Modern Choral Music by Rautavaara & Friends

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TOWARDS THE LIGHT / RAUTAVAARA: Missa a cappella. Our joyful’st feast. WENNÄKOSKI: Valossa Ommel. LIVORSI: Lamenti / Helsinki Chamber Choir; Nils Schweckendiek, cond / Chronos ICSM 013

This is clearly not the kind of CD I like to review, or in fact review at all: an album of a cappella choral music, generally low-key and with religious allusions, but I generally admired the late Einojuhani Rautavaara whose works pretty much dominate this disc.

The opening Missa a cappella is typical of Rautavaara’s late period, using mixed rhythms and unusual harmonic shifts within a somewhat regular formal structure, and indeed these modern touches are what saves the music from banality. He originally planned to write his mass in the early 1970s, but it took him almost four decades to complete it: the Credo was already written. Rautavaara uses intriguing harmonic “traps” to move the key around, particularly in the Gloria, which always seems to end each chorus in a different key from where it started.

One of the things that strikes the listener, however, is that for Rautavaara the text didn’t seem to be much of a motivator in inspiring the music since it seems to have a mood of its own. True, he followed the rhythms of the Latin words, but played with them in an intriguing manner, sometimes shortening and sometimes lengthening the syllabic structure to fit the score. Only the Sanctus seems to be syllabically structured to fit the words as they would be spoken. The first tenor soloist in this, believe it or not, has a spread in his tone, so even in choral music we’re forced to put up with defective voices nowadays. He also used some nice polyphonic effects on the syllable “ah” during the Benedictus.

Next up is Valossa by the relatively young (b. 1970) Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski, whose music includes some really comical effects such as membe5rs of the chorus muttering and mumbling in the background as the others sing. Some of this goes a long way, and in this piece I felt as if Wennäkoski overdid it a bit, but it is an interesting piece in which the underlying harmonies seem to be ever-shifting using a circular chromatic pattern ã la John Coltrane.

Our joyful’st feast, set to verses by Shakespeare from Love’s Labour Lost and Hamlet plus two verses by George Wither, found Rautavaara in a playful mood, and here he wisely kept the music minimal in its use of unusual harmonies. Commissioned by this very choir, it is clearly a nice celebratory piece and not made for heavy listening, yet very uplifting to hear.

The strange-sounding Ommel returns us to the world of Wennäkoski and her swirling bitonal lines which here include some microtonal passages to make the listener pay attention. At one point, it almost sounds as if the chorus was shooting craps while they sang.

We end this recital with Lamenti by Italian composer Paula Livorsi, who wrote this piece using sad-sounding, chromatically-falling lines to emphasize the laments from Giordano Bruno and Federico Garcia Lorca. My sole complaint with this work is that it went on too long and was too repetitive.

Even so, this is surprisingly interesting music for this type of record. I highly recommend it for lovers of modern choral pieces.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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It’s Igor Shamo Time!

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SHAMO: Ukrainian Suite. Pictures by Russian Painters. Vesnyanka. Classical Suite. Hutsul Aquarelles. 12 Préludes. Tarasomi dumy. Songs of Friendship. Toccata. Horovodna. Humoresque. 3 Dances. Scherzo. Fantastic March / Dimitri Tchesnokov, pno / Piano Classics PCL10152

That’s right, boys and girls, it’s time once again for the music of Igor Shamo! Who?!? Well, that was my reaction, too. It turns out that Shamo (1925-1982) was a Ukrainian composer who didn’t really get into composing until he was around 20 years old and then didn’t make it to age 60. His music was well enough received that during the 1950s he was invited to come and live in Moscow, but he was attached to the Ukraine and so wouldn’t leave it. In addition to the piano music heard here, Shamo also wrote chamber music, orchestral works and songs in addition to “slumming” in the worlds of movie and theater music. Several of these pieces are world premiere recordings while Pictures by Russian Painters and the 12 Préludes are presented here complete for the first time. Our intrepid pianist of this set, Dimitri Tchesnokov, reconstructed the 3 Dances and Fantastic March in order to create performing editions.

It’s easy to see why Shamo was popular in his time and why he was tapped to write movie music. His language was tonal, and resolutely so, although like his British counterpart York Bowen, he did use some interesting chord positions to color his music, and he had a distinct musical personality. I would say that in some ways he was a simpler, easier-to-digest version of Nikolai Medtner. And like Medtner, he informed his music with a heaping helping of Russian “soul.” His music is quite emotional, not at all cool or cerebral despite its fine construction. In this opening suite he also makes fine use of Ukrainian folk tunes as the basis for his compositions. One of the tunes in the middle of the second piece, “Vesnyanka” (not the same music as the stand-alone piece of the same name), there’s a brief snippet that almost sounds like one of the melodies from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

The Pictures by Russian Painters is, according to the notes, Shamo’s most popular piano suite, yet this is its first complete recording. It has as its general inspiration the similar piano suite by Mussorgsky, but is much shorter at a little over 21 minutes. The painters referred to are Vasily Golikov, Isaac Levitan, Arkady Rylov, Mikhail Nesterov and Boris Kustodiev—all realistic or “representational” painters and thus ones who would be accepted and approved of by the Soviet regime. Despite the vast span of time between the Mussorgsky cycle and his, Shamo’s music inhabits the same harmonic world: in fact, his harmonies are a bit less unusual than Mussorgsky’s, though some of the pieces are indeed interesting.

The separate “Vesnyanka” is not, to my ears, as good as the one from the Ukrainian Suite. The Classical Suite is based on an 18th-century model with some interesting harmonic twists, i.e. in the “Minuet” and “Courante.”

Yet with Hutsul Aquarelles or Hutsulian Watercolors from 1972, we encounter a somewhat different Shamo. Though still grounded in tonality, his music here is more impressionistic and has far more interesting harmonics. It almost sounds like a combination of Medtner and Ravel,  or perhaps Medtner and Koechlin, which is fine by me. The pulse is less regular, almost amorphous, and he explores entirely new nooks and crannies that he either missed or was uninterested in exploring in his earlier works. The liner notes describe the first piece in this cycle, “Sunrise in the Mountains,” as a “free improvisation, occasionally using a dodecaphonic series and some hexaphonic chords.”

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In the second piece, “Musicians ascend a mountain,” he emulates the sound of drums, violin, clarinet and the Trembita, a wind instrument similar to the Alphorn, and again there is a strong French influence, as there is in the delicate “Little Shepherd.” In “Spring Rain,” he does a remarkable job of emulating a growing rumble of thunder before the downpour. No two ways about it, this entire suite is a masterpiece.

Happily, this suite is followed by the 12 Préludes of 1962, which are also excellent. Organized by following the cycle of fifths, it oddly stops halfway through, leaving one to think there would be another 12 preludes to complete it, yet the composer’s daughter explains that it was conceived this way. Unusually, the first prelude in C almost has a slight jazz swagger about it; perhaps Shamo was influenced to some extent by the activities around this time of the younger Nikolai Kapustin, who was playing with jazz orchestras? Once again, Shamo’s essentially Slavic expression is tempered by French harmonies, though not quite to the extent of the Hutsul Aquarelles. Somehow, Shamo managed to make the Prelude No. 3, assigned to G major, almost sound like the minor by use of unusual chord positions and a swirling moto perpetuo that rarely if ever lands on the tonic. Moreover, these preludes have tremendous energy about them which helps hold the listener’s interest. In the sixth prelude, written in b minor, Shamo uses a continuous cascade of notes played by the right hand or perhaps even both hands, since he eliminates the bass line entirely in this piece. But the entire cycle is interesting; there’s so much going on in this music, some of it on a very subtle level, that you need to keep paying attention even when the music sounds quiet and uneventful, as in the very slow Prelude No, 8 in f# minor.

The third and last CD opens with the Tarasovi Dumy, a collection of pieces inspired by the Kobzar of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukraine’s greatest poet and writer. This music, too, is atmospheric and harmonically interesting; as the booklet description of the opening number, “My thought, my thoughts…” puts it, “An inner world, where nothing is spoken but all is being suggested.” Some of the later pieces in this suite are more outward-looking, yet one continues to feel as if Shamo were writing from an inspiration deep within.

The Songs of Friendship, composed in 1954, revert back to Shamo’s simpler style, atmospheric but harmonically simpler and based on folks songs. The first is Czech, the second Polish and the third Romanian. Interestingly, the stand-alone Toccata from 1952 also has a Romanian feel to it and Horovodna also has Eastern European folk music allusions.

Not too surprisingly the 3 Dances, being from 1972, have a few more interesting harmonies (mostly modal) mixed in with their folk style, which in this case are Uzbek, Azerbaijani and Armenian. The undated Scherzo is a cute piece, nothing much to write home about, while the concluding Fantastic March from 1946 (possibly his first work, certainly the one that gained him acceptance into the Kyiv Conservatoire) is a very imaginative piece for its time period, quite bitonal in places.

My overall impression, then, is of a composer heavily influenced by folk music of his own region and those surrounding him (Russian, Czech, Polish) as well as by Medtner and the French impressionists who grew as a composer during the 1960s and ‘70s, which is when most of his really interesting pieces were composed. In all of them, however, Dimitri Tchesnokov plays with both sensitivity and vigor, providing us with about as good an idea of Shamo’s work as we could possibly hope for. Five fish, then, for the performances, but only four for the material because of some of the less interesting works on these three CDs.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Koukl Plays Tansman

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TANSMAN: 11 Interludes. Hommage à Arthur Rubinstein. 2 Pièces Hébraïques. 4 Piano Moods. Prélude et Toccata. 6 Caprices: I-V. Visit to Israel. Étude / Giorgio Koukl, pno / Grand Piano GP788

The wonderful Hungarian pianist Giorgio Koukl, whose work I’ve reviewed several times previously, gives us here a most unusual disc of piano music by the Polish-cum-Parisian composer Alexandre Tansman. Whereas most of the previous releases I’ve seen of his music focuses on works from the late 1920s through the early 1940s, the earliest works on the present CD start from the ‘40s (the Caprices of 1941 and the Prélude et Toccata and 4 Piano Moods from 1943-44), with the remainder dating from 1955 to 1973. All are first recordings.

Tansman’s grasp of modern harmony had clearly grown by 1955, when the 11 Interludes were written. Whereas before he used such moments somewhat sparingly, by this time they were a continuous underpinning of his work, ranging from bitonal to amorphous depending on the piece in question. The third interlude is a perfect example, beginning with a series of crushed chords that somehow interlock yet remain chromatic in movement. In the seventh interlude, marked “Allegro con molto,” the feeling is anything but Allegro; it’s more like an elusive, mysterious-sounding medium-tempo piece played at a very soft volume level.

Moreover, this strange harmonic world is also present in the 1973 two-part homage to pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who so far as I know never played a modern piece of music in his life. Undoubtedly the “homage” was simply to the fact that he was a Jewish Pole like Tansman, and one of the most famous of them at that.

In his later years Tansman turned to his Jewish heritage, using Hebrew musical themes more frequently, and both the 2 Pièces Hébraïques and the nine-part Visit to Israel are part of that facet of his output—yet the harmonic and melodic approach to composition scarcely changed from his non-Jewish works. Personally, I found the 2 Pièces Hébraïques rather dull music, static in both its harmonic movement and lack of any forward momentum. The Piano Moods follow much the same pattern, at least until you reach No. 4, “Allegro meccanico,” which is propelled by a strong, fast ostinato rhythm.

Using a similar approach to harmony and rhythm, the Prélude et Toccata fools the listener by disguising the form; this is a very imaginative piece. So too are the Caprices from 1941, but unfortunately Tansman never completed No. 6 so it couldn’t be included in this recital. No. 4, marked “Molto vivace,” is especially interesting in its use of fast sprinkles of eighth notes in the piano’s upper register.

The music for Visit to Israel is based even more clearly on Hebraic themes and modes, and here Tansman really let his imagination play with the music, producing engaging, unusual pieces. The suite ends with a very peppy “Hora.” The recital ends with the slow, enigmatic Étude from 1967.

Taken as individual pieces (or small groups as put together by Tansman), the music on this disc can be very interesting in recital, surrounded by other music. I think the decision to group them all together in this way, however, was not conducive to a full appreciation of most of them as the moods of all of them tended (with some exceptions) to sound alike and run together in the listener’s mind. Otherwise, a fine release.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Davidson & Fortin Invest in a “Clock Radio”

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CLOCK RADIO / DAVIDSON: tür. berlin V. berlin I. zwei werden eins. berlin IV. berlin VII. H moll (zeitweisse). out of love. spiegeln. berlin VI. delicate. into a fog. a lift above. doorway / Michael Davidson, vib; Dan Fortin, bs / Elastic Recordings ER 001

Dan Fortin, the bassist of the Canadian jazz group Myriad3, and vibist Michael Davidson have combined forces here—although, in an album of such quiet, almost sub-toned dimensions, “forces” scarcely seems the right word—for a program of very intimate, almost subliminal music-making.

Scheduled for release on March 22, Clock Radio is a collection of 14 pieces that can be enjoyed separately or as a continuous suite. The musical themes recur throughout, creating (purposely) a feeling of déjà vu. The pieces are meant to be “nostalgic,” but nostalgic scarcely describes what is going on here. In fact, I personally wouldn’t call it nostalgic since it evoked no such feelings in me. It’s more like a trip down Alice’s rabbit-hole but without the little signs saying “Drink Me” or “Eat Me” to help you along,

The subtle swing created by the duo reminded me of some of the things Red Norvo did in the 1930s and ‘40s (Lester Young is often credited as being the father of cool jazz, but one should also include Norvo in the same breath), except that the harmonies are even more modern and both themes and tempi continually change, sometimes interlocking and sometimes juxtaposing against each other. All 14 pieces are credited to Davidson as composer, thus one would assume that much of this music is written out, but more often than not the listener may be forgiven for confusing the improvised sections with the through-composed. When the participating musicians are on this high of a level, it’s difficult to draw the line between these two facets, although the longer solos are most certainly improvised.

What impressed me was the fact that neither Davidson nor Fortin are “flashy” players, at least not on this session (a rare exception is one of Davidson’s solos on berlin I), but rather sublimate their playing in the service of the music. As I was streaming these tracks on my computer for review, without carefully watching the screen, I found it difficult to tell where one piece ended and another began much of the time. I have to think that the titles of these pieces were pretty much arbitrary choices since they just seem to be whimsical and not particularly descriptive in any way.

Any attempt at a technical description of each piece herein would be difficult since it is so amorphous in form. I would, however, point out that it is mostly tonal or at least modal; harmonically, at least, it does not push many barriers, but the odd form of each piece and the occasional odd effects (such as the distant-sounding reverb at the end of zwei werden eins) bring the listener into the creative process in a way. The piece titled berlin IV is the most regular in jazz pulse and maintains a fairly steady tempo throughout, yet still fits into the evolving suite. berlin VII starts out with something I generally detest, electronic sounds, but thankfully they’re just used as an introduction and interlude for this happy, uptempo but bitonal swinger. Towards the end one hears the crackle of what could be an old LP record (probably a bit of “nostalgia” though I have no such feelings for LPs myself).  out of love also opens with electronic sounds, but mellower, long-held notes to create a warm ambience over which Davidson plays, eventually joined by Fortin. In berlin VI, Fortin sustains long bowed (arco) notes while Davidson seems to be creating alternating slow and fast upper lines throughout.

And that’s about as much of a description as I can give you without spoiling the listening experience. You just have to hear Clock Radio for yourself, enjoy it and absorb it. It’s a simply wonderful album from start to finish.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Wilson Plays 20th-Century Flute Concerti

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FRANÇAIX: Impromptu for Flute & Strings. RIVIER: Concerto for Flute & Strings. DAMASE: Sérénade for Flute & Strings. IBERT: Concerto for Flute & Orchestra / Ransom Wilson, fl; BBC Concert Orch.; Perry So, cond / Nimbus Alliance NI6375

This is a surprisingly charming disc of French 20th-century flute concerti played by flautist Ransom Wilson, whose photo in the booklet looks anything but charming (he looks like a grizzled old prospector), with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Perry So. The program is bookended by two of the most famous French composers of the last century, Jean Françaix and Jacques Ibert.  In between we have works by two composers I was not familiar with, Jean Rivier (1896-1987), a member of the “Triton Group” in the 1930s, and Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013), who studied piano with Alfred Cortot before moving on to composition, winning the politically-influenced Prix de Rome (the number of great composers denied it is far larger than the piddling few who won it) in 1947.

Françaix’s Impromptu for Flute & Strings is a lightweight work, yet a well-written one which gives the impression that the flute is dancing above the strings for the entirety of its duration. Slight though it is, it does include a skittering solo cadenza near the end of the fast third movement, unexpectedly closing out with an “Andante poetico” movement.

The Rivier concerto is a considerably meatier piece with “rotating” chromatics underlying its harmonic base, yet exudes charm in its own way. At 1:20 into the first movement, we suddenly shift gears from the quite serious introduction to a perky theme with skittering strings complementing the flute. Wilson plays all of this with a lovely tone and fine technique if perhaps not much range of dynamics or inflections. After a quite serious “Lento sensibile,” we end with a bright, perky “Molto vivace” full of bouncing syncopations.

Damase’s Sérénade for Flute & Strings, written in 1956 (the same year as the Rivier concerto), also starts out in a somewhat serious vein with the violas and cellos playing a sort of irregular ostinato rhythm at a medium tempo under the flute, after which the tempo doubles and we hear pizzicato strings behind the now-quite-active flute line. In the second movement, however, one’s interest wanes as the music becomes sappy, using conventional harmonies and uninteresting themes. Damase redeems himself somewhat in the third movement, where the harmonies become more interesting and the flute’s top lines are rather more inventive.

Ibert’s flute concerto is both peppy and modernistic at the same time, sort of a cousin to Shostakovich’s very popular piano concerti. The flute line remains melodic and basically tonal above an orchestral scoring that includes quite a few altered chord positions, which keep the listener on his or her toes. Wilson sounds particularly good in this piece and the BBC Concert Orchestra also plays with a great deal of brio. This cat-and-mouse game with harmony, allied to a somewhat vigorous rhythmic base, continues throughout the concerto.

In all, then, a well-played program weakened somewhat by the “classical music radio” quality of the Françaix and Damase works…but guess which ones you’ll hear on the air? No points for the correct guess!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Danowicz & the Atom String Quartet Return

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MADE IN POLAND / LUBOWICZ: Ballad on the Death of Janosik. SZYMANOWSKI-TOGNETTI: String Quartet No. 2, arr. for String Orchestra. SZYMANOWSKI-KOCHAŃSKI: Harnasie: Highlander Dance.* LENCZOWSKI: Iława for Improvising Quartet & String Orchestra. Namyslowiak. BACEWICZ: Concerto for Strings. M. GÓRECKI: Concerto-Notturno for Violin & String Orchestra* / Atom String Qrt; NFM Leopoldinum Chamber Orch.; Christian Danowicz, *vln/cond / Dux 1298

This CD seems to be not merely a follow-up to the superb Dux release Supernova, which I reviewed earlier this month, but in fact a sister-disc that could have been issued with the former as a 2-CD set. The one difference is that Supernova featured only one work by a composer not affiliated with the Atom String Quartet, that being Hanna Kulenty-Majoor’s Concerto Rosso, while here we have no less than four works by other, well-respected Polish composers: two by Karol Szymanowski and one each by Grażyna Bacewicz and Mikołaj Górecki (the only one of these composers who is still with us). Yet the feeling and drive of all of these performances are driven not only by the quartet, which takes part in three of the seven works presented here, but also by conductor Christian Danowicz who led the same orchestra on Supernova.

Indeed, with Dawid Lubowicz’ Ballad on the Death of Janosik, with its driving, almost fusion-like rhythms, we seem to be smack in the midst of the Supernova CD once again. Despite the scoring for the full string section, it is the Atom String Quartet which again takes center stage, playing with their customary drive and inventiveness. If anything, the Atom Quartet plays with even more energy than their American counterparts. My sole complaint of the piece was that the themes sounded too much like “movie music” to me.

Next, however, are the two Szymanowski works. Although I am no fan of string quartets or other chamber pieces arranged for full orchestra, this one works fairly well, in part because the arranger (identified as Richard Tognetti) kept all of Szymanowski’s intricate interplay of the quartet in moving it over to a full string orchestra as well as emulating the composer’s textures that he used in his symphonies. This is followed by the Highlander Dance from Szymanowski’s ballet Harnasie in an arrangement by conductor Christian Danowicz, who also plays the violin solos here.

Krzysztof Lenczowski’s Ilawa for Improvising String Quartet & String Orchestra is a sad elegy, very tonal and, for my taste, a bit too sentimental, but it is played well. Bacewicz’ Concerto for String Orchestra is a more vigorous piece and well-constructed, but its themes are relatively tame and, to my ears, uninteresting until the last movement, which is a peppy Vivo using some interesting, skittering figures for the strings.

I liked Lenczowski’s second piece, Namyslowiak, much better than the first. The tempo is up, the rhythms are irregular, and the Atom String Quartet really goes to town on it. This one is a real gem; around 5:38, the rhythm changes to a sort of one-legged polka. In a really strange change of musical scene, we end with the slow, somewhat mystical music of Górecki—not the famous Henryk, who died in 2010, but his son Mikołaj. He shares with his father a penchant for creating slow-moving pieces in a resolutely tonal style. The first movement of the Concerto-Notturno is a bit on the sentimental side, which I didn’t much care for, but the second is energetic and interesting and the finale, though marked “Molto lento,” is a far more interesting piece than the first movement.

A somewhat mixed bag, then; some pieces quite interesting, some a bit edgy, and a couple of sentimental tunes.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Inga Fiolia Plays Tsintsadze Preludes

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TSINTSADZE: 24 Préludes for Piano / Inga Fiolia, pno / Grand Piano GP783

Sulkhan Fyodorovitch Tsintsadze (1925-1991) was one of the finest Georgian composers of his time but, like so many such artists, his work is scarcely known in the West. Here, pianist Inga Fiolia plays his remarkable set of 24 Preludes for piano, which were written in 1971.

Like so many Eastern European composers, Tsintsadze leaned on his native folk music as a basis for his work but intermixed this with modern harmonies that leaned towards atonality but were not 12-tone or atonal. As one can hear in the second Prelude, he could also create great atmosphere in his music, and he had an excellent grasp of form and development. Many of the preludes are short, ranging from 57 seconds (the first) to under two minutes, but eight of them range from about 2 ½ to roughly three minutes. Several of the faster preludes, such as No. 3, use strong motor rhythms with the left hand playing complex yet driving eighth-note patterns that scamper through harmonic traps while propelling the right-hand figures.

Fiolia’s strong, often driving keyboard style suits these works perfectly, thus giving the listener a very good impression of their essential character and style. She has wonderful keyboard articulation (meaning that she separates the notes cleanly and does not make them sound like a jumble of sound) and can switch in a heartbeat from a driving style to soft, but not mawkish, phrasing when the music calls for it. In the ninth prelude, Fiolia even gives the music a little bit of a boogie-woogie feel to the rhythm, which is not at all inappropriate. Strong motor rhythms, and a bit of jazz flavor, also propel the Prelude No. 21 in Bb minor.

As s set, these Preludes sound almost like etudes if you know what I mean. In fact, sometimes I wonder what the hell composers mean by the terms “prelude” or “etude” anyway, since most of the music contained in such sets tend to be abstract but dense pieces that have very little relationship to one another. It’s kind of like those “24 Hour Cleaners” shops I used to see as a child. “It’s just the name of the store; we can’t really clean all your clothes in 24 hours.”

Anyway, this is clearly a major find, not only in Fiolia’s pianism but in the quality of the music as well. Check it out!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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