Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Waldemar Bastos - Pretaluz

Pretaluz or "black light" is a fitting title for an album with such stark contrasts. Angolan songwriter and musician Waldemar Bastos sings of much joy and pain over nine beautiful songs, which contain elements of Afropop and tropicalia, frequently making strong use of guitar and rhythm. However, Bastos' voice is the highlight of the album - it ranges from warm and friendly to horrifically despairing, and gives all of the music a sense of emotional sincerity that distinguishes it from more typical worldbeat albums. Angolan pride is infused throughout the work, motivating a combination of African tradition with modern pop elements derived from many regions of the world. Finally it is worth noting while it's still August that "Rainha Ginga" makes for one of the greatest sun-tinged summer songs this author has yet heard.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Leonidas Kavakos, Peter Nagy - Stravinsky/Bach

This is a wonderful album. Alternating between pieces by Igor Stravinsky and Johannes Sebastian Bach, Leonidas Kavakos and Peter Nagy dance and gasp through moments of baroque rationality, aggressive modernism, and achingly beautiful serenity. The combination of Stravinsky and Bach works quite well and the playing is masterful. The highlight here is the first piece, (and the least accessible), Stravinsky's relatively unheard of "Duo Concertante", but all the selections are gorgeous. Leonidas Kavakos' violin is the star of the show here - he plays with an expressive fervor, and his gasps for air add some humanity and struggle to his otherwise seemingly effortless playing.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Itzhak Perlman & The Boston Symphony Orchestra w/ Seiji Ozawa - Violin Concertos

This Grammy winning recording of three complex, expressive works by three composers as different from each other as they were individually brilliant, was recorded in 1980 yet is still an essential reference for these pieces more than 25 years later. On the program:

1-2. Alban Berg's Violin Concerto "Dem Andenken eines Engels" ("To the Memory of an Angel")
The duration is 25'49. This was Berg's last completed piece before his death; the composition is rooted in 12-tone theory, but with an atypical amount of free artistic creation afforded, so that it often sounds tonal or beautiful. In this author's opinion the piece would serve as an excellent introduction to the territory covered by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and others, mainly because it is so exciting and lush, with a great deal of memorable melodic content. Even Bach makes a cameo during the close of the second movement.

3-6. Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D
The piece opens with a dramatic chord flair before quickly developing a theme a little bit reminiscent of Christmastime. And as this is Stravinsky, the whole affair is marked by relentless creativity, wit, and a very wide range of expression. Lasting 21'39 and spanning four movements, at times exuberant and at times heartbreaking, the listener will be finding new nuances in this composition for years.

7. Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane"
Technically not a violin concerto, at 9'31 this piece opens with four minutes of harrowing solo violin figures before some spooky new colors from the New York Philharmonic begin to enter. But while deceptively small in scale in the first half, this piece features a great deal of contrast, and before long a large number of variations in texture, rhythm, pace, and timbre occur with increasing urgency. Perlman really displays ferocity on this one, and each peak of energy from the whole orchestra is breathtaking.

Perlman and Ozawa have proved to make an excellent team, the former's great virtuosity and emotional impact matching beautifully with the latter's great instincts in timing, dynamics, and overall understanding of the music. The content of this recording proves that the tradition of 20th century composition is about much more than intellectual prowess and artistic austerity - it celebrates the human spirit in an unprecedented way.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

John Schneider - Lou Harrison: Por Gitaro

This is an album entirely of solo acoustic guitar playing, with light percussion added on select tracks. Listeners may be skeptical they possess the attention span to sit through over an hour of such a bare overall texture, but novelties abound for the uninitiated into the colorful world of microtonal music.

Briefly, the story is this: ancient Greek scholars beginning with Pythagoras held with certainty that perfect music note intervals should be constructed from simple, whole-number ratios, such as 1:1, 2:1, 3:2, etc. These ratios respectively correspond with the perfect unison, octave, and fifth. However, seemingly irreconcilable problems arise when one tries to invent a complete tuning system with these simple ratios, for the numbers refuse to add up and at least one bad-sounding interval becomes inevitable.

The modern solution to this was a compromise: it was agreed upon that the octave should be split into 12 notes, each an equal distance apart in terms of ratios. Equal temperament tuning, then, is based upon the 12th root of 2 - an irrational number. While the irrational frequencies of equal temperament tuning are quite close to their perfect rational counterparts, this compromise means only the unison and the octave sound as good (in terms of purely physical consonance and dissonance) as what is theoretically possible. On the other hand, it is a practical solution: every interval does sound acceptably good for most people.

But not for all, and thus is motivated the need for microtonal composition, which eschews equal temperament and the very heart of Western music - the 12 notes per octave. Indeed, in non-Western spheres many cultures adopt altogether different tuning systems, such as Turkey with a 53 note per octave system. The compositional possibilities of these expanded pitch palettes fascinated many 20th century Western composers, including Lou Harrison, whose compositions are featured on the 2008 recording Por Gitaro.

Most of these pieces therefore feature themes which sound exotic or ethnic to Western ears, and all feature those golden, pure ratios lost to the system of equal temperament. John Schneider's playing is well-paced, precise, and not in the least lacking in emotion, ranging from somber and reverent ("Threnody to the Memory of Oliver Daniel") to whimsically playful ("Tandy's Tango"). This will appeal to audiophiles, guitarists, mystics, and any lover of beauty.

Mode Records page

Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet - Images

On this often overlooked 2004 release, German free-jazzman Peter Brotzmann joins the brilliant Ken Vandermark and the Chicago Tentet to create one of the most dynamic and fascinating records in modern jazz. The main event here is Ken Vandermarks composition "All Things Being Equal (for robert rauschenberg)", a sprawling 37 minute epic which covers so much musical ground it's a little difficult to describe. Brotzmann's signature cacophonous approach is present, but there are also surprising elements of groove that anchor the composition, along with triumphant big-band horn passages and even moments of quiet contemplation. On "All Things Being Equal", you get equal servings of free-jazz, big-band, afro-beat, modern-classical, and probably some more inbetween. "Beautiful" might not be the first word one would use to describe Brotzmann's music, but there is some really inventive and beautiful playing on this album. Very interesting.

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