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Dark Matter
Dark Matter
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5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling polyphonic music of many textures and colors, January 12, 2013
This review is from: Dark Matter (Audio CD)
Dark Matter (completed in 2003) is a large-scale composition for voices, ensemble and electronics that features great contrasts of color, of different kinds of polyphony, of serenity versus violent music bordering on chaos, of slowly evolving music versus fast sound snippets. The form of the work is rather open and does not fall into a particular category. Apart from a common theme and the connecting element of Transmissions, recurring interludes between the sections that are dominated by a hybrid instrument of electric and acoustic guitar, the music is bound together precisely by the overarching element of wide-reaching explorations of ever new territory of musical texture and color. The music is mostly dense and complex, with exciting and often dazzling polyphony. Dark Matter refers to the much larger portion of invisible (non-radiating) matter over visible matter in the universe, inferred by, e.g., the way galaxies rotate and hold together, yet in this work it also stands more generally for "that which is unknown, and possibly unknowable" (Barrett).

There is a lot of writing for solo voice (male voice, mostly in high register, and soprano voice) in Dark Matter, and it is enormously successful, which is noteworthy and on its own would make the work stand out, apart from the captivating writing for instrumental ensemble and electronics. An achilles' heel of atonal music is the apparent difficulty for a composer to achieve distinctness of melodic lines or textures for solo voices. Too often the listener is confronted with a boring generic similarity of vocal textures to other ones heard before (a pronounced interval leap here, another one there), even if the surrounding instrumental music is interesting or even unique. Yet when a composer is able to write distinctively for solo voice in the atonal medium the results can be riveting, e.g. in Stockhausen's output throughout his career.

Barrett is among the rather few composers of atonal music who consistently manage to produce music for the human solo voice that is distinctive, compelling and memorable. At times extreme vocal techniques are employed in this work, like in the central part featuring mostly high-registered male voice, while other passages employ more regular singing techniques.

The play of colors in the music is remarkable. To name just a few examples: In part three there is a moment, as the cello breaks free on its own, when it turns out that it, and not actual electronic sounds, had been the bottom register of the previous electronic music. In part five an exquisite timbral interplay is created between the plucking of acoustic guitar and a particular kind of percussion, flower pots struck with small sticks. In the central part of the work the wild, growling timbres of electric guitar and contrabass clarinet complement each other in a fascinating way.

The work begins with The Empire of Lights. A falsetto male voice (Carl Rosman who later also plays clarinets), quietly sings lines with gentle slopes of pitch and slight pauses between each word or syllable; the phrasing is frequently emphasized by a talking drum. The vocal lines, presenting a creation myth from the pyramid texts, are ornamented in harmonious polyphony by two flutes, with violin as accompaniment or counter voice. Over time the music evolves towards incorporating more heterogeneity, beginning with the appearance of plucked sounds from acoustic guitar. Later on the soprano voice chimes in, at first forming a quasi-canon with the male falsetto voice, in a seductive extension of the earlier imitative polyphony between voice and instruments. Transmission I (track 2) introduces great contrast with its predominance of agitated, dense guitar sounds; after a while the soprano sings against them with an excited voice, polyphonically ornamented by piccolo flutes.

(The Transmissions are derived from Transmission, a composition for the hybrid electric/acoustic guitar and live electronics. This excellent -- enormously varied yet tightly structured -- 17-minute composition is found on the CD of the same name, which among others also contains Interference, the solo backbone (contrabass clarinet, voice, bass pedal drum) for the central part of Dark Matter.)

The third part, Khasma (track 3), presenting Greek cosmological texts, is for string quintet, electronic music, soprano and two flutes. The attractive writing for string quintet features a rather open dialog in which gestures tend to wander between instruments while being transformed. In the middle section the long-stretched sounds of the electronic music rotate in timbre and in space, swaying in cycles within the aural field. In great contrast, the soprano voice not just stands fixed in space; its vocal lines, imbued with a flux of high-voltage energy, are trembling yet at the same time, in a gripping way, 'frozen'. Transmission II, track 4, presents wildly howling electric guitar, which is cut into by violent shreds of sound from electronic music.

De vita coelitus comparanda ('on capturing the life of the stars'), track 5, a Greek invocation to the "blessed one", presents serene, soaring singing by the soprano against which the instrumental ensemble paints often dense "fields of color", leading to the unfolding of sublime beauty. In Transmission III (track 6) the soprano at first continues, with pauses in between phrases, to sing against the guitar.

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae ('The great art of light and darkness'), track 7, is the central and longest part of the work with a duration of about 15 minutes. The sung Latin text describes the sudden and violent destruction of the world. The part begins with falsetto male voice singing the text with terrified expression and rapid pitch fluctuations. Dense ensemble play follows presenting a quasi-endless rising line, an aural illusion based on ever new ascensions entering at the bottom as they drop out at the top. This thread of two minutes duration at first is fluid, then a bit more broken. An extended section for soloistic playing follows, in which the wild, growling timbres of electric guitar (interjecting into this part the material of Transmission IV) and contrabass clarinet connect to one another, and electronic sound snippets fly around the instrumental gestures. Percussion adds to an atmosphere that seems rather chaotic. Yet the passage, also featuring improvisatory elements, is still sharply controlled on the compositional level, like even the most chaotic events in nature, such as explosions of massive stars in supernovae, are tightly governed by immutable laws. More quiet sections follow, and the part ends with a vocal line ascending over a wide range. In Transmission V (track 8) the soprano sings in a similar manner as in Transmission III; its singing of an existential text by Blaise Pascal against two guitars is beautifully 'shadowed' by the clarinet.

