August 07, 2008


Per Nørgård: String Quartets Nos. 7-10. Kroger Quartet. Dacapo. $16.99.

John Tavener: Piano Music—Zodiacs (1997); Ypakoë (1997); Palin (1977); Mandoodles (1982); Pratirūpa (2003); In Memory of Two Cats (1986). Ralph van Raat, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Steven Stucky: Four Album Leaves (2002); Three Little Variations for David (2001); Witold Lutoslawski: Sonata for Piano (1934); Esa-Pekka Salonen: Yta II (1985); Three Preludes (2005); Dichotomie (1999-2000). Gloria Cheng, piano. Telarc. $18.98.

Jean-François Zygel: Improvisations. Jean-François Zygel, piano and celesta; Philippe Berrod, clarinet and bass clarinet; Thomas Bloch, glass harmonica; Johnny Rasse and Jean Boucault, bird songs. Naïve. $16.99.

Ron Nelson: Wind Music. Keystone Wind Ensemble conducted by Jack Stamp. Klavier. $16.99.

The Quest: Wind Music by Bruce Broughton, William Walton, Frank Ticheli, Masao Yabe, Fisher Tull and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. UNLV Wind Orchestra conducted by Thomas G. Leslie. Klavier. $16.99.

Robert Ian Winstin: Taliban Dances; Three Pieces for Piano; Normandy: June 6, 1944; Piano Attacks; Le Voyage Dans La Lune. Galyna Hornostai, violin; Yuri Kornilov, trumpet; Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin. ERM Media. $14.99.

Masterworks of the New Era, Volume 12. Kiev Philharmonic, Prague Radio Symphony and Czech Philharmonic conducted by Robert Ian Winstin. ERM Media. $32.99 (4 CDs).

Michael Nyman: Six Celan Songs; The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi. Hilary Summers, Sarah Leonard and Michael Nyman Band conducted by Michael Nyman. MN Records. $16.99.

Michael Nyman: Nyman Brass. Wingates Band conducted by Andrew Berryman. MN Records. $16.99.

      Given the fact that modern classical and (for want of a better term) “classical crossover” music is infrequently performed in concert halls and is familiar to only a small number of listeners – and of positive interest to some smaller percentage of that number – it is a tribute to the dedication of specialized and special-interest labels that so much of it is available in recorded form, with more coming out all the time. Here, a look at some recent releases:

      Dacapo, which promotes music by Danish composers and performances by Danish musicians, offers the four most recent quartets by Per Nørgård (born 1932) in top-notch performances by the Kroger Quartet (Alexander Ollgaard and Maj Kullberg, violins; Sanna Ripatti, viola; Jakob Kullberg, cello). Written between 1993 and 2005, these quartets vary significantly in form and structure. No. 7, originally written for a bicentenary of the Danish Royal Library, has been revised several times and in its current form is dedicated to the Kroger Quartet; No. 8 is based on music from one of Nørgård’s chamber operas; No. 9 was written for the 2001 Santa Fe Chamber Music festival; and No. 10 was written specifically for the Kroger players and features interesting juxtapositions of violin and viola chords against a repeated pizzicato theme in the cello.

      Naxos, whose huge catalogue includes a wide variety of modern works, showcases Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat in six pieces by John Tavener (born 1944). Tavener’s piano music emphasizes the instrument as percussion and extends its sound into that of bells and “sound clouds.” The pieces here range from Tavener’s first piano work, Palin, to Pratirūpa (Sanskrit for “reflection”), a huge work that runs 30 minutes and is intended to reflect Tavener’s highly personal spirituality: he joined the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 but also uses Greek Orthodox and Byzantine melodies extensively. The final piece on the CD, In Memory of Two Cats, offers bell-like sounds and is a welcome respite in its two-minute duration.

      All the works played by Gloria Cheng on her new Telarc CD – and performed with great style – are welcome in their own way, being world premiere recordings. The most substantial piece by far is Lutoslawski’s Piano Sonata, one of his few early works to have survived the destruction of Warsaw by Nazi forces in 1944. Written when the composer was 21, this large-scale work follows the three-movement classical model and shows distinct influences of Debussy and Stravinsky, but already showcases the composer’s individual voice. The seven short movements in the two pieces by Steven Stucky (born 1949) are character sketches, ranging from the contemplative and serene to the distinctly amused and amusing. The works by Esa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958) show this well-known conductor to be a fine composer as well – in fact, he is now focusing more on composition than on leading orchestras. Yta II (the title means “surface”) is the second of three pieces written for specific performers, the others being for alto flute and cello and this one being for Cheng; Dichotomie, also written for Cheng, is in two contrasting movements; and the Three Preludes are brief and well contrasted. The first, interestingly, is marked “Libellula Meccanica,” in parallel both with the first movement of Dichotomie, marked “Mécanisme,” and with the second of Stucky’s album leaves, which is marked “Meccanico.”

