The Music Room > Great Recordings and Reviews

"New" Music Log

(1/105) > >>

[I plan on continuing this for a while - indeed, I got a big ol' stack of new music in my to-hear pile - so I figured I'd bring this thread over too.]

New to me at least.  As my journey through complete cycles of Beethoven’s piano sonatas winds down (though it may take months to get everything written, if I go that route), I began to wonder what will become my buying and listening focus.  And no, it (probably) won’t be Beethoven’s symphonies.  Debussy’s piano music would be good, I suppose, but I’ve been buying and listening to that in rather copious quantities over the last couple years as well, so that wouldn’t work.  Then it occurred to me: I must listen to more “new” music, or in other words, music I’ve not heard before.  While I’ve listened to a pretty wide variety of music over the decade or so that I’ve been seriously listening to classical music, I’ve not listened to anywhere near enough music.  There are thousands upon thousands of works, and I’ve heard perhaps thousands.  Not enough. 

So I’ve decided to listen to as much new music as I can over the next year or two or three or whatever.  From time to time I’ll write about said new music.  Keep in mind that this is music new to me, and so I may end up covering not only modern (ie, post-war) music, but also music going all the way back to the Baroque, or earlier.  Mostly, though, I expect most of the music to come from my favorite century, musically speaking: the 20th Century.  There’s so much variety that it seems the best place to start.

Or not.  I ended up selecting music from the 21st Century for my inaugural post.  Specifically, I selected Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle from 2000-2002 on Naxos, as played by the International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Ruo himself.  Ruo is a name completely new to me.  He’s a young (born 1976) Chinese born, now American domiciled composer who, according to the liner notes, some of which were written by Ruo, has been influenced by just about everything.  It shows.  The four concertos are brief works for ensembles ranging from five to fifteen players, with a few more instruments than that as some players double (or more) instruments.  They all blend Eastern influences and Western traditions, including jazz and everything avant garde.  One can detect whiffs of Bach, most notably in a cello part in the third concerto; Lutoslawksi, in the more astringent, densely written instrumental parts; and gobs of Stravinsky.  I thought I detected some transformed quotes from a work or two, and many portions sound like lost Stravinsky works from the 60s.  Even the jazz infused elements remind me more of Stravinsky’s approach to this idiom than of the idiom itself.  That may be bad or good, depending on one’s preferences.

People who like percussion will love this music, because there’s a lot of it.  All but the third concerto have parts for percussion, and it’s here where Ruo shines.  The writing and playing are vibrant, physical, and visceral.  Drums and cymbals and gongs (including one big old honkin’ “bass” gong, if there be such a thing) show up everywhere, in speedy, energetic, and nimble music.  Winds and strings are plentiful too, often exploring their higher registers to good, tangy, dissonant effect.  And there’s that whole “exotic” Eastern thing, too, sort of like adrenalized, mandarin Takemitsu.  Ruo and company also include spoken and sung parts in the piece, all of which involve Chinese texts.  Truth to tell, I find the instrumental writing more compelling than the vocal writing, and sometimes it doesn’t seem as well integrated as a Mozart aria or a Lutoslawski orchestral song.  But I like it.  Perhaps most promising is the fact that Ruo was only in his mid twenties when he wrote the music, so as he matures he may write something even better.  As it is, this disc will receive multiple spins.

Sound is close and clear and quite good, though some low frequency noise and rumble is audible through most of it. 

(A note: I anticipate many Naxos discs will be covered.  Revisiting the Naxos catalog reveals many enticing titles.  Too many, in fact.) 


It’s new to me.  It took me a while to get in to Italian opera, then a little more time to get into Gioacchino Rossini, and then a bit more time until I figured I might want to try his Stabat Mater.  His comic operas, or at least some of them, are wonderful, and even Guillame Tell has some magnificent parts.  But a Stabat Mater?  I decided to try a “safe” conductor in the great Carlo Maria Giulini, well aware of what such a comparatively late recording means in terms of tempo (slow or slowish) and approach (devout).  I selected at least reasonably wisely.

The work very definitely sounds operatic in approach, at least when compared to liturgical works by, say, Haydn or Bach.  Rossini’s music works splendidly for the soloists at all times, with just the right accompaniment for each of the members of the quartet.  And the tenor, well, he gets some special music, even if it sounds more buoyant that I would have expected in such a work.  The choral contribution is magnificent as well, never more so than in the last two movements.  Alternatively delicate and enchanting and powerful and driven, it helps the work.

The soloists all sound well, though since I’ve not heard any other versions, I can’t make any comparisons.  Giulini leads the work much the way I though he would, and thus I was very pleased.  I can’t really say that this is my favorite such work – not with works by Bach and Haydn and Szymanowski out there – and it certainly doesn’t strike me as particularly devout, but I’m glad I heard it, even if I’m not really compelled to collect too many (if any) other versions.

The early digital sound is better than I anticipated – maybe it got a makeover – if it still displays patches of glassiness and congestion at times.


Here’s a composer new to me.  To the extent I’d even seen Leonardo Balada’s name before it was only in ads.  That’s a shame.  I picked up the Naxos disc devoted to his Guernica, Homage to Sarasate, Homage to Casals, Fourth Symphony, and a suite derived from his opera Zapata, appropriately entitled Zapata: Images for Orchestra. 

In many ways Balada is what I’m looking for in new music, and here that means music from as recent as 1992 (the symphony).  He blends folk music a la Bartok and Ives, intense modernism, and avant garde elements calling to mind Ligeti, among others.  The music on this disc never sounds academic or merely analytical; there’s the spark of life to all of it.  Guernica, from 1966, opens the disc, and the piece is inspired by Picasso’s work of the same name, and both depict, rather gruesomely, the Spanish Civil War.  The piece does about as good a job translating the image to music as I can imagine, though perhaps others can imagine a better visual-to-aural transcription.  (If so, they should write it down.)  It’s chaotic and violent and confused and ugly and vibrant, and has the musical equivalent of an explosion right in the middle.  It’s a dense, short work of just over 11 minutes, and while it’s not easy listening, it’s immensely gripping.

The two homages are more deliberately avant garde, what with spooky high string notes and tremolos and disjointed elements coming and going.  They seem somewhat less focused than the first work, but they are likewise compelling.  The Fourth Symphony is an interesting work in that it was written for Lausanne Chamber Orchestra (hence its title “Lausanne”), and contains, the excellent liner notes report, elements of Swiss folk music.  Again, it’s a very modernist piece, but one informed by many moments of levity and textural lightness and even beauty.  In some ways, the two homages and the symphony sound the same – a critique anti-modernists would no doubt level – but there’s much more than enough musical food for thought in each piece.

The final work is the suite derived from Zapata.  What a collection!  The first movement, a Waltz, sounds just like a 19th Century waltz and falls beautifully on the ears, with delicate string writing.  The piece slowly transmogrifies into grotesque, almost chaotic music meant to symbolize a firing squad.  It’s very effective.  The March starts and stays grotesque in the best Expressionist-cum-trippy-avant-garde fashion, at times sounding like (disturbed) cartoon music.  The wonderful Elegy is apparently lifted straight from the opera, with a solo cello taking Zapata’s part and a solo violin his dying brother’s part.  The work closes with a Wedding Dance using Jarabe Tapatio (which pretty much everyone knows) as its recurring theme, which Balada then spins out in different directions while weaving in his own music most expertly.  It’s sort of like what Ives did, but more sophisticated.

This is one heck of a disc, and I now know I must explore more of Balada’s music.  Pronto.

Excellent sound.


My experience with Alan Rawsthorne has been quite limited thus far.  I’ve heard a Naxos disc dedicated to various chamber works by the composer, which includes the superb Viola Sonata among other fine works, as well as another Naxos disc of various concertos, which I find rather bland.  Given that, I decided it couldn’t hurt to try more of his chamber music, so I opted for the Maggini Quartet’s recording of the three String Quartets and Theme and Variations for Two Violins, again on Naxos.  It falls somewhere between the two other discs, though much closer to the prior chamber music disc.

The disc opens with the Theme and Variations for Two Violins, and it’s a pretty nice work.  It falls rather easily on the ear overall, though some spicy dissonant passages crop up, and the variations themselves are nicely varied stylistically and in emotional impact.  It’s not a towering masterpiece perhaps, but it’s not bad.  (Then again, it may be a towering masterpiece.)

The core of the disc starts off with the first quartet, another theme and variations work.  Compact and concise at about 10’, it moves along swiftly from idea to idea, never hovering over one idea too long.  Even so, it doesn’t pack quite the wallop I’m looking for in music of the era (1939).  Better is the second quartet from 1954.  It’s likewise compact and concise at under 18’, but from the start it’s more intense and thorny and vital.  Stinging and biting while still maintaining some lyricism and vigor, it really works.  Not that it’s all that way; Rawsthorne let’s silence and extremely quiet playing add to the impact of the music.  The third quartet (1965) goes a bit further down the same path and maintains tension throughout.  I suppose one can detect hints of other great quartet writers, but Rawsthorne is distinctive enough.  No, he can’t quite match up to, say, Bartok or Shostakovich, but I’m glad I got this disc nonetheless.  Looks like Rawsthorne’s up my alley in smaller scale fare.  Duly noted.

Sound is generally excellent, though it can be just a tad bright at times.


Moving on to the next work finds an opera I’ve been meaning to hear for a while but have never gotten around to.  I write of Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon.  I rather like Der Freischutz, so it’s somewhat surprising to me that it took as long as it did to get to this one.  But it did. 

I was able to pick up a used copy of Marek Janowski’s 1996 recording, so no more delays would be tolerated.  First I’ll just comment on the SOTA sound: It’s glorious.  Everything is clear and warm and presented in realistic perspective.  Special mention must be made of the sound of the choral singing.  The words they sing are usually clear, their placement easy to discern.  That’s a bonus. 

The opera itself is pretty good, though not of Freischutz quality.  The elf king and his love’s bet on the devotion of humans in love and Oberon’s machinations to help the heroes and heroines is opera-silly, and it doesn’t really seem meaty enough to support the proceedings at times, but it’ll do.  (Really, Der Freischutz, is pretty silly, too.)  The spoken dialogue is comparatively lame – at least when compared to the occasionally compelling dialogue in Der Freischutz – and it sure sounds like closely-miked actors do the speaking rather than the singers, but what ya gonna do?  The singers generally do well.  The late Deon van der Walt makes a fine elf king, Peter Seiffert a brave Huon, and Inga Nielsen makes a pleasant sounding Rezia.  (Which is a good thing given how much she sings.)  Vasselina Kassarova’s Fatime and Bo Skovhus’ Scherasmin are also pleasant enough to hear.  Janowski leads a tightly controlled, rhythmically sprung, lively, and orchestrally transparent account of the music, though I can’t comment on how he (or the singers) compare to others.

The music is good enough so that I will return to it.  Weber’s inventive writing and orchestration – a flute melody flying above a string accompaniment, undulating clarinets with low strings supporting them, etc – and the general energy level make it a fun listen.  I’ll probably program out the dialogue next time, but really, I have no complaints.  Now I have to give Kubelik a try.


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page

Go to full version