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Highly Reviewed Recordings

April 6 - April 19, 2011

FRANK, G.L.: Hilos / Danza de los Saqsampillos / Adagio para Amantani / Quijotadas (ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, Frank)
(Naxos / American Classics: 8.559645)

FRANK, G.L.: Hilos / Danza de los Saqsampillos / Adagio para Amantani / Quijotadas (ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, Frank)

Gabriela Lena Frank is the real deal: a modern composer with a personal style, one that manages to integrate a wide range of sounds and performing techniques into a cohesive language that unapologetically includes melody and tonal harmony without ever sounding anachronistic. She clearly manages to remain true to herself, but she doesn’t have to write down to her listeners in order to share her thoughts and feelings. This is just good music.

Hilos is a quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano inspired by Peruvian weaving. The music is colorful, vibrant, and consistently inventive; the Latin element is pervasive, but not cheap, and not overwhelming. Danza de los Saqsampillos is an arrangement for two marimbas of an earlier piano piece, and it sounds like a blast to play; Adagio para Amantaní (for cello and piano) is a soulful meditation inspired by an island landscape in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Quijotadas is a string quartet based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Its second movement, Sequidilla para la Mancha, has to be one of the most charming pieces of its kind since the scherzo of Ravel’s Quartet, which it resembles in some ways (lots of pizzicato).

The performances, with the composer’s participation where the piano joins in, and presumably her supervision where it does not, are uniformly excellent, and so are the sonics. A wonderful disc of inventive, fresh, characterful music, plain and simple.

David Hurwitz,

PERICH, T.: 1-Bit Symphony (Perich)
(Cantaloupe Music: CA-21054)


At first glance, composer Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony looks like a regular CD in a jewel case.  It’s actually something much, much cooler.  There’s not even a compact disc in the case!  Instead, Perich’s package includes a battery, a tiny circuit, and a headphone jack.  When a listener slips his headphones into the slot, a handcrafted circuit performs a five-movement electronic symphony that Perich has programmed in low-fidelity, 1-bit audio.

In addition to being just flat-out neat, the technology behind Perich’s symphony subtly questions the way listeners receive their music.  Whereas a normal CD or MP3 file plays back music that’s already been recorded, Perich’s circuit takes the composer’s source code and actually performs the music with electronic pulses each time it’s switched on.  Technically, you’re not listening to a recording at all; you’re being treated to a live performance as the electricity pulses out of the microchip.

What keeps Perich’s project from being just another interesting-but-academic exercise?  The music is amazing.  The work is no mere collection of Atari-esque bloops and bleeps.  Rather, the composition rewards listeners by delivering on the symphonic promise of its name, piling up familiar minimalist sounds to create stunningly lush and upbeat movements.  If the Mario Brothers were classical music fans, this is what they’d listen to.  And they’d shell out a few gold coins to do it, too.

Mental Floss, January – February 2011

MOZART, W.A.: Idomeneo re di Creta [Opera] (Fischer)
(Dacapo: 6.220586-89)

MOZART, W.A.: Idomeneo re di Creta [Opera] (Fischer) Idomeneo is not an easy opera to bring off: it’s hard to balance the score’s vocal and musical demands while investing its stilted opera seria libretto with dramatic life. The present production isn’t perfect, but it comes as close as any of its predecessors.

Adam Fischer attained a high profile through his work with the period-instrument Austro–Hungarian Haydn Orchestra. I don’t think the Danish Radio Sinfonietta is such a period-specific ensemble, at least not all the time—the ensemble’s repertoire takes in works of the Second Viennese School—but it certainly sounds like one here. The string sound is full-bodied yet clean and uncluttered: the Act III marcia, especially, suggests the use of gut strings, rather than steel. Chordal accents, particularly those involving the batterie, are crisp whacks that decay quickly, while stabbing violin accents add urgency to the faster numbers. Fischer prefers to keep things moving—“Zeffiretti lusinghieri” and “Idol mio,” perhaps, want more time to bloom—but the music never feels rushed, merely flowing and dramatically purposeful.

