May 03, 2012


Ravi Shankar: Symphony. Anoushka Shankar, sitar; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Murphy. LPO. $12.99.

Tony Banks: Six Pieces for Orchestra—Siren; Still Waters; Blade; Wild Pilgrimage; The Oracle; City of Gold. Charlie Siem, violin; Martin Robertson, alto saxophone; City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Englishby. Naxos. $9.99.

Alejandro Rutty: A Future of Tango—Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra; The Conscious Sleepwalker Loops, for orchestra; Hyperlinks, from Tango Loops 2, for saxophone quartet; Hyperlinks, from Tango Loops 1, for saxophone quartet; Tango Loops 2C, for 18 players; Tango Loops 1, for 14 instruments and tango quartet. Navona. $16.99.

McCormick Percussion Group: Concerti for Strings with Percussion Orchestra. Ravello. $12.99.

String Fever: It Don’t Mean a Thing. String Fever conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.

Paul Lansky: Shapeshifters; With the Grain; Imaginary Islands. Alabama Symphony Orchestra conducted by Justin Brown. Bridge. $15.99.

Gerhard Frommel: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. Tatjana Blome, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.

      Contemporary composers are constantly searching for new forms of musical expression, and many conductors and other performers have joined them in the quest.  Ravi Shankar (born 1920), world-famous for his highly virtuosic performances of Indian music on sitar, tried his hand at a large-scale Western-style work with his ambitious Symphony, whose première performance in 2010 has now been released on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label.  The symphony is straightforwardly structured – its four movements are Allegro, Lento, Scherzo and Finale, about as traditional an arrangement as possible – but it is untraditional in content: each movement represents a different element of Indian music.  The opening movement, for example, is called Kafi Zila, and uses that particular raga (a note pattern whose characteristic intervals, rhythms and embellishments are used as the basis for improvisation) as its defining feature and structural underpinning.  Shankar’s overall idea is to use Western forms and a Western symphony orchestra to bring the sound world of India’s music to a concert-hall audience.  The live recording by the London Philharmonic under David Murphy, featuring Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar, sounds very good, although the CD is certainly an acquired taste: the melding of Indian and Western sounds and structural elements is as valid as any other approach to symphonic creation, but it sounds neither-here-nor-there much of the time, less a blend than a somewhat uneasy oil-and-water mixture.

      Tony Banks (born 1950) also seeks something new in orchestral guise.  He is a founding member of the rock band Genesis, attempting through his orchestral pieces – which are basically songs without words – to communicate rock-music-style emotions in a concert-hall environment.  Blade includes extensive use of solo violin and Siren calls for a solo alto saxophone, and Charlie Siem and Martin Robertson, respectively, bring skill and sensitivity to their performances.  The music itself, though, is rather superficial.  Intended as lyrical and expressive, evoking goals and journeys, heroism and quests, it is well-structured and has elements of effective if not highly original tone-painting.  But it never seems to delve very deeply into the human spirit, or to call on listeners to do more than be swept into its sound world for a few minutes and then depart after a moderately pleasant but not particularly memorable experience.  These pieces seem more like rewritten rock music than like a genuine venture by Banks into new expressive territory.

      The music of Alejandro Rutty (born 1967) is intended to take tango to new levels, even beyond those of Rutty’s famous Argentinian countryman, Astor Piazzolla.  Piazzolla’s rethinking of the tango, and its reshaping into often-elaborate symphonic guise, paralleled the expansion of the waltz beyond its dance origins by Johann Strauss Jr. and Josef Strauss.  Rutty’s works on a new Navona CD take tango to a different harmonic and expressive level.  Although Rutty himself is a pianist, he clearly has considerable affection for the saxophone, not only as a solo instrument but also in various combinations; and he writes for the saxophone and companion instruments stylishly, with often-interesting textures – notably in Tango Loops 2C, which features Rutty himself conducting the Mayan City Sinfonietta.  Some of Rutty’s works try a little too hard to be up-to-date and even provocative: A Future of Tango, another piece that Rutty himself conducts with the same orchestra (plus a saxophone quartet), has three movements dated 2045, 2098 and 2145, but no real sense of the extremely forward-looking (imagine, in retrospect, how unlikely it would have been for a composer in 1912 to predicts the places where music would go by 1998!).  In Rutty’s music, the tango as dance seems further and further in the past, but its future development never appears quite clear; nevertheless, what is clear is that this dance form, having entered a transformational phase thanks to Piazzolla, will continue to evolve, and Rutty himself is part of that evolution.