Katasterismoi ('transformation into stars') contrasts a large swarm of brief electronic sound snippets in continuous agitation with static long-stretched chords from the ensemble. The electronic snippets are digitally processed from concrete sounds; large-scale processes of slow changes in pattern, shape of sound shreds and timbre are overlaid on the swarm of electronic snippets often flying by with enormous speed. The dissonant static chords from the instrumental ensemble sound uncannily electronic as well, an effect additionally highlighted when later on a very slow electronic downward glissando seamlessly takes over as the component of sustained sound -- yet below the surface that glissando, which at first seems smooth, is actually made up of bits of sound.

In 'Sounds' the prose of Samuel Beckett of the same title is spoken by the soprano in a measured, rather solemn, beautifully stylized and serene tone. It is contrasted by brief and highly-compressed movements, 'stirrings' (the composer) from ensemble that emerge at several points during the recitation of the text. It is arresting how the colorful music partially comments on the spoken words but at the same time forms its own parallel world.

The work concludes with the final Transmission VI in which "six superimposed guitar parts create a chaotic and meaningless tangle of notes, against which the live [electric] guitar struggles aggressively but is ultimately defeated, first in its attempt to make sense of things and finally in its ability to make any sound at all" (Barrett, from the link on the work on his website, well worth reading in its entirety; the lyrics to the work are available on NMC's website).

Dark Matter is a phenomenal and important work by, in my view, one of the most outstanding composers of the last few decades; it was a recent surprise discovery for me, based on several recordings, how excellent Barrett's music really was.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 15, 2013 8:46 AM PST

Richard Barrett-Negatives
Richard Barrett-Negatives
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5.0 out of 5 stars Visceral excitement, vivid colors, complexity and subtlety, October 30, 2012
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Since having listened to his monumental composition CONSTRUCTION (2011), I have come to consider Richard Barrett as one of the major compositional voices of our time. I find myself returning to the fascinating, vivid and impactful music on this CD, Negatives, time and again.

`ne songe plus a fuir' - `Dream no more of fleeing' (1985-86), for solo cello (amplified): With emphasis on downward force and friction the cellist plays elementary, at times even rude or tormented gestures, and repeats them in a circular, ritualistic manner, but with slight variations each time. Different gestures are introduced as the music progresses. How the composition spins a highly compelling narrative from the circular concatenations of small variations of gestures, and how in the context the physical tension of the playing translates to musical tension, is remarkable. As Richard Toop writes in the liner notes, "with radical pragmatism, Barrett decided to strip the cello of all its `tradition', and treat it simply as four strings with a resonating body, and a certain physical disposition in relation to the player".

`EARTH' for trombone and percussion (1987-88): Another visceral narrative unfolds, but unlike in all the other works on this disc, the development of the music seems limited; after a while the music appears to tread water and to `babble'. Yet perhaps this is an intentional expression of the basic strategy of the work, which "collapses into alienation . . . a music hovering on the brink of irreversible incoherence or extinction" (Barrett).

`Another heavenly day' (1989-90) for e-flat clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, live electronics: The electric guitar features strange yet arresting timbres; at the beginning of the piece some of its sounds make the initial impression of being `overtones' of the double bass. While there is some squealing in high notes by the E-flat clarinet (higher register range than the standard B-flat clarinet), for a good part the instrument plays in its low or lower middle register, producing even some menacing gestures and timbres in conjunction with the sounds of the electric guitar. The interaction between the three instruments is frequently intense, and they produce a power of musical fabric, with some moments of high density, that is astounding and exciting.

`negatives' (1988-1993) for 9 players: With 35 minutes duration, this work is the most expansive one on the CD. While there are a few figures of swirling or zig-zagging pitch motion here and there, the first part (delta) presents mostly just rhythms. Disparate rhythms on different pitches and timbres (violin, viola, cello, alto flute, sitar, 10-string guitar (both amplified), trombone, double bass, percussion) move alongside and cross each other. The complexity of the proceedings, the subtle shifts of rhythm and the spectrum of colors are remarkable (percussion here is the angklung, an Indonesian bamboo rattle). The second part (colloid-E) that is much more inward concentrated, with prominent roles of 10-string guitar, flute and trombone, presents basic gestures that are `spiky' in pitch motion, with pronounced interval leaps upward, followed by downward movement over one, two or three notes. A complex, subtle and compelling fabric is woven from these basic elements that constantly undergo variations; other elements lend support to the musical narrative. The third part (archipelago) develops a more assertive continuum of gestural activity that is expressed by a solo instrument, the mandolin; most prominently, strings playing rhythms and glissando fluctuations within small pitch intervals supplement the texture. This organically leads to, in the fourth part (basalt-E), another continuum of gestural activity in a solo instrument, here the trombone. It plays a long, relatively linear thread of about 8 minutes duration, somewhat like a rather free jazz solo, and is countered by sets of contrarian rhythms in strings and percussion. The last part (entstellt) presents a dense polyphonic web woven by diverse instruments, featuring again juxtaposition of melodