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2004 Year-End Wrap-Up

Till Fellner (photo © Roberto Masotti/ECM Records)

Tigran Mansurian (photo © Petra Goldmann / ECM Records)
In terms of recordings, 2004 has been an embarrassment of riches. Major labels and indies alike stepped up their game in a big way, attempting to reverse the weak sales of the past few years. Thus far, it seems as if sales of hard (as opposed to digital) copies of recorded music have bounced back in a modest but perceptible way. This is no small feat when you consider the strong growth in online distribution of digital formats via iTunes, Napster and others. Releasing albums that are quality material from beginning to end has been a vital aspect of the quest to prevent CD obsolescence.

While I have nothing against the digital revolution, I would certainly miss having hard copies of album-length projects being available for several reasons. I'm an old-fashioned record collector, and I like having physical artifacts. Also, liner notes just don't seem the same on a computer screen, or even printed out and stuck in a CDR jewel case; I still miss the big notes and generous artwork of LPs. In addition, even with faster internet access and ever more efficient file compression schemes, album-length projects certainly suffer in comparison to single songs in terms of most of the current digital distribution setups, which are optimally geared toward per-song users, or those who download an album of pop-song length pieces. For those interested in experimental, concert and jazz music, this certainly would pose some challenges in an all-online future. For example, will any label support a recording project with a single 70-minute composition, or will they force composers to write twenty bagatelles at three minutes apiece for maximally profitable and accessible digital distribution?

Certainly, downloading is increasingly prevalent and that's unlikely to change. However, my sense of the situation is this -- hard copies containing enough of the good stuff (and imaginative enough packaging) may yet have a place in the increasingly digital marketplace, while albums with only one or two good songs will find themselves subject to digital cannibalization. While I'm still alarmed by the continuing consolidation of the industry, it's gratifying to see that the concurrent cutthroat game of "musical survival of the fittest" has allowed so many terrific recordings to see release this year. This month's column is devoted to a few noteworthy '04 releases that haven't yet been covered in Splendid, several of which, if there's justice, won't just be talked about in this year's best-of lists, but will still be mentioned (and available) for a long time to come.

William Bolcom -- Songs of Innocence and Experience, performed by soloists, choirs, and the University of Michigan School of Music Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin (Naxos)
No one has ever accused composer William Bolcom of being unproductive. The Pulitzer prize-winner has symphonies, operas, concerti and chamber works to his name. Perhaps his most ambitious project, however, was setting all of the poems from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience to music, a project that he worked on from 1956-1984. At long last, a recording is available of this mammoth-sized composition -- a three-disc offering that is part of Naxos Records' American Classics series. How fitting that the performers should be from the University of Michigan, where Bolcom has taught since 1973. The choice of conductor is fitting as well; Leonard Slatkin is a great champion of American music, and he takes to this intricate and polystylistic score like a duck to water.

Bolcom is something of a compositional chameleon, able to adopt the styles and signifiers of many composers and genres. Songs of Innocence and Experience may be the pinnacle of his brand of musical postmodernity. One moment, you hear massed choruses singing dissonant counterpoint; the next, a funky electric bassline and rock percussion accompany a pop singer. Operatic voices are complemented by a musical theater chanteusse (Bolcom's wife, the wonderful singer Joan Morris). Later, you'll hear harmonicas, gospel singing, and bits of ragtime. Indeed, the piece is a panoply of both American vernacular and concert music. Rather than supplying a readily recognizable compositional voice -- the goal of most in his profession -- Bolcom instead revels in this fluently eclectic milieu.

Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber -- Historic Performances 1938 & 1953 (Bridge)
American composer Samuel Barber was a Romantic at heart. In the estimation of some of his contemporaries, his music was Eurocentric and hopelessly old-fashioned. While the naysayers may think that he was born in the wrong century and on the wrong continent, Barber's works remain a durable part of America's musical repertoire. Barber wrote in many genres; his instrumental music is often performed -- in particular his Adagio for Strings, which gained notoriety for its inclusion in the score for the movie Platoon. But he was, at heart, a vocal composer, writing many songs, choral music and two operas. Barber studied voice himself at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. A short recital he gave at Curtis in 1938 is included on this recording, consisting of a half dozen each of folk songs and art songs. Barber accompanies himself at the piano and deploys a warm, expressive baritone. Chestnuts like the English folksong "O Waly, Waly" and Robert Schumann's "In Der Fremde" are given flexible, almost sentimental interpretations, while Barber displays good humor and a knack for characterization on the Kentucky song "A Deaf Woman's Courtship" and the Tuscan "Chi ti ci fa venir".

Soprano Leontyne Price was one of the best-regarded interpreters of Barber's music; he wrote song cycles and operatic roles with her voice in mind. In 1953, Barber accompanied a twenty-six year-old Price in a recital at the Library of Congress. The duo perform several of Barber's songs, including the premiere of "Hermit Songs", a cycle of imaginative settings of poems written by medieval monks in the margins of manuscripts they were copying. The program also includes chanson by Poulenc, Sauguet and Faure. Price's voice, even at this youthful stage of her career, is a marvel -- big, brilliant, and thrilling to hear; she sings with a winning (and all too rare) combination of passion and taste.

Despite a nice remastering job on Bridge's part, the sound quality of these recordings is "historical", but the specialness of the two recitals shines through, regardless of the fidelity of the sources. Fantastic music-making in its own right, these performances also provide a window into the early careers of an important composer of American vocal music and his favorite soprano interpreter.

Tigran Mansurian -- Monodia, performed by Kim Kashkashian, Jan Garbarek, the Hilliard Ensemble, Leonidas Kavakos, and the Munchener Kammerorchester, conducted by Christoph Poppen (ECM Records)
Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian injects folk music elements from his native land into modern concert music, creating lyrical works with a reflective, sometimes mournful beauty. Several of his large-scale compositions are presented on Monodia, which includes a veritable "who's who" of ECM Records' roster. Fellow Armenian Kim Kashkanian gives stirring performances of Mansurian's Viola Concerto and Confessing with Faith, a work for viola and four voices on which she is joined by the Hilliard Ensemble. The latter work is quite touching, combining elements of chant from the liturgical music of the Armenian Apostolic Church with stark dissonances and angular melodies in the viola part. Saxophonist Jan Garbarek joins Kashkanian on the duo Lachrymae, a microtonally inflected and folk-influenced piece which gradually spins dovetailing lines into an echoing space. Leonidas Kavakos imparts a rich tone and sense of longing to the breathless, arching phrases of the Violin Concerto.

J.S. Bach -- The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I, performed by Till Fellner (ECM Records)
There are a number of recordings available of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier, a collection of preludes and fugues in all of the major and minor keys. With a durable work such as this, however, there is always room for one more, particularly when it is of the quality of this two-disc recording of the WTC, Book I by pianist Till Fellner. These pieces were originally written for clavier (harpsichord or clavichord, although there are even some who advocate for playing certain fugues from the WTC on the organ), not for the modern piano. This has often caused something of a conundrum for pianists, who are faced with the choice of trying to play the it on the piano but in the period music manner of a harpsichordist, or whether to instead interpret the work as a kind of transcription for piano.

Fellner never pretends that he's playing on anything but a glorious-sounding concert grand. While his tempi are never ponderous, he allows the large instrument's resonance to impart a weighty grandeur to the Bach fugues. His legato touch and singing tone are deployed with maximum effectiveness, bringing out each subject and countersubject with crystal clarity. Florid passages, such as the brilliant D major Prelude, are delivered with incisiveness and a startling degree of ease. The WTC is a sort of musical Parnassus, with Bach devotees arguing over which performer has better captured the spirit of Johann Sebastian's examples of contrapuntal mastery. The only thing that most enthusiasts will be concerned about regarding Fellner is when his inevitable recording of the WTC, Book II is slated for release!

John Adams -- On the Transmigration of Souls, recorded by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Chorus, Lorin Maazel conducting (Nonesuch)
Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, this piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center's Great Performers series to commemorate the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Composer John Adams has crafted a poignant musical response, weaving taped portions into a choral-orchestral fabric. The texts used in On the Transmigration include phrases from missing persons posters and memorials posted in Lower Manhattan after the attacks; throughout the work, the names of many victims of the attacks are read in spoken tribute.

Adams' musical language has evolved over the years. While he still employs the gestures of minimalism, with frequent motoric passages and repeating ostinati, he has increasingly populated his recent works with postmodern elements. A longtime interest in composer Charles Ives' brand of American eclecticism also surfaces in Transmigration, with references to "The Unanswered Question" serving as part of its introduction. Overall, the score is harmonically thornier than many of his previous compositions; Adams alternates between a somber, haunting demeanor and explosive dissonant bursts of activity. While the piece is somewhat diffuse in design, it is an effective and often affecting treatment of its daunting subject matter.

Leon Fleisher -- Two Hands (Artemis Classics)
This is the first full album of repertoire for both hands that pianist Leon Fleisher has made since the 1960s. He has suffered from the neurological condition dystonia for four decades -- the affliction affected his right hand, making performance of the standard repertoire problematic. What would be a death knell for the careers of most pianists has not deterred Fleisher, who has remained active as a conductor, teacher, and as a performer of repertoire for the left hand alone; over the years, several works for one hand have been commissioned for Fleisher.

Recent treatments with botox have allowed Fleisher to resume playing the standard repertoire, and it sounds as though the 75 year-old pianist has had no hiatus at all. Numerous pianist friends have told me that their reaction upon hearing Two Hands was indeed twofold: they are overjoyed to hear the lustrous tone and musicality that Fleisher brings to bear on the recording, but they're also stunned (and more than a bit humbled) that someone who hasn't been able to play with his right hand for so many years could sound this good. Fleisher's performances constitute something miraculous. Several short favorites, including Debussy's Clair de Lune, two Bach transcriptions, the Chopin Nocturne in D-flat major and Mazurka in C#-minor are given sterling readings, sumptuously phrased and smoothly performed. I am particularly fond of the Egon Petri transcription of "Sheep May Safely Graze", which Fleisher renders with charming and graceful simplicity. A Scarlatti sonata in E major is played with elegance and consummate lyricism.

Fleisher doesn't shy away from more substantial pieces, either. On the recording's second part, he assays Schubert's last piano sonata, a towering work clocking in at three quarters of an hour. His performance is exciting, balancing formidable technical control with a dramatic and bold interpretation. If a listener didn't read the liner notes, and was previously unaware of Fleisher's struggles with dystonia, he would have no idea that there was ever a problem. Knowing the long search for treatment that the pianist has had to endure makes this recording a triumph all the more worth savoring. Moreover, Fleisher is donating a portion of the proceeds from Two Hands to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation and Musicians with Dystonia. One of the best recital recordings in recent memory and purchasing it benefits a good cause? Talk about win-win -- don't miss this one.

-- Christian Carey



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