Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendent, Harrowing, Antifascist Shostakovich Concertos From Alina Ibragimova

Just a couple of months ago, violinist Alina Ibragimova made the front page here with a performance of a rare, lush French Romantic sonata by Louis Vierne. That’s right – in addition to his iconic organ symphonies, Vierne wrote gorgeous music for strings. That choice of obscure masterpiece is typical for her. How does she approach Shostakovich’s much better-known Violin Concertos No.1 and No. 2? Click onto Spotify if you have about forty minutes to spare away from multitasking: this is music you can’t turn away from.

What’s most notable about this record, performed with the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, is that this is the first-ever recording to feature the blistering finale of the Concerto No. 1 as the composer originally wrote it. Legendary violinist David Oistrakh, premiering it in Russia in 1955, asked Shostakovich to give him a break and let the orchestra carry the twisted “burlesque” theme that opens the movement for the sake of a momentary breather before the fireworks begin again. The composer agreed to the change: it’s too bad he’s not here to hear Ibrigamova do justice to the original.

Getting there is a riveting, harrowing ride: Shostakovich’s empathy for his fellow citizens’ suffering under Stalin is as poignant as his caricaturish portrait of the regime is savage. In an era of seemingly daily assaults on our civil rights, this music could not be more relevant. Jurowski draws muted suspense from the low strings and a poignant moment from the bassoon as Ibragimova parses this distant nightmare scenario with a focused, cello-like midrange intensity and just the hint of a tremulous vibrato. Shostakovich wrote it in 1948 amid Stalin’s murderous assault on the Russian intelligentsia but kept it under wraps until seven years later; that choice may have saved his life.

The clarity of the sense of abandonment in the lament before starry harp enters the nightscape is absolutely shattering. The contrast between the chilly, close-harmonied, bronzed gleam of the orchestra and the Ibrigamova’s plaintive resonance as horror looms closer is just as chilling.

The bustle and whirl of the second movement here are just short of frantic, part savage parody of Soviet pageantry, part dance of death, Ibragimova’s violin whistling while the world implodes around her. The aching crescendo of the bittersweet third movement is visceral, her tight harmonies and astringent chords cutting through the smoke pulsing right behind her. Her echoing dynamics in the cruelly marching solo afterward are breathtaking, as is the gleefully ghoulish dance that wraps up this antifascist classic.

The 1967 Concerto No. 2 seems much like a reprise of its predecessor, through a glass, darkly. The ensemble open in the same brooding, otheworldly vein, Ibragimova channeling a plaintive insistence, the enemy always lurking at the door. Anxiety rises, spiced with a ruthlessly cynical quote or two from the 19th century, down to a slow, moody paraphrase of a country dance theme.

The second movement’s underlying pillowy gloom and the violin drifting high above make a sharp contrast. The goofy exchange between Ibragimova and a lone trombone as the third gets underway is priceless, setting the stage for more serious-minded jousting and eventually a bristling violin cadenza with more of a cynically cartoonish tinge than the ghastliness it echoes. Forget about Stalin for a minute: imagine the kind of hell that Brezhnev, or Krushchev, or Reagan could have unleashed if they’d had apparatchik Mike Bloomberg’s minions in charge of their “trace and track.”

July 12, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Violinist Movses Pogossian Pulls Together a Stunning, Uneasy Album of New Armenian Classical Music

It’s astonishing how influential Armenian music has been, considering how small the country is, not to mention the pre-World War I holocaust there which resulted in the murder of as much as 85% of the population and most of its intelligentsia. While Armenian culture has thrived throughout the global diaspora, in the past hundred years the country managed to withstand a stifling Soviet occupation and emerged with wellspring of new music. Violinist Movses Pogossian‘s new album Modulation Necklace – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates a series of intense, powerful, edgy works by 21st century composers from throughout the global Armenian community.

Artur Avanesov’s somber, stately, acidically crescendoing Quasi Harena Maris begins as a microtonal string quartet played by Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violist Morgan O’Shaughnessey and cellist Niall Ferguson. The composer enters, on piano, with a brooding minimalism as the strings recede to wisps and washes. His fierce block chords shift between dark neoromanticism and unsettled close harmonies, the strings echoing the dichotomy between anthemic intensity and relentless, blustery unease. The sparse, clustering suspense on the way out is chilling. On one hand, there are echoes of the great Danish composer Per Norgard; on the other, this is like nothing you’ve ever heard. What a showstopper to open this album.

The quartet of Avanesov, violinist Varty Manouelian, violist Scott St. John and cellist Antonio Lysy play Ashot Zhrabyan’s Novelette. The ache of the string introduction is more visceral here, Avanesov pouncing in as they reach a horrified peak. Hazy atmospherics alternate with bracing swells, together and individually, the pianist punctuating the storm as it passes through and then returns with a marching vengeance. A stabbing, suspiciously petulant insistence peaks out, then the stern strings take over and end with an unexpectedly quiet triumph.

Avanesov, Manouelian and Tyler deliver Michel Petrossian‘s A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire with equal parts individual playfulness and a tight cohesiveness, yet one which remains unsettled until a starkly decisive conclusion. It’s an exploration of identity in an increasingly syncretic world. Have we lost a heritage, or are we creating a brand new, more universal one? The answer seems to be yes to both questions.

The UCLA VEM Ensemble: Hwang and O’Shaughnessey with violinist Aiko Richter, cellist Jason Pegis and mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen tackle Artashes Kartalyan’s Tekeyan Triptych, a setting of poems on longing and posterity by Vahan Tekeyan, a major 20th century figure. In the liner notes, Segen gets high marks from the ensemble for her Armenian pronunciation; the dynamically shifting music echoes late Debussy, with melodies that range from the baroque to Armenian traditional melodies, most anthemically in the second number.

Saxophonist Katisse Buckingham and percussionist Dustin Donahue’s take of Ashot Kartalyan‘s five-part Suite for Saxophone and Percussion shifts from kinetic high/low contrasts, to jaunty bits of vibraphone jazz, a hint of furtive suspense, a beautifully bittersweet ballad and a booming, dancing coda. Avanesov ends the album with seven miniatures from his Feux Follets collection, which range from warm neoromanticism, to lingering minimalism and biting Near Eastern modes. If this is typical of what’s coming out of the Armenian world now, we need to hear more of it!

July 8, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.

May 21, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intuitive, Fearlessly Fun Reinventions of Iconic Classical Pieces from Eliane Rodrigues

One of the funniest videos on youtube is a 2016 audience recording of the beginning of pianist Eliane Rodriguesperformance of Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasie, Op. 61 at a concert in her hometown of Antwerp. It’s obvious in the first few seconds that something is wrong with the piano. How she deals with it is priceless. Youtube pageview counts are notoriously inflated, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if all six million hits on this video were real: it’s that good.

After watching her in that situation, her solo piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, on her new album Aeternum – streaming at Spotify – comes as no surprise. It’s the kind of thing you play at a party after everybody’s had a few drinks. Don’t even start with the famous first movement: put the second on and see how many people get the joke. And it doesn’t even start with a joke: Rodrigues reinvents it as a High Romantic tour de force, drenched in as much angst as devious humor.

And it sounds nothing like the comparatively tame, stolidly marching Liszt transcription: this is pure fun. Rodrigues uses a ton of space to ramp up the suspense, holds onto pivotal moments for dear life, employs rubato constantly to underscore as much gothic grimness as sheer buffoonery. This isn’t just punk classical: there’s immense depth and feeling when she’s not going for broke with the jokes. One suspects the composer, a recidivist bon vivant, would have played it much the same way.

Rodrigues also tackles a half-dozen Bach pieces here. Her approach to the Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541 is practically breathless, with a stunningly light touch in places, even more so as the famous fugue theme begins. But she doesn’t stay there long, raising the volume with a crushing precision. Her take of the equally iconic Fantaisie and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 is completely the opposite, riding the pedal for an approximation of organ resonance before backing away wistfully, syncopating while walking the bass hard, and conjuring up as much nocturnal glimmer as she can.

There are two other Bach pieces on the album. The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 is another staple of the organ repertoire: her dusky introduction and angst-fueled insistence are spot-on, as is her steady but slashing, proto-Rachmaninovian interpretation of the fugue. And she teases out every bit of puckish humor, scampering phantasmagoria and grand guignol as anybody could want from the iconic Toccata and Fugue in D.

It’s obvious that Rodrigues really went under the lid with all of this. You may disagree with her dynamics but you can’t fault her for technical flaws or lack of chutzpah. Anyone who might think this music is stuffy (it’s actually anything but) has never heard Rodrigues play it.

May 18, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Unexpectedly Vigorous Yet Characteristically Dark Album of Arvo Part Music

Violinist Viktoria Mullova’s album of Arvo Part works with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Parvo Jaarvi – streaming at Spotify – reads like a single contiguous piece of music. While not all of it is brooding and mystical, in keeping with most of the composer’s work, the overall atmosphere is characteristically somber. It may be a cliche to say that musicians from a composer’s home turf play that repertoire best, but with this album it’s hard to argue with that contention.

In the brief, austerely sober Song of Songs, which opens the album, spare, tolling bell accents linger through the ominous upward drive to Mullova’s first shivery cadenza; then silence. Airy highs draw a brooding response from the orchestra.

Her energetically circling, folk-inspired solo arpeggios, introducing the second piece, Fratres, offer not the slightest hint of the still, vast expanses that will unfold. This time it’s a woodblock and bass drum which signal Mullova’s elegant varations on the opening dance, over a crepuscular drone.. The rest of the strings follow with a much more somber, rhythmically disorienting development of the jaunty opening sequence. Meanwhile, the basses are unrelenting, holding a quietly sustained, enigmatic fifth interval.

Short, elegantly stabbing violin phrases lead to a momentary, strikingly dancing passage (for Part, anyway) in his rather rousingly crescendoing, vividly Bach-tinged Passacaglia. Mullova returns to insistent minimalism over an airy calm and fleeting, Arabic-tinged pizzicato to close it out.

The album’s centerpiece is the triptych Tabula Rasa. Ludus, the opening movement, follows a similar trajectory; this time it’s the piano which punches in as a stern anchor while the bells add sparse, enigmatic close harmonies. Essentially, this is Part’s Symphonic Dances, bristling with increasingly emphatic echo phrases punctuated by morose, reflectively quiet passages. That long, sustained chord at the end of the movement really packs a wallop!

A steady baroque-tinged cavatina theme takes shape in Silentum, the second movement: its seemingly endless wave motion looks back to Gorecki’s iconic Symphony No. 3. Where this ends with a steady descent to the depths, the Song of Songs reprise is delicate and hopeful, Mullova’s solemn resonance over loopy, steady upper-register piano. Slowly and methodically, the music grows more plaintive and more evocative of Pachelbel than any of the 20th century figures Part is associated with. For anyone reflecting on those we’ve lost during the lockdown, this makes an apt soundtrack.

May 16, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colorful, Purposeful, Entertaining New String Music From the Zephyr Quartet

One of this year’s most enjoyable and defiantly uncategorizable albums is the Zephyr Quartet‘s latest release, Epilogue, streaming at Spotify. The Australian group distinguish themselves as one of an increasing number of string ensembles who write their own music. They like basslines: whether in the lows or the highs, someone’s always plucking out a groove. The pieces here are relatively short, drawing on minimalism as well as Celtic and Nordic folk traditions.

The opening number is Great White Bird, by cellist and leader Hilary Kleinig, a picturesque, swirling, triumphantly soaring folk-tinged piece anchored by catchy pizzicato cello. Those swoops and dives from violinists Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch and violist Jason Thomas are irresistibly fun.

Gehlert’s ominously colorful triptych Femme Fatale begins with Anne Boleyn, shifting from distantly baroque-tinged resonance to a couple of lithe, dancing themes: there is no execution scene or for that matter any real sense of imminent doom. The second movement, Hedda Gabler rises from a steady, moody, synccopated web of counterpoint to a rich, organ-like resonance: when the higher and lower strings shift roles the effect is breathtaking. The dancing, bustling, anthemic conclusion, Huldra is a portrait of a Nordic goddess who devours the men she preys on if they don’t behave.

Cockatoos, by Kleinig follows an anxiously rustling upward trajectory, to a long, crescendoing, gracefully pulsing interweave: deep inside, there’s a brooding Scottish folk song lurking somewhere. By contrast, her Exquisite Peace is both more atmospheric and more complex, an enveloping calm grappliing against echo effects and glissandos

Tulloch’s Blindfold Gift, a prancing pizzicato song without words, reaches a peak with a Celtic-tinged theme. Another Tulloch composition, Our Lovely Star has a soaring beauty over shifting, circling pizzicato.

Thomas is represented by two works here. The first, Mulysa comes across as organic trip-hop, rising and falling with an increasingly anthemic drive. And the lushly enveloping Time’s Timeless, peppered with graceful accents from throughout the ensemble, has more of those organ-like long-tone phrases this group indulge in so memorably.

The album concludes with the title track, a slow, steady, Philip Glass-ine canon by Gehlert. Whether you call this chamber pop, classical or folk music – and it’s all of the above – it’s a lot of fun.

May 13, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Lee Konitz With One of His More Memorable Adventures

Live long enough and everybody wants to work with you. We lost Lee Konitz last month. His collaboration with pianist Dan Tepfer, and their final duo album were well received, but among recent releases the saxophonist appeared on, one of the most vivid and fascinating is the concert recording of Guenter Buhles‘ Prisma, a concerto for alto sax and orchestra, streaming at Bandcamp.

Nobody ever meant to release this 2000 live performance with the Brandenburg State Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Campestrini. But there was a high-quality digital field recording available, which has been tweaked and sounds fantastic. Buhles had humbly offered to arrange some standards for Konitz for orchestra and soloist, but Konitz insisted on an original work. That was a no-brainer!

There are many moments where sax and orchestra respond to each other, particularly in the spirited third movement, ostensibly a scherzo, although that movement’s much more pensive than such things tends to be. The concerto’s opening allegro begins with catchy, incisive upward phrases from the orchestra, quickly ceding the way to Konitz’s measured, steady phrasing: it’s uncanny how much he sounds like Paul Desmond here. There’s clever echoing between sax and orchestra, some luscious organ-like sustained swells and a purposeful, low-key solo over pillowy strings They end with a couple of ominous clangs from the bells.

The second movement is a pensive neoromantic theme, Konitz entering on a surprise note. Fluttery strings contrast with Frank Wunsch’s minimalist piano, the saxophonist remaining in low-key, lyrical mode through a shift toward a moody pulse and a momentary exchange between sax and violin.

Stillness and animation contrast in the scherzo, yet Konitz is at his balmiest here. A wary, brisk sax-and-piano duet opens the concluding allegro movement, a neat way to tie up the suspensefully insistent melody. The ensemble wind it out with an uneasy haze.

There were three other numbers on the bill. Konitz introduces Thingin, solo, with a steady series of blues allusions that Wunsch follows more uneasily: that dialectic permeates their duet afterward. Konitz goes to his low register  for the duo’s more relaxed take of Joana’s Waltz. There’s also a relatively slow version of Body and Soul where Konitz finally throws caution to the wind – and Wunsch is right on it. A typical adventure for this rugged individualist.

May 10, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bartok Concerto For the End of Time

Imagine you’re in Budapest in the dead of winter, 1944.

Nazis are everywhere. All the indigenous Nazi types have been empowered to act as murderously as they wish. You’re probably in hiding, or at least trying to keep as low a profile as possible. Many of your friends may be dead, and you probably suspect the worst about everyone you haven’t heard from in awhile. You might be out of work, all alone and running out of food.

Sound familiar?

Such were the circumstances for many of the city’s residents who tuned in the evening of January 5 that year to catch the broadcast of the Szekesfovarosi (Metropolitan) Orchestra playing Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Péter Szervánszky.

Beyond its innately harrowing sound and a briliant performance by the violinist, this recently released archival recording – streaming at Spotify – is noteworthy for being both the concerto’s debut on the composer’s home turf….and also the only record that Szervánszky, highly acclaimed at the time, would ever appear on, posthumously at that. He would continue to perform for another half a dozen years before giving up his concert career and moving to Peru. He returned to Hungary late in life and died there in 1985.

It’s clear from the first few seconds of the recording that this is a digitized version of a worn mono original. Because raw materials were so hard to find under the Nazis, the orchestra took to recording the occasional concert on x-ray plates borrowed from city hospitals. Here, they’re far back in the mix, only reaching front and center when the soloist isn’t playing, and half the time that’s pretty muddy. What is clear is that conductor Janos Ferencsik is having success evincing a lush, dynamic sweep from the ensemble – when the music isn’t either receding, or distorting during one of many big swells.

Szervánszky throws off lively flourishes as its surprisingly warm, wistful opening theme gathers steam. He leaps and bounds, effortlessly, with the occasional gossamer trill, through the increasingly acidic phrasing that follows, the orchestra looming behind him. The first sudden, horrified pulse from the whole group comes as a real shock; the second, about five minutes later, is only slighly less harrowing in context. His microtonal approach as the music calms and he hits a cadenza is mesmerizing.

Wistfulness quickly gives way to a relentless wariness in the second movement. Szervánszky’s enigmatic chromatics and chords have a searing edge, contrasting with the lightness of his ornamentation. Shivery, perfectly balanced sixteenth notes over a stately, stalking pizzicato pulse from the rest of the strings provide a menacing contrast.

In the concluding movement, fragments of a country dance flit from Szervánszky’s fingers, then the music descends to an aching, portentous calm. A horror-stricken insistence follows. As with pretty much all of Bartok’s big showstoppers, ideas shift constantly, and so does Szervánszky’s attack, pristine in the calmer sections, raw and savage when the music grows more diabolical. Yet the coda takes a final, unexpected turn to a visceral sense of triumph.

It’s a wonder the Nazis allowed this to be staged, considering both the piece itself and Bartok’s well-known antifascist politics. What an inspiring performance by a group who under the circumstances may have been little more than a pickup orchestra – and how lucky we are to be able to hear this. May there be such artifacts from our time that future historians and listeners can hear and wonder how we managed to survive as well.

May 7, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poignant French Late Romantic Music and a Brilliant Obscurity From Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien

Today’s album is about poignancy and brooding contemplation – and is also a rare recording of a great obscurity from the French Late Romantic era. The violin-piano duo of Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien released their record of music by Eugene Ysaye, Cesar Franck, Louis Vierne and Lili Boulanger last year; it’s streaming at Spotify. There’s considerable emotional depth here.

The first piece is Ysaye’s relatively well-known, Romeo and Juliet themed Poeme Elegiaque. The two play it with straightforward restraint: they don’t languish in its lulls. Ibragimova quickly finds a clenched-teeth focus in its gritty upward climbs; likewise, Tiberghien lets the chilly desolation in his chords speak for itself, matched by the violin’s stark, midrange resonance. As the narrative hits an anguished, allusively chromatic peak midway through, the contrast is nonchalantly breathtaking.

Franck’s Violin Sonata in A was a wedding present for Ysaye, one of his era’s great violinists. For whatever reason, there seems to be more wistfulness and longing than romantic joy in the swaying, spare first movement. The two approach the delicate second movement with a vivid tenderness that also seems wounded, but then the piano signals a charge upwards toward redemption. There’s considerable contrast between quiet, tense hesitancy and several “yes!”crescendos throughout the third movement, Ibragimova using a lot of shivery vibrato. Likewise, there’s unexpectedly uneasy glitter intermingled with the warmly triumphant phrasing of the conclusion.

Beyond his virtuosity at the organ, Vierne was also an awardwinning violinist. He may be best known as a writer of turbulent, ferocious organ symphonies, but his rarely performed music for strings is sublime. Case in point: his Violin Sonata in G Minor, which the duo here leap into with a Romany-tinged, brittle, wintry attack that quickly warms and grows more expansively anthemic. So when the two return to this biting quasi-tarantella, the effect packs a punch.

The second movement follows the same trajectory as Franck’s piece: slow, with lots of expressive midrange from the violin and more of a steady nocturnal gleam. Vierne brings the tarantella back for movement three, but as more of a flamenco-tinged ballet theme.  Ibragimova and Tiberghien wind it up with serene contemplation rising in a long series of waves, and serious gravitas in the dance variations.

A rising star just over a hundred years ago among French composers, Lili Boulanger died tragically at 25; she wrote her Nocturne for Violin and Piano at 18 in 1911. It’s akin to a prelude, an inviting moonrise tableau with a wry Debussy quote at the end.

April 26, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivid, Epic Symphonic Desolation

In a time of chiling isolation for so many people, the centerpiece of today’s album is the Sinfonia Antarctica, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ seventh and most haunting symphony, just released by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze and streaming at Spotify.

This 1953 epic is an exploration of vastness and all-pervasive cold. Some might call much of this classical heavy metal. It’s rarely performed, partly because it requires such lavish instrumentation. There’s an organ that leaps in to shock you for a few bars. The score also calls for a choir, plus wordless vocals from a soprano (Rowan Pierce, in this case), a wind machine and a small warehouse worth of percussion. In that sense, it’s sort of the Nutcracker for adults. No matter how you feel about Vaughan Williams’ music, you can’t fault him for thinking outside the box.

Thematically, the piece traces the grim trail of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1912 Antarctic expedition. For a composer, this subject matter is problematic in that there comes a point where desolation becomes interminable (Sarah Kirkland Snyder grappled with that same issue in Penelope, her exploration of the Odyssey from the home front). This is a long piece of music – and the orchestra weather the storm, titanically.

In his weatherbeaten voice, marrator Timothy West introduces each of the symphony’s five movements, the first with a quote from Percy Shelley – totally Iron Maiden, right? The mighty, somber opening theme telegraphs where this beast is going. Icy tubular bells, gothic soprano vocalese and echoes of the creepiest section of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals appear quickly. Agitated swirls from the strings – “We’ve got to call this off!” – are answered by cruel insistence from the brass, underscored by the stomp of the bass drums. A monochromatic landscape has seldom been so colorful.

The second movement has resolute brass against a spinning string section, a gleefully sinister dance from the xylophone and closes with a a pensive first encounter with the endlessness of the glacial terrain. Everything slows down in the third movement, with a pervasive ominousness, up to a rumbling gloom and Graham Eccles’ big organ break: this orchestra’s low strings are fantastic here.

The wistful fourth movement pictures the men of the expedition missing their sweeties at home, but a lightly trudging hope against hope from strings and high winds pushes that out of the picture. As the symphony sways toward its untimely end, a determined brightness persists against all kinds of low-register foreshadowing, but that heroism proves unsustainable and fades down to the washes of a ghostly angel choir.

The record also includes an equally vivid recording of the composers’s ninth and final symphony, notable for what was in 1958 the innovation of three saxophones amid the winds. It has a similarly macabre Tess of the D’Urbervilles subtext.

There’s looming trouble, anxiously silken clarity from the saxes, Tschaikovskian drama and moody Dvorakian landscape in the first movement. That drama continues with a lonely solo flugelhorn intro and rises from a martial menace to a gloomy sweep in the second: there seems to be a sudden moment where poor Tess meets her fate.

Movement three gets a suspiciously satirical strut to its militaristic pulses and stomps: a listener gets the feeling that the composer was not a fan of violence. The orchestra grow calmer and more lustrous as the conclusion begins, but once again trouble is on the horizon, drawing closer and closer. Daytime struggle alternates with brief, nocturnal respite: nighttime eventually wins. A momumental achievement for this inspired orchestra.

April 10, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment