• Illuminating Piano Music by Victoria Bond


    Illumination: Piano Works of Victoria Bond
    Paul Barnes, piano and chanter.
    Slovak Radio Orchestra/Kirk Trevor;
    Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic/Kirk Trevor
    Albany Records TROY 1880
    Total Time:  64:41
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Pianist Paul Barnes is featured exploring music inspired by ancient chant in this release featuring the work of Victoria Bond (b. 1945).  Bond was a student of Ingolf Dahl and Roger Sessions and early in her career assisted on some of Phillip Glass’s film scores.  Barnes has also worked with the latter over 25 years having also commissioned pieces by the composer.  He has also been quite instrumental in the development of the music on this album collaborating with Bond on recording her music and the world of Eastern chant.

    The opening pieces here are for solo piano and take their inspiration from Byzantine chants.  Illuminations (2021) has slowly evolved into a three-movement work.  Its first movement, “Potirion Sotiriu” was composed in 1999 and incorporates the essence of that ancient chant melody into a mystical exploration that continues in the central “Simeron Kremate” (2019) which introduces a bit more intensity and dissonance; and moves into a sounder conclusion in the final “Enite ton Kyrion” (2021).  The latter pulls together the chants from the other movements to provide an apt conclusion to the work as a whole.  The music here recalls the work of Thomas de Hartmann’s mystical music inspired by the philosopher George Gurdjieff.  They are quite compelling pieces that are written in an accessible style with modern harmonic ideas adding a little extra flavor.  Bond’s music tends to be a bit more complex in construction with the chants feeling finely integrated into the musical reflections here.  As a bonus, one can listen to the chants sing by Barnes as a sort of addendum to this album.  This helps listeners better connect with the pieces further and provides another entry point for this music.

    The album also includes two re-releases of previously-recorded works for piano and orchestra that inhabit the same sort of philosophical milieu.  Ancient Keys (2002) is a single-movement concerto that also uses the opening “Potirion Sotiriu” piano work now given a more expansive pallet.  The chant is sung as the work opens to provide some context for what is to follow.  The swirling opening of that chant informs the opening orchestral material that wafts up from the lower realms of the ensemble in a sort of slow spiral.  The way the material is handled has some parallels to the work of Hovhaness, though Bond’s musical language tends to stay more traditional.  The orchestral writing does allow for some interesting interaction with the soloist with a good forward motion and dramatic flair.

    Black Light (1997) closes the release with a bit of variety in inspiration.  The works on the release overall are based on musical meditations of illumination and here Bond shifts her attention to African American musical traditions blending them with her own religious background.  The three-movement work opens with an intense driving rhythmic idea with a bit of interplay in a lighter theme for piano.  The latter displays a sense of wit.  The music here shifts to a far more dissonant set of pulses and angular piano lines that make for a nice contrast to the previous works.  The jazzier syncopation is also part of orchestration that takes its cues from jazz orchestral works making it a sort of contemporary integration of the style.  The central movement uses a Jewish liturgical chant for its primary material.  Finally, the piece wraps up with a hybrid rondo variation form inspired by the scat singing style of Ella Fitzgerald.

    Interesting works and engaging music make for a fine introduction to Bond’s music for new listeners.  The performances feel quite committed and Barnes seems to be a fine interpreter of the music here offering informed, nuanced playing in the opening Illuminations and having a bit more opportunity for technical displays in the larger orchestral concerto pieces.  Both orchestras manage to tackle these pieces with a nice sense of precision.  The Martinu orchestra seems particularly attuned to the jazz gestures and that helps the piece quite a bit.  Everything is mastered well and equalized which allows for good imaging of the piano against the orchestra.  Clarity in the textures is also quite good which is both due to Bond’s orchestration as well as the clean playing of the orchestras.  Overall a quite interesting and engaging collection of modern music for piano.

  • A Little More Rare Sax


    Heard Again For the First Time
    Paul Cohen, alto saxophone.
    Eastern Wind Symphony/Todd Nichols;
    Roger Nye, bassoon; Rebecca Cypress, harpsichord;
    Kathleen Nester, flute; Lynne Cohen, oboe; Allison Brewster Franzetti, piano;
    Brett Deubner, viola; Kaoru Hinata, flute.
    Ravello Records 8057
    Total Time:  70:06
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Ravello records has pulled together several performances by alto saxophonist Paul Cohen for this release of rare works for the instrument.  The music here is an interesting collection of mostly 20th Century works with a more recent piece by Steve Cohen (1954-) helping to round things off.

    Of particular interest to many will be the opening work on the album, Ingolf Dahl’s (1912-1970) Concerto for Alto Saxophone.  Dahl revised this work several times but this recording gives us a chance to hear it in its original version for wind band.  Composed for Sigurd Rascher between 1948-49, the piece would receive a number of performances but Dahl would then tweak the piece.  First, he changed up the orchestration and simplified the solo part, and later would come back and cut seven minutes of the piece which is the version in publication today.  Cohen unearthed the original version and has brought it back to make this world premiere recording of the piece.  It does indeed feel like a quite involved work to play presenting a variety of challenges both technical and interpretatively.  A good sense of rhythmic precision is needed as well as a careful balancing of the different sections of the band against the soloist.  The recording here is a bit dry acoustically which actually aids the music and lends it a bit more clarity.  The high altissimo register of the instrument can seem a bit harsh, but Cohen manages to overcome this with some rather touching lyrical playing.

    Swiss composer Marguerite Roesgen-Champion (1894-1976) is perhaps less well-known but was an early champion of the harpsichord and wrote a number of works for the instrument.  She was one of the most highly-regarded performers on the instrument and equally respected as a composer.  Her Concerto No. 2 (1945) shows off some of the Neo-Baroque interests that were resurfacing mid-century with equal touches of post-impressionism.  The work is for alto sax, bassoon, and harpsichord which makes for a rather fascinating collection of sonorities to explore across the four brief movements.

    Though well-respected as a composer in his lifetime, Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) was overshadowed by the shift of musical tastes after his death.  His music tends to be quite colorful and brilliantly orchestrated.  His Ballade Carnavalesque (1903) is one of the earliest chamber works to include the alto saxophone which makes it of historical interest.  It is a rather episodic 13-minute work also apparently receiving a recording premiere (?) here.  Loeffler never published this piece and actually reused some of it for his A Pagan Poem, so we have Cohen to thank for dusting off this unique work that is like a piano quintet for winds where the sax takes over the role from the clarinet. Also included is the brief The Lone Prairie (c. 1930) for viola, sax, and piano.  One can see here that Loeffler continued to be quite aware of current interests in Americana which makes this a fascinating curiosity.

    The final work on the album is Steven Cohen’s Trio (2018) which Cohen commissioned for one of his students.  Cast in three movements, the work pairs the sax with flute and piano.  There is an interesting arch-like opening movement.  The central movement is a “Slow Blues” exploring song form and interesting duet between the wind soloists.  The finale provides for an exciting conclusion with its incorporation of Afro-Cuban music.

    There are plenty of things to recommend this release beyond the repertoire itself, though that should be enticement enough.  Cohen’s performances are all quite engaging.  The Dahl is not an easy work, but he certainly convinces us otherwise.  The balance in the chamber pieces also helps further illustrate the versatility that these composers recognized in the alto saxophone.