Friday, October 10, 2014

Terrain of the Heart, Song Cycles of Mark Abel

“Terrain of the Heart”
Song Cycles of Mark Abel

Jamie Chamberlin, Soprano
Ariel Pisturino, Soprano
Victoria Kirsch, Piano

Delos 3438

Look around the rock music world of New York City in the late 70's and you would likely run into a fellow named Mark Abel. He might be leading a group he created, making a record with another or maybe producing an album or two. Originally from Connecticut, Abel had studied music in California before heading back to the east coast. He returned to the Bay Area in 1983, not to produce music but to work in news journalism, eventually becoming Foreign Editor of the respected San Francisco Chronicle. Musically, during his two decades in journalism, Abel moved away from rock and pop and began to explore classical forms and concepts becoming especially focused on solo vocal music. Thus Abel melds his experience in classical, rock and song writing music into songs that are sophisticated, accessible, original and tuneful.

An accomplished writer, Abel often writes his own texts for his songs. “Terrain of the Heart” showcases three of Abel's song cycles, two of which are settings of his own text. “The Dark Eyed Chameleon” and “Rainbow Songs” use his own poetry. “Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke” obviously set poems by the Bohemian novelist-poet.

Musically, nothing in these three cycles would be out of place in a contemporary musical. Frequently tonally ambiguous, and contemporary in sound, they are nonetheless well crafted, emotionally complex and engaging lyric songs in the truest sense of the form.

At nearly a half hour, “ The Dark Eyed Chameleon” (2007) is the most substantial and most emotionally affecting of the three song cycles. The nearly half hour cycle tells the tale of the composer's painful break up of a long term relationship. Hints of past tragedy and loss, misunderstandings, longing, realizing the inevitable (“underneath us the ground is always shifting, unstable like our California”) and the final break (The fatal blow is struck by telephone..) permeate the lyrics to the five songs. Very theatrical in nature, “Chameleon” could be envisioned as a one actor play, but Abel's accompanying music, alternatively wistful, agonized and even confused, propels the story forward as much as the lyrics. Soprano Jamie Chamberlin, along with pianist Victoria Kirsch totally understand and are committed to the work. Chamberlin negotiates the many chromatic leaps and rapid changes of emotion and texture. Kirsch is a sensitive yet propulsive accompanist and a full partner in telling the story.

For the “Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke” (2004) Ariel Pisturino, soprano, takes over the vocal duties. Pisturino is gifted with a big, but clear and slightly bright voice that perfectly suits the darkly expressive poetry. Her's is a voice tailor made for art song. Of the three cycles, “Five Poems” is the most “classical” influenced, more adventurous and flexible in tempi and dynamics, befitting the more hauntingly symbolic nature of the lyrics. “In this town the last house stands” is shaded and ultimately enigmatic, the vocal lines lyrical but unsettled at the same time. The longest of the five songs, “All of you undisturbed cities” is punctuated with relentless ostinati over which Pisturino weaves the jagged melodic line, laced with impending doom. In the remaining songs,“My life is not this steeply sloping hour”,“You darkness, that I come from” and “I live my life in growing orbits”, Abel's stark and expressionistic music works in tandem with the often mysterious poetry to deliver a most satisfying yet challenging musical experience. “Five Poems” is certainly a fine addition to the song repertoire and worth repeated hearings in recordings and in recitals or concerts.

Chamberlin returns with her lighter voice (should I say less “operatic” and more “Broadway” voice and start that whole argument??) in the final four “Rainbow Songs”. More light hearted and fanciful than the other cycles, “Rainbow” could be dismissed as fluff and nothing new but for the colorful and atmospheric “La Sonnambula”, depicting a woman wandering through desolate streets looking for her lover, but doomed to never find him. “La Sonnambula” is a touch more sophisticated than many of the other songs, growing in drama, dynamics and lyrical intensity from a shadowy figure in the piano. To my ears, it is the single most effective song on the disc.

Abel's music in each of the cycles is highly chromatic and linear, the linearity and incessant forward motion showing the formidable influences of the composer's rock music roots. While appropriate to the lyrics, which, with the exception of the Rilke songs, are also rock influenced and linear in nature, the chromatic and declamatory sound world can lead to a numbing sameness if one listens to the whole 73 minute CD in one sitting. Probably best to get into this music by listening to one cycle at a time.

Delos' notes and bios are of their usual high standard as is the stellar sound engineering. There is frequently a lot going on in the songs, lyrically and musically, so the close and somewhat dry sound works well to keep everything clear. Mark Abel's website ( has perusal scores for all the songs for those wanting to follow along.

Perhaps this music is more influenced by Sondheim than Schubert, but that was not the composer's intention. Put all that aside, and listen to some fine, easily approachable and frequently satisfying songs.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Kansas City Symphony Verdi Requiem

The May 30 through June 1 performances of the Verdi Requiem could be summarized as “redemptive”, not just for the departed soul but for the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus, led by Music Director Michael Stern. The symphony's last performance of Verdi's 1874 masterpiece in May 2008 was problematic to be kind; the main culprits being the chorus and the totally unenthusiastic soloists. The performance was leaden, loud rather than powerful and overall disappointing. This time around in the much friendlier and spacious Helzberg Hall, a rejuvenated chorus, a seasoned orchestra and more committed soloists combined for a powerful, expressive performance.

The chorus has, in my experience, never made a more subtly expressive entrance than that of the opening, practically whispered “Requiem”. Clear, perfectly balanced, quietly powerful with excellent diction, it set the tone for the rest of the work. Most impressive was their brisk and precisely executed “Sanctus” a wickedly complex eight part fugue for double chorus. Diction was excellent throughout, despite the sheer size of the chorus, something that is not always the case. One could easily make out the Latin and if anyone was not clear of the meaning, the translations were available on a screen high above the stage.

The solo quartet was 1000% (sic) better than those in the 2008 performances. Tenor Dimitri Pittas was strong and lyrical (giving a very fine reading of the “Ingemisco” section of the “Dies Irae”) but a bit strained at times and not always able to float above the fray. Bass Jordan Bisch possessed a dark but slightly unwieldy voice and seemed a bit tentative at times. Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano, was quite fine with a clear yet burnished tone. The star of the quartet, soprano Amber Wagner dug into her many long solos with gusto and with resigned sweetness when needed. She alone could consistently float over the huge forces. Mumford and Wagner were superb in the “Agnus Dei” (in my opinion the most moving and sublime of all the sections of the work), sweetly blended and perfectly together, the chorus equally well integrated with the solo lines.

Stern kept the performance moving, critical in the long, episodic Dies Irae section. He viewed the work not as “Verdi's greatest opera” but as a powerful statement of the awe and fear present in the liturgy of the requiem mass. The orchestra sometimes plays second fiddle to the vocalists, but in every moment the excellent ensemble work, singing tone and steady rhythm of the orchestra provided a firm foundation for the text and drama. The stunning bass drum blows in the “Dies Irae” were powerful and resonant, whereas they can often be a muddy thud.

Much of this season has been devoted to encore performances of past seasons' favorites, re-imagined for the new concert hall. If a work ever needed a second chance it was the Verdi Requiem. It got that chance, and we were richly rewarded for it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

newEar Distant Travels

My latest review on I Care if you Listen.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A "Tasty" Flute Recital by Luisa Sello

The contemporary music gurus Larry and Arlene Dunn saw the program for this concert and declared it "tasty". Indeed the April 28th concert, part of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory Performance Series was quite a full meal. Italian flutist Luisa Sello's guest artist recital included four US premieres of compositions written for her, two charming turn of the twentieth century works by Casella and Chaminade and sonatas for flute and keyboard by J.S. Bach.

Sello opened the program with a fluid and elegant performance of Bach's "Sonata for Flute and Obbligato Keyboard" BWV 1030 with Karen Kushner on the piano. Purists would cringe at the modern flute and piano, but this was a crisp, clear and light performance devoid of any romantic mannerisms, yet never starkly dry either. Sello, in her remarks, compared the sonata to the languages Bach would hear in his contacts with other musicians.  The opening Andante was formal, economical German, the following Andante, Sello noted, was infused with the melodic sensuality of Spain. In the concluding Presto, Sello heard and vividly communicated the hard, chewy consonants of English invoking the rhythm of a gigue.

The Bach was a fitting opener since the next piece, Kansas City based composer Mara Gibson's "Flone", is based on Bach, specifically the "Partita for Flute" BWV 1013. Atavistic fluttering and the pizzicato of tapped keys evoke earth sounds as the theme from the Allemande of the Partita emerges and takes flight. The theme is embellished by a myriad of effects and vocalizations from Sello until it climaxes and deconstructs into fragments, returning to the earth music of the opening. A most compelling and fascinating work, with undoubtedly the best and most clever title for a piece in my memory.

Like "Flone", "Erbarme dich"  (2005) by German composer Rainer Bischof is also based on Bach;  the work's subtitle is Sicilliano on Bach's Matthaus-Passion. In this case, Bischof deconstructs the Bach fragment from its whole, returning it to nature sounds and elements of dance whereas Gibson's "Flone" has Bach emerge from the elements. "Flone" works best in this case, the Bichoff, no doubt definitively performed, sounding as if the flute is just superimposing sound effects over the Bach tune.

The charming "Barcarolla e Scherzo" for flute and piano (1903) was a revelation. Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) was a contemporary of Respighi and once as highly regarded. He was conductor of the Boston Pops for a period in the late 1920's and was instrumental in re-introducing Vivaldi to audiences. His Third Symphony (1939) was written for the Chicago Symphony and well received. But Casella thereafter returned enthusiastically to Fascist Italy and soon his reputation all but vanished. Sello's performance of this seldom heard impressionistic fantasy was liquid and flowing, the flute and piano in perfect communication. Cécile Chaminade's  Concertino, op 107 was heard in its arrangement for flute and piano. A lovely, romantic work, exquisitely performed but paling in comparison to the more adventurous and sensuous Casella.

If the Casella was a musical rocking of a little barque, Narong Prangcharoen's 2014 compostion "Lom" (Thai for "wind") provided the wind and the waves. The breathy flute evoked bamboo flutes, storms, breezes and the atmospheric sounds of nature in the work's short span. Provocative and elementally melodic, as is all the music I have heard from this fine composer who is also on the UMKC faculty.

One can always count on the prolific James Mobberly to provide a challenging and frequently humorous work for a contemporary music recital. "Respiri", (2014) also making its US premiere, was a barnstorming tour-de-force, chock full of his trademark bursts of energy, startling contrasts of tempo and volume and every musical trick in the book. Sello was inspired to doff her heels in preparation for the action. Breathing and vocalizations from the flutist plus rock-inspired key tapping take primacy over traditional melody or pitches. Sello was in total command of the flute, even ending the exhilarating piece with a little dance. One has to hand it to Mobberly, his works leave you with a satisfied smile all while challenging the ear and mind.

Karen Kushner returned to accompany Sello in the closing bookend; a charming and graceful performance of the Andante from the Bach "Sonata for Flute and Continuo" BWV 1034.

A star-studded evening for contemporary music with Gibson, Prangcharoen and Mobberly in attendance along with renowned composers Chen Yi and Zhou Long listening along in the White Recital Hall at the James C. Olsen Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Road Trip Music from The Alexander String Quartet

The road between my current home and my home town is not the most exciting in the world. Vast stretches of fertile farmland are punctuated by a few trees here and there that usually indicate the location of a small stream or a town. The winter bleakness can be starkly picturesque, the summer corn an endless wave of green, but after traversing it for as long as I have, the bloom is off the rose.

Thus faced with a trip home that would involve some late night driving, I grabbed some CDs to keep my mind alert and my bleary eyes open. One of my selections this time was a new disc sent for my perusal by the Alexander String Quartet. Readers will know I have been exploring some of their recent releases on their Foghorn Classics label and have been highly impressed by their musicality and repertoire selections. This is a bit of a different animal from the Brahms and Bartók cycles of late, a single disc released late summer 2013 of arrangements for string quartet of songs by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. Clarinet Joan Enric Lluna joins the quartet in the Gershwin "Porgy and Bess" selections.

Usually this is not my type of thing. I prefer to hear Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, et. al., as originally written, voice and piano preferably. I half expected the usual schmaltzy, overblown and stiff results that all to often characterize classical music's forays into "pop" idioms. But leave it to the Alexanders to find and so superbly record picture perfect arrangements of these miniature masterpieces.

Carl Davis’ (noted composer and arranger, working frequently in TV and film) arrangement of Porgy and Bess selections for clarinet and string quartet is nothing less than suave, sophisticated and totally enjoyable. Davis started with Heifetz’s arrangement of these selections for violin and piano with the clarinet taking the solo violin parts and then linking the song via brief cadenzas. Lluna is fully in tune with the sound and rhythms of Gershwin, classically elegant in "Bess You is my Woman Now", just a touch bluesy and sentimental in "Summertime" and brash and sassy in "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" and "It ain't Necessarily So". The quartet does not take a back seat to the clarinet solo but is an equal partner in stating the lush melodies and setting the moods. They also swing and sass while at the same time exhibiting their usual tight and taught ensemble.

The Kern selections have a similar pedigree. Kern's assistant Charles Miller transcribed the six songs selected and arranged by Kern for string quartet in 1942. They were first recorded on 78's in 1948 and likely are making their CD debut on this recording.

The songs ("All the Things You Are", "The Way You Look Tonight", "Bill", "The Song Is You", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Once in a Blue Moon") are well known to anyone familiar with American song. As with the Gershwin, these are sophisticated, classical inspired arrangements, suggesting comparisons to Schubert and Schumann rather than to the "easy listening" channel or Muzak. The Alexanders capture the pathos, longing, and sadness in "Smoke.." and "Bill", the tenderness in "The Way.." and the elegance and economy of scale in each of these classic works.  The lyrics are rarely missed or, for that matter, needed.

The disc ends with the only work originally written for quartet, the charming and familiar "Lullaby" by Gershwin. Frequently heard in a full string orchestra arrangement, the original presented here is just fine, thank you, basking in lazy and languid light.

This disc, (an all too short 48 minutes, but each one a jewel) was not the sleepy elevator music so often made from these fine examples of the song writers art, but engaging enough to entertain and delight while negotiating the mind numbing Interstate Highway. Fine production and the usual complete notes too.

Gershwin and Kern
Alexander String Quartet
Joan Enric Lluna Clarinet
Foghorn Classics  CD 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

First Listen: Petrenko's Shostakovich Symphony # 14

I have loved the enigmatic and moving Shostakovich 14th Symphony since I first heard the RCA Ormandy, Curtin/Estes, Philadelphia recording on vinyl back in the 70's as a classical music crazed teenager. I frankly have heard it so many times, words and musical passages are imprinted on my mind. Whether you wish to think of it as a symphony or a song cycle a la “Das Lied von der Erde” matters little. It is really, if you look at it all closely, Shostakovich's most intimate and emotional masterpiece.

Vasily Petrenko began his Royal Liverpool cycle on Naxos in 2009 with an excellent 11th Symphony. It seems only the incredible and under-performed “Babi Yar” 13th is left after the release of the 14th this month (April 2014). Most have been quite good, challenging the highly regarded Kondrashin and Barshai recordings. Naxos' bargain price is a plus, since the Kondrashin is hard to find (and the complete cycle is now priced in the stratosphere) and Barshai is most easily available in a complete cycle not individually.

So what is my first impression of the sometimes chilling, sometimes nostalgic and often neurotic 14th? First and foremost, the all-important vocal soloists, Gal James, Soprano and Alexander Vinogradov, bass, are usually in good form. Only hiccup (pun intended) is James' unconvincing “Kha, kha, kha, kha, kha. I ya khokhochu” sobs in “Madam, posmotrite!” Vinogradov gives us an overall powerful performance, with a most expressively eloquent “O Delvig, Delvig”. The important and colorful percussion is uniformly excellent throughout.

The weak points are the sometimes tentative, weak Liverpool strings, especially noted at the very beginning of the symphony and in the last climactic death rattle at the end. They redeem themselves with a gut wrenching col legno episode in “At the Santé Prison” movement, the abandoned prisoner pacing in his gloomy has rarely been so realistically portrayed. The "Lorelei" episode is exciting, but a touch frenetic. 

Petrenko gives us a well paced performance, around 50 minutes, leading to a rather skimpy disc. But really, what else could accompany a work like this? Sound, played through my computer speakers via the Naxos Music Library, seems to be good. Finally, it appears the usual fine, informative performance notes are included with this recording, another plus of the Petrenko cycle.

