Sikora’s New (But Brief) Collection a Gem

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BUILD A GOLD HOUSE TO BURY THE DEVIL / SIKORA: Not Enough Trees. Too Much Obedience. Not Enough Snow / Catherine Sikora, t-sax; Matteo Liberatore, gtr / self-produced album, available at Bandcamp

Here is yet another outstanding album, following her superb album Warrior, by Irish-born saxist Catherine Sikora. I’ve already said how much her music affects me personally from an emotional level, and this feeling carries through in this new set of three duets. I don’t entirely agree with her that we don’t have enough trees (except for the Amazon jungle, where they’re cutting too many of them down) or snow (it even snowed in Saudi Arabia this year!), but other than that the music is superb, as is normally the case.

In this set, she plays with guitarist Matteo Liberatore, whose method of playing his instrument includes some very unusual sound effects to produce a strange ambience behind her earthy, emotional alto sax. These are free-form pieces, the first starting out very slowly and ominously, building very slowly to a series of angst-filled climaxes. At times, she plays distorted notes while the guitar also distorts its sound behind her to create strange textures. At about 5:25, the music suddenly doubles in tempo as both musicians play very busy figures, then falling back to the slower pace of the opening. Although there are several other stages in this nearly 19-minute work, I think it might spoil the listener’s sense of discovery to chronicle them all. As is also usual for her, she has a definite development in her free-form works; each section complements and builds on the others to create a unified whole. Despite the music’s length, its complexity of structure holds your interest. At around the 15:20 mark, they engage in some remarkable duo-improvisation, all the more interesting because it is atonal.

 Too Much Obedience opens with the guitar playing what sound like random licks, which goes on for a while. At around 4:47, the guitar is playing some strange high-register whines before moving back down to play opposing figures to Sikora’s improvisation. A bit later on, the guitar engages in some interesting rhythmic variations which then become the basis for his and Sikora’s playing. Amazingly, they come together to resolve the piece on a sustained E. It’s a truly remarkable piece.

Not Enough Snow opens with Sikora playing alone, plaintively, on her tenor. Her playing becomes slowly more agitated, then the guitar joins her at 1:45 playing soft, somewhat distorted held notes behind her. At times, the guitar almost sounds like a harmonium, albeit a slightly distorted one. Liberatore continues in this vein, gradually increasing the tempo, while Sikora joins him, playing her own improvisations on top of his lines. In this way, they build the tension as the piece progresses. Later on, the guitar plays a series of repeated fast riffs, then Sikora enters to calm things down with her most soothing tenor tone as Liberatore resorts to playing a series of soft, repeated Fs behind her. Eventually the music rides out on calmer phrases.

This is yet another outstanding release by Sikora, well worth getting.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Itaca Quartet’s “Vortex”

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VORTEX / FRASER: Sketch 26. FEDRIGO: Saturno. Rakesh. FAZZINI: Vortex. Calanques. HOULE: Chorale. The Third Murder. WARD: ‘Nette / Itaca 4et: François Houle, cl/effects; Nicola Fazzini, a-sax; Alessandro Fedrigo, bs-gtr; Nick Fraser, dm / Nusica.org 17

The Itaca Quartet is a group comprised of two Italian musicians and two Canadians, which explains their unusual name, who play free jazz. With the exception of C. Ward’s ‘Nette, all of the compositions are by the group members, one by drummer Nick Fraser and two each by the other members.

But I always wonder what it means to “compose” a piece of free jazz, since there seldom if ever seems to be any structure to such pieces. In the opener, for instance, Fraser’s Sketch 26, we hear a cacophony of sounds played by the clarinet and alto sax with roiling, out-of-tempo explosions from the rhythm. Yes, it’s very interesting, I like it, and these musicians listen to each other in order to carry through somewhat coherent musical thought, but I can’t imagine that too much of this music was written down to begin with. So how, exactly, is it composed?

