Alfred Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance / Swedish Radio Choir / Tõnu Kaljuste

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When listening to “Psalms of Repentance,” a CD of music by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), I was amazed at the sounds produced by an unaccompanied, mixed choir. I found this 1988 work to be the most moving piece I’ve heard by Schnittke.

For the first 11 Psalms, the composer set Russian texts from the Russian Orthodox Liturgy. The 12th Psalm was purely syllabic.

While often quite dissonant, the music itself also had moments of warm consonance. At times, it seemed as if it was “spoken” as opposed to “sung.”

To note just a few of the myriad emotions I experienced when listening to these pieces, I found them to be profoundly confessional, exhilarating, and meditative. Here, Schnittke’s reputed polystylism was not as evident.

At approximately 52-minutes in duration, this 1999 ECM release was recorded during 1996 by the Swedish Radio Choir, under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste (1953-). Aided and abetted by superb engineering which captured the dynamic extremes in the music, these artists cast a magical spell over the listener. The accompanying booklet includes the texts in Russian, along with German-English translations.

 

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Carmen McRae – Live

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“Carmen McRae – Live” is an 81-minute DVD released under the Image Entertainment label. It is footage of a 1986 concert performance by the singer in Tokyo. Here, Ms. McRae (1920-1994) was supported by a trio of fine musicians on piano, bass and drums, in a concert of nearly 24 songs. These tunes included “Yesterdays,” “No More Blues,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Listen Here,” and many others.

Her singing career began when she was 17-years old. This concert DVD demonstrated her superb sound and professional longevity that was notable at approximately age 66.  She supposedly continued performing until 1991!

As a fine pianist in her own right, Ms. McRae accompanied herself on a couple of songs. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time I’d seen or heard her and I was impressed by her Jazz stylings and superlative “storytelling” abilities, as well as her use of her voice, from a purely “musical” standpoint. Of course, I’d like to hear earlier recordings of her, but she seems to have held up pretty well.

I wasn’t familiar with her three backup musicians consisting of pianist Pat Coil, bassist Bob Bowman and drummer Mark Pulice, but I was very impressed by their playing, which provided perfect and sensitive accompaniment to Ms. McRae.

The sound quality of this disc was quite acceptable, if not ideal. It’s a good document of one of the Jazz greats, in the twilight of her career.

Charles Gounod: Mors et Vita

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Like his previous 1882 oratorio, “La Rédemption,” Charles Gounod composed his ambitious Sacred trilogy, “Mors et Vita,” for the Birmingham Festival in England. At that stage in his life, Gounod (1818-1893) enjoyed quite a reputation as a large-scale, choral composer, thereby benefitting from the popularity of choral societies in Great Britain. Along with secular choral music and songs, Gounod wrote Sacred music throughout his career.

Prior to hearing “Mors et Vita,” I was unfamiliar with Gounod’s large-scale, choral pieces. This work was a revelation. It’s a shame that during the last 100 years, his works in this genre have diminished in popularity. At a running time of two hours and 37 minutes on two CDs, this 1992 EMI recording I heard was a fine one, and I’d venture a guess that there aren’t many others of it in the catalogue. Under Maestro Michel Plasson (1933-), the soloists included bass-baritone José van Dam (1940-), tenor John Aler (1949-), alto Nadine Denize (1943-) and soprano Barbara Hendricks (1948-). They were supported by the Orfeón Donostiarra concert choir, organist Christoph Kuhlmann (1963-) and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

Unfortunately, Gounod is primarily known for a relatively limited amount of works. Therefore, I highly recommend this recording!

Michael Finnissy: The History of Photography in Sound / Ian Pace

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Michael Finnissy’s “The History of Photography in Sound” for solo piano is another listening “Mount Everest” for me, both in terms of its approximately five and one-half hour duration, as well as regarding my attempts to grasp the compositional goals he set out to achieve.

Finnissy (1946-) began composing the piece during 1997 and completed it in 2000, amending it during 2002. It utilizes music from a wide variety of sources, including many examples from Western Classical music, Folk and Popular songs from around the globe. Those unfamiliar with the piece might have difficulty discerning these occult quotes, which are subsumed within Finnissy’s style.

Spread over five CDs and released under the Metier label, this piece was my first experience with Finnissy’s music, which I found stimulating and fascinating. These performances from pianist Ian Pace (1968-) reflected his background as a highly qualified musician and a formidable musicologist. In fact, Pace was also the author of the 98-page book of accompanying liner notes, as well as an additional extended discussion of the work, which is available as a free PDF file. I must confess that the small print in the accompanying booklet made me wish I’d initially chosen the PDF version. Although he recorded the piece during 2004 and 2006, Pace wrote the liner notes during 2013, by which time he had lived with and/or performed Finnissy’s music for approximately 20 years, forging a strong collaborative relationship with the composer. As it developed, Pace performed the world premieres of each chapter of the work, prior to its completion.

At any rate, the completed work contains 11 chapters which address musical and socioeconomic topics and range in length from approximately 14 minutes (Alkan-Paganini) to 68 minutes (Kapitalistich Realisme). Finnissy belongs to the “New Complexity” school of composers. While the music is fearfully complex at times, Pace noted that there are few instances of great frenetic activity, particularly when compared with many of Finnissy’s earlier works. I noticed that much of the music was quiet and contemplative, with stretches of complete silence. The dynamic range and challenges required from the pianist were enormous. A reminiscent comparison might be made with works of Charles Ives (1874-1954); i.e., “The Concord Sonata,” particularly when a hymn or popular song is uncovered through the harmonic haze.

While I can provide detailed comments, they will not diminish the necessary effort required to hear this work, and only the truly adventurous will want to tackle it. You should know that this composition is in good hands and the recordings of these discs deserve the highest marks. I look forward to hearing more music from Michael Finnissy.

Tennessee Ernie Ford: His Life and Times

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My mother owned an album by Tennessee Ernie Ford entitled, “This Lusty Land” which was released in the mid-1950’s, following his release of popular singles as early as 1949. Until recently, hearing the album as a child was my only recollection of this artist. Once again, I decided to broaden my horizons, by watching “Tennessee Ernie Ford: His Life and Times,” a DVD released under the KULTUR label. There were duplicate credits, indicating dates of both 1998 and 2000. However, it may have been released during 2002.

I’m glad that I watched it, and I don’t’ believe I’ve ever heard such a beautiful and resonant baritone voice in any “non-Classical” genre.

This 42-minute biographical documentary featured recollections and interviews with his colleagues, which included Ford’s sons and other musical luminaries, such as Della Reese and Rosemary Clooney.

While equally famous as a Country singer and radio talk show personality, Ford’s highly successful television show aired from 1956-1961, and he currently has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Ford (1919-1991) stood firm when the executives at NBC attempted to dissuade him from closing each broadcast of his show with a Gospel/Sacred tune, which they thought to be too risky. From the cards and letters that poured in from grateful viewers, he obviously knew his audience, and these Devotional tunes were the most popular segment of the show!

This DVD also contained roughly 60 minutes of bonus features, consisting of those closing Gospel/Sacred arrangements. When appropriate, Ford was supported by an excellent mixed choir. In the interest of variety, I wish that some of his Country music performances were also included here.

Apparently, Ford was an extremely likeable guy, and I now appreciate him as a National Treasure. I’d like to hear my Mom’s album again. What a voice!

 

Marc-André Hamelin: 12 Etudes

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I’ve long been a fan of pianist Marc-André Hamelin (1961-), not only due to his artistry, but also because of his advocacy for performance of “fringe” repertoire. As a champion of these neglected composers, Hamelin’s recordings released under the Hyperion label, have enabled me and others to experience this music. However, when I attended a recital by him in 2003, it was interesting that he chose to perform “mainstream” repertoire, such as works from Mozart, Schumann, Szymanowski and Albeniz, with an encore by Debussy. Still, I had no complaints, as his performances were wonderful across the board.