Overall, an excellent performance but I still can not live without the Barshai led performances with Vishnevskaya/Reshetin or with Simoni/Vaneev in the Cologne recording. Barshai was there at the beginning and has the music in his veins. The Curtin/Estes Ormandy is a sentimental favorite, with some of the most impressively ghoulish cover art ever devised. Avoid Bernstein's and the Haitink sung (in a version sanctioned by the composer) in the original languages... it just doesn't sound right.

Shostakovich Symphony # 14 (1969)

Gal James, Soprano, Alexander Vinogradov Bass
Vasily Petrenko Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.573132

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Kodály and Bartók Quartets from The Alexander String Quartet

In this generous and lavishly presented three disc album, the Alexander String Quartet programs eight of the 20th century's most fascinating string quartets from two composers linked as contemporaries and countrymen, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály. Bartók's canon of six quartets have long been a part of the standard repertoire for all the great string quartet ensembles of the past 50 years. Kodály's have been less fortunate, with just a few recordings of his two quartet essays. Combining the two composers' quartet oeuvre is a brilliant stroke, making this recording more than just another Bartók cycle.

Kodály's two string quartets were almost exact contemporaries to Bartók's First and Second Quartets. Paring them allows for some illuminating comparisons. Even Bartók's earliest quartets tend to be highly contrapuntal and more harmonically and structurally complex. Kodály who played violin, viola and cello, produced quartets that were idiomatic and well grounded in form and style. Yet unlike Bartók, his works did not break new ground. Both of Kodály's works, the First Quartet, in particular, sound more like the quartets of Debussy and Ravel and have been combined with them on recordings. French in spirit they may be, but thoroughly tinged with the rhythms, sounds and pungent harmonies of Hungarian folk music, they are unique and totally satisfying works. The third movement of the 1st quartet lets loose with some distinctly Hungarian-like music, very reminiscent of Kodály's masterpiece, the Sonata for Solo Cello.

The Alexanders dig into this music with technically secure, well paced performances; especially important in the Kodály 1st, which at approx 38 minutes can descend into longeurs if not careful. Given their French inclinations, Kodály's quartets come across a tad more relaxed and melodic than Bartók's. The Alexanders realize this, bringing out the innate lyricism and tenderness of the music especially in the second quartet's somewhat threadbare “andante quasi-recitativo” section.

Thoroughly enjoyable, interesting and colorful works that are shamefully neglected. Perhaps this new recording (and one by the Dante Quartet on Hyperion, that I have not heard) will open some eyes and ears to the satisfying charms of these two works.

My (and I am not alone) benchmark for the Bartók quartets is the classic 1963 Julliard set on Sony (Columbia). The Takács and Emerson cycles give them a run for their money in more modern sound and similar performances. Thus the Alexander's cycle on their own Foghorn Classics label enters into some good company and faces some strong competition.

Bartók's quartets are often described as tough, dense and gritty and that would generally be true. The Alexanders' performances are dramatic, lean and intense, but never unpleasant or forced. Clean, clear and on pitch pizzicati are noteworthy throughout the three discs, especially important in the 4th quartet's all pizzicato movement, which comes off swimmingly. The quartet has a fine feel for the folk music elements and relish them at every turn without exaggerating or even detaching them from the overall texture.

Highlights: the mysterious, skittering, hair raising “Prima Parte: Moderato” of the 3rd Quartet. The deeply expressive “Lento” opening movement of the 1st Quartet, with dark, resonant cello and redwood-like viola passages. The aforementioned 4th Quartet scherzo (along with the controlled mayhem of its “Prestissimo con sordino” movement, and the whole dramatic and even demonic 4th quartet for that matter) and the slightly jazz tinged 5th Quartet's scherzo.

As with every Foghorn Classics release I have encountered, complete, legible and intelligent notes are part of the package. Add these always intelligent, intense, musical, satisfying and well recorded performances to the list of recordings that challenge and may surpass the classic Julliard recording. Combine the fine and rare Kodály quartets and you have a special release indeed.

Bartók And Kodály String Quartets Foghorn Classics #2009 3 discs