By contrast, Alessandro Fedrigo’s Saturno actually does have a melodic line, albeit a quirky, bitonal one, and there are some odd tone clusters played by the clarinet and alto with lip buzzes on their reeds. Following this, however, we hear some of the strangest music imaginable, still being played within the easy, loping 4/4 beat. Eventually, they drop out to allow us to hear a delicate bass and drum passage, then a drum solo, followed by what sounds like electronic effects before the two reeds return to close it out.

Fazzini’s Vortex begins with soft drones, followed by an insistent bass lick against cowbells and cymbals before the two horns enter to play, not so much a melody as a series of short melodic gestures before they launch into their improvisations. Here we hear even more interplay between the bass and drums, particularly the latter which clatter around before Fazzini enters to play a really wild chorus with plenty of squeals in it, while Houle’s clarinet wails atonally around it.

Houle’s Chorale opens with subtone clarinet, very pretty, accompanied only by the bass before we go to a soft, rather extended solo passage by the bass guitar while Fraser creates a crosshatch of cymbal effects behind it. Generally speaking, this is the most tonal and least wild track on the album, at least until the last chorus when things become very hectic before calming down at the end. Catanques opens with some odd, serrated figures played on the alto a cappella prior to the entrance of the drums and then the clarinet and bass guitar, at which point the two horns play a repeated unison lick leading into a calmer, more melodic figure, thence to an extended improvisation by Houle in his chalumeau register, complete with some slap-tongue effects. Things quiet down for the bass guitar solo, accompanied by some odd but sprightly cymbal figures. Eventually we get into some really spacey figures played by the alto while the clarinet continues to play its low-register melody. Eventually the two horns realize that they’re supposed to play together, and do.

The Third Murder is by far the weirdest piece on this album, a concoction of clarinet and alto wails and screams while the bass guitar and drums roil asymmetrically behind them—though, surprisingly, the beat straightens out into a sort of highly syncopated 4, then morphs once again as the wildness resumes. Rakesh, by contrast, is fairly quiet, even comparatively tuneful, though with an unsettled beat and querulous harmony. Eventually, it becomes a showcase for Houle’s liquid-sounding clarinet, with Fazzini playing some insertions in his second chorus before joining him for a series of short rhythmic phrases. Fazzini eventually takes over the solo spot. Everyone plays together at the finish.

The closer is Ward’s ‘Nette, possibly named after Ornette Coleman, one of the fathers of free jazz. Certainly, the happy but loose sound of this piece bears a striking resemblance to the kind of music played by the original Coleman Quartet of 1959-60 that created such a bombshell in the jazz world (both pro and con). Of course, Ornette never played clarinet or had a clarinet in his groups, but other than that this piece has a strong Coleman feel about it.

Quite an amazing CD, there’s not a bad or uninteresting track on it from start to finish!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Piano Music of Adès

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ADÈS: Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face. Still Sorrowing. Darkness Visible. Blanca Variations. Traced Overhead. Mazurkas for Piano. Souvenir / Han Chen, pno / Naxos 8.574109

I’ve said before, several times in fact, that although I admire Thomas Adès’ short pieces, which tend to be imaginative and interesting, I find his longer works, i.e. his opera The Tempest, to be disorganized and sometimes stylistically incongruous. Happily, this album of his piano pieces fits into the former category, and they are very well played by Taiwan-born pianist Han Chen. Chen, who studied at both Juilliard and the New England Conservatory, has not only a fluent technique but also real sweep and drive to his playing, and in those places where the music needs it, such as the first part of his Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face, he can emulate a bit of jazz “swing” that the music calls for.

This opening suite is a marvelous reduction of the score of Adès’ first opera, written in 1995 on the story of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits shocked and titillated Great Britain in the 1960s. When I say “marvelous reduction,” of course, I simply allude to the music present on this CD, since I’ve never heard a note of the original score. Although Adès juxtaposes several different themes and tempi in these four pieces, which sometimes leads to a bit of stylistic incongruity, the more compact form of piano pieces seems to make the music “jell” very well. Of course, Chen helps the music along by binding his phrases beautifully and never losing sight of each piece’s structure. No. III gets very complex indeed around the three-minute mark, with the pianist compelled to play two very different rhythms against one another, which sometimes leads to not only rhythmic but harmonic clashes. The brief fourth piece has some very syncopated ragtime rhythms, which Chen again plays well.

Still Sorrowing, from 1992, is a very strange piece, comprised mostly of atonal gestures rather than anything resembling a real melodic line. The middle-range piano strings are dampened, which also creates a bleak sound. The title apparently refers to John Dowland’s Semper Dowland simper dolens, but there are little or no musical allusions to Dowland in the piece. Eventually it becomes quite rhythmically complex, creating not two but three different rhythms to be played against one another. I have no idea how Chen managed this! A bit later, this complexity diminishes in volume but gets even more complex as the tempo increases. A very odd piece indeed.

Darkness Visible, also from 1992, follows the same vein but without the muted piano strings. This is a rewriting, or as Adès calls it, an “explosion” of Dowland’s lute song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, and if you listen carefully here you can hear the original melody sneaking through, generally played in the upper right hand while the rest of the right hand (and the left) are playing odd, out-of-tonality chords and countermelodies.

By putting very little space on the CD between Darkness Visible and the Blanca Variations (2015), with which it has no real connection, the latter almost sounded like a positive answer to the former. This is a set of variations on the Ladino folk tune “Lavada la blanca niña.” For those of you who are wondering what the heck “Ladino” is, it’s “a Romance language consisting of a group of dialects that some consider part of a unitary Rhaeto-Romance language, mainly spoken in the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy in the provinces of South Tyrol, Trentino, and Belluno (viz: Wikipedia).” So now you know. I guess the word means “little Latin” or something. These get very rhythmically complex indeed.

Traced Overhead is the only piece on this CD that I knew in advance, since I heard in on one of the old St. Paul Sunday radio shows many years ago, played by Imogen Cooper. Chen’s performance is just as interesting but also a bit more visceral in its rhythmic punch and forward propulsion. Written in three movements, of which the first (“Sursum”) is only 44 seconds long, it is actually a single piece lasting 10:39 with three sections, of which the last, “Chori,” is the longest.

We end our survey of Adès’ piano music with his 3 Mazurkas of 2009, requested by pianist Emmanuel Ax to celebrate Chopin’s anniversary in 2009. They are splendid pieces, far more interesting than any mazurka that Chopin ever wrote, the true successor to Szymanowski’s mazurkas (I wonder if Adès knew the Szymanowski pieces before writing these). A detailed analysis of each of them is unnecessary; the listening experience will tell you all. I will only note that the last of them is in a very slow tempo and almost sounds more like a fantasia. Souvenir, the last piece on this disc, is slower still. To be honest, I found it to be the least interesting work presented here, slow but without any particularly interesting features. It sounded like a bad piece of fin-de-siècle-era salon music.

This is a simply wonderful disc, much needed and appreciated!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The TNEK Quintet Plays Sam Jones

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JONES: Unit Seven. Bittersuite. Some More of Dat. Lillie. O.P. Del Sasser. BARRON: Tragic Magic / The TNEK Jazz Quintet: Antonio Parker, a-sax; Benny Russell, t-sax/s-sax; Darius Scott, pno; Kent Miller, bs; Greg Holloway, dm / TNEK Jazz (no number, available from CD Baby)

Sam Jones (1924-1981), a fine jazz bassist, is not well known as a jazz composer, but according to the publicity sheet that accompanied this CD he was “a musician’s musician.” Thus, bassist Kent Miller of the TNEK Quintet felt it was high time to devote most of a single CD to his work.

I should point out that, like the majority of jazz writers, Jones’ aim was to create swinging, groovy lines that musicians could improvise on, not particularly complex pieces with multiple themes or interesting textures. He was an Illinois Jacquet kind of musician, not someone to create harmonically interesting pieces of the kind Lee Konitz normally plays. If you accept him on his own terms, you’ll enjoy this CD. If you’re looking for the kind of music written by Billy Strayhorn, George Handy, Lennie Tristano, Eddie Sauter, Thelonious Monk or Charles Mingus, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

What struck me most forcibly about this disc was the sheer energy and joie-de-vivre of this particular group. I’m not sure if their name refers to Teaneck, New Jersey, home of at least one famous jazz recording studio, but I have a hunch that it does. Judging from the group photo, most of these musicians appear to be in their fifties or older, which is why they feel so comfortable playing these pieces. It’s the kind of music that’s in their blood.

The opening line of Bittersuite is scored for the two saxes playing in thirds, and is very effective. Most of the first two tracks are dominated by the two saxists, Parker on alto and Russell on tenor, and they are vivacious, lively players of the old school. Listening to them, and the quintet in general, it’s hard to believe that free jazz or fusion ever happened. It’s a happy, swinging jam session without any pretensions. In this number, too, bassist Kent Miller gets a solo as well, and it is a real swinger. This guy could drive any band he was in from the bass chair!

Some More of Dat is unusual in that it is in 6/8, with the rhythm divided somewhat irregularly to give the piece a sort of staggering swagger. When Parker enters on alto, however, the band switches to a straight 4. And does he wail on this one! So too do Russell, Darius Scott and Miller. We return to 6/8 for the last third of the track.

Lillie is a ballad, with Russell’s lovely soprano sax solo being the standout solo here. O.P., which I’m sure was named after legendary jazz bassist-cellist Oscar Pettiford, is a nice, uncomplicated swinger, but although the band plays well on it the solos didn’t strike me as quite as inspired as on some other tracks. Fortunately, the band is really on their toes in Del Sasser. Every solo is interesting, particularly Scott’s, and the quintet as a whole sounds revved up.

The album concludes with Kenny Barron’s Tragic Magic. This is a similar sort of piece, though I couldn’t figure out if they ran out of Sam Jones tunes or just liked this as a closer. In any case, the band is again up and ready for the challenge, particularly Parker on alto and Miller on bass. The piece ends with the two saxes playing opposite one another. In toto, then, a really fine CD to lift your spirits and take your mind off the coronavirus!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Terzian’s Violin Concerto Recorded

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TERZIAN: Violin Concerto.* Three Pieces for Strings / *Rafael Gintoli, vln; Siberian State Symphony Orch.; Vladimir Lande, cond / Navona NV6277

Wonders never cease; here is a major Violin Concerto by an obviously very fine composer who, once again, has eluded me previously. Alicia Terzian (b. 1934) is an Argentinean who studied at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires with Alberto Ginastera, Gilardo Gilardi, Garcia Morillo and Floro Ugarte. The music is very much like Ginastera’s, modern in its use of constantly shifting harmonies that always seem to elude a home key yet lyrical and melodic in its top lines. Although written in 1954-55, this is its first-ever recording.

It is clearly a major work and the sort of concerto that I cannot understand its scarcity in performance and previous unavailability on records. But then again, Terzian has a double indemnity against her: she is an Argentinean and a woman. Women composers, unless they have a very powerful PR firm behind them as in the case of Kaja Saariaho, simply don’t get performed much no matter how great their work is. When was the last time you heard one of Lili Boulanger’s major pieces in performance? Or Nancy Van de Vate’s? Or Outi Tarkainen’s? Or even a great 17th-century woman composer like Barbara Strozzi? Probably not in a very long time, if ever.

The first movement of this concerto is a kaleidoscope of fascinating orchestral colors, so much so that I was mesmerized by it. More importantly, however, the music is attractive despite its modern proclivities and it goes somewhere. It is not just a succession of dazzling effects without substance, as in the case of Saariaho’s music. There are even moments of microtonalism here, and the ecstatic solo part, including the very virtuosic cadenza, is played to perfection by Rafael Gintoli, a phenomenal violinist who has been performing as a soloist since the age of 16.

The second movement actually does settle into a key—A minor—and sports a sad but passionate melodic line for the soloist against a backdrop of high winds and low strings. The liner notes tell us that it is based on an old Armenian folk tune titled “Daughter, You Mother Has Died” (yeah, I know, really cheerful). Yet once again Terzian takes the music into unexplored harmonic territory, moving the tonality up, down and sideways as the orchestra plays variants on the theme and the solo violinist accompanies it with trills and occasional snippets of the original tune. This, too, is masterfully written. We then hear a whirlwind of bitonal themes and snippets, tied neatly together to form a coherent whole. The music bubbles and dances in a 6/8 rhythm, and here, too, Gintoli shows his formidable skills as both a technician and an interpreter. Towards the end, the music suddenly slows down as the initial theme makes its reappearance.

The third movement begins with a rumble of soft tympani which slowly crescendos, joined by the trumpets, to produce a sort of odd, galumphing rhythm, allegro but not quite con brio. Here again, Terzian shows her mastery of orchestral sonority, this time in creating rich and powerful blends of the brass and string instruments. The violin part consists of mostly rhythmic figures, eventually breaking into a sort of odd-rhythmed bitonal dance as the heavy brass, strings and tympani continue to break out and recede in volume behind it. At the four-minute mark, the music suddenly slows to an andante as the violin plays a lyrical melody of bittersweet quality. At about 5:14 the tempo returns to its allegro form for the development section, with yet another solo cadenza suddenly appearing at the 6:26 mark. This is a masterful work.

The Three Pieces for Strings is not a new recording, but a reissue of the performance previously released on a Navona album titled Off the Edge. It also dates from 1954, and is similarly bitonal but essentially more lyrical in the first movement particularly, with an attractive theme that engages the listener. I’m not sure exactly what the problem is, but the Siberian State Orchestra doesn’t sound to be in top form on this recording. Their sound is a bit “flat,” not so much in intonation as a lack of luster in the string sound. Perhaps a fault of the microphone placement.

But the music itself is hypnotic and interesting, though both the first and second pieces are slow ones. The second, titled “Pastoral With Variations,” opens with a brief viola solo before the full string section comes in. Here, I really did think I heard some intonation problems when the entire body of strings played together; either that, or Terzian was engaging in some microtonalism within an inherently tonal format. I mention this because the fairly lengthy violin solo in the middle does indeed contain some microtonalism. When the full strings play again, around the 3:53 mark, I again heard some quirky intonation, whether purposeful or accidental I do not know.

The third piece, titled “Rustic Dance,” is a strong, non-Argentinean piece that more closely resembles something by Bartók. Its muscular allegro rhythms are occasionally interrupted by pauses and dead stops in the music, an interesting but quirky feature of this music. By and large, however, Terzian drives her point home with strength and conviction, and in this movement I heard no moments of suspect intonation at all.

This is an outstanding release which I heartily endorse, a real gem!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Sánchez-Aguilera Plays Sorabji’s “Little” Toccata

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SORABJI: Toccata Seconda per Pianoforte / Abel Sánchez-Aguilera, pno / Piano Classics PLC10205

With the release of this first-ever recording of the 1934 Toccata, the Sorabji discography is filling out splendidly. When you add this to the groundbreaking Michael Haberman recordings of the 1970s, which includes the complete Gulistān, TWO recordings of Opus Clavicembalisticum (John Ogden and Geoffrey Madge), the complete 100 Transcendental Studies by Fredrik Ullén (the last two or three CD of which are “in the can,” according to Bis’s Robert van Bahr, but not yet scheduled for release), and that most monumental of pieces, the 8 ½-hour Sequentia Cyclica played by Jonathan Powell on this same label (Piano Classics), things are shaping up very nicely. Of course, we have yet to see/hear these works offered in concert more than once in a blue moon, but that is another issue.

Sorabji described this monstrous, two-hour-plus piece as “an admirable little work of 111 pages (!), one of the best things I’ve done so far,” and he himself premiered it in Glasgow in 1936 under the auspices of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. It turned out to be his last public appearance as a pianist. The score, like so many of Sorabji’s works, was unpublished for decades. It was finally published in 2004 by the Sorabji Archive.

One questionable aspect of this performance that popped into my mind as soon as I read it is the description, on the back cover of this CD, that the work, edited for its 2004 publication by Alexander Abercrombie, here contains “further revisions by Abel Sánchez-Aguilera.” I was curious about this, particularly since there was no explanation in the accompanying liner notes, written by the pianist himself. In a personal message to me on Facebook, however, Sánchez-Aguilera explained to me that this was a typographical error which has since been removed from final copies of the CD, replaced by simply “edited” and not “further revisions,” meaning that he simply double-checked the published score against the composer’s manuscript to make sure there were no errors. Judging not only from Sorabji’s own surviving recording of Gulistān (a BBC radio broadcast from the early 1960s), but also from his own admission that he was “not a perfect pianist, but I know how the music is supposed to sound,” we know that Sorabji’s technical keyboard skills were not virtuosic enough to encompass his massively difficult pieces. This is one reason why he was forever cajoling, buttering up and begging Dutch virtuoso Egon Petri to play his music—which Petri, though he claimed admiration for Sorabji, never did. (Petri did, however, play some of the most difficult pieces of Busoni and Alkan, and in fact was the first pianist to record any Alkan piece, the Symphonie pour piano, in 1954.)

Some portions of this Toccata are indeed simple and even charming—witness, for instance, the chime-chord “Corale” in the “Preludio”—but as usual for this composer, their lengths are gargantuan. This “Corale,” for instance, runs 17:27, and in fact comes to a dead stop right in the middle before resuming at an even slower pace than that which started it. At this point, however, the chord sequences are tied into the melodic movement as he wends his way through several variations. This is a typical Sorabjian device, one that he used in most of his huge works. As the composer wrote to Erik Chisholm, however:

I think the Toccata will surprise you, particularly the romantic Aria and the tropical night Nocturne. The fugue [in five voices and lasting longer than 32 minutes] will roll you out flat. Technically a “simple” one, it includes huge episodes of a fugal nature upon the four countersubjects, and is as fine a fugue as any I’ve ever done, I think.

As I pointed out in my review of the Sequentia Cyclica, this sort of self-aggrandizement as well as the gargantuan size of his compositions were typical of Sorabji, a wounded bird who could not comfortably fit into society due to the dual stigma of his music’s massive complexity and his homosexuality, to which one need also add the vitriolic criticism of his father for having gone into composing as a profession in the first place. His music was his way of showing the world that he was a genius—which he was—in a manner so completely overwhelming that he made his scores too big for most pianists to bother learning or performing. His reaction to one poor performance was to ban all public performances of his works for roughly 40 years until Michael Haberman came along.

The “Scherzo” is a very odd affair, a piece that lopes along in clumsy, off-kilter rhythms. I suspect that he thought the constant irregularity of the beat was the musical joke in itself. Whether or not he intended it, and I suspect he didn’t, some of the passages in this resemble but do not quite cross over into jazz. (I believe that he, like all high-brow musical intellectuals of his time, looked down on jazz as utter trash.) Many of the parts of this Scherzo are also clumsy and mismatched; themes are juxtaposed more often than developed, and even when development appears it, too, lurches forward with a clumsy gait. After a very long pause at the end, the music concludes with two superfluous but, in their own way, funny little chords. In the liner notes, Sánchez-Aguilera points out that Sorabji used “parodic quotations” in this movement, using Saint-Saëns’ “Printemps qui commence” and Mozart’s “Dove sono,” but you really have to strain to pick these up.

The “romantic” Aria is indeed romantic in feeling but not really in construction. Its nearly continual sequence of soft block chords, played with the sustain pedal, is built around irregular harmonies based more on modes than scales. When the melody finally appears—played in the middle of the keyboard in single notes while the right hand continues to move through soft block chords—it has a more melodic, chorale-like sound, but the strange chord positions continue to make the harmony shift like quicksand underneath it. This is a device that Sorabji used fairly often, particularly in his Transcendental Studies.

The ensuing Ostinato, played in a similarly slow tempo and again using chime chords as its basis, sounded to me like an extension of the Aria. Here, Sorabji moves the steadily-moving rhythm from the left hand (in the opening) to the right hand, at that point using the left-hand figures to break up the rhythm and completely change the harmonic movement. It is, the notes tell us, “a long passacaglia on a 14-note bass, first heard alone and followed by 49 variations.” As it turns out, this is the second-longest movement in this Toccata, running 21:51 and in fact concluding the first CD.

The Notturno, another slow movement, runs a little over 14 minutes and consists of another moving bass line—this one combining single notes with chords—while the right hand plays an out-of-tempo series of flourishes in both eighths and triplets, using exotic chords to create a mysterious aura. This is one of the few moments in Sorabji’s huge output that seems to draw a bit on his Farsi heritage, of which he was inordinately proud. (Although born in England and christened Leon Dudley, he rejected both the nationality of his birthplace and his given names, further distancing himself from his social surroundings.) The development section becomes quite knotty, particularly in the middle where Sorabji requires the performer to constantly juggle two opposing rhythms in the two hands for a considerable stretch of time. Shall we dance?

By contrast, the relatively short (eight-minute) “Interludio: Moto perpetuo” is a relatively fast-moving piece with another of Sorabji’s devices, the melodic line that suddenly seems to combine what is played in the left hand to the right-hand figures near the middle of the keyboard. The “Cadenza: Punto organo” is a loud, almost violent-sounding piece that lasts only four minutes and 23 seconds, with some very complex figures in its midst, followed by the immense “Fuga” already mentioned. This is, like many of J.S. Bach’s fugues (a composer who Sorabji admired very much), a slow-moving piece that eventually encompasses five voices, the subject being unusually long, lasting more than a full minute. If one adds to this the concluding “Coda – Stretta,” in which “various versions of the subject and all countersubjects are combined in a final polyphonic development that seems to emulate the effect of a full organ,” this fugue lasts not 32 minutes but 42 ½ minutes. It is a typically Sorabjian “in-your-face” moment, establishing his intellectual superiority over all comers. The fugue suddenly doubles in tempo just before the 16-minute mark, at which point its complexity becomes even more apparent.

Sanchez-Aguilera

Abel Sánchez-Aguilera

I always give pianists who play and record Sorabji’s music the benefit of the doubt as to their prowess, providing that I hear what seems to me a lively and well-varied performance, since I have no basis for comparison since nearly all of his major works (excepting, of course, the Opus Clavicembalisticum) have no other versions to use as a comparison. But considering that our pianist on this disc was also a Biochemist who carried out research on leukemia, and whose studies on tamoxifen as a treatment for blood cancers led to an ongoing clinical trial, I would certainly bow to his superior intellect as well as his phenomenal skills at the keyboard. May he make further recordings, preferably of modern music such as this, for years to come!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Xiaogang Ye

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YE: Basong Cuo. Colorful Sutra Banner. December Chrysanthemum. Namucuo. Hibiscus. San Die / Les Temps Modernes: Michelle Lavignolle, fl; Jean-Louis Bergerard, cl; Claire Bernard, vln; Florian Nauche, cel; Emmanuelle Maggesi, pno; Anna Astesano, harp; Benoit Poly, perc; Su Chang, zheng; Fabrice Pierre, cond / Delos DE 3559

It always rather amazes me that there are so many composers out there who are “widely acclaimed,” one of the “most talented of his/her generation,” “internationally acclaimed” and “prize winners,” who most of us have never heard or heard of. Xiaogang Ye, born in 1955, is apparently (according to Wikipedia) “one of China’s most active and most famous composers of contemporary classical music,” yet this is the first time I’ve either heard or heard of him.

But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this is clearly inventive, interesting and well-written music, built around Western principles despite the use of the zheng or Chinese zither in the first piece. His music is built around the atonal system, yet—at least in these performances—it has a wonderful sweep and forward momentum about it that is enticing, and his uncanny ability to move his musical materials around like so many fast-moving chess pieces on a board is quite dazzling. Ye also has a great sense of balance and proportion; he does not overwrite, often a bane of many modern composers whether tonal or atonal, and his music does not overstay its welcome for one second longer than it needs to be heard. In addition, he has a great ear for color. Without looking at the album info, I think you’d have a hard time believing that Basong Cuo uses only six instruments: zheng, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and harp. Indeed, you might think, in advance of hearing it, that having a harp present would be superfluous since he is already using the zheng, but such is not the case. Ye finds a way of giving each instrument interesting and important music to play, and of somehow scoring it to give the illusion of textural fullness without overcrowding the instruments. It is a remarkable piece.

In Colorful Suta Banner, written for piano trio, one hears only the violin and piano at first, and the former plays on the edge of the strings, creating a purposely thin, almost edgy sound. In this piece, too, Ye uses chromatic glissandi at certain moments to make a point. When the cello does enter, it is scored high up in its range, making it sound almost like a viola in most of its passages. (I wonder why he didn’t just write the piece for violin, viola and piano.) As the piece progresses, it actually becomes more abstract, with themes juxtaposed rather than presented sequentially. Obviously, he intended this to be primarily a bit of a “show-off” piece, though again his sense of structure is impeccable. At around 5:30, the piano bangs out a series of contrabass low Cs, then there is a pause in the music before it resumes, the tempo now much slower for a few bars before regaining its rapid pace, now with the piano playing a running bass passage and eventually joining the strings in upward-rising figures. The low, contrabass Cs return for a bit, then Ye suddenly moves into a more lyrical, almost minimal theme, played very softly. This is yet another fascinating piece.

Perhaps because the focus is on the flute, a quintessential Chinese instrument, December Chrysanthemum has the most Oriental sound. The music intertwines traditional Chinese scales and harmonies with a Western aesthetic. In a sense I applaud this, since the flute, like the harp, is not an instrument conducive to really expressive playing. In my lifetime I’ve only heard two flautists, Claude Monteux and James Galway, really make the flute sound expressive, and only one harpist, Nicanor Zabaleta. Our performer here, however, Michelle Lavignole, does a very good job on this piece, thus I have no complaint. The latter half of this piece contains much delicate and contemplative music, making an effective contrast with the first part.

Interestingly, the opening of Namucuo with its rolling arpeggio piano chord, almost sounds like a continuation of the previous piece, but the piano quickly moves into a quite different mood and pace. Here the music is modal rather than strictly atonal, and since it is the only instrument used it has to create its own contrasts—which it does, not only in thematic material but also by juxtaposing soft, delicate passages with crashing chords. Around the 3:28 mark, the music becomes livelier and more aggressive, the latter a rare quality in Ye’s scores.

Hibiscus is another work for six players, in this case substituting a percussionist for the zheng player. It opens with just the solo flute, then the violin cello and percussion enter before Ye moves on to fully orchestrated passages. Interestingly, he explores different sonorities here than in Basong Cuo. What’s interesting about this piece, however, is Ye’s use of the opposite effects. Rather than a rich, full-bodied sound, this sextet breaks apart and plays in smaller combinations most of the time, sometimes just one or two instruments (including a cello solo or cadenza around 7:30). It is also a less strictly developed piece, emerging in sections that almost make it sound like a string of short movements rather than a continuous piece. Ye also employs a strong ostinato rhythm before and after the nine-minute mark that is not too dissimilar from George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. The slow end section is even slower and more minimalist.

With San Die for zheng and flute, we come to the last piece on this CD. Using two such traditional Chinese instruments, one could easily have expected it to sound the most Asian piece on the disc, but surprisingly Ye uses the zheng almost like a piano, alternating chordal and arpeggiated passages as an accompaniment, and the flute, for the most part, maintains a more Western bias in its music. Yet what I found fascinating was that the listener can indeed hear it, without knowing the composer, as a Western piece emulating Eastern sounds. The flute sets up its own whirling passages, to which the zheng responds with its own arpeggios and chords. Like much of the other music on this disc, the music is attractive yet rather quirky. One follows its unusual path through its various tempi and moods, and in the end it is, again, a very satisfying piece.

For me this is truly one of the most interesting and revelatory CDs of the year. I enjoyed every single moment of it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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