CD Review


When I first began to focus my blogging more specifically on composers who are women I knew a handful of earlier works (i.e., not-contemporary) and quite a lot of contemporary works; I counted several women composers among my friends and acquaintances, after all. I was expecting to find a lot more contemporary composers, and maybe a couple dozen (at most) women in the past who were composers. What I was not expecting was for my conception of music’s past to be completely reworked, nor was I expecting how angry this endeavor would make me.

Women have been writing music all along, and not just one composer writing a few pieces here and there throughout history; as I walk backward in time I can find several women writing prolifically in any giving historical “moment.” I had never heard of them in my nearly three decades of studying music because even those who were successful during their lifetimes were studiously written out of history (and, later, concert programs) after their passing. Many of them wrote dozens (sometimes hundreds) of pieces that were stored away and are only now being performed and recorded. That past (and current) historians and programmers have deprived us of such an enormous wealth of art makes my blood boil. That there are wonderful performers/groups and record labels righting this wrong prevents me from completely Hulk-ing out.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a recent release from Wave Theory Records, pianist Samantha Ege’s Four Women, which contains a mix of composers who gained at minimum some notoriety during their lifetimes and whose music is occasionally programmed and recorded (Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Vítězslava Kaprálová) and one composer—Ethel Bilsland—whose music is almost impossible to find in published form and therefore to perform and record; it is indeed through Ege’s efforts that we now have access to one of Bilsland’s pieces.

Today I’m reviewing Navona Record’s release Piano Works by Sara Feigin, performed by Benjamin Goodman, which consists almost entire of previously unperformed and unrecorded works. Produced by the composer’s daughter Carmela O’Flaherty, the album contains a full 22 tracks (5 multi-movement pieces), providing a comprehensive record of Feigin’s highly developed and coherent compositional style. Feigin, born in Latvia and known both as an educator and as a composer, wrote dozens of pieces throughout her adult life, and her music was frequently performed on the radio in her chosen home of Israel.

Here are some of my favorite tracks from the album:

“Storm” from Two Pieces: One of the many showpieces on this album, “Storm” is a captivating piece of programmatic music with is perpetual motion accompaniment and dramatic melodic gestures.

Toccata: As pianist Benjamin Goodman states in the liners notes, Feigin’s pieces often require a virtuosic level of playing, not only in terms of technical difficulty but also in its wide emotional range. Toccata traverses several textural landscapes, each with its own frenetic gesture, and Goodman navigates them with seeming ease.

“Memories” from Four Scenes: Featuring a gorgeously angular recurring melody in a dancelike setting, Goodman stretches and compresses the time to maximize the yearning affect of this short piece.

Variation III from Variations: One of the few gentle pieces on the album, this variation has folklike, pastoral feeling.

Movement III from Sonata: Inspired by Joseph Kuzkovsky’s painting, “Led to the Slaughter –  Babi Yar” and dedicated to the victims of Urkaine’s Babi Yar concentration camp, this movement begins and ends with a ponderous ground bass that rises gradually before a steep octave drop. Though one might expect such a piece to feature a lament bass line, the rising bass with its final drop is much more unsettling. The ground bass is interrupted by a visceral and violent middle section with spiky textures that climaxes with high, accented repeated chords. The ground bass then returns and the music slowly dies away. Goodman portrays deeply the emotional force of this harrowing journey.

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Released in May by Wave Theory Records, today I’m going to write about pianist Samantha Ege’s beautiful album Four Women. When I interviewed Ege for my podcast last month, it was abundantly clear that this recording project was the outgrowth of deeply meaningful interactions both with the compositions and the histories of the composers themselves. Ege understands these pieces on a fundamental level, and her rapport with the music comes shining through in her playing.

Florence Price, Sonata in E Minor

A gorgeous, emotive piece that seamlessly incorporates the melodies (or the flavor thereof) of the early African American diaspora (slave songs and spirituals), it is a crime that Price’s Sonata in E minor is not a standard in “music appreciation” classes and piano studios alike—which is my way of nudging any educators who are reading this review.

The first movement (Andante — Allegro) is expansive and symphonic, hinting at Price’s facility in writing for orchestra, while the second movement (Andante) is a lovely setting of an African American folk melody. In both movements Ege displays an exquisite ability to shape the music, both in terms of phrasing and the larger formal sections, always guiding the listener as if through a cherished home.

The third and final movement (Scherzo) is my favorite, partial as I am to big and stormy gestures. The main theme dances like large, splashy raindrops in a downpour and alternates with calmer moments. Ege makes the alternations between the dance and the calm with grace, the two affects self-contained and juxtaposed without any jarring transitions. The peak moment toward the end is satisfyingly dramatic, Ege skillfully stretching the time as she pushes up the volume.

Ethel Bilsland, The Birthday Party Suite

This is the première recording of Bilsland’s Suite, and the story of how Ege came to be the performer to bring this music to the world is one of fruitful happenstance. Playful and adventurous and exceedingly gentle, you can hear in these pieces the foreshadowing of later English film music, such as that of film composer Rachel Portman. I am very much looking forward to see what’s next for Ege’s Ethel Bilsland Project.

Vítězslava Kaprálová, April Preludes

The April Preludes flow organically from Bilsland’s Suite, as they are also little self-contained character pieces, though more elaborate than the Suite. Kaprálová’s Preludes are wonderfully angular and spiky, and you can hear the pathos in Ege’s playing: This is music that draws you in while simultaneously asserting itself against the listener with its chromaticism and changeable textural landscape.

Vítězslava Kaprálová, Sonata Appassionata

Listening to the expansive and complex construction of the first movement of this two-movement sonata it is hard to believe Kaprálová was just 18 years old when she wrote it; even more so when, in the second movement, she inserts a wonderfully written fugue into the theme and variations form (more than once!). It is perhaps this piece in which Ege’s sophistication as a performer shines most clearly, encompassing as it does so many moods and variety of style within its 20 minute duration, all of which Ege executes with stirring confidence.

Margaret Bonds, “Troubled Water”

With rhythmic motives evocative of choppy waters, Bonds’ setting of “Wade in the Water” alternates between turbid and ebullient, capturing the dual essence of the spiritual (waters parting for the Israelite’s escape from Egypt and a pool of healing water). Ege expertly creates these moods while making the melody sing, to the point that I begin to sing along with it in my head.

I must note here also the high quality of the recording; the production is clean and intimate and perfectly suited to Ege’s nuanced performances.

Be sure to check out this album of wonderful and too-often-neglected pieces: they’re in good hands.

Tracks 1 through 4 performed by Megumi Shibata, track 5 performed by Jenny Q. Chai 

Here is some cool piano music for you to listen to: Five Easy Pieces by composer Michael Vincent Waller, written in 2012 and 2013.  The individual pieces each have their own distinct character, while their shared ethereality links them together nicely as a whole for the album. There are shades of Impressionism and minimalism, and thereby of gamelan music; “Ninna Nanna” in particular exhibits the cyclical, surreal merry-go-round vibe of gamelan.

“Per Terry e Morty II” makes skillful use of the Phrygian dominant scale. I know I’m always harping on about Morton Feldman on this blog, but there is definitely a link between his and Waller’s music, in the sense that it uses small, slowly-morphing patterns to sort of suspend the sense of time moving forward. The performances by Shibata and Chai are sensitive and compelling, and the production of the album does justice to the delicate sound decay of the sustain pedal.   

Be sure to check out the album on Bandcamp or iTunes.

ALECK KARIS: WEBERN, WOLPE & FELDMAN
(Bridge 9420)

I was recently the lucky winner of a Morton Feldman-related Twitter quiz given by Merkin Concert Hall, which has made me the proud owner of Aleck Karis’ 2013 Bridge Records release, Aleck Karis: Weber, Wolpe & Feldman. File this under unexpected-perk-of-being-a-Feldman-scholar.

As is evident by his pithy CD liner notes, Karis understands the inner workings of these pieces, and this knowledge clearly informs his performance here. Careful attention is given in each piece to texture and contour, arguably the most salient features of this style of music.

The quality of the recording strikes a nice middle-ground between dry and reverberant, a notable achievement considering the overall quiet dynamics of the pieces, and the use of the sostenuto pedal; the decay is fast enough for each delicate note to be heard clearly, without the piano sounding dry as a bone.

Form (1959) by Stefan Wolpe. Like the Webern later in the recording, Form is, as Karis puts it in his notes, “tightly constructed,” a twelve-tone piece that takes pleasure in the refulgence of the piano.

Piano (1977) by Morton Feldman. His first piece for solo piano since embarking on his late style, which first began manifesting itself in the early 70s, Feldman uses a little chordal variation device in Piano that I particularly enjoy, called “crossover revoicing” by Paul Kopstick Ames. A simple example: in the right hand is the chord F#4-A4 and G5, and directly following it is the chord G4 and F#5-A5—same notes, but their registral placement has been swapped.

Form IV: Broken Sequences (1969) by Stefan Wolpe. Karis draws the connection between Wolpe and the jazz scene of his time, and this piece really does sound like bebop, giving the appearance of chaos while still within the walls of predetermined musical constructs.

Variations, op. 27 (1936) by Anton Webern. As Karis points out, Webern’s influence reached both Wolpe (Webern’s student) and Feldman (Wolpe’s student). What I’ve always appreciated about Webern’s music is how laconic it is, using a concise amount of material to express something larger than itself. I hear this particularly in Feldman’s music, the use of concise material spread over long spans of time (both of the Feldman pieces on this recording are over 20 minutes long), which leads me to—

Palais de Mari (1986) by Morton Feldman. Palais for me is a beautiful example of Feldman’s late style, in that it defies a close listening, lulling the listener into a sort of trance. It’s the magic of pieces like this and the second String Quartet that Feldman somehow suspends the forward motion of time, leaving you with a sense of pure aural pattern; it’s almost a negation of teleology, defying the idea of a Designer (though we know from Feldman’s sketches that he was a meticulous Designer). Karis does a lovely job playing the piece skillfully and unobtrusively, being faithful to the music both in its technical execution and its intended effect.

Many thanks to Karis, Bridge Records, and Merkin.

I’m not going to lie, Remembered States is a challenging album. At the core of this collection of compositions is a full exploration of extended techniques at the pianissimo level (with a few exceptions) and the near absence of actual notes, not to mention a complete eschewal of meter. Nonetheless, once you get settled into its sound, the album is a surprisingly listenable one, drawing you in because its unusual, intricate world is so well constructed.

In a way, it’s not surprising that Matthew Hough would write an album like this; it certainly feels like the natural progression of his earlier work with groups like Zs and Seductive Sprigs. In 2005’s “Woodworking”, written for Zs, we already hear music that is moving away from the predictable regularity of meter (for fun, check out Howard Stern and co. trying and failing to understand this track). Likewise, in “The First Thing You Need to Do”, written for Seductive Sprigs, we hear a composer creating an intricate thread out of two interrelated musical lines.

The album begins with an ensemble piece called “pppppppppppppppp” (or “16p” for short). Written for four or more musicians, this particular incarnation includes voice, flute, tenor sax, trumpet, electric guitar and piano. Opening with a single note, the sound quickly scatters in many tiny, gentle dots, the rhythms creating small waves. Every gesture sounds incredibly close, the piece enveloping one in its soundscape, the plucks and clicks and murmurs dropping down in a pattern like warm rain drops.

“Remembered States” is next, written for nine performers and by far the most complex—and, at 21 minutes, the longest—work on the album. It opens with the tactile clacking of keys, gradually surrounded by ephemeral skitterings and murmurs. This texture intensifies as the bassoon ushers in full-bodied overtones, and the other instruments soon increase in volume. At minute five there is a brief break, followed by some of the only rhythmic-unison moments of the piece (something similar happens again at minute fourteen). By minute seven the musicians have embarked along their own, seemingly independent lines, the texture thus becoming completely abstract. The violin and electric guitar rapidly scatter notes as the hushed piano and vibraphone provide a clement, dissipating backdrop. Meanwhile the flute, saxophone, bassoon and trumpet clack their keys to create a persistent pattering, interspersed with overtones that range from gritty to celestial.

“Irreverent Overtones”, for solo bassoon, is the album’s third and loudest track; I think of it as the heavy metal track. You can hear the bassoonist gulping for air as she creates a series of athletic, multifaceted overtones. These are surrounded by the playing of “ghost notes”, a technique which involves a sort of miming of notes: Her fingers press the keys and she breathes into the instrument just as if she were playing the notated music normally, but without producing any tones. The unearthly sounds produced by the overtones have an almost trance-inducing effect.

Remembered States closes with a saxophone/flute duo called “You should all be shot!”, which consists of five autobiographical anecdotes written by Hough, the text of which serves as the score and the part from which the performers read. Full of angular hissing and popping (the anecdotes tend on the harrowing side), the gestures come in rushing waves, subsiding into silence in between stories, and reaching an apex as the sax squeaks and the flutist’s breath rushes rapidly through the instrument during the anecdote that contains the title of the piece.

It may be a challenge at first, but when you allow yourself to listen deeply to this album, you’ll find the music speaking to you in a language that is both sophisticated and satisfyingly passionate.

Remembered States will be released by Original Abstractions Tuesday, October 9. A CD release concert featuring some of the performers on the recording will take place as part of the Music at First series on Friday, October 19.

All musical examples copyright Hough House (ASCAP)