Catching Up on CDs, Recent and Not

This is not a “best of 2019” list, and some of these CDs have been waiting patiently for a mention on this blog for quite a while. But they are all items that I think are worthy of your attention.

  • Richter in Wien Prokofiev: Sonata Nr. 2; Stravinsky: Piano-Rag Music; Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues in E-flat major and C minor; Webern: Variations; Bartok: 3 Burlesques; Szymanowski: two pieces from Metopes; Hindemith: Suite ‘1922’. London. This appears to be a bootleg from a 1989 recital. The piano is terrible, there is a fair bit of audience noise, but it is fascinating to hear this artist in an all 20th century program of little-heard works. Richter playing the Webern Op. 27? Yes, and very well indeed.
  • Hummel: Piano Sonatas Stephen Hough. Hyperion. This album makes a fine case for this late-18th, early 19th century composer, and is gorgeously played and recorded. The music is a little like Beethoven in its mix of classical and romantic features.
  • Harbison: Requiem Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. His music steeped in Bach, Harbison is a master of choral writing. This is a mostly sober setting of the Latin texts, without interpolations, but no less moving for avoiding the theatrical.
  • Convergences. Works by Brahms and Andrea Clearfield. Barbara Westphal, viola; Christian Ruvolo, piano. Bridge. Featuring arrangements of the Brahms E minor cello sonata and the G major violin sonata, this album offers some welcome additions to the viola repertoire. I felt the violin adaptation was more successful, maybe because the original version of the cello piece is in my bones from playing it many years ago in college. The Brahms works are smartly complemented with a well-crafted 2008 work by Philadelphia-based Andrea Clearfield.
  • Lounge Lizards works by Fred Lerdahl, John Musto, Charles Ives, Arlene Sierra, and Michael Daugherty. Quatro Mani (Steve Beck, Susan Grace, pianos). Bridge. These folks are masters of the unforgiving two-piano medium, where the least bit of imprecision is painfully obvious. My favorite pieces were the Ives, of course, and the elegant Lerdahl work, simply called Quiet Music – quiet, perhaps, but packed with thought, wit, and imagination.
  • The Way Things Go works by Randall Woolf, Steven Mackey, John Halle, Eric Moe, Belinda Reynolds, Richard Festinger, and Laura Kaminsky. Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Margaret Kampmeier, piano. Bridge. Brilliant playing in a program including nicely diverse idioms. Favorites for me were an early Steve Mackey piece called Crystal Shadows, and Eric Moe’s All Sensation is Already Memory – the title is from Henri Bergson – and the piece is as elegant as its title.
  • R. Murray Schafer: The Love that Moves the Universe Vancouver Chamber Choir,  Jon Washburn, conductor. Grouse. I think of Schafer as more of an experimentalist, but these pieces are direct in expression and varied in character, ranging from a children’s fairy tale to a setting of Dante. Fine performances.
  • American Trombone Concertos Works by Paul Creston, George Walker, Gunther Schuller, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Christian Lindberg, trombone; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; James DePriest. Bis. This album, dating from the 1990s, presents works by important composers who should be better represented on record. In a healthier musical climate, these pieces would have been recorded by a first-rate American orchestra, one as fine as Lindberg is a soloist.
  • The Purity of the Turf  Ethan Iverson, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Criss Cross Jazz. The Iversonian imagination in all its freshness is evident throughout this 2016 mix of standards and originals. Especially striking is a treatment of Darn That Dream; by truncating the form, Iverson creates a sense of claustrophobia that makes this dream a compelling nightmare.
  • Shi-Hui Chen: Returning Souls. Various performers. New World. Elements from Asian and Euro-American musics are successfully melded, not just juxtaposed in these chamber pieces. Fantasia on the Theme of Plum Blossom, played by the Formosa String Quartet, is especially impressive. More than just a presentation of varied materials, it’s what Chen does with that material that makes this music matter.

Trade Winds from China at Network for New Music

Strong pieces, strong performances at Network for New Music’s “Trade Winds from China” concert tonight. Here I am with some of the participants:

L to R: Linda Reichert, Artistic Director of Network for New Music; Shih-Hui Chen, whose commissioned work, “Our Names” on a text by an aboriginal Taiwanese poet was premiered at tonight’s concert; Chou Wen-Chung – at 87, the old master of East-West musical interaction – his “Ode to Eternal Pine” was played. I am standing between Wen-Chung and his wife. More on Wen-Chung here.

Ode to Eternal Pine

Network for New Music’s season-long Asian theme continues with a program of music by Chinese composers on Sunday, February 13 at 7:30. The concert will be at the Settlement Music School, 416 Queen St. in Philadelphia. I will be involved, leading a pre-concert chat with composers Shih-Hui Chen and Chou Wen-Chung at 6:30, and recording a podcast discussion with Wen-Chung earlier in the day.

The program features a nice multi-generational mix – Wen-Chung, one of my teachers from my Columbia University doctoral studies, is the elder statesman of the group at 87, while the youngest is Huang Ruo, born in 1976, and Shih-Hui Chen and Bright Cheng are from a middle generation. Wen-Chung is a particularly intriguing figure. The kind of cross-cultural mix where Asian and Euro-American practices mingle that we associate with composers like Bright Cheng, Tan Dun and Chen Yi was actually pioneered by Wen-Chung. In fact, it was he who brought those younger Chinese composers to the United States to study at Columbia through his work with the US-China Arts Exchange. (If you know the film “From Mao to Mozart“, you know something about Wen-Chung’s efforts.) In addition to his work for cultural exchange, Wen-Chung is especially well known as the student, assistant, and musical executor of Edgard Varèse. In fact, the Varese connection has sometimes overshadowed Wen-Chung’s own compositional work, so it is nice to see his music getting some attention. Ode to Eternal Pine, the piece by Wen-Chung that Network will play, was commissioned by the New York New Music Ensemble, and is based on an earlier work, Eternal Pine,  that was composed for  an ensemble of Korean instruments. Ode to Eternal Pine is scored for Western instruments, but the playing style and technique is thoroughly influenced by East Asia musical sensibility, with an emphasis on fluidly shaped gestures with respect to pitch and rhythm. You can find score and recording excerpts of the piece at Wen-Chung’s exceptionally rich website.

I’ll be interested to get to know the music of Shih-Hui Chen. The piece she has composed for this concert is inspired by the aboriginal people of Taiwan. It is intriguing to read what she writes in her program note, that the aboriginals of Taiwan “encountered Dutch Christian missionaries in the early 17th century before the arrival of the Han people from China.”  Who would have thought that Christianity would occupy, as she writes, “a more prominent place [for the aboriginals] than traditional mythologies.” Her new piece is called Our Names and sets a text by a blind aboriginal poet, a plea for justice and respect for aboriginal people and their culture.

Four young musicians from the Philadelphia Sinfonia, directed by Gary White, will perform Fantasia, the first movement of Shih-Hui Chen’s string quartet Mei-Hua at 7:15 before the Network concert performance begins at 7:30 PM. Go here for video about this project.

(photo above: Chou Wen-Chung)