      Percussion use is evolving, too, as the varied works performed by the McCormick Percussion Group make clear.  The ensemble’s new CD for Ravello includes music by composers who are scarcely household names: Baljinder Sekhon, Stuart Saunders Smith, David Liptak, Michael Sidney Timpson and Daniel Adams.  But this is not a CD that anyone is likely to buy for the specific works, even though one of them (Liptak’s Concerto for Viola and Percussion) offers an especially interesting blend of sonorities, while another (Timpson’s DongXiDongXi, Concerto for Zheng and Percussion Orchestra) combines Chinese and Western instruments intriguingly, and in a very different way from that used for disparate sounds by Shankar in his Symphony.  The primary interest here lies in hearing very adept percussionists performing works in which their instruments are front-and-center instead of being comparatively small parts of a larger whole.  Every piece contrasts percussion of some type with a different solo instrument: Sekhon uses cello in Lou, Smith employs violin in Nightshade, and Adams’ Camouflage for Contrabass and Percussion Trio is especially interesting for its mixture of the ungainly melodic instrument with a small percussive complement.  There are rather a lot of percussion sounds here, actually – listeners may do better to hear the pieces individually rather than listening to the CD from start to finish – but those interested in the new directions in which composers are taking these instruments will find the CD thoroughly involving.

      The instruments are much more straightforward in a new CD by the String Fever group, founded by conductor Marin Alsop in 1981.  Here the seeking of new directions belongs mainly to the conductor: the CD blends pop music, jazz and sort-of-classical works into a mélange that Alsop fans may want to own but that is not inherently distinguished from the many other crossover discs now being widely released.  The selections, recorded in 1983 and 1997, are all quite well played, but the music is scarcely unknown or unheard, ranging from “Mood Indigo” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” to a “Manhattan Medley” predictably consisting of “Manhattan,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “42nd Street.”  String Fever’s handling of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” is a highlight and quite enjoyable.  As a whole, though, while an undoubtedly pleasant diversion for Alsop, this CD – a short one, lasting just 50 minutes – features considerable virtuosity lavished on music that is not always worthy of the bursts of display.

     The form of display in a new recording of Paul Lansky’s music involves full orchestra – plus soloists in two of the three works.  Lansky has long worked in electronic music, but shows here that he can certainly handle traditional instruments as well.  Thanks to excellent conducting by Music Director Justin Brown, who is also General Music Director of the Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, the Alabama Symphony sounds like a first-rate ensemble with virtuosity to spare.  The music itself is sometimes compelling although often less so, for all its careful construction.  Imaginary Islands is an Alabama Symphony commission – an evocative three-movement work that is reminiscent of Debussy and contains many nicely imagined elements without ever seeming particularly original.  Shapeshifters, for two pianos and orchestra, is equally serene most of the time, with duo pianists Quattro Mani (Susan Grace and Alice Rybak) – for whom the work was written – flowing along with an orchestral accompaniment that is somewhat too monochromatic, although certainly well played.  With the Grain, a guitar concerto written for David Starobin, who performs it here, is the CD’s most interesting work, because it nicely solves a genuine musical problem: how to balance the guitar against a full orchestra.  Lyricism predominates here, as it does in the other works, but it fits the guitar sound better than that of pianos or full orchestra, and the balance of solo and ensemble seems so natural that its inherent difficulties are never apparent.  The naming of the four movements for patterns of wood grain makes no particular sense, but the music stands well on its own and shows evidence of genuine thoughtfulness.

      There is considerable thinking as well in the three piano sonatas of Gerhard Frommel (1906-1984) on a new CD from the Grand Piano label.  Frommel’s music is almost unplayed today, for political reasons: it was approved by the Nazis, although Frommel’s relationship with Hitler’s Third Reich remains a matter of dispute.  What is clear from Frommel’s first three piano sonatas is that he found his voice in the classical and Romantic traditions, with a fairly apparent overlay of Stravinsky, and had no particular interest in atonality or the arguments of the “second Viennese school.”  These three sonatas, essentially classical in form and length, come across with very different emotional and intellectual impact.  The first and longest, from 1930-31 and revised in 1975, is in the challenging key of F-sharp minor and is mostly a tender, lyrical work.  The second, in F major, dates to 1935 and shows a much stronger Stravinsky influence in its clownishness and grotesqueries.  The third as played by Tatjana Blome is a curious piece, dating originally to 1940-41 but being revised in various ways from as early as 1962 to as late as 1980.  It is the most impressionistic of the three works and shows the most individual treatment of the piano in its structure.  Blome plays all the sonatas sensitively and with great understanding, and the disc will be a treat for listeners interested in off-the-beaten-path piano music that is nevertheless very worthy of being heard with an unbiased ear, leaving behind any uncertain political association its composer may have had.

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