the Delta’s history – Daugherty summons his visionary skills to create a compelling musical world, at once eerie and beautiful. The music receives an epic fillip with the inclusion of Dame Evelyn Glennie on percussion and Carol Jantsch on tuba. Orchestral tensions mount in the darkened imagery of Reflections on the Mississippi; the visceral drama of Dreamachine is completely re-contextualised in Glennie’s inimitable manner and expressed in a magisterial rhythmic style, where complex layers of tempi are used to drive the music forward.

03 George PerleGeorge Perle – Orchestral Music (1965-1987)
Jay Campbell; Seattle Symphony; Ludovic Morlot
Bridge Records 9499 (bridgerecords.com)

Christopher Hailey’s excellent accompanying notes to this release quote American composer George Perle (1915-2009) on his intentions: “Music that was going to do what music used to do, with its basis being the 12-tone scale instead of the diatonic [seven-note] scale.” Based on these premiere recordings, Perle succeeds with clear phrasing and textures, melodic and rhythmic interest, consistent pitch content and colourful, inviting instrumental groups. The Sinfonietta 1 (1987) exemplifies these traditional virtues, opening with a propulsive neo-classical feel. Perle’s string writing is exemplary both in part-writing and mood creation; in the second movement, the Seattle Symphony’s string section supports a questioning clarinet solo beautifully. Other works differ; A Short Symphony (1980) is more influenced by Alban Berg’s expressionism, especially in the intriguing last movement where Perle’s in-depth involvement and analytical insight into Berg’s works produce remarkable results.

Six Bagatelles (1965) are miniatures. No.5 is notable for its otherworldly high divisi strings that surge and recede. In No.4, a solo cello emerges powerfully, contrasting with sustained woodwinds. This piece led to the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966), where the solo-orchestra juxtaposition becomes a natural fit with Perle’s style. He contrasts one orchestra section with another or with the cello in an idiomatic and imaginative way. American cellist Jay Campbell is expressive and assured, conductor Ludovic Morlot balances all wonderfully, and the Seattle Symphony shines. The clever Dance Fantasy (1986) rounds off this remarkable disc.

04 Kernis DreamsongsAaron Jay Kernis – Dreamsongs: Three Concertos
Paul Neubauer; Joshua Roman; Royal Northern Sinfonia; Rebecca Miller
Signum Classics SIGCD524 (signumrecords.com)

In these three very disparate concertos, composed between 2009 and 2014, Pulitzer Prize laureate Aaron Jay Kernis has drawn inspiration from very disparate sources, ranging from African instruments to Bach, Schumann and Yiddish folk song.

Bittersweet melodies pervade the three-movement Viola Concerto, dedicated to and performed by superb violist Paul Neubauer, former principal of the New York Philharmonic. The 32-minute concerto is dominated by its third movement, A Song My Mother Taught Me, lasting nearly 20 minutes, in which Kernis elaborates on the Yiddish song Tumbalalaika and the Fughette from Schumann’s Klavierstücke Op.32.

The 26-minute, two-movement Dreamsongs is dedicated to and performed by virtuoso cellist Joshua Roman. The first movement, Floating Dreamsongs, pits dreamily, plaintive melodies in the cello against orchestral textures featuring harp, marimba and vibraphone. Kora Song, the second movement, is more animated, cello pizzicati evoking the sound of the kora, a plucked gourd, with the orchestra augmented by a West African djembe drum.

Echoes of Bach’s Brandenburgs inhabit the16-minute Concerto with Echoes, scored without soloist or violins. Its three movements encompass a vigorous Toccata, a poignant passacaglia (Slowly) and a nostalgic Aria that gently fades away.

Many critics, myself included, have commented in the past that Kernis’ lyrical lines often lapse into sentimentality, as can be heard on this CD. I’m convinced, however, that this very sentimentality has actually been the basis of his music’s audience appeal and the key to the ongoing success of his compositional career.

05 MortensenFinn Mortensen – Symphony Op.5
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra; Peter Szilvay
SSO Recordings 3917-2 (sso.no)

Weighty Brucknerian moods and gestures imbue the dark-hued, dramatic Symphony by the previously unknown to me Norwegian composer Finn Mortensen (1922-1983), enhancing a powerful and rewarding listening experience, so much so that I played and enjoyed it again immediately after my first hearing.

A restless, long-lined chromatic melody in the lower strings launches the Allegro Moderato. A gentle English horn solo then creates a moment of calm before a storm of prolonged, repeated thunderbolts, followed by a return to the grumbling opening theme. Finally, a solo flute breaks through the gray clouds with a ray of sunlight and the movement ends in radiant glory.

The Adagio continues the pervading noir-ness, a gripping musical counterpart to the popular, bleakly brooding Nordic detective novels. The scherzo, marked Allegro Vivace, alternates dancing, light strings and woodwinds with heavy, ponderous brass and percussion. In the final Allegro Moderato, an aggressive fugue leads to the English horn melody of the first movement, now transformed into a triumphant concluding brass chorale.

This tempestuous, late-Romantic music receives a full-blooded performance from the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Szilvay, who first fell under the Symphony’s potent spell as a teenage violist performing it with a Norwegian youth orchestra. At only 37 minutes, this CD may seem less attractive than the two other CDs of the Symphony, both of which include additional Mortensen works; nonetheless, this splendid recording of this splendid symphony is well worth your consideration.

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