Let Us Now Praise Great Bluesmen : Blind Willie Johnson, who died today, 1947, in Beaumont, Texas

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Allmusic.com Biography by Joslyn Layne

Seminal gospel-blues artist Blind Willie Johnson is regarded as one of the greatest bottleneck slide guitarists. Yet the Texas street-corner evangelist is known as much for his powerful and fervent gruff voice as he is for his ability as a guitarist. He most often sang in a rough, bass voice (only occasionally delivering in his natural tenor) with a volume meant to be heard over the sounds of the streets. Johnson recorded a total of 30 songs during a three-year period and many of these became classics of the gospel-blues, including “Jesus Make up My Dying Bed,” “God Don’t Never Change,” and his most famous, “Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground.”

It is generally agreed that Johnson was born in a small town just South of Waco near Temple, TX, around 1902. His mother died while he was still a baby, and his father eventually remarried. When Johnson was about seven years old, his father and stepmother fought and the stepmother threw lye water, apparently at the father, but the lye got in Willie Johnson’s eyes, blinding him. As he got older, Johnson began earning money by playing his guitar, one of the few avenues left to a blind man to earn a living. Instead of a bottleneck, Johnson actually played slide with a pocketknife. Over the years, Johnson played guitar most often in an open D tuning, picking single-note melodies, while using his slide and strumming a bass line with his thumb. He was, however, known to play in a different tuning and without the slide on a few rare occasions. Regardless of his excellent blues technique and sound, Johnson didn’t want to be a bluesman, for he was a passionate believer in the Bible. So, he began singing the gospel and interpreting Negro spirituals. He became a Baptist preacher and brought his sermons and music to the streets of the surrounding cities. While performing in Dallas, he met a woman named Angeline and the two married in 1927. Angeline added 19th century hymns to Johnson’s repertoire, and the two performed around the Dallas and Waco areas.

On December 3, 1927, Columbia Records brought Blind Willie Johnson into the studio where he recorded six songs that became some of his most enduring recordings: a song about Samson and Delilah called “If I Had My Way,” “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” (often understood as “motherless children”), “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Jesus Make up My Dying Bed,” ” I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” and Johnson’s single most-acclaimed song, “Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground,” which is about the crucifixion of Christ. But after this session, Johnson didn’t return to the studio for an entire year. The second visit (which took place on December 5, 1928) found him accompanied by his wife, Angeline, who provided backing vocals. The two recorded four songs, including “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge” and “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’.” Songs from these first two sessions were also issued on the Vocalion label. Several months later, Willie and Angeline Johnson met Elder Dave Ross and went with him to New Orleans where Blind Willie Johnson recorded ten songs for Columbia. From this December 1929 session came a few more of his best-known songs, including “God Don’t Never Change,” “Let Your Light Shine on Me,” and “You’ll Need Somebody on Your Bond.”

Although Blind Willie Johnson was one of Columbia’s best-selling race recording artists, he only recorded for them one more time — in April 1930 — after which he never heard from them again. This final session took place in Atlanta, GA (again, Johnson was accompanied by Angeline who actually sang lead on a few numbers this time), and consisted of ten songs, including “Can’t Nobody Hide From God,” “John the Revelator,” and the slightly altered “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond.” These last two songs were issued on one record that was withdrawn shortly after its release. Despite the fact that Johnson did not record after 1930, he continued to perform on the Texas streets during the ’30s and ’40s. Unfortunately, in 1947, the Johnsons’ home burned to the ground. He caught pneumonia shortly thereafter and died in the ashes of his former home approximately one week after it was destroyed. Purportedly, Angeline Johnson went on to work as a nurse during the 1950s.

Over the years, many artists have covered the gospel songs made famous by Blind Willie Johnson, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ry Cooder (“Dark Was the Night” inspired Cooder’s score for the movie Paris, Texas). Johnson’s song “If I Had My Way” was even revived as a popular hit during the 1960s when it was covered by the contemporary folk band Peter, Paul and Mary. Several excellent collections of Blind Willie Johnson’s music exist, including Dark Was the Night (on Sony) and Praise God, I’m Satisfied (on Yazoo). Johnson’s music also appears on many compilations of country blues and slide guitar.

Hildegard von Bingen : Mystic, Healer and Composer

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Hildegard von Bingen, born Bermersheim, near Alzey, 1098; died Rupertsberg, near Bingen, 17 Sept 1179

German Benedictine abbess, visionary, writer and composer. She is known for her literary, musical and scientific works, and for her religious and diplomatic activities. Her oeuvre includes recorded visions, medical and scientific works, hagiography and letters; also lyrical and dramatic poetry, which has survived with monophonic music.

She was famous for her prophecies and miracles. Later described as the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’ (1383), she was consulted by and held lengthy correspondences with popes, emperors and other secular and ecclesiastical leaders as well as lower members of the clergy and lay persons, and involved herself in politics and diplomacy at a time of immense political and ecclesiastical turmoil. Exceptionally for a woman, she undertook four preaching missions through Germany between 1160 and 1170. But above all, as spiritual mother and ‘magistra’, she guided her nuns by fortifying their commitment to the Virgin through the teaching of scripture and the Rule of St Benedict, and the discernment of the right path in monastic life.

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From the age of five Hildegard experienced visions, and in 1141 her abbot gave her permission to record what she saw, with the aid of Volmar. The result, Scivias, which contains 14 lyric texts that later appeared with music, took ten years to write and comprised 26 revelations. Two works on natural science and medicine followed: Physica and Causa et cure (written between 1150 and 1160). Then came the Liber vite meritorum (1158–63) and the Liber divinorum operum (1163–73). The three visionary tomes have been described as a trilogy of apocalyptic, prophetic and symbolic writings. Her Lives of St Disibod (1170–72) and St Rupert (1172) and the Explanatio of the Rule of St Benedict round out her religious prose works.

