Viet Cuong, Moth

For at least a few more days you can stream Moth, by classical composer Viet Cuong, performed, at the Midwest Band Clinic, by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony conducted by Jeff Ball, on Performance Today.  It is also available, probably more permanently, at his website and on his Soundcloud page.  I like the piece a lot.  The performance is excellent, really remarkable for an all-volunteer ensemble.  The style is fairly modern for PT, which is to say it is, roughly, in the idiom of tonal Western classical music from the 1920s and 1930s, with perhaps a smidgin of minimalism.  At first listen I thought it made clear use of the language of Stravinksy, especially Petrouchka and Le Sacre du Printemps, as well as of something resembling the post-Stravinsky and neoclassical phase of the 1930s, say, Milhaud, Poulenc, Constant Lambert, but without descending into pastiche.  On my second listen, with better sound, I was a bit taken aback by what I perceive as strong influence from Le Sacre, both in form and in content.   I am less startled by that after further listens.  Form-wise, it intersperses sections with ostinato, theme repetition (certainly key ingredients of Sacre), and other tension building devices (like modulation, especially stepwise upward modulation, which I don't think are found much in Sacre), with more pensive interludes, often tinged with a minor feel.  Just that kind of alternation is a main structural principal of Sacre.  As my references to neoclassicism and modulation above might suggest, there's somewhat more standard tonal content in Cuong's piece, thought it also has very strong Stravinsky-like "modal" or scalar elements, and occasional vaguely Iberian-sounding moments.  (As an aside, just thinking about harmony in Le Sacre makes me wonder if there is any standard dominant-to-tonic resolution at all in the piece---I think not, or not much.)

Cuong knows how to recombine and play with motives, scales, harmonic tropes and other elements to create interest, unify the piece and move things along in a satisfying way.  He shows this from the outset, with a clever motive consisting of a rising and descending scalar figure, played against a similar but inverted figure (or perhaps they are both fragments of the same extended figure that they evolve into, running up and down on flute, changing direction at different pitches), then relaxing into some Iberian-ish sounds.  At 1:30 we get melodic material very reminiscent of Le Sacre, and around 2:10, I think, the first hint of a four-note figure, which one might notate 3 4 2 1 in minor, also very reminiscent of Sacre (indeed it is very close---and would be identical if the last two notes were interchanged---to the initial four notes of a motive, 3 4 1 2 3 1 in minor with the last two notes twice as long as the preceding four, found in Sacre) that will become increasingly important.  Much of this material is developed and cleverly  combined through what sound to me like various key changes.  Around 3:30 things get more urgent, drums, with ostinato and repetition, especially of the four-note theme, and rising modulation.  (I wonder if there is some influence of John Adams' Harmonielehre here; I am reminded of it, but haven't listened to the Adams piece recently enough to tell.  Or maybe I should just can the speculation about influence.)  Around 4:10, quickly peak tension gives way to a mellow contrapuntal woodwind interlude, and there follows a long stretch with some alternation of faster and more complex passages, building a bit more each time, with pullbacks to this sort of mellowness.  Around 6:30 things seem to get more organized for a final buildup.  The ending, with an upward brass gliss emerging out of the ensemble to a momentarily held note, and then a sudden drop to tympani-punctuated chord, reminds me a little bit of Le Sacre too.

The program for this piece seems to be the gyrating flight of a moth before, and eventual immolation in, a flame, which is also in obvious parallel with Le Sacre's program, of a virgin obliged to dance herself to death in a pagan rite.  So I suspect the structural and idiomatic parallels to Le Sacre are no accident, although the overall tone is much lighter, and at 8'38 in this performance, the piece is of course much shorter.  I interpret these parallels, especially as dextrously integrated with harmonic movement at times quite uncharacteristic of Le Sacre, as a bit of a cheeky and light-hearted tour-de-force of compositional virtuosity.  The thematic material does have interest, but might be a little more on the generic side than ideal in places.  That is not really a problem in this piece.   I enjoyed some of the other pieces on his site but did find some of them a bit lacking in gripping melody.  Sound and Smoke I and II sound tailor-made for something like a fantasy movie soundtrack, and are extremely well done.  Part I sounds just as you might think from the subtitle "feudal castle lights", while Part II I found more distinctive.  I have a feeling that with some even stronger melodic material, perhaps some passages with some longer more sustained lines, Cuong could be really dangerous.  Hopefully Cuong will come up with more gripping melodic material in whatever way is necessary, whether from moments of personal inspiration or by ripping it off with exquisite taste à la Stravinsky if necessary.  (I exaggerate, Stravinsky fans... peace, I am one of you.)  Some of Cuong's other pieces show ability in more contemporary idioms.  He is only 24, a graduate student in composition at Princeton.  He is clearly getting a lot of recognition, as the list of awards, commissions, and performances on his webpage shows.  So he probably has a good career assured.  I hope he has his sights fixed on greatness; I'll be very interested to see what comes next.

Bonus:  On that December 12 PT stream, available for a few more days, the Brahms serenade (end of the 2nd hour) performed by the Sinfonia da Camera, if played on a good stereo, is magic.  (On first hearing through a cheap radio I was unimpressed.  Maybe it is all about the bass, although I think an undistorted treble helps too.)

Poulenc --- Complete Works (EMI)

Over the last few weeks I've been listening to "Francis Poulenc:  Oeuvres Complètes"  on EMI Classics (972165 2).  The short take: if you like classical music, buy it.  Amazing value at $44 for 20CDs  (prices vary but $50ish for the new set seems about par).  These are mostly, perhaps entirely, French performances, in many cases by artists (like pianists Gabriel Tacchino and Jacques Février) long associated with Poulenc.  There's a lot of superb music here and it's fascinating to have all of Poulenc's music in one place, sorted by genre (piano music first, then chamber music, then orchestral works, then sacred music, then dramatic vocal and other choral works, then songs).

Some highlights:  lots of superb piano music.  The "15 Improvisations", on disc 1, is a good place to start.  All of the chamber music is interesting; highlights include the wonderful 1926 Trio for piano, oboe, and bassoon. I was familiar with this from an excellent Deutsche Grammophon recording ("Francis Poulenc: Chamber Music") with the Ensemble Wien-Berlin on winds and James Levine on piano. The French EMI recording, with Robert Casier on oboe, Gérard Faisandier on bassoon, and Jacques Février on piano seems --- I could be influenced by the fact that the performers are French, but I think this is a real musical difference --- to have an earthier, perhaps Gallic, flair to it, with the winds sounding reedier, the phrasing more influenced by popular music.  The piece seems to blend influences from Classical and perhaps also rococo periods in music, with ones from the music-hall and popular traditions, and the more Germanic ensemble on DG seems to give a smoother, more ornamental sound emphasizing the classical connections more; the French one certainly doesn't overemphasize the popular elements (which are subtly infused into the music in any case), but does bring them out more.  Both performances bring out the humorous element that is usually essential to Poulenc, alongside expressiveness and singing beauty, but the French performers seem to fuse these two elements more closely and the result somehow seems a bit more sincerely felt, whereas the humorous aspects of the DG version have a bit more of the feel of parody.  Levine's piano playing is of course excellent, but seems a bit "blocky" at times compared to Février's.  I'm glad that I have both versions.  If I had to have only one, it would be the EMI one.

The Sonata for cello and piano is a masterpiece, that for violin and piano probably is also.  Poulenc worked on both over a good portion of the 1940s.   The latter is a bit more agitated in feeling (perhaps relatively chromatic for Poulenc?), the cello sonata more majestic, mellow, and songful.  The 1918 sonata for two clarinets and 1922 sonata for clarinet and bassoon are wonderful; they and the 1922 sonata for horn, trumpet, and trombone handle the unusual instrumentation masterfully.  The 1957 Elegy for horn and piano, dedicated to the memory of English French horn player Dennis Brain, is another masterpiece, with Février on piano and Alain Civil getting wonderful timbres from his horn.

I was less familiar with Poulenc's orchestral music before getting this box set, and it has been fascinating to get to know.  The ballet Les Biches, written for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and premiered in Monte Carlo in 1924, is probably the place to start.  Another wonderful piece, with lighthearted eighteenth-century-influenced pieces alternating with more avant-garde sounds and some very effective, more somber-sounding movements with chorus.  The choral movements are omitted in a later orchestral suite, which I have not heard; to me they are essential to the impact of the work heard here.

The piano-and-orchestra works have so far been a bit harder for me to wholeheartedly commit to... the Aubade starts very interestingly, but becomes rather bombastic-sounding, which even if intended humorously, doesn't quite draw me in.  I liked the earlier Concerto for piano and orchestra better, but will have to do some more listening to develop a real opinion.  Some of the pieces have a lot of music that sounds closely related to lush 1930s movie music, interesting but perhaps a bit too much.  The organ concerto has some really effective parts but I'll have to listen more carefully.  (Listening while cooking or doing dishes, which has been the situation for some of this orchestral music so far, doesn't really count as a fair hearing...).  Much of the orchestral music is conducted by the superb and very idiomatically French Georges Prêtre, and it is hard to imagine it better played.

Of the vocal works with orchestra on these discs, I have so far listened only to the first act of the opera Dialogues des Carmélites, which seems superb as a work of music, and probably of drama, and superbly sung and played; the choir and orchestra are those of the Paris Opera, under the excellent Pierre Dervaux.  (Dervaux' recording of Bizet's Pearl Fishers  with Nicolai Gedda as Nadir is one of the reference recordings of that piece, discussed elsewhere on this blog; it evidences the clarity of texture and line, and the restrained but expressive approach to tempo variation and phrasing, that one might think of as characteristically French, and which are shared by Prêtre's conducting here and elsewhere.)  The musical language seems quite influenced, at times, by the more modal side of Debussy and Ravel (and probably also by centuries of church music), and this language provides a superb vehicle for maintaining musical interest during the kind of dialogue that has often been scored, over the course of operatic history, as stereotyped recitative.  I am moved to go back to Débussy's Pélleas et Mélisande to see if it is a source for this style in opera (I have to admit that I never quite got into Pélleas, as conducted by Boulez, but probably didn't give it enough of a chance.)  Parts of the first act already have a stunning musical and dramatic impact, so I'm looking forward to finishing listening to this work.  I have listened, in other versions, to other vocal works by Poulenc, but it's been a long time, so I'm looking forward to getting familiar with them again.

I haven't yet delved into the five discs of songs, mostly for solo voice and piano but sometimes for vocal ensembles, that cap off the set.  Many involve one of my favorite singers, baritone Gérard Souzay accompanied by Dalton Baldwin (their Débussy songs on DG are sublime), and I suspect the less familiar singers will be wonderful discoveries.

The booklet contains discographic information in French and a valuable essay, discussing Poulenc and general and covering each piece briefly.   It's unfortunate that it doesn't include librettos for the dramatic pieces and lyrics for the songs, although that probably would have made the booklet unmanageably large.  I would guess that for most pieces you can find lyrics on the web, but that is not nearly as nice as having them all in one place stored with the relevant CDs.  The central section of the booklet features wonderful historic photos of Poulenc with friends and colleagues.

This set is an amazing value, of a sort that seems to be increasingly available from major record companies.  It contains many, many works that seem to me essential to any lover of classical music, in performances that it's hard to imagine improving upon.