Beyond the use of historical instruments, the “applied musicology” here leans toward occasional discreet embellishments in the numbers, rather than avalanches of appoggiaturas in the recitatives. More crucial to the performance’s success, however, is the way the singers have been coached into authentically realizing the inflections and rhythms of spoken Italian, making the drama more immediate. Unsurprisingly, the Elettra, Italian soprano Raffaella Milanesi, sounds most natural in this, but all of the principals maintain a high level.

Christian Elsner is an apt Idomeneo. His basically dark timbre—in some of his recitatives, he sounds like a baritone—and full-throated tone suggest the character’s inherent authority; so does his generally forthright, incisive delivery. His smooth, even legato extends to the various runs and melismas, which he sings without aspirating. He does turn borderline shouty in parts of the Act III quartet; elsewhere in the same act, his attempts at quiet, introspective singing, however heartfelt, are croony and monochromatic. “Torna la pace,” Idomeneo’s difficult last-act aria, is omitted, as it was by Mozart himself when he was preparing the opera’s premiere in Munich in 1781.

Kristina Hammarström’s Idamante is an appropriate son for this Idomeneo. Her compact tone, as recorded, doesn’t have real alto depth, but her legato is firm, her voice secure as it ascends to the top. (The high tessitura of “No, la morte” taxes her a bit.) She maintains a poised, dignified characterization even at peak dramatic moments, and, like Elsner, she brings a nice variety of pacing to the recitatives.

The Ilia, Henriette Bonde-Hansen, gets herself and the opera off to a poor start with stressed, strenuous singing and swallowed vowels. When she relaxes later, in “Se il padre perdei,” her soprano opens up and shines. A bit of the pressure returns in “Zeffiretti lusinghieri,” where she also “covers” when singing softly. Conversely, Milanesi’s quick, alert Elettra is disappointing in Act III’s “D’Oreste, d’Aiace”: her high expostulations sound careful and reined in, and her low range lacks substance.

Arbace, Idomeneo’s confidant, here gets the two full-fledged, demanding arias that are frequently cut in modern performances and recordings. Fortunately, Christoph Strehl brings to the role strengths similar to Elsner’s—a flowing, liquid tenor with a solid presence in the low range, bridging upward leaps without effort, rising easily to an interpolated high C. The first, dog-chasing-its-tail runs of “Se il tuo duol” are sketchy, but otherwise he executes the passagework artfully and with dash.

The libretto, reliable and accurate for most of the opera, prints a completely different version of the final scene, beginning at Ilia’s entrance, from what is actually performed; Elettra also sings a longer version of her final accompagnato than is printed. Dacapo has relegated Fischer’s spirited, gracious performance of the thirteen-minute ballet sequence to a separate CD, which explains the four-CD format; this isn’t extravagant in view of the price break for the set.

Stephen Francis Vasta, Opera News

BACH, J.S.: Motets (The Bach Sinfonia, Abraham)
(Dorian Sono Luminus: DSL-92119)

BACH, J.S.: Motets (The Bach Sinfonia, Abraham) Under its dynamic music director, Daniel Abraham, the Washington-based Bach Sinfonia has brought to light many works that may not have been heard for two centuries or more, but the motets are among Bach’s most frequently recorded music. It’s a proper challenge, met with distinction. The detailed notes and certain choices he has made indicate that Abraham is a serious scholar as well as a talented musician. He has included both Ich lasse dich nicht and Lobet den Herrn, one because its authenticity has been confirmed to his satisfaction and the other because doubts of its authenticity have not. In an appendix he has recorded the chorale usually sung at the end of Der Geist hilft because he does not believe that it was Bach’s intention, and a second verse of the central chorale of Singet dem Herrn that is indicated in the manuscript but rarely, if ever, sung. And, of course, he made the crucial decision to sing the entire program with a small chorus, composed of five concertists and 11 ripienists, discreetly backed by an instrumental component limited to four strings, four winds, and continuo (violone and positive organ).

