April 21, 2011


Kamran Ince: Symphony No. 5 (“Galatasaray”); Hot, Red, Cold, Vibrant; Requiem without Words; Before Infrared. Soloists, Turkish Ministry of Culture Choir and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kamran Ince. Naxos. $9.99.

David Gompper: Violin Concerto; Ikon; Flip; Spirals. Wolfgang David, violin; Peter Zazofsky, violin; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Emmanuel Siffert. Naxos. $9.99.

Lawrence Dillon: Violin Music. Danielle Belén, violin; David Fung, piano; Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola; Stan Muncy, marimba. Naxos. $9.99.

Sebastian Currier: Piano Music. Laura Melton, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Jefferson Friedman: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3. Chiara String Quartet. New Amsterdam. $11.99.

Judith Lang Zaimont: String Quartet (“The Figure­”); Piano Trio No. 2 (“Zones”); Astral; Serenade. Harlem Quartet; Awadagin Pratt, piano. Navona. $16.99.

John Rutter: Gloria; Magnificat; Te Deum. Elizabeth Cragg, soprano; Tom Winpenny, organ; Choirs of St. Albans Cathedral and Ensemble DeChorum conducted by Andrew Lucas. Naxos. $9.99.

It Is Time: Music by David Shapiro, Kile Smith, Paul Fowler, Frank Havrøy, Erhard Karkoschka and Kristen Broberg. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. Navona. $16.99.

Awake: Music by Judd Greenstein, Sean Friar, Missy Mazzoli, Mark Dancigers, David Crowell and Patrick Burke. NOW Ensemble. New Amsterdam. $11.99.

Brian Eno: Music for Airports (Live). Bang on a Can All-Stars. Cantaloupe Music. $9.99.

Federico Mompou: Música Callada; Secreto, from Impresiones intimas. Jenny Lin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     The proliferation of recordings of music by less-known modern composers is a vastly under-reported story amid all the media coverage of the supposed dearth of interest in classical music. To be sure, not all modern music that is supposedly classical sounds particularly “classical” to many listeners; some does not even sound like music by traditional definitions. But the fact that so many composers are now having a chance to be heard, and heard repeatedly – a rarity in concert halls, where even if a modern work is played once, it is often not heard again for many years, if then – indicates that classical music, however defined, is in better shape than many reports of its near-demise would indicate. Naxos continues to lead the way in producing top-quality CDs, very well performed, of modern works that are available nowhere else. And even with its recent price hike to the $10 range per disc, Naxos remains at the low-cost end of CD producers, making it possible for listeners interested in a bit of experimentation to undertake it without feeling they have to sink an unreasonable amount of money into works that they can hear in advance, at best, only in snippets through online excerpts. Naxos is bringing out works of all types. The new CD of music by Turkish composer Kamran Ince is orchestral and choral, and impressive on many levels. Ince’s Symphony No. 5 was written in 2005 for the 100th anniversary of the founding of Turkey’s most successful football (soccer) club, Galatasaray, and this work is celebratory indeed, with soloists, chorus and large orchestra combining for an appropriately outgoing and rather raucous piece. Requiem without Words is at the opposite end of the musical spectrum: it mourns a 2003 terrorist bombing in Istanbul that indiscriminately killed Muslims, Christians and Jews. Ince’s range is apparent throughout this disc, which opens with the intense drive of Hot, Red, Cold, Vibrant and concludes with the sonic smash of Before Infrared, a work that shows Ince’s ability to hurl sound in great gobs toward the audience.

     Naxos’ new David Gompper CD is also in the orchestral realm, but Gompper is a more constrained composer: there is a single basic technique that he employs in all the works heard here. Fortunately, it is a technique that makes much of the music quite interesting – a sort of free flow within careful organization. The main piece here, the Violin Concerto, dates to 2009 and is in the traditional three movements, with a cadenza in the second, moderately slow one (marked Andante) and a very quick conclusion. Ikon (2008) was written out of Gompper’s interest in old Russian icons, while Flip (1993) and Spirals (2007, with two violin soloists) are supposed to be reflective of Gompper’s interest in popular culture. Whether that is how the music sounds will depend on the listener, but certainly the echo effects, the modified classical forms and the attempts to portray or comment on a wide variety of experiences make these works interesting to hear, at least once in a while.

     The violin is also at the center of Naxos’ new CD of Lawrence Dillon’s music. Like Gompper, Dillon connects his works in some ways with classical models, but in Dillon’s case many of the connections are in titles (Bacchus Chaconne, 1991) rather than in musical content. The 2008 Violin Sonata, for example, does have three movements, as would be expected from traditional classical style, but the sonata is called “Motion” and the movements are labeled “Motion/Emotion,” “Emotion/Commotion” and “Commotion/Motion.” The other works here range from the lyrical to the slightly pointed (although never really sardonic). They are Mister Blister (2006), Façade (1983), Spring Passing (1997), The Voice (2008), and a piece called Fifteen Minutes (2006) that in fact runs about that long and contains such sections as “Runaway,” “Contained,” “Clubbed” and “Self Absorption.”

