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Ivar de Vries (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

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Piano Trio by Vasks, P.
Piano Trio by Vasks, P.
Offered by FHL Store
Price: £34.03

5.0 out of 5 stars Profound Thoughts, 7 May 2016
This review is from: Piano Trio by Vasks, P. (Audio CD)
The basic and unassuming visual design of this release covers up the fact it contains a couple of profound pieces of music, which can easily lay claim to being essential ones in the at the time of writing quite substantial oeuvre of Peteris Vasks. Both the piano trio and quartet are strongly articulated compositions, with both the pianist and string players having to put in all passion they have, almost physically attacking their instruments to produce this harsh sound. But the episodes of the music just not letting up are well-balanced with those moments of stillness and very importantly in terms of form: they both culminate in a great lyrical outpouring of melody in their respective penultimate movements that move seamlessly into a serene coda-type closing movement.
In the Trio’s case there are six nicely varied episodes leading up to that lyrical climax (here called canto perpetuo, the “endless song”) which at first is a ray of light, shone by the violin’s continuous line, emerging out of the relative darkness that went before, until you realise it’s also a touching elegy (to whom or what remains unknown). Not entirely sure why this 1985 work is dedicated to Olivier Messiaen, there’s certainly no birdsong material here, but for example the third episode is reminiscent of his Quartet for the End of Time.
The later work, a piano quartet, follows a similar journey: starting off hesitantly in the prelude, it takes off with a folk dance movement (using themes from the earlier composition Musica Adventus); a highly tensed adagio; a slow canon-type piece which at some point veers dangerously close to slapstick before the violin sings another beautiful “principal song”.
Both these works clock in at around half an hour and were recorded in close cooperation with the composer, who was obviously well able to convey the deep thoughts he worked into them to this fine set of musicians, the Trio Parnassus as it existed in 2007 enhanced with Avri Levitan on viola.

Martin: Le Mystère de la Nativité
Martin: Le Mystère de la Nativité
Price: £28.37

3.0 out of 5 stars Mysterious Hybrid, 6 May 2016
Mystère de la Nativité is another one of those strangely hybrid works by Frank Martin which is neither opera nor oratorio but has elements of both. At 1 hr 40 mins it is also the longest of these works he ever wrote and was completed in the late 1950s, after having written his only proper opera Der Sturm. Its set-up is quite ambitious: 8 soloists acting out some 20 roles, plus 3 choirs, all accompanied by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. Lucerne was also the location for this Dec 2000 concert recording which is likely to remain one of the very few ones available for a long time, this being such an obscure and large-scale work. Why so many roles? Well, this telling of the biblical story taken from a medieval literary source goes all over the place (Earth, Paradise and Hell no less) and time (from Eve & Adam to the birth of Jesus, whose mother Mary is mostly referred to as notre dame, our lady). There’s an assortment of angels plus some humans whose names like Ysambert and Aloris betray the text being taken from the 15th-century source material written by Arnoul Greban. Then there’s a wicked quartet of nasties in Hell (comprised of Lucifer, Beelzebub and Astaroth, next to Satan) who plot against the humans. The texts are sung in French with a splattering of Latin and are printed in the booklet alongside a German translation (only the essay is also present in English).
Musically the story is similar: from the radiant opening choirs one might be fooled into thinking this piece will be similar to an earlier religious work like for example Golgotha; however, in the hellish scenes very different, 12-tonish material is employed, dominated by percussion and speech-like singing and for which Martin may have peaked into Wagner’s score for Siegfried Act I. The scenes on earth are accompanied by music in Martin’s more typical pure and simple, vaguely modernist style (the Bethlehem scene is a particularly striking example). Any lingering trace of Bach is inaudible by now, or it must be in the stately pace of much of this score. On the whole the orchestration is pared down, sometimes only a single violin line accompanies the singers and any striking orchestral effects are few and far between. So musically this score does not add much if anything to what Martin composed earlier but it has its moments, a unique story line and has been pretty well executed and recorded for this release on a Swiss label.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Sinfonia tragica, Concerto for viola and piano
Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Sinfonia tragica, Concerto for viola and piano
Price: £15.54

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inspired Hartmann, 6 May 2016
This portrait release presents a couple of 20-odd minute works by Karl Amadeus Hartmann that date from the 1940s and 1950s respectively, and that nicely show his development during that period. He is one of those composers who always invite comparison with other composers and so it is here. The first work, a “tragic symphony” that Hartmann never heard in this original form, shows him to be right at the end of the grand romantic line of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Although Hartmann’s works never quite cohere as much emotionally as those of his illustrious predecessors, he was certainly their equal in terms of being able to write for the large orchestras and conjure up the most amazing colours from them. This music sounds like one of the brassier pieces in that tradition - if anything it sounds even more doom-laden, which would have something to do with the dark times in nazi-era Germany getting to Hartmann. He really pulls out all the stops (I bet the organ in the Berlin church that was the recording venue is in the mix somewhere) and switches expertly between sections for strings and all kinds of wind instruments like clarinet, flute and bassoon. Luckily the percussionist has a lot more to do during the second half, after having beaten a lonely cymbal during much of the first.
Neither Strauss nor Mahler would have written a piece like the Concerto for Viola and Piano, it being more aligned to the sound worlds of Berg and Hindemith. In fact, Tatjana Masurenko’s viola part is much more prominent than the piano part and its rich, stringent and deep sounds immediately spring into action in what amounts to a lengthy opening cadenza. This develops into a quicker section where the two soloists plus wind instruments and percussion really combine and connect and which sort of keeps plodding on regardless. A variation of this section makes up the last movement but not before we hear the middle movement called Melodie. In it, the viola plays these more tender lines and for me this is the most inspired piece on this release.
Both of these are premiere recordings and remain the only ones available currently. Their vivid stereo (!) SACD quality sounds great making this disc well worth exploring.

Olivier Messiaen - La Liturgie de Cristal (The Crystal Liturgy) - A film by Olivier Mille [DVD] [2009]
Olivier Messiaen - La Liturgie de Cristal (The Crystal Liturgy) - A film by Olivier Mille [DVD] [2009]
Dvd ~ Olivier Mille

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Messiaen’s Essence, 27 Mar. 2016
This film forms an excellent introduction to the extra-ordinary figure that Olivier Messiaen was, both as a person and in the unique vision on nature he shared through his works and many inspirational teachings. It appears as though it was originally cut as a 2.5 hour film which on this DVD release has been split up into two parts. Firstly the documentary proper which mostly features Messiaen in his own voice with the occasional narration by the film maker Olivier Mille. And secondly the substantial set of extras which feature some of his students (George Benjamin, Pierre Boulez and second wife Yvonne Loriod to name a few) plus for example a fellow ornithologist commenting on and occasionally uttering some benign criticism of the man, his methods and his music. Everything spoken is in French but there are English sub-titles available.
Messiaen comes across as confident, well-spoken and lucid in the extracts taken from black and white footage dating from the 1960s to more recent interviews and workshops and such like, up to his death in 1992. The music extracts are taken from works like Des Canyons Aux Étoiles (stunning pictures from the Rocky Mountains there), Catalogue des Oiseaux and Livre du Saint Sacrament, among others. He talks about his youth, discovering music more or less by himself, studying it at the Paris conservatoire and teaching it as well. His captivity in a WW2 camp is also briefly touched upon, with his international renown and many travels really taking off after the war. These journeys allowed him to seek out exotic new sounds, bird songs and rhythms to be used subsequently in his compositions. He discusses the challenges in notating and then transposing the bird song material for human musicians and listeners. That material sung by birds (to whom he tongue-in-cheek assigned all kinds of human psychology) is one of the threads running through his life. The other two are his equating sounds with colours and his unwavering catholic faith, which together probably go a long way to explaining the rather static and sometimes gothic quality of his music, as simply presenting in many ways an eternal and magical picture of the undivided glory of nature.
Even though the film does not present what could have been a boring chronological ordering of events, it does naturally conclude with Messiaen’s thoughts on Saint François d’Assise, the one opera (of sorts) that he wrote which collects all those threads in one enormous final vision.

Hans Werner Henze: Tristan (1973) (Landmarks in Music Since 1950)
Hans Werner Henze: Tristan (1973) (Landmarks in Music Since 1950)
by Stephen C. Downes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £95.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Henze’s Tristan, 27 Mar. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
As is perhaps unavoidable when writing a learned dissertation like this on a single piece of music, the author reads rather too much into what is after all a fine opus in Henze’s vast oeuvre, connecting it to all and sundry: not just (European) music and its composers, practitioners and critics but equally the history of philosophy, literature, pure musicology, practically the whole of Henze’s own career, outlook and politics (post and past this 1973 work) and more. So an enormous amount of admittedly interesting information has been cramped into the book’s 120 pages, making it not particularly lucid, but somehow this is apt because lots of Henze’s works are like that, including this one: a 45 minute piece in six movements which purports to show his reaction to and thoughts on Wagner’s 1860 opera Tristan und Isolde. Incidentally, be warned: the so-called “CD” which accompanies the book is actually a data CD-R which has the movements in the form of .wav files which the listener has to place in the right order. This only recording that was ever made of the piece by Deutsche Gramophon in 1975 has later been re-issued in this box-set; it can be down-loaded as well.
On the face of it, Henze’s composition appears as far removed from Wagner’s sound-world as can be: no voices, a substantial piano part, tape effects. Until the last movement he is careful to avoid any overt references to Wagner’s music so cheekily enough, the first music that the listener might recognize comes in the third movement: a quote from Brahms’s first symphony (there’s also some Chopin along the way). Brahms never had much time for Wagnerian aesthetics and is a contemporary example of the response to Wagner in general and this opera especially, just one in a bewildering set of responses in the past 150+ years that range all the way from wild adulation to sheer revulsion. Henze’s position appears two-fold: the first purely musical as in playing around with Tristanesque chords, the second psychological as in evoking Tristan’s third act feverish descent into a confused and doomed state of despair. But in the end this is and remains a typically energetic Henzean piece, this time with some beautifully realized piano writing and lots of extra-musical references. By the time of his own demise in 2012, he was in fact due to complete another Wagner-related commission but sadly had to leave it unfinished.

"Living with My Mother (Haha to Kuraseba) (Movie)" Original Soundtrack [Cardboard Sleeve (mini LP)]
"Living with My Mother (Haha to Kuraseba) (Movie)" Original Soundtrack [Cardboard Sleeve (mini LP)]
Price: £33.45

4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful Serenity, 10 Jan. 2016
This soundtrack is one of the first projects Ryuichi Sakamoto completed after having declared himself cured from cancer in the summer of 2015, after a year of inactivity on the music front. Apparently he was asked to do the score already before that and, with both the movie’s director Yoji Yamada and leading actress Sayuri Yoshinaga being very venerable persons in the Japanese movie world, felt obliged to honour this request before moving on to the much more high-profile score for The Revenant.
However a rush job this certainly is not and the hour’s worth of thoughtful and on the whole serene music fits the movie’s subject of a mother who, some years after the second world-war during which her son perished in the 1945 Nagasaki atom bomb explosion, is coming to terms with her loss when she is suddenly being visited by him or maybe only has dreams of such visits (the movie’s English title is Nagasaki: Memories of my Son). Sakamoto’s tragic adagio style music of recent years is employed again here, a simple descending theme going through many variations short in duration, both by himself on the piano and/or the vibrato-laden strings of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. This soundtrack sounds very much like other beautiful dreamy scores as the one for Silk in 2007 and the pared-down feel of the music is similar to that of recent up-and-coming composer Max Richter.
A number of tracks stand out for being different: a few electronic ones like the third try to evoke the horror of war (I believe some of this was re-used as part of score for The Revenant); track #20 employs a great-sounding tango band to evoke those sweet memories of youth, presumably in pre-war Japan; and towards the end there’s a little requiem for orchestra, mixed choir and a tenor. Unfortunately Sakamoto hardly ever does so, but he is able to write really well for a “classical” combination of forces like that. He follows it up with his piano version of the same track which sounds like it could be another great addition to his concert repertoire, should he decide to take up doing concerts again.
This beautiful CD package has only been released in Japan (on Sakamoto’s own Commmons label) and is also available as an even more expensive 2-LP package.

Les Grandes Repetitions: Stockhausen & Varèse - Films by Luc Ferrari & Gérard Patris [NTSC Region 0 black & white] [DVD]
Les Grandes Repetitions: Stockhausen & Varèse - Films by Luc Ferrari & Gérard Patris [NTSC Region 0 black & white] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Luc Ferrari
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £17.56

5.0 out of 5 stars Grand Rehearsals, 10 Jan. 2016
From the French INA vaults comes this pair of 1965 television broadcasts with new sub-titles in English: the first capturing a Cologne studio rehearsal of a major Stockhausen work; the second quickly turned into an ‘in memoriam’ for Edgard Varèse, who had been looking forward to directing a rehearsal of Déserts but unfortunately died just a few weeks prior to the broadcast.
The Stockhausen work Momente is a rather joyous affair dominated by various choir and percussion parts and the delightful Martina Arroyo, who presents an absolute treat in what must have been a difficult but teasingly playful and chatty soprano part. Lengthy stretches of rehearsal footage (conducted in a mixture of German, English and French) are interchanged with Stockhausen being interviewed and walking the corridors or sitting in front of the score, expanding on the genesis of the piece and sundry other topics. He comes across as a charming but intense personality, very open-hearted about his background, career and interests, and an able and inspirational conductor who knew exactly what he wanted to achieve with his music, which he got from this orchestra and chorus with their quaint fifties/sixties hair-styles and glasses. More or less the same forces took the piece out on tour and made a recording of it a year later, currently available here on Wergo.
Pierre Schaeffer of musique concrète renown, who had been contacted years earlier by Varèse to record the electronic interpolations for Déserts, produced this series of broadcasts and is one of the speaking voices in the homage to Varèse. Schaeffer plus other esteemed figures in the modern art music world at the time like Xenakis, Scherchen and Messiaen together manage to convey a full picture of the man and his world. They all elaborate on what a unique and solitary voice Varèse was, and the sorts of scandals and predicaments his uncompromising and anti-authoritarian philosophy caused. Also participating briefly is Pierre Boulez and with his recent death in 2016 this becomes even more of a historical document of a bygone era when European-style modernism ruled the day. Taking over for Déserts is Bruno Maderna whose rehearsal style (constantly interrupting and giving instructions) was very different to that of Stockhausen. The film ends with Maderna running through the orchestral parts of the piece in a live-relay to New York where Marcel Duchamp, of the same generation and a long-time friend of Varèse, listens attentively while smoking one of his trade-mark Cuban cigars.
The black and white picture quality of these films is generally quite good, as is the mono sound. There must be much more fascinating material like this languishing away in the vaults of various television companies, so full marks to Mode Records for locating and releasing these prime examples.

Thomas Larcher: Madhares
Thomas Larcher: Madhares
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £11.63

5.0 out of 5 stars Rich Invention, 22 Oct. 2015
Anyone who, like me, initially got to know Thomas Larcher’s music through the sparse and abstract textures of Naunz (the first ECM release of his music) can look forward to being pleasantly surprised by this third ECM disc, whose three 20-odd minute pieces display a musical richness and range of invention not yet featured on the earlier release. Its distinct muted and staccato writing for the piano continues here however, at first in “Böse Zellen“, a small piano concerto which, after a couple of short introductory movements setting up an atmosphere of suspense, bursts into life in the third. The piano gets deployed as a kind of bass guitar executing intricate drumming patterns; strings, trumpets and bells get involved to set up a heady atmosphere. By the end pianist Till Fellner all of a sudden dives into the piano to have a go at its strings, before dispatching some Russian grandeur and even a sense of tragedy in the final movement. All this may give a somewhat uneven impression, but this composer manages to hold it all together, expertly balancing out structure (or rigidity) with a sense of surprise (or looseness) in all these semi-tonal but completely modern works composed between 2002 and 2007.
“Still“ for viola and orchestra plus the composer on piano has two movements both marked “flowing” which are quite distinct however. At first long lines with lots of vibrato by the strings build up an atmosphere of high tension, the second movement more or less breaks this up with much quicker material before returning to the sense of stillness implied by the piece’s title. This work reminds me very much of the music of Kancheli (another composer championed by violist Kim Kashkashian) and especially Peteris Vasks in its treatment of strings. One of its most striking moments, namely the strings evoking a flock of shrieking birds, returns at various points in the final piece “Madhares“. This is simply a great string quartet, at the time of writing his third out of four. Its first movement employs a mandolin-type sound (quick pizzicato playing); the second has further tragic moments before more aggressive material takes over. Overall the string playing is way up in the higher registers with the piece ending in some airy whispers. The performances, the extensive booklet notes and the well-engineered recordings in studio conditions of these works are all up to the usual exemplary ECM standards.

Gubaidulina - Chamber Works
Gubaidulina - Chamber Works
Price: £15.43

5.0 out of 5 stars Strong Narratives, 9 Sept. 2015
This release again shows how Sofia Gubaidulina is able to come up with these strongly articulated structures that form a kind of mini-narratives. Especially striking given the rather limited means employed here: a small group of cellos in the first and third pieces, just an accordion in the second and accordion and single cello in the fourth piece "In Croce". That last piece from 1979 also exists in a number of other incarnations and has been recorded elsewhere as such, for example using an organ and double bass. This accordion/cello version comes across with real passion, the accordion providing a richly varying background to the cello's piercing lines. The raw and muscular sounds it makes is indicative of this whole set, so don't expect too many pretty conventional sounds, also because of the micro-interval tunings that are a trademark of this composer. This even applies to the accordion playing in "De Profundis", having lots of low grumbling and pulsating sounds and some wild outbursts in-between more serene passages.
The first piece starts off with a figure that reminds me of the apocalyptic main theme in Berlioz's final "Witches Sabbath" section of his Symphonie Fantastique. This could be coincidental but perhaps not given its title which translates as "at the edge of the abyss". However in the booklet notes this title is given a purely musical interpretation, a strange feature which it shares with many other Gubaidulina works whose titles at least suggest an extra-musical theme. About eight minutes into this piece she and fellow Russian exile composer Victor Suslin (1942 - 2012) contribute the mysterious sounds of two aquaphones. At half an hour the longest tale is told in Quaternion by four cellists, who employ lots of pizzicato and ricochet bowing techniques to give this piece its own distinct sound compared to the others. At one of the climaxes near the end they're even plucking chords as if playing in some guitar band. The very end is extra-ordinary, put on your head-phones to hear the quiet whispering sounds generated there.
These fine studio recordings were made under the guidance of the composer, perhaps giving them that bit more authority than others. Their timings are also on the whole up to a few minutes longer than on other recordings, meaning these interesting stories got a bit more time and space to develop.

Tristan Murail: Le Partage Des Eaux
Tristan Murail: Le Partage Des Eaux
Price: £15.13

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Natural Tales, 9 Aug. 2015
Many of the qualities of the first Aeon release devoted to the music of Tristan Murail also apply to this second one, featuring three 20-odd minute orchestral pieces written in pretty much the same period: the crystal-clear juxtapositions of pure sound following on from the tradition of Messiaen and Boulez; the sense of wonder provided by the magical world of nature (excluding mankind) which obviously inspires this composer; the natural cadence this music has, with its carefully placed moments of tension/release.
Partage des Eaux displays a kind of underwater atmosphere with lots of sudden activity, small cells of exotic percussion-enhanced sounds that are pitched against a high B note on the violins which is heard virtually throughout this great opening piece. At some points it sort of restarts, going back to its tranquil beginnings before venturing out to explore again.
The second and perhaps least successful piece (whose title translates as "cruel tales") is a bit of a ramshackle work. It has the occasional section of slow beautiful shimmering music which is quickly turned into the kind of slightly slapstick, almost drunken material that is the main concern here apparently. The sounds of the two electric guitars integrate well in the overall palette, they are played straight so do not expect any distorted sounds like in blues or rock.
In the final piece Sillages rock does make an appearance however, based as it is on the Kyoto rock gardens and the cosmic elements Murail saw into them according to the fine and extensive booklet notes. The earliest piece on this disc (1985), it is not dissimilar to the first but is based more on low earthy sounds and is focused more on the wind section of the orchestra, next to the ubiquitous percussion. Twice it builds up to a grand moment of glory, pointing I suppose to the cosmic element.
Pierre-André Valade directs vivid sounding studio recordings of these works by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1) and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (2/3).

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