      The piano is just one instrument favored by Jean-François Zygel, who also employs the celesta and who works in many forms – this is one of those “classical crossover” discs. The 13 tracks on Zygel’s CD show numerous facets of his improvisational technique, sounding mostly jazzy but also impressionistic, with occasional tone painting (Carillons) and even the intended sound of an exotic land (Bali). Zygel is a music educator and TV performer as well as a pianist. His improvisations show a mind with varied interests and no easily pinned down musical style.

      Two new CDs on the Klavier label feature mostly modern music for wind band – although there are some arrangements of older classical pieces as well. The eight pieces on the Ron Nelson CD were written as long ago as 1958 (Mayflower Overture) and as recently as 2006 (Pastorale: Autumn Rune). These are mostly upbeat works and are more audience-friendly than much modern music, although the most optimistic piece – Fanfare for the New Millennium – turned out to be somewhat too hopeful, in light of all that has happened in the world in recent years. Everything is well played, with a nice turn by Keith Young on alto saxophone in Danza Capriccio. The CD includes a lengthy interview with Nelson (born 1929) discussing his music – although those who are unfamiliar with it might wish for more playing and less talking.

      The other Klavier CD, called The Quest and featuring the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Wind Orchestra, includes half a dozen works in a wide variety of styles, written at very different times. Two well-known composers are represented through arrangements -- of three dances from Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans and of Walton’s The Quest. The remaining music here is far less known, but is mostly well constructed and easy for an audience to listen to – and some people will find Bruce Broughton’s Silverado Overture familiar, since it is based on Broughton’s score for the 1985 film.

      Klavier offers modern works in the context of its commitment to wind music in general. Other labels were specifically founded to showcase a single type of music, a single composer, and/or a single performer. ERM Media is a 25-year-old label devoted to conductor and composer Robert Ian Winstin, both of whose roles are showcased in two recent releases. Winstin is both composer and conductor on the CD called Taliban Dances – an ironic title for both the CD and Winstin’s violin concerto, since the Taliban tolerate no dancing. Alternating between seriousness and levity, with very difficult violin parts that climax at the very end with ever-faster tempos and bits of both the Dies Irae and the song “Dixie,” the concerto is disjointed but at least intermittently effective. The other works on the CD are more in the nature of character studies. Three Pieces for Piano includes a waltz, a romantic interlude and a scherzo. Normandy: June 6, 1944 commemorates D-Day with the effective but not-very-original pairing of trumpet and orchestra. Piano Attacks gets five movements into a minute and a half (played by Winstin himself, and very well). And Le Voyage Dans La Lune is suitably otherworldly.

      Masterworks of the New Era, Volume 12 is a four-CD compilation of a large number of disparate works, conducted by Winstin and featuring three different orchestras. It is hard to determine the intended audience for this release, since the pieces played are so different in style, approach, length, orchestration and just about everything else. Most of the composers are very little known: Scott Brickman, Michael Sidney Timpson, Guilherme Schroeter, Richard Bagdazian, Ven Olac and many others. And listeners who do know one or two of these composers may not want a four-CD set including so many with whom they are not familiar. Or perhaps that is the point: to lure listeners who have mild familiarity with at least a work or two here, persuading them to sample pieces by many other composers of today. It is hard to see how this works, but presumably Winstin is on to something, since there have been 11 previous releases in this series.

      Another label devoted to a specific person is MN Records, designed to produce and showcase the music of Michael Nyman (born 1944) – usually performed by him and musicians with whom he works regularly. That is exactly what occurs in the CD combining Six Celan Songs (1990) with The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi (2001). The earlier work uses six poems in which Paul Celan attempts to come to terms with the near-impossibility of writing poetry after the Holocaust; Nyman tries to use music to invent an imaginary emotional world against which to set Celan’s words. The later piece is the musical part of a collaboration with visual artist Mary Kelly, and deals with an 18-month-old Kosovan boy who was left for dead, found and renamed by Serbs, then reunited with his parents six months later. Even in the absence of visuals, Nyman works to paint a scene of the horrors of war and the impossibility of maintaining everyday family relationships when fighting rages on all sides.

      Nyman Brass is a bit of a departure for MN Records: although it does present Nyman’s music, it does not feature him or musicians with whom he usually performs. Fifteen of the CD’s 17 tracks are arrangements for brass of Nyman’s music for two films, The Ogre (1996) and The Libertine (2005). The remaining two tracks are arrangements of In Re Don Giovanni and of an excerpt from Nyman’s music for Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film, The Draughtsman’s Contract, in which Nyman used Henry Purcell’s music as an important source. All these works are typical Nyman – his repeated rhythms and thematic material help create a distinctive sound world, both in his film music and in his other works. What is interesting is hearing Nyman in brass-band arrangements: just as hearing Tchaikovsky arranged for wind band (on the Klavier CD The Quest) is both odd and exhilarating for the new perspective it provides on the music, so hearing Nyman’s works arranged for brass band gives them an edginess and fullness that they do not otherwise have. True, Nyman’s music is nowhere near as familiar as Tchaikovsky’s, so the comparison of the arrangements is far from precise. But what is interesting is that Nyman’s music comes through as strongly as it does in brass-band arrangements – whether listeners are familiar with the original orchestrations or not.

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