     The piano is front and center on the new Naxos CD of music by Sebastian Currier, and the playing by Laura Melton is very fine. Like Gompper and Dillon, Currier draws considerable inspiration from classical models, but is by no means slavishly devoted to them. Scarlatti Cadences (1996), for example, is inspired by that composer’s famous 18th-century harpsichord sonatas but certainly does not sound like them. Currier’s 1988 Piano Sonata draws on Bach, Beethoven and even Hindemith, but again interprets (or manages) their influences loosely. Departures and Arrivals (2007) is something of a navel-gazing exercise, as Currier spends 20 minutes accepting, discarding and modifying various forms of composition. The most straightforwardly enjoyable work here is also the shortest, at four-and-a-half minutes: Brainstorm (1994), which sounds as you would expect from its title and includes a feeling of light satire and deviltry.

     Naxos is, of course, not the only label promoting new music; and some of the music, even when created using classical forms, really does not sound classical at all. Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 (1999 and 2005, respectively) are structured in fairly traditional three-movement form, but the movements’ labels and the overall arcs of the quartets are unusual. No. 3, for example, begins with a short “Introduction,” continues with a very extended “Act,” then concludes with a moderate-length “Epilogue/Lullaby.” The Chiara String Quartet plays the works passionately and well, but for some listeners, the more interesting part of the disc may be the two remixes of Friedman’s music created by the Baltimore-based experimental-music duo known as Matmos. Extending Friedman’s works in every possible way (rhythmically, sonically, harmonically, you name it), the remixes show how sound manipulation can take works that do not really fit comfortably within the traditional classical-music mold and turn them into something whose musical provenance is almost impossible to identify. Emphatically not for all tastes, the remixes show just how far experimentation – with classical or other music – can be taken.

     The quartet by Judith Lang Zaimont is experimental, too, but in a less extreme way. Filled with tempo and rhythm changes, the quartet goes through many moods and many attitudes in its two movements. Zaimont’s Piano Trio No. 2 is somewhat more conventional in structure, although not harmonically; and here the movements’ labels make a great deal of sense in showing the progress of the music from “Cold” to “Warm” to “Temperate.” The warmth is considerable in Astral, an interesting and very virtuosic work for solo viola, while Serenade has considerable intimacy and emotion despite the modernity of Zaimont’s compositional techniques.

     Modern composers do not work only in instrumental forms, of course. John Rutter’s Gloria has been around for quite a while by modern standards – it dates to 1974 – and it is an impressive work, celebratory and dramatic and altogether joyful. Rutter’s Te Deum (1988) is forthright and joyous as well, while his 1990 Magnificat (which contain a movement called “Of a Rose, a Lovely Rose” amid the Latin ones) comes across as genuinely festive. The new Naxos CD of these pieces has bright, attractive sound that complements the music quite well; the disc shows that even overtly religious music is being handled in some new and attractively surprising ways by some modern composers.

     Another vocal disc, called It Is Time, makes the composers secondary to what inspired them – in this case, German-language poetry by Romanian poet Paul Celan. To say that this is a highly rarefied offering is to state the obvious: it is hard to imagine the disc having widespread appeal, or being intended to. Celan is considered a major modern German-language poet, and his works are filled with dreamlike imagery that gives musicians wide scope for interpretation, so there is a fair amount of variety among the works on the CD (some of which are in German, some in English). But 68 minutes of Celan’s poetry set to music of varying intensity and varying levels of appeal will be at best a limited-interest item – nothing on the disc stands out for excellence of concept, although everything is performed tidily and with appropriate intensity.

     The CD called Awake is another example of a topic-focused rather than composer-focused release. Awake is actually the title of one piece here (by Patrick Burke), but the main attraction of the disc is the NOW Ensemble itself. It offers unusual instrumental combinations: the group comprises flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass and piano. The six works on the CD make use of the varying woodwind, string and percussion sounds to generally good effect, but none of the pieces lingers long in memory – at best, they are nicely constructed but largely forgettable works.

     Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is forgettable by design – Eno intends it to be played in an airport environment, where few people would be expected to pay much attention to it. It is, in fact, environmental music rather than anything that repays close listening, and 49 minutes of it is a bit much. Here as on the Awake CD, a significant part of the attraction lies in the instrumental combinations: the Bang on a Can All-Stars play cello, clarinets, guitar, percussion, piano, keyboards and bass. The live recording from 1998 is a good one, but there simply is not enough meat in Music for Airports to make the disc worthy of repeated hearings outside the context for which Eno composed his work in the first place.

     At something of an opposite extreme from Eno’s environmental music is Música Callada (“Silent Music”) by a composer who can barely be called modern: Federico Mompou was born in 1893. But Mompou, who was Catalan, lived a long life, dying as recently as 1987, and Música Callada is a late work, having been composed in four sections between 1959 and 1967. It is also a work that looks backward, not to the Romantic era but to French impressionism and the minimalism of Erik Satie. Quiet and reserved, it requires considerable nuance to play effectively, and receives just that from Jenny Lin. The sheer length of this CD (74 minutes, including the short Secreto from Mompou’s very early Impresiones intimas of 1911-14) creates either a calming effect or a wish that something more would happen – depending on the individual listener. Mompou may have been born 50 years or more before most of the other composers mentioned here, but like them, he had a highly personal compositional voice whose enjoyment, at least where Música Callada is concerned, is very much a matter of taste.

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