 Abraham’s performances are finely detailed, blissfully free of eccentricities, and sung beautifully and confidently by the Sinfonia’s vocal arm, Sinfonia Voci. I’ll add this disc to a growing list of worthy motet recordings that includes Erickson and Holten, Hemetsberger (with a monster choir), Junghanel and Kooij (with minimal forces), as well as old favorites Marlow, Kuijken, and Herreweghe.

George Chien, Fanfare

COLEMAN, Ornette: For the Love of Ornette
(Jazzwerkstatt: JW090)

COLEMAN, Ornette: For the Love of Ornette This is almost too good to be true: an “almost” Ornette Coleman album, blowing in out of the blue. Coleman isn’t the leader on the set, but he’s here, sounding as strong and true as ever. Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma joined the alto saxophonist/free jazz pioneer’s electric Prime Time Group in the mid-’70s, contributing to Dancing in Your Head (Polygram, 1976) and Body Meta (Verve, 1976). With For the Love of Ornette, he teams with and pays tribute to his old boss and mentor.

“Journey,” a short poem penned by Tacuma and Wadud Ahmad (who speaks it as well) opens the set, with Coleman’s keening plastic alto crying in—distinctive, plaintive, full of wisdom. Then Coleman says: “Fella? Fellas? Can you hear me? Forget the notes and get to the feeling.” The band takes this advice to heart, beginning with the title tune, a four-part suite with Coleman front and center, accompanied by rumbling drums and joined, in short order, by the sharp pop of Tacuma’s electric bass. It’s one of the more entropic tunes of the set, almost as calamitous as Free Jazz (Atlantic Records, 1961), with Coleman’s alto saxophone singing inside a sweet cacophony of tenor sax, flute and piano/bass/drums.

“East Wind,” tagged as “Movement 1” of “For the Love of Ornette,” is reminiscent of Coleman’s Sound Museum: Hidden Man (Harmolodic/Verve, 1996), in part due to the use of piano, an instrument with which Coleman hasn’t often recorded. Coleman sits out on “Drum & Space,” and Wolfgang Puschnig takes the lead, alternating between flute and hojak, for a serpentine Eastern feeling inside Tacuma’s thick Western groove.

“Tacuma Song,” Coleman’s lone songwriting contribution to this set of otherwise Tacuma originals, caterwauls to life with the entanglement of alto and Tony Kofi’s tenor sax lines recalling Coleman’s work with Dewey Redman.

“Forthworth Funky Stomp” is a super-soulful romp, a “get up and dance, dance hard and free” tune that hearkens back to classic high-energy R&B, while “Celestial Conversations” opens with a pensive bass/alto sax reverie. The rest of the band soon eases into a delicate balance of piano and flute, tenor and drums, gathering momentum and strength until introspection again reasserts itself. This is the loveliest of tunes, the band sounding as if they’ve discovered a collective peace. The set wraps up without Coleman on “Vibe on This OC” and “Celebration on Prince Street.” Not mere padding, both tunes groove with a deep soulful feeling that closes out a celebration, For the Love of Ornette

Dan McClenaghan, All About Jazz

MOZART, W.A.: Divertimento, K. 563 / Preludes and Fugues (Hermitage String Trio)
(Chandos: CHAN10635)

MOZART, W.A.: Divertimento, K. 563 / Preludes and Fugues (Hermitage String Trio) Hermitage String Trio performs Mozart Divertimento with sweetness, style

Late in his career, Mozart composed this one-of-a-kind trio for violin, viola and cello, making the smaller ensemble sound as rich and as interesting as the more usual quartet. It had little in the way of progeny: Only the very young Beethoven turned out works obviously influenced by Mozart’s six-movement masterpiece.

Because of its unorthodox combo of instruments, the E-flat divertimento has had relatively few recordings over the years. The three Russian string players based in London who make up the Hermitage String Trio go right to the top.

They perform with a sweetness and delicacy that bring out Mozart’s sensual side. They’re also stylistically au courant, playing even the repeat of the second half of the first movement and using vibrato more as a tool for color than on automatic pilot. They clearly see the variations in the fourth movement as the work’s heart, digging in with an intensity that never loses its poise.

Lawson Taitte,, March 23, 2011

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