Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Happy Centennial, Lou!


Lou Harrison: Violin concerto, Grand duo, Double music (with John Cage)

This disc (and this review) is well-timed. Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lou Harrison's birth. There seems to be at least some small interest out there in what should be a major event, though I would have hoped for a bit more hype for one of my favourite American composers. In any case this splendid new disc from Naxos is a suitable marker for Lou's Centennial.

I recently came across this picture of the Surrealists in Paris:

Man Ray, Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, Salvador Dali, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Rene Crevel 
There's so much genius here, Man Ray's versatility and Ernst's audacity, Dali's schtick and Breton's vision, all in one place and pretty much all from the same generation. You'd need to do a fair bit of Photoshopping to come up with a similar shot of America's great crop of modernist composers, partly because there's a wider range of ages, with Copland, Cowell, Bowles, Virgil Thompson and Gershwin born around the turn of the century; Barber, Cage, Schuman and Carter in the next decade, and the babies Lou Harrison & Leonard Bernstein (whose Centennial is next summer) ten years later. There's a much broader geographic range as well, from the West Coast (Harrison was born in Portland OR) to New York (where he worked for The New York Herald Tribune as a music critic) to Paris (where he did not go to study, unlike so many of his colleagues).

Harrison's own genius is pretty clear, nurtured by his mentor Henry Cowell, his teacher at UCLA Arnold Schoenberg, and later in New York, that great well-spring of American modernism Charles Ives. The Concerto for Violin and Percussion is a great introduction to Harrison's music, with its kitchen-sink "junk" percussion and surprisingly full-bodied emotion from the solo violin. Harrison acknowledged the influence of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, about which he said "It really walloped me." The soloist Tim Fain plays with the required virtuosity as well as the sensitivity and musicality to scale the heights and plumb the depths of this remarkable work, one of the great American concertos, matched in Harrison's works by his Piano Concerto. Angel Gil-Ordonez's PostClassical Ensemble provide robust support, with an equal virtuosity on the percussion side. Fain is joined by pianist Michael Boriskin in Harrison's Grand Duo, which treats the piano very much in a percussive role, though considering how important percussion is to Harrison it's more a question of opening up new options for the pianist rather than limiting them.

The short but not slight Double Music makes a special impression in its seven minutes. It's the result of an intriguing collaboration with John Cage. Each composer provided music for two of the four players, based on a kind of temporal template, and the resulting work came together seamlessly. Chance, so important in Cage's music, had played its role perfectly. This piece nicely sums up mid-century American music: fresh and alive with many influences from around the world and from many time periods, as fun to listen to as I'm sure it is to play.



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