Hamelin throws his own hat into the ring with this CD of “12 Etudes,” all of which are in minor keys, as well as other less technically demanding pieces. These pieces were composed during a period from 1986 to 2009, and some of them are revisions of earlier incarnations. This disc places him in the line of talented composer-pianists, and is the first CD devoted entirely to his own compositions.

Hamelin holds his own quite well.

Released during 2010, the bulk of this 76-minute disc consisted of the aforementioned Etudes. Around the same time, the noted publishing firm of C.F. Peters published the scores of these works. I was therefore able to check out the scores from the library and follow along, while listening to these 12 pieces. Actually, I followed along as well as I could, as it was easy to get lost amid the profusion of notes!

It’s not surprising that these amazing Etudes are for “super virtuosi” pianists, showcasing the talents of the artists (in this case, Hamelin’s) and the piano, in all of their glory. They also work well as “music.” Again and again, Hamelin has proven that he is the “real deal,” when composing effectively for his instrument.

Seven of the pieces are homages to other composers, such as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Gioachino Rossini, and others. Hamelin uses their works as springboards. The other five Etudes are original compositions.

The opening Etude, a “Triple Etude (after Chopin) in A Minor,” is in the grand tradition of pianist, composer and pedagogue, Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938). Hamelin has also recorded Godowsky’s own set of studies on Chopin’s Etudes, which were released under the Hyperion record label. As the title suggests, it combines three of Chopin’s Etudes into one “Super Etude,” which must be heard to be believed. In fact, the same could be said for just about all of the 12 Etudes on this disc.

The remaining pieces are much less demanding, from a technical standpoint. Perhaps they are less musically interesting, but nevertheless showcase a different facet of Hamelin’s compositional skills; namely, the ability to write intimate, personal music, demonstrated by his “Theme and Variations (Cathy’s Variations)” which conclude the disc. This 2007 composition was inspired by Hamelin’s then-fiancée, Cathy Fuller.

This CD is evidence that in addition to being one the greatest living pianists, Marc-André Hamelin has a distinct compositional voice. I urge pianophiles, as well as those who are just curious, to hear this Grade A disc.

 

The Jazz Channel Presents: Ben E. King

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“The Jazz Channel Presents: Ben E. King” is a 68-minute DVD released under the Image Entertainment label. This intimate concert was part of the “BET on Jazz” series by this legendary Rhythm & Blues singer, which was filmed in 2000.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, King (1938-2015) was famous as a member of The Drifters, as well as a solo artist. The concert featured many tunes from his heyday, such as “Stand by Me,” his 1961 signature tune, “On Broadway,” “Under the Boardwalk,” and many others. Although I’d never intentionally listened to his music before, upon hearing these songs, I realized King’s significance. It’s another part of my ongoing “horizon broadening” process!

King’s voice was pleasant and entertaining, without being particularly remarkable. However, it worked well in this setting, and his backup band and vocalists were also excellent.

The recording of this disc was exemplary. A bonus feature entitled, “Meet the Artist,” featured King discussing his life and career. I’m glad that I watched this DVD.

 

Orlandus Lassus: Missa Osculetur me / Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips

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It is undisputed that Orlandus Lassus, aka “Orlando de Lassus” or “Orlando de Lasso,“ was one of the greatest composers of the High Renaissance and certainly the preeminent one of the Franco-Flemish School. Along with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Lassus (either 1530 or 1532-1594) was one of the masters of polyphonic vocal writing and easily the most prolific of the group. Roughly 2000 (!) compositions are attributed to him, the earliest of which dates from the 1550’s. I found it interesting that his entire oeuvre was apparently comprised of vocal music; i.e., chansons, motets, masses, madrigals, lieder, and the like. It’s too bad that Lassus’ works are comparatively “under recorded.”

At any rate, I just finished listening to a superb CD from 1989 which was devoted to his music and performed by the excellent Tallis Scholars, under the direction of Peter Phillips (1953-). It was released by their own Gimell record label in 2002 and entitled, “Missa Osculetur me.” This 49-minute CD included seven Lassus motets, many of which utilized the “double choir” antiphonal technique of two groups of eight singers, with each group consisting of  soprano, countertenor,  tenor, and bass voices.