258_bingen8The music of Hildegard is made up of a comparatively small number of elemental melodic patterns, which recur constantly under different melodic and modal conditions and are the common property of her poetic output. The patterns differ from the recurrent melodic ‘timbres’ (Aubry) of Adam of St Victor’s work. While the latter are fixed phrases assembled in a ‘patchwork quilt’ manner akin to centonization, Hildegard’s formulae rather provide melodic ‘matrices’ with innumerable realizations. Highly decorative, the text and music of Hildegard’s songs are intimately related and inseparable, as parallel syntaxes mirroring (and at times contradicting) one another, while unfolding within an idiosyncratic system of modes. On another level, the songs are meditations upon visionary texts, that in turn represent poetically condensed exegesis of complex theological issues, expressed at greater length in the prose trilogy of visions. Like all the writings received ‘in visio’ by the presence of the Living Light, ultimately the music’s raison d’être lies in fostering ruminatio (‘chewing over’), a method of penetrating the deeper spiritual meaning behind both words and music. As such, the songs are a special Hildegardian facet of contemplative medieval practice.

Hildegard also created a morality play, Ordo virtutum, in dramatic verse. This contains 82 melodies, many more nearly syllabic in setting than the liturgical songs. The earliest morality play by more than a century, it presents the battle for the human soul, Anima, between 16 personified Virtues and the Devil.  (Biographical entry in Grove Music Online  by Ian D. Bent and Marianne Pfau.)

Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval Church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard’s music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least four other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost. This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers.

Sequentia

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The Hildegard von Bingen project (1982-2012)

Since the early 1980’s, Sequentia’s name has been closely linked with the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the visionary abbess and healer whose spiritual compositions are among the most astonishing and unique creations from the dynamic jerusalem_smilieu of 12th-century Benedictine monasticism. Hildegard referred to her songs collectively as ‘The Harmonious Music of Celestial Revelations’ (symphoniae harmoniae celestium revelationum), a title meant to indicate their divine inspiration as well as the idea that music is the highest form of human activity, mirroring the ineffable sounds of heavenly spheres, angelic choirs and the individual human soul. Between 1151 and 1158 this visionary ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’ began to collect her musical creations, most of them intended to be sung by the sisters of her convent at the Rupertsberg (on the Rhine at Bingen), as a complement to the traditional Gregorian chant sung during liturgical and other functions. Anyone who has sung her music knows that it counts among the most sublime, virtuosic and demanding vocal repertoires ever created. “It is said that you are raised to Heaven, that much is revealed to you, that you bring forth great writings, and discover new manners of song…” wrote Master Odo of Paris in 1148. Then, as now, Hildegard was admired for fearlessly exploring the soul’s place in the cosmos and giving it voice through her unique musical vision.

ordo-1998_sSequentia was among the first vocal ensembles to revive Hildegard’s music in our time, working closely from the medieval manuscript sources and employing concepts of performance practice which would have been known to the abbess and her Benedictine sisters in the 12th century. Under the general direction of the late Barbara Thornton, and working closely with musicologists and philologists (especially Leo Treitler, Peter Dronke and Barbara Stühlmeyer) many of the world’s foremost vocalists and instrumentalists in historical music performance joined Sequentia to perform and record Hildegard’s works on a regular basis between 1982 and 2012 (see list of musicians below). From the beginning, the entire project was supported generously by the West German Radio in Cologne (producers Alfred Krings and Klaus L Neumann), which co-produced most of the recordings on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label. In addition to recording, the ensemble toured widely to critical acclaim in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan.

The Sequentia recordings of Hildegard’s works are contained on 8 releases (more thansymphoniae_m eleven hours of music) for the DHM label and include all of Hildegard’s 77 symphoniae as well as her music drama Ordo Virtutum (recorded twice, with an interval of 15 years between the two radically different productions). One of these releases, Canticles of Ecstasy, received several international awards (including an Edison Prize, a Disque d’Or, and a Grammy nomination for best choral recording) and has sold more than a million copies worldwide.

visions_paradise_sIn 2009 an anthology, made up of exceptional tracks from six of Sequentia’s releases on DHM, was released to highlight not only Hildegard’s melodic and textual genius, but also the striking varieties of mode, structure, color, and scale which define her work. Complete program notes and a more profound look at Hildegard’s music can be found in the detailed booklets of the original Sequentia CDs – all still available on DHM — from which this anthology was made.

In 2012 the final recording of the complete works, Celestial Hierarchy was brought to life by Sequentia’s co-founder and director Benjamin Bagby to commemorate the elevation of Hildegard von Bingen to Sainthood and Doctor Ecclesiae (2012), to finish Sequentia’s canticles_ectasy_scomplete works project on the DHM label (now Sony), and thus to honour the life’s work of Barbara Thornton (1950-1998). For this recording, a multi-generational ensemble of seven women’s voices was assembled under Bagby’s direction, together with the flautist Norbert Rodenkirchen and Bagby playing harp. One of the singers on this final recording had been a member of Barbara Thornton’s ensemble, while some others were not yet born when the first recording was made in 1982.

Hildegard von Bingen releases on DHM

Ordo Virtutum (1982/83) 2 LPs [not included in the complete works]
Symphoniae (1982-3/85)
Canticles of Ecstasy (1993/94)
Voice of the Blood (1994/95)
O Jerusalem (1995/97)
Saints (1996/98) 2 CDs
Ordo Virtutum (1997/98)
Visions of Paradise (anthology, 2009) [not included in the complete works]
Celestial Hierarchy (2012/13)

The String Quartets of Krzysztof Meyer : a major achievement of the second half of the 20th century

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Krzysztof Meyer (born 11 August 1943) is a Polish composer, pianist and music scholar, formerly Dean of the Department of Music Theory (1972–1975) at the State College of Music (now Academy of Music in Kraków), and president of the Union of Polish Composers (1985–1989). Meyer served as professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne from 1987 to 2008, prior to retirement.

In his own music Meyer has shown a keen awareness of the stylistic paths in music after 1945 and a conviction in using them for his own ends. Serial and sonorist as well as aleatoric means have informed his compositions, yet, as he himself stated in an interview four decades ago.

“Applying various techniques is for me only a means to composition, and it is by no means an exaggeration…to say that I enter some regions of my inner soundscape using any technical means available and I will still arrive at a result that I had aimed at from the start, regardless of the means applied”.

Although his output takes in the broad spectrum of genres, the ongoing series of seven symphonies and thirteen string quartets stand at the center of his achievement—with the latter covering 42 years (thus far) of his composing.

Where does Krzysztof Meyer’s fascination with string quartets come from?

“When I was a little boy, I had a chance to listen to chamber music concerts that were regularly organized at my home. Probably these first impressions fundamentally shaped my interests and principles…My musical homeland is the chamber music of the Viennese Classic, extended by the most splendid of twentieth-century musical worlds—Bartók’s”.

1234-711mam2en4l__sl1430_It was with his First String Quartet (1963) that Meyer made his Warsaw Autumn début. Although its musical idiom is strongly influenced by the sonorist language then being advocated by such as Penderecki, its three-movement design of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis points to an underlying formal evolution which in itself looks forward to his later works. The first movement opens with intensive col legno playing, to which are added harmonics, then sul ponticello and finally pizzicato techniques, before a sudden pause on a cluster which expands across the quartet and brings about a febrile burst of activity that persists until the lower instruments unfold a sequence of glissandos; these latter then persist as the music gradually winds down to a restive close. The brief second movement centres much more on consistency of texture, as the contrasting techniques sounded by each player are channelled towards a laconic close. The third movement attempts an amalgamation of its predecessors, as slowly undulating glissandos are countered by diverse gestures and the music gains in expressive intensity prior to reaching a heightened climax featuring aggressive interplay between the four instruments: this gradually falls away to leave a more tentative dialogue which then disperses until an uneasy chordal truce is attained.

By the time of the Second String Quartet (1969), Lutosławski had written his only work in the genre and its methodical yet never predictable evolution of its salient musical ideas is reflected in Meyer’s piece—though in contrast to the senior composer’s preference for ‘introductory’ and ‘main’ movements, the present work unfolds as a single and unbroken span. The stuttering initial gestures (redolent of the opening of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet) quickly extend to all four instruments as the music’s harmonic density expands accordingly. The texture gradually thins out to reveal a more individuated dialogue with pizzicato and col legno playing to the fore, and which is succeeded in turn by attempts to rekindle the initial impetus until a mingling of strident unison and pizzicato gestures is reached. The music then passes through an intensive burst of free harmonies (akin to ‘tuning-up’), before its continuation of stark chordal gestures leads into a more inward and even reflective passage that only gradually loses its poise as the stuttering gestures at the very opening are recalled. These do not round off the work, however, which instead closes with restive chords as the music heads towards an uneasy calm.

The Third String Quartet (1971) pursues a not dissimilar trajectory to its predecessor, though here the formal design falls into three separate movements—with elements of development and reprise to be detected in the first and third of these. The first movement opens with three detached pizzicato chords, after which the music launches into a headlong outburst which duly subsides into a dense though now more cohesive texture. Intricate pizzicato and searching harmonic writing are now combined, followed by a distant recollection of the earlier outburst and then a more wistful interplay prior to a tensely inward close. The second movement picks up on the later stages of its predecessor, if without a parallel sense of motivation as the music passes through constantly changing textures before it reaches a tentative yet expectant ending. The third movement begins with forceful unison gestures and a densely harmonic interplay between the four instruments that is belatedly silenced by stark repeated gestures. A series of tremolo decrescendos then makes way for pensive unison chords that spread across the texture as the music seems intent on securing some manner of resolution, but any hints at a more decisive close are denied as the activity gradually thins out to leave the fugitive gestures with which the work ends.

The Fourth String Quartet (1974) marks a clear step forward in terms of its three movements contrasting with each other to create a dynamic and goal-directed formal design, though the balance between them is by no means a traditional one. The first movement commences with impassioned chordal gestures that bring with them a sense of meaningful harmonic progression, as underpinned by strident pizzicato writing, until a sudden pause brings a sparser but still cohesive texture which gains in momentum as the music builds towards its powerful culmination. This latter is summarily dispersed to leave fleeting harmonics as the top of the compass, before brief recollections of the opening effect the dramatic close. The second movement begins with repeated gestures, countered by more assaultive chords from the lower instruments as the music gradually takes on greater substance and direction. Over these initial gestures a more agitated motion comes to the fore, with the players drawn into an elaborate dialogue that gives vent to their respective characters and progresses towards a sequence of intensive passage-work which then subsides into elegiac musing that persists through to the close. The third movement starts with strident pizzicato writing, against which the initially spare gestures gradually accrue in prominence without the music gaining in emotional impetus. Instead it heads into a series of plangent monologues for solo instruments over held unison chords, before the impassioned gestures from the very opening re-emerge to guide the work to a conclusion that fades into silence—icy harmonics at the top of the compass gradually receding beyond earshot.  (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)

568-71apb1vgjcl__sl1400_String Quartet No. 5 (1977) deserves to be called a chamber sinfonia concertante, with the cello in the foreground. This impression is created by the impetus of this piece, in which the five movements combine into two extended arches, the first and second movements and the fourth and fifth separated by the third movement, an intermezzo.

