Modern music that doesn’t suck (one in a series): Timothy Andres’ “Shy and Mighty”

Andres - High and Mighty

My new music recommendation for the day is Timothy Andres’s 2010 album on Nonesuch Shy and Mighty for two pianos.  The music is deceptively simple sounding, but when you listen more carefully it has quite a lot going on, and periodic “explosions” that force you to pay attention.

The composer is one of the pianists on the album, along with David Kaplan.  They are a formidable duo, with unearthly precision.  

I am especially fond of the track “Out of Shape.”

Penderecki’s “Passion”

Penderecki Passion According to St. Luke

This evening I have been listening to a recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, composed in 1966 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Christianity into Poland, and for the 700th anniversary of Münster Cathedral, where it was first performed. Penderecki has been a leading light of the European musical avant garde since the early 1960s. His Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima was a landmark (and has been used as source material for any number of movie soundtracks.)

The Passion is for three mixed choirs, boychoir, soprano, baritone and bass soloists, spoken narrator, and very large orchestra. It is a daunting work combining twelve-tone writing with vocal lines based on Gregorian chant, aleatoric passages as well as huge climaxes that end on shockingly diatonic major chords. The form is similar to the Bach passions: large choruses interspersed with narration and arias that comment on the action in Luke’s gospel. Other contemplative texts are taken from the psalms, Roman Catholic antiphons and hymns, sequences (Miserere mei Deus; Pange lingua; Stabat Mater, etc.)

The drama of the choruses is astonishing. Who could not be shocked by the screams of “Crucifige ilum.” (Crucify him)? Later there is an a capella setting of the “Stabat mater” describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross. The final chorus proclaims, “In Te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum.” (In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust; let me never be ashamed.)

Penderecki’s Passion is a masterpiece that should be performed more often. Too bad it’s so expensive to produce and no one (but me) wants to hear it….

(And of course, I’ve been listening to Penderecki while procrastinating practice the organ continuo part for the Bach Passion I have to play on Friday evening.)

Cleveland Orchestra’s “German Requiem”, plus a new work

This weekend Franz Welser-Möst is conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) with soprano Nicole Cabell and baritone Russell Braun as soloists. Robert Porco prepared the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.  Rarely have I heard this work performed with such clarity and directness, yet with the requisite boldness and tenderness.  Franz is an outstanding choral conductor–a trait not always found in orchestral conductors, even those with talent for opera. The chorus is not left “on their own” to figure out what to do. I have witnessed even such notable conductors as Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnanyi leave the chorus behind in the dust.

With absolutely parochial interest, I note that the Norton Memorial Organ was used in this performance, played by Joela Jones, to give an added sonic “boost” to the bass, but also supporting the vocal lines.  It was mostly not audible, but it was “there,” and I’m glad they used the organ.

Russell Braun has a lovely voice, but he seemed a bit underpowered for this particular performance.  (Or perhaps Franz should have shut down the orchestra a bit more.)  In the single movement that the soprano soloist appears, one has gotten used to hearing light voices (think Kathleen Battle, Dawn Upshaw, or even the German Christine Schäfer). Nicole Cabell, although obviously a lyric soprano, has a darker, richer, more luscious voice.  It made a nice contrast with the “classic” texture of sound in the rest of the performance.

The concert opened with a Cleveland premiere of Chor (for orchestra), a 2003-04 work by German composer Jörg Widmann, who is beginning his two season tenure as the orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow. While it is impossible to judge a complex contemporary work on one hearing, what is not in question is the Cleveland Orchestra’s brilliant performance. The work is in a broad arc with a stupendous central climax marked with ear-splitting rolls on suspended cymbals, strings at extremely high pitch, and, I believe, multiple police whistles. (It was really too loud, and I felt forced to hold my ears.) The pace is slow, with many long notes overlapping one another.  An offstage solo trumpet (the orchestra’s amazing principal trumpet Michael Sachs) started the work with a dialogue with a bowed vibraphone and notes on an accordion (played by the ever-versatile Joela Jones).  The texture and amplitude gradually increase until the climax, then start to dissolve again, but with “speed bumps” along the way–huge interjections by the full orchestra interrupting the quiet flow of the music.  At several points there are quite tonal “chorale”-type passages of an almost of a Brahmsian nature, but always deconstructed, as if the aural equivalent of looking in a funhouse mirror.  The work makes extensive use of quarter-tone playing in all the parts, and the orchestra’s pitch and clarity were quite astonishing.  (After hearing Chor, I am tantalized by what the orchestra would make of Thomas Ades’s monumental and beautiful  Tevot, written for Berliner Philharmoniker.  The orchestra is performing Ades’s Violin Concerto later this season, and Franz has conducted more of his music in the past.  Come on Franz, let’s have Tevot!)

Virtual Farm Boy is constantly complaining about too many standing ovations at concerts in Cleveland, but this is a case where the ovation was richly deserved.  The orchestra is off for a few weeks on European tour and a residency in Vienna.  We’ll look forward to their return in mid-November.

Steve Reich from Grand Valley in Michigan

Music for 18 Musicians

I was led to a new recording of Steve Reich’s masterpiece “Music for 18 Musicians” via Alex Ross’s blog therestisnoise.com and a wonderful video on Youtube that was released to promote the CD. So, you say, “Music for 18 Musicians” has been recorded by Steve Reich’s own ensemble years ago. What makes this recording unique is that is was performed by the New Music Ensemble from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan–not exactly a hotbed of the avant garde. The performance is astonishingly precise and musical, and the video is touching, showing how hard these students (most of whom are Music Ed majors) worked over the period of a year to learn the piece. I downloaded it from amazon.com, but it’s also available on iTunes and as a CD. I cannot recommend this highly enough to fans of Steve Reich’s music.


Boulez’s Amazing Piano Sonatas

Piano Sonatas 1-3 (Dig)

Pierre Boulez, the living legend of modern music, as composer, conductor, teacher, provacateur, turns 80 this year. His recording label (DG) is issuing a number of new recordings to celebrate Boulez’s anniversary. One of these new recordings is of Boulez’s three early piano sonatas performed by the remarkable young Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen.

These sonatas are among the hallmarks of twentieth century music, besides being among the most difficult works for piano ever composed. Yvonne Loriod, pianist and wife of Olivier Messiaen, for whom Messiaen wrote his piano works, was the first to perform Boulez’s second sonata. Legend has it that Loriod (a formidable pianist) broke into tears when she saw the score, with its thorny rhythms and cascade of notes without any discernable (or “finger-able”) patterns. It is through sheer force of will that a musician learns this music.

Over the years pianists have become accustomed to the Boulez’s musical language, and this new recording has the fluency of a pianist playing a Mozart sonata. True, it sounds very different, but these are musical works, not just a bunch of notes thrown on the page. This is not music for everyone (There ain’t no tunes to hum here.) but for an adventure, give it a listen.

Incidentally, Pierre Boulez is a frequent guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra. His concerts are always worth hearing. He’ll be back the end of April and the beginning of May conducting works by Stravinsky and Boulez.