These performances are so assured that it would be difficult to imagine a better result. This excellent recording was done at the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Salle, Norfolk, England. It always helps to have church acoustics for this type of music!

Whether or not this kind of music is your “thing,” I defy anyone to say it isn’t beautiful. By the way, during the mid- 1990’s, I attended a live concert performance by the Tallis Scholars at UCLA. Of course, they were excellent.

 

DeJohnette, Hancock, Holland, and Metheny / Live in Concert

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Released in 2006 on DVD under the Geneon label, “DeJohnette, Hancock, Holland, and Metheny / Live in Concert” is one of the more impressive Jazz gigs that I’ve witnessed. It consisted of highlights from two shows recorded during 1990 at the Mellon Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, and was a true convergence of four of the most respected Jazz musicians playing their respective instruments and each firing on all cylinders.

Songs featured here included “The Bat,” “Hurricane,” “Indigo Dreamscapes,” and “Nine Over Reggae,” and demonstrated a high level of “give and take,” with sensitivity between these players. Jack DeJohnette (1942-) was probably the most “musical” drummer that I’ve ever seen or heard, and seemed to instinctively play perfectly for any given song, many of which he wrote. I remember being similarly impressed when observing him live in concert with Gary Peacock and Keith Jarrett at UCLA.

Dave Holland (1946-) who played both the double bass and the bass guitar, was one of the more impressive bassists I’ve observed or heard. Again, my opinion was fortified by having watched him live in concert at CSUN.

Although primarily at the Steinway, Herbie Hancock (1940-) frequently switched between it and an electric keyboard, sometimes placing one hand on each instrument and playing them both simultaneously. He was fantastic!

Pat Metheny (1954-) was the youngest player in the group and played a few different instruments, including an acoustic guitar. His trademark picked Jazz stylings were on point here. I found it interesting that he was able to achieve “horn like” sounds from one of his guitars.

The one-hour and 39-minute disc without bonus features had good sound quality. This disc must be seen!

 

Samuil Feinberg: Songs / Riitta-Majia Ahonen / Sami Luttinen / Christophe Sirodeau

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Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962) was one of the great “composer/pianists,” although his relative obscurity belies this. It’s a shame, because his music rewards careful and concentrated listening and is also challenging, in the best way.

In addition to being a fantastic pianist, Feinberg was an important teacher as well. One of his last students, Victor Bunin (1936-), was instrumental in bringing some of Feinberg’s unpublished songs to light. These were recorded on CD for the first time on the disc, “Samuil Feinberg: Songs,” which was released under the Altarus label.

Under the musical direction and accompaniment of pianist/composer Christophe Sirodeau, the 27 songs contained herein were performed by mezzo-soprano Riita-Majia Ahonen and bass Sami Luttinen. Maestro Sirodeau (1970-) is also one of the two pianists who recorded Feinberg’s “Piano Sonatas 1-6” and “Piano Sonatas 7-12” which were released under the BIS label.

While Feinberg has his own harmonic blueprint, you can hear echoes of Scriabin and Debussy in his music, to name just two. It’s not surprising that his music is centered around the piano. However, liner notes from Maestro Sirodeau emphasize that throughout his life, Feinberg’s songs were the most constant feature of his compositional output.

This generous, approximately 76-minute disc contains songs set to poetry by the likes of Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Blok, Andrei Belyi, and Mikhail Lermontov, among others. The accompanying booklet contains a separate essay devoted to the poets.

Although English translations were provided, they were not accompanied by parallel phonetic Russian texts, which made “following along while listening” somewhat problematic. However, the performances seemed quite idiomatic and both of the singers were in fine voice. Luttinen’s bass voice was strikingly resonant, and Maestro Sirodeau’s exemplary accompaniment was reminiscent of his performances of the aforementioned Feinberg “Piano Sonatas.”

As I mentioned above, these were premiere recordings of these works. Check this disc out, and discover a fascinating composer.