After that epic work, String Quartet No. 6 (1981) might itself seem restrained, particularly as the music moves away from a clearly outlined beginning. The piece requires perceptiveness and a good memory from the listener, but this concentration is rewarded with a satisfaction that flows from recognizing motives and rhythms that recur in a diversity of shapes, for the composer treats music like a game in which the main idea is to make from a few elements as many various sound shapes as possible. It is no wonder that the finale abounds in quasi-quotations and reminiscences of previous movements.

In String Quartet No. 8 (1985) the instruments are exclusively playing arco and pizzicato. The tonal centre C repeats itself almost obsessively, and is emphatically exposed so that it occasionally suggests tonality, although any relationship with a major-minor system is obviously deceptive in this piece. With its simplicity of rhythm and preponderance of motoric motion, one could have the impression while looking at the score that the quartet is neoclassical in character. The dramatic expression of this “story told with musical elements” is, however, far from the playfulness of neoclassicism. (Naxos release notes by Thomas Weselmann)

folderThe Ninth Quartet (1990) is in five movements which outline a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast format, yet this sequence is anything but predictable in its formal or expressive follow-through, amounting to a cohesive whole in terms of salient motifs and gestures that reappear during its course. A crescendo launches the opening Agitato, which unfolds with angular harmonies and forceful repeated rhythms. Gradually the music opens out texturally, with unison chords endowing a semblance of tonal direction, before thinning out to leave increasingly isolated phrases on violin. The ensuing Calmo stands in direct contrast with its ruminative discourse, the instruments merging from the outset in a meditative dialogue interrupted only by the occasional fugitive gesture on tremolo strings. After the last of these, the music moves steadily on towards its becalmed conclusion. Without pause the Con vigore begins with aggressive pizzicato from the players, other playing techniques being introduced as the music loses something of its initial purposefulness and sustained notes at the relative extremes of the instrumental compass become apparent. From here, a brief though atmospheric Misterioso draws in distinct ideas from each instrument prior to its uncertain close with a flurry of pizzicato. This acts as a springboard for the closing Vivo, which starts with a return to the mood and material of the first movement, now informed by even greater rhythmic impetus. The discourse is thrown into relief by a calmer interlude that cannot prevent an accumulation of energy as the music surges on—capped by another crescendo that this time makes for a decisive ending.

The Eleventh Quartet (2001) is cast in a single movement, a form it shares with several quartets by Shostakovich, while most resembling the latter’s Thirteenth Quartet in a seamless overall trajectory within which diverse contrasts of mood and tempo become absorbed into the greater continuity. A lurching gesture heard on all four instruments is immediately drawn into the sustained texture, from out of which individual entries briefly emerge only to be drawn back into the prevailing inwardness. The music develops an increasingly elegiac demeanour that intensifies as the initial gesture is recalled in passing, threading its way through detached exchanges before suddenly welling up in a passage of greater activity that brings about an impassioned central span with trills and tremolo playing much to the fore. The texture now becomes ever more intricate as the level of activity increases; with the instrumental writing at length coalescing around a chordal complex that, itself a motivic expansion of the work’s initial gesture, becomes rhythmically more streamlined and incisive while the music drives onward to a brusquely conclusive ending.

The Twelfth Quartet (2005) is Meyer’s most recent such work to date, and provides a fair summation of his contribution to the genre. Although there are nine movements, these are dovetailed into each other to form an overall whole (in a not dissimilar manner to Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet) which is greater than the sum of its parts. The opening Lento acts as an inward prelude to what will follow, unfolding in a texture that gradually becomes denser harmonically and more searching emotionally, before returning to its initial stasis. The ensuing Con ira strikes an abrupt contrast with its forceful rhythmic profile and an intensive dialogue that draws several motifs heard earlier into a volatile as well as an increasingly hectic discourse. Without a pause the demonstrative Vivo strides forward, stealthy pizzicato on cello underpinning a complex texture in which the emotional force of the music intensifies before tailing off uncertainly. Eventually only viola and cello remain, with their long-breathed dialogue marking the onset of the Dolente, the work’s ‘centrepiece’ at least in its expressive weight. Gradually the two violins make their presence felt as a finely wrought polyphony evolves, accentuated by a rocking motion that animates the texture before a gradual return to the initial inwardness. From this haunting close the Furioso now emerges in a welter of colliding phrases and exploding pizzicato, growing more excited before relapsing into disconnected phrases. The Largo that follows serves as a meditative transition to the Adagio, with cello continuing the previous introspection as a recitative to which the other instruments respond with terse and often detached gestures. As the cello fades out in its highest register, the Prestissimo commences with angry motoric rhythms and a propulsive energy which features heated exchanges that are cut off at maximum intensity to reveal the Appassionato. Over a trill-saturated texture, this unfolds as a soliloquy for violin that touches on ideas from earlier in the work, before a brief defiant gesture and a gradual fading out on the violin. (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)

mi0003466634The Seventh Quartet (1985) is cast in a single movement that makes repeated and effective use of the contrasts between solo and ensemble writing, in the process setting up a cumulative musical entity which purposefully alternates stasis and dynamism. The work commences with inward exchanges in the middle register such as gradually rise through the texture, before the cello adds its presence while the music gradually becomes more animated with frequent recourse to tremolo writing. The cello continues its rumination then the expressive range intensifies as the whole ensemble engages in heated contrapuntal discourse which is subsequently curtailed as each of the four instruments seems intent on going its own way. Presently the music opens out onto a complex heterophonic texture which slows down into forceful gestures in rhythmic unison, after which momentum slackens towards fugitive gestures in pizzicatos and harmonics. The briefest of outbursts leads to an introspective monologue for unaccompanied viola which rounds off the piece by gradually fading into silence.

The Tenth Quartet (1994), among the most extended of the cycle, is in four movements such as constitute a work that is ostensibly within the classical tradition of quartet writing—notably that of Beethoven (thus the ‘La Malinconia’ subtitle of the fourth movement’s introduction)—albeit filtered through a lineage which draws upon such notable later exponents as Bartók and Shostakovich in what might be described as a synthesis of Meyer’s experience with the genre. The first movement opens with a searching discourse that alternates between livelier and more rhythmic writing, the latter coming into greater focus as the two types are purposefully superimposed and then elaborated. At length the initial music returns to the fore but the earlier momentum is gradually regained on the way to a powerful culmination that in turn loses its impetus as the initial music re-emerges. The second movement then begins in not dissimilar fashion, though here the underlying eloquence is sustained in music of impressive emotional breadth and finely wrought polyphony. Just over a third of the way through, the texture briefly fragments to admit of greater rhythmic variety as the music heads towards an impassioned climax that recasts the earlier discourse in much more intense terms. From here it winds down to a more restrained dialogue that, in time, is further reduced to sparse exchanges against luminous chords in the violins. The third movement is a scherzo whose vigorous initial discourse elicits a correlating momentum which drives forward to impulsive interplay across the ensemble, replete with grinding rhythmic figures in the lower strings, before a methodical return to its opening gestures. The finale starts out somewhat equivocally, though such uncertainty proves to be no more than a foil to the energetic music which soon takes precedence as a spirited dialogue is pursued. Earlier elements return, however, as a forceful climax is reached—after which, calm is quickly and unexpectedly attained. From here the movement seems to be heading to a conclusion of relative repose, but the energetic music returns to see the work through to its capricious close.

The Thirteenth Quartet (2010), Meyer’s most recent such work to date, is in five movements, although these are all played continuously, the second and fourth of them being lively transitions between odd-numbered movements such as chart a steady progression from relative repose to unequivocal energy, with seamless control over the underlying momentum. The first movement opens with curt pizzicatos that then open out onto wistful exchanges over somnolent held chords. Livelier rustling gestures increase the tension only incrementally, with the cello assuming a degree of prominence as a stern climax is reached. All of the elements previously heard are now brought into play, prior to a peremptory close. Without pause the brief second movement fairly explodes with a controlled decrescendo of energy and emotion, in turn heading into a third movement whose emotional fervency unfolds via a series of accompanied solos gradually coalescing into more sustained textures, and from which brusque pizzicato writing brings about a calmer and increasingly inward conclusion. Such poise is presently countered by the brief fourth movement, its trenchant exchanges in the lower strings spilling over into a finale whose rushing motion brings with it fleeting recollections of ideas heard earlier in the work and where a balance between the eloquent and the sardonic is preserved through to a close in which forceful unison chords have the decisive last word. (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)

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WIENIAWSKI STRING QUARTET
Jarosław Żołnierczyk, violin I
Mirosław Bocek, violin II
Lech Bałaban, viola
Maciej Mazurek, cello

Since its foundation in 1998 the Wienawski String Quartet has established itself as one of the leading chamber music ensembles in Poland. The members of this Poznań-based ensemble are all players in the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio, conducted by Agnieszka Duczmal: Jarosław Żołnierczyk, leader of the orchestra, Mirosław Bocek, principal of the second violin section, Lech Bałaban, of the viola secion, and Maciej Mazurek, of the cello section. The quartet’s repertoire ranges from the classical to the contemporary. Recordings include String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 by Karol Szymanowski and Grażyna Bacewicz’s Quartet No. 4.

Brahms violin sonatas receive fine performances in new recording : Tetzlaff & Vogt

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Recently, the question was posed on a popular online music discussion forum: “What are your eight favorite chamber works?”  My answer was that I could easily answer the query using only works by Johannes Brahms.  Brahms was a master of chamber music and wrote 170px-johannesbrahmsmore than one work in all of the traditional forms: instrumental sonatas, piano, clarinet and horn trios, piano quartets, clarinet quintet, string quartets, quintets and sextets.  And many of these are late period works, a time where it seems Brahms is summing up everything he knew about composing.

Despite the plethora of great recordings of the Brahms violin sonatas, e.g. Szeryng/Rubinstein, Mullova/Anderszewski and Dumay/Pires, this August 2016 recording by Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt  proudly stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the lot.  Tetzlaff and Vogt are longstanding recital partners, and have performed these works countless times on the concert circuit, including in an excellent live recording released in 2002.  However, this latest release, I think, finds them at the top of their game and they have turned in a performance brimming with passion, precision and poetry.

brahms_violin-sonatas_ode12842Johannes Brahms : The Violin Sonatas
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Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3
Scherzo, ‘FAE Sonata’

 

 

Brahms: Violin Sonata in D Minor No. 3: Mvt. I – Allegro

Haydn: Sonata ‘Un piccolo divertimento’

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“Haydn’s piano music is often complicated and formally wayward: its beauties do not, on the whole, lie on the surface. It is music whose appeal is primarily intellectual, requiring both thought and explanation.”  (H.C. Robbins Landon)

Haydn composed the Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII:6 in Vienna in 1793 for the talented pianist Barbara (‘Babette’) von Ployer, for whom Mozart had written the concertos K449 and K453. This profoundly felt music vies with the Andante of the ‘Drumroll’ Symphony as Haydn’s greatest set of alternating minor–major variations. After the stoic melancholy of the F minor opening, with its gently insistent dotted rhythms, the ornate F major theme exudes a kind of whimsical, abstracted playfulness. Haydn originally ended with the second F major variation and a few bars of coda. He subsequently appended a reprise of the F minor theme and a long, disturbingly chromatic coda that draws unsuspected force from the pervasive dotted rhythms before dissolving in a feverish swirl of arpeggios. After a measure of equilibrium is restored, the dotted rhythms toll deep in the bass, like a funeral knell. Haydn was the least confessional of composers. But it is not far-fetched to suggest, as several commentators have done, that the tragic intensity of the coda may have been prompted by the sudden death of Maria Anna von Genzinger, at the age of forty-two, on 26 January 1793.

The work had to wait until 1799 for its publication in print by Artaria, Vienna.

hn-0912The autograph consists of two separate sections. The first section, an eight-page fair copy bearing the title Sonata, contains measures 1 to 145, which conclude with five coda measures in the major. In this form the movement had probably been conceived as the beginning of a sonata in several movements.

Haydn expanded the work by adding on the minor theme again and elaborating it into a large-scale capriccio coda (M. 146 ff.). This extension comprises the second section of the autograph, a four-page working score. Even the very first copies contain both sections of the work, including the five-measure major-key coda after M. 145 and the heading Sonata.  Neither was deleted from the autograph, even though they are clearly misplaced in the final form of the work. It was not until the first edition that the five major-mode measures were deleted on the basis of a subsequent clarification marked by Haydn in the autograph, and the piece was given the title Variations, presumably by the publisher Artaria.

arcanaa352The Sonata ‘Un piccolo divertimento’ is one of Haydn’s most recorded works, with dozens of recordings available.  Most are on the modern piano, with some outstanding examples such as Mikhail Pletnev and Regina Schirmer.  There are fewer period recordings, but enough to find several excellent performances on an instrument Haydn might have used.   The one that is of most interest to me is by Paul Badura-Skoda (fortepiano Johann Schantz Vienna ca. 1790).  I haven’t actually heard it, but Badura-Skoda is usually an expert hand with this repertoire.  Other recordings that I have heard include those by Ronald BrautigamGary Cooper, Christine Schornsheim and Andreas Staier.  All of these well worth hearing and owning.

This one is by Andras Schiff, not a period instrument recording, but an excellent example of the work, nonetheless.

Guillaume Du Fay: The Tenor Masses (Les messes à teneur)

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What did it mean for Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474), chameleon-like expert in every musical genre of his day, to compose four settings of the Mass Ordinary toward the end of his life? Looking back from the vantage point of the next generation, when the polyphonic mass reigned supreme, it might be tempting to interpret these works as a self-conscious summa of Du Fays career an achievement akin to Haydns London Symphonies or Beethovens late string quartets. On a purely musical level these comparisons are apt. Each mass stakes out unique musical terrain; they are often strikingly experimental; and the entire set is shimmeringly beautiful from beginning to end, revealing a composer at the height of his powers.

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The ensemble Cut Circle – already famous for their earlier double-disc set of Josquin and De Orto, also for Musique en Wallonie – comprises just eight singers, with two women on the top voice. Dufay would have had men on top, but Carolann Buff and Mary Gerbi are so good that nobody will regret their contribution. These are all top-rate singers with pure and excellently focused voices: every one of them appears here as a soloist in one of the duet sections, and the intonation and ensemble are beyond reproach.

There are many other recordings of all these works, but surely all serious collectors will want this issue of all four works, beautifully sung, beautifully recorded, beautifully presented and always exhilarating. (Gramophone, July 2016)

American Roots Music : Three Bands/Artists

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American Roots Music, is what I am calling what the three artists make whom I will highlight today. I took the classification from American Roots Music, a 2001 multi-part documentary film that explores the historical roots of American Roots music which, in the PBS film, includes Folk, Country, Blues, Gospel, and Bluegrass.   Common elements are it is usually played on acoustic instruments, primarily banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle, and the inspiration comes from music made prior to the development of the music industry, i.e. 1920.

The term “roots music” is a broad category of music including bluegrass, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun and Native American music. The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered “roots music” because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz. 

THE CROOKED JADES

crooked-jadesThe Crooked Jades are on a mission to reinvent old-world music for a modern age, pushing boundaries and blurring categories with their fiery, soulful performances. Innovative, unpredictable and passionate, they bring their driving dance tunes and haunting ballads to rock clubs, festivals, traditional folk venues and concert halls across America and Europe.

Known for their rare and obscure repertoire, beautiful original compositions, inspired arrangements and eclectic, often vintage instrumentation, The Crooked Jades began with band leader/founder Jeff Kazor’s vision to revive the dark and hypnotic sounds of pre-radio music. With this old-time foundation, the band has created the unique Crooked Jades sound by exploring the roots of Americana and interweaving the diverse musical influences of Europe and Africa. Filtering these old-world sounds with universal and ancient themes through a post-9/11 lens, they seek to make sense of the future.

The current lineup of the Crooked Jades is a core trio of co-founders Jeff Kazor (vocals, guitar, ukulele) and Lisa Berman (vocals, slide guitar, banjo, harmonium), with Erik Pearson (vocals, banjos, ukulele, harmonium, slide guitar) often joined by Charlie Rose (bass), and Rose Sinclair (banjo, banjo uke, minstrel banjo, slide guitar).

THE LONESOME SISTERS

1308954013_lonesome-sisters-facebookThe award winning Lonesome Sisters, Sarah Hawker and Debra Clifford are known for their spine-tingling harmonies, sparse acoustic instrumentation and soulful lyrics with that lonesome mountain sound. They were voted best acoustic duo by Gibson Guitars 2006, and have traveled extensively with their music. Debra has also recorded with Old Buck, an old-time string band with Emily Schaad on fiddle (Clifftop Fiddle Contest Winner 2012), Riley Baugus on banjo, and Sabra Guzman on string bass. Debra has recorded a new CD with Becca Wintle as a new duo in late 2015, The Farwells.

CAHALEN MORRISON

about-for-website-300x169Cahalen Morrison grew up surrounded by the deep roots of country music; he played in his first country (and ranchero) band as a precocious 13 year old. Leaving New Mexico as a young man, his music began to branch out. “I did what every teenager does, and decided to go down the rock, and whatever road,” Cahalen explains. “But then I came back around to acoustic music, and now back to country. I love the focus on singing and the songs; I love the deep sincerity, the absurd humor… But obviously, overall, I really just love the music.” That full circle journey enabled Cahalen to develop a sound that sets him apart from other country artists.

Exploring acoustic roots music and touring internationally with his acclaimed Seattle duo Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, he learned from the guidance of friends like Tim O’Brien and Kelly Joe Phelps. With his new project, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer, and his new album, he’s taken all these influences and distilled them into a new form of American roots music, at once literate and profound, but written in the language of the country greats.

New from Hyperion : Machaut and Conductus

A couple of recent and noteworthy recordings from Hyperion: more Machaut by The Orlando Consort, and the final installment from John Potter, Christopher O’Gorman and Rogers Covey-Crump, of the Conductus genre, the first experiments towards polyphony—the kind of sound we associate with Pérotin.

A Burning Heart, Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377)

Formed in 1988 by the Early Music Network of Great Britain, The Orlando Consort rapidly achieved a reputation as one of Europe’s most expert and consistently challenging groups performing repertoire from the years 1050 to 1550. Their work successfully combines captivating entertainment and fresh scholarly insight; the unique imagination and originality of their programming together with their superb vocal skills have marked the Consort out as the outstanding leader of their field.

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Since joining the Hyperion family, The Orlando Consort has focused almost entirely on the music of Guillaume de Machaut, specifically, his secular songs.  A Burning Heart is the third collection of songs on the theme of courtly love.   The two other recordings are The Dart of Love and Songs from Le Voir Dit.  Throughout this series, the members of The Orlando Consort are proving the most committed of guides to the music and mores of fourteenth-century France.

The courtly element of medieval love-songs often baffles modern audiences with its constant insistence on honor and appropriate behavior on the one side, and the minimal contact or potential for a meaningful relationship between the protagonists on the other. Secrecy is often at the center of proceedings: not only must a relationship remain hidden from the rest of the world, even the beloved often remains in the dark concerning the lover’s feelings. An unanswered look—even if withheld with good intention for concealment’s sake—can kill a lover, especially as private conversation is impossible without offending the honor and worth of the beloved, these often being the very characteristics which caused the falling in love in the first place. Furthermore, in a supposedly religious and conservative age, the constant praising of extra-marital relationships in literature, poetry and music—despite their dangers and often calamitous outcomes—seems an unlikely preoccupation. Guillaume de Machaut’s situation in all this may seem even more precarious: while writing in the first person, neither his rather modest social origins nor his position as a cleric and canon at Reims cathedral would allow him to participate in such highly aristocratic and potentially sexual pursuits.

Conductus, Vol. 3
Music & poetry from thirteenth-century France
John Potter (tenor), Christopher O’Gorman (tenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor)

The conductus has always seemed like the poor relation in the history of music between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. Unlike its well-known siblings, the flamboyant organum and occasionally smutty motets, the conductus has remained in the shadows for much longer than its musical and poetic ambitions deserve. For the conductus is every bit as ambitious as its other family members; whether in terms of the complexity or sophistication of its poetry, or of the technical wizardry of some of its musical techniques, it is a genre to be reckoned with.

Even in terms of simple numbers, the conductus occupies an important place on the medieval musical landscape: there are slightly over 800 Latin poems with music copied between around 1230 and 1320, preserving a repertory composed between the 1180s and 1230s. Of these poems, 675 are set to music, and of these 377 are monophonic; 184 are in two parts; 111 in three parts; 3 in four parts. Three works have a doubtful generic profile, and 122 survive as texts or incipits alone. This is an immense repertory, and one that was spread far and wide. Manuscripts preserving the repertory are found from Scotland to the southern Rhineland, and from Spain to southern Poland.

Perhaps it is a number of uncertainties around the conductus that have resulted in its eclipse by other genres. Certainly there are difficulties with the rhythm of parts of the conductus that have led to a position where until relatively recently there has been no consensus as to how they would have been performed (more below), and even the function of the conductus—what it’s for—has been the subject of debate. Some have taken the term conductus to indicate some sort of processional context for the genre, and while it is just about conceivable that when the medieval procession stopped and made a station, singers might have sung a conductus, the more common idea that the works were sung while processing fits ill with the complexity of both their words and music. Others, for example, have taken the term conductus to have a meaning associated with ‘conduct’, and this fits well with the homiletic and moralizing tone of some of the poems.

john-potter-tenorJohn Potter is involved with early music both as a researcher and performer, and has written extensively on the subject (focusing on historical performance reality); his four books on singing are published by Cambridge University Press and Yale University Press. In addition to the Conductus project, his recent ventures include an album with lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman featuring songs by Campion, Sting, Tony Banks and John Paul Jones. He is a former British Library Edison Fellow and is Reader Emeritus in Music at the University of York, having left the university in 2010 to return to his portfolio of freelance projects. He was a member of The Hilliard Ensemble from 1984 to 2001 and a major contributor to the group’s Officium project, subsequently developing many of the ideas in The Dowland Project’s four albums for ECM. He also produced the first three ECM albums by the Scandinavian Trio Medieval. Red Byrd, the ensemble he founded with the bass Richard Wistreich, has made numerous records for Hyperion, and John has also contributed to many of the Paradise Regained series (ORF & Fra Bernardo) by the German ensemble The Sound & The Fury.

christopher-ogorman-tenorChristopher O’Gorman studied at the junior department of the Royal Academy of Music and then at the University of York, where he gained an MA in vocal studies with John Potter. As well as being an active performer of medieval music, he pursues a career both as a Songman in the Choir of York Minster and as an ensemble singer with a number of groups including the Gabrieli Consort, The London Quartet, The Binchois Consort, I Fagiolini, Ex Cathedra, Britten Sinfonia Voices, The Brabant Ensemble and the Ebor Singers. With these groups he has toured extensively in the UK, Europe and America. Performance highlights as an ensemble singer include singing in the first complete performance of Stockhausen’s final opera Mittwoch aus Licht with Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Opera’s production as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and later repeated in the 2013 Proms season. He was also involved in Ex Cathedra’s collaboration with the Québécois dance company Cas Public in a choreographed performance of Duruflé’s Requiem.

rogers-covey-crump-tenorAlthough a founder member of Gothic Voices and one of the six singers in the first British recording of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, Rogers Covey-Crump spent three decades as a core member of The Hilliard Ensemble, a male-voice quartet known globally for its performances and recordings of early music, and which also commissioned works from living composers and made the first recordings of the vocal works of Arvo Pärt. In 1994 the collaboration with saxophonist Jan Garbarek produced a unique artistic fusion in the highly acclaimed album Officium. Two releases followed in the wake of its success: Mnemosyne in 1999 and Officium Novum in 2010. Hundreds of live performances were given, spanning two decades. In 2008 the ensemble premiered a music theatre piece at the Edinburgh Festival, I went to the house but did not enter, by the German composer and director Heiner Goebbels. This was subsequently staged all around Europe, in the USA and in South Korea. The ensemble retired in December 2014 after a forty-one-year career.

Robert Glasper : Taking Jazz to New Audiences

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Hailing from Houston, Texas, Robert Glasper is a jazz pianist with a knack for mellow, harmonically complex compositions that also reveal a subtle hip-hop influence. Inspired to play piano by his mother, a gospel pianist and vocalist, Glasper attended Houston’s High School for the Performing Arts. After graduation, he studied music at the New School University in Manhattan, where he found performance work with such luminaries as bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and others. After graduating college, Glasper worked with a variety of artists, including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, vocalist Carly Simon, and rapper Mos Def. The pianist released his debut album, Mood, on Fresh Sound New Talent in 2004. Canvas and In My Element followed in 2005 and 2007, respectively, on Blue Note Records.  (Allmusic Biography by Matt Collar)

With his fourth album, Double Booked, Glasper introduced a new band, the Robert Glasper Experiment, that pivoted further from traditional jazz to explore elements of the latter genres.

Two albums with the Experiment followed, Black Radio and Black Radio 2, featuring an impressive roster of guest vocalists—among others, Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild, Lalah Hathaway, and Yasin Bey. The albums netted Glasper two Grammys—one in 2013 for best R&B album, the second this year for best traditional R&B performance.

On his latest album, Covered, out earlier this month, Glasper features his original trio with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid. Recorded in front of a small audience at Capitol Studios, it reinterprets a wide variety of songs, including cuts from the Black Radio albums and alumni, as well as Joni Mitchell, John Legend, Jhené Aiko, Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar—with the Victor Young standard “Stella By Starlight” for good measure.  (Jacob Blickenstaffjun, “How Jazzman Robert Glasper Won Over the Hip-Hop Heads”, Mother Jones Magazine, 29, 2015)

A lot of times, jazz musicians try to educate people. What other genre does that?

Don Cheadle was not going to make a conventional biopic when he set out to direct Miles Ahead, his recent film about Miles Davis’ mid-Seventies lost years. “Make some mistakes, go crazy, crash into a wall – anything but something fucking cookie-cutter,” the actor-director told Rolling Stone of his liberally fictionalized narrative.  Robert Glasper – who scored Cheadle’s film and makes a cameo near the end — took a similar approach to Everything’s Beautiful, a new album that features his reworking of Miles Davis material from the Sony vaults.

I thought Miles Ahead, the movie, was pretty bad, mainly because of the suspense-thriller plotting and  cringe-worthy characterizations.  However, Glasper’s recasting of Miles’s music is well worth hearing.