02 Antheil 4 5George Antheil – Symphonies 4 and 5
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 10941

Best remembered for his futuristic Ballet mécanique of 1926, the New Jersey-born pianist and composer George Antheil (1900-1959) was in his youth the darling of the Parisian avant-garde and a rising star of American music. Alas, his attempt to replicate his Parisian acclaim with an ambitious, high-profile American remounting of this work at Carnegie Hall in 1927 was a disaster from which the self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” was slow to recover. His scandalous score (originally conceived for an orchestra of player pianos, percussionists and airplane propeller) was not to be heard again for 60 years. Dejected, the pugnacious, pistol-packing composer eventually found work in Hollywood, where he scored films and worked as a journalist. The patriotic fervour of wartime 1940s America brought him back into the spotlight with a catalogue of works radically more conventional than those of his youth. Antheil’s Symphony No.4 (subtitled “1942”) was broadcast nationwide by Stokowski in 1944 to great acclaim and received numerous subsequent performances. Later Eugene Ormandy would come calling to commission his “Joyous” Symphony No.5 (1948) for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Throughout the 1950s however, the quest for the “Great American Symphony” faded along with Antheil’s career. He died suddenly in 1959 of a heart attack.

The numerous tempo changes noted in the track details to the movements of these two symphonies hint at Antheil’s problematic sectional approach to composition. It is a challenge for any conductor to tie so many mood swings together coherently, a task that Storgårds for the most part achieves, though to my mind Hugh Wolff’s CPO recording of the same symphonies with the Frankfurt RSO from the year 2000 is superior in this regard. Despite the patchwork nature of Antheil’s music there is never a dull moment; the listener, though perhaps a tad confused, will find the music consistently engaging and effectively orchestrated. Surprisingly, despite the self-consciously upbeat all-American profile of these works, both symphonies exhibit strong influences from the leading Soviet composers of the era, notably the obsessive dactylic rhythms of Shostakovich and the harmonic twists of Prokofiev. A bonus track brings us the first recording of Antheil’s Over the Plains (1945), a cinematic evocation of the landscape of Texas. All told, an intriguing and enjoyable album, quite plushly recorded and very keenly played.

03 Facets Cline duoFacets
Cline/Cuestas Duo
Independent (clinecuestasduo.com)

There are many fine flutists in the world these days, and Jenny Cline of the Cline/Cuestas Duo is definitely one of them. She and guitarist Carlos Cuestas have put together a terrific program which combines four substantial contemporary compositions balanced by music from the late 19th and the early- and the mid-20th centuries.

At 15 minutes, Maximo Diego Pujol’s Suite Buenos Aires is the longest of the four contemporary pieces. Composed in 1995, its four movements depict different parts of the city after which it is named. The slow second movement is particularly exquisite, opening with a guitar solo beautifully played by Cuestas, setting up Cline for the heartrending solo which follows. The last movement too, is particularly noteworthy, bristling with excitement and precise teamwork.

Among the earlier compositions are six of Bartók’s Romanian Dances and Enrique Granados’ Danza Española No. 5: Andaluza, from which the duo draws haunting nostalgia for times past in pre-cataclysm Eastern Europe and Spain respectively.

Daniel Dorff’s Serenade to Eve, After Rodin (1999), beginning passionately lyrical and moving to an astonishing virtuosic conclusion, is yet another great addition to the contemporary repertoire for flute and guitar. So too is Gary Schocker’s Silk Worms, music of great refinement commissioned by the duo in 2013 and interpreted here with warmth and conviction.

Credit also goes to Oscar Zambrano, who mastered the recording, for really getting the balance between the two instruments just right. Congratulations to all who were involved for an excellent first CD.

06 Wuorinen Vol 3Charles Wuorinen Vol. 3
loadbang; Anne-Marie McDermott; Group for Contemporary Music; Charles Wuorinen
Bridge Records 9490 (bridgerecords.com)

Among the most prolific of contemporary American composers, the 79-year old Charles Wuorinen’s catalogue of 260-plus compositions includes works for opera, orchestra and chamber music, as well as solo instruments and voice. He has received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. The 2014 Madrid premiere of Wuorinen’s opera, set on Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, was covered by international media and has had several subsequent European productions.

Anthony Tommasini in his 2014 New York Times review characterized Wuorinen as an “unabashedly complex Modernist.” And while in 2008 Wuorinen called the term serialism “almost without meaning,” nevertheless his career-long commitment to 12-tone composition is clear, with Schoenberg, Berg, late Stravinsky and Babbitt cited among primary influences. Fractals and Mandelbrot mathematical sets are also central to Wuorinen’s recent compositional procedures.

Much of Wuorinen’s music makes great technical demands on musicians, including tonal leaps, extreme dynamic contrasts, and rapid exchange of pitches, all requiring extreme precision and virtuosity. This is all on ample display in the three works on Charles Wuorinen, Vol. 3.

The album opens with Alphabetical Ashbery (2013) a song cycle/motet marked by the free-flowing, playful and often disjunctive poems by the American poet John Ashbery performed by the unique forces of loadbang: Jeffrey Gavett, baritone, Carlos Cordeiro, bass clarinet, Andy Kozar, trumpet and William Lang, trombone. The muscular and substantial Fourth Piano Sonata (2007), the latest and most traditionally structured of Wuorinen’s works in this genre, is definitively rendered by the brilliant pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. It Happens Like This (2010) closes the CD. At just over 39 minutes in seven bite-sized movements, this four-voice cantata is set to American modernist James Tate’s surrealistic poems, providing a charming close to our musical visit with one of America’s enduring elder statesmen of composition. 

07 Rhapsodies Around the WorldRhapsodies Around the World
Guy Yehuda; Deborah Moriarty
Blue Griffin Records BGR441 (bluegriffin.com)

An ambitious project launched by clarinetist Guy Yehuda resulted in six new works for clarinet and piano, all somehow influenced by Claude Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie. Rhapsodies Around the World is a fair description of the contents, as all the continents are represented by the diverse set of composers Yehuda chose to commission.

The disc opens with his performance of the model work, and Yehuda demonstrates a decent finesse with this always-difficult piece. His reading is marked by certain injections of personality, if that’s the right word. Over time a well-worn piece might seem to beg for reinterpretation, and one is always free to provide one, just as a listener is free to like or dislike the layering of liberties pasted on the original.

I’m grateful nonetheless to the performer for this collection. The various spinoffs most resemble the original only in duration, each between eight and ten minutes in length. The composers provide an accounting of their approach to the project’s requirements, some more prolix than others. The essay by Michel Petrossian describing his Timkat Song bears so much analysis on its own that one might forget the fine piece of music it describes. American violinist/composer Piotr Szewczyk’s Luminous Rhapsody reminds me of the music of Joan Tower. Yao Chen almost literally recalls the original Rhapsodie at the outset of Through Waters, By Mountains. Clare Loveday of South Africa wrote Heatwave during a real heat wave, gave up on trying to find a connection to the model work, and came up with a brilliant, jazzy number. It, Parish Ode (attention anagram lovers), by Liduino Pitombeira of Brazil, and The Three Alcids by Melody Eötvös are my favourites.

08 Cavell TrioNew Discoveries
Cavell Trio
Blue Griffin Records BGR447 (bluegriffin.com)

A trio named for a heroic WW1 nurse, or for the mountain named for Edith Cavell, I’m not sure which, has compiled more than their share of recordings of new works and released them on this disc. Sharing five reeds between them, they also share a deft rhythmic sense and more-than-decent pitch; nor is this surprising, as they work together as section mates of the Tuscaloosa Symphony.

The material is charming and spunky, matched by solid and able instrumental performances by Shelly Myers (oboe), Osiris Molina (clarinet) and Jenny Mann (bassoon). They are at their best in the more challenging works, the opening track Devil Winds by Greg Simon, Ron Wray’s Trail Mix and Trois Pièces by Jeanine Rueff. Much of the other material suffers from an amiable sameness, exacerbated by unremitting reediness. The virtue of blend becomes somewhat a cloying sin over the course of this remarkably large collection. It is as though the composers who interest the group all choose similar movement durations, and stick to conventional sequences of mood and tempi. Or perhaps the group has developed a sort of signature set of tempi for slow, medium and fast. Or maybe there is simply too ample a range of pieces featuring this same group and too narrow a stylistic range of composers presented for it to be something to listen to straight through.

Carping aside, the playing is consistently good: their blend, pitch and rhythmic unity serve the composers well. The disc provides a resource for other trios who might want to pick and choose among the material presented.

09 John Mackey windsAntique Violences: Music of John Mackey
Michigan State University Wind Symphony; Kevin Sedatoale
Blue Griffin Records BGR449 (bluegriffin.com)

John Mackey (b.1973) is a much-commissioned American composer. On this disc the vocal writing and instrumentation of Songs for the End of the World (2015), written for the outstanding soprano Lindsay Kesselman, is appealing. It vividly re-imagines part of the Odyssey from the point of view of Kalypso on her island. Mackey’s setting of A.E. Jacques‘s text reflects her weariness from isolation, leaving room for Kesselman’s rich voice to grow vocally throughout the performance. In the second movement Kalypso recalls Odysseus washing up on shore after his shipwreck and, in Lydian mode phrases extending into Kesselman’s radiant top range, her healing of him and the love they developed. Bright harp, vibraphone and piano tones add lustre. But after seven years Odysseus leaves for Ithaca where Penelope awaits. The third movement’s title At Sea indicates Kalypso’s memory-haunted despair, captured in Kesselman’s mournful tone backed by an evanescent harp.

Antique Violences (2017), a four-movement trumpet concerto premiered with panache by Justin Emerich, evokes and questions mass violence throughout history. While admiring the composer’s wind symphony mastery and idiomatic trumpet part, I question whether the work realizes its stated musical ideas. According to program notes for the second movement “The music begins in a decadent French Baroque style, then unravels its shimmering mask to reveal the barbarism beneath.” But to me it is poor musical pastiche, lacking compensating artistic value. Asphalt Cocktail (2009) is a high-class car chase, with the Michigan State University Wind Symphony conducted by Kevin L. Sedatole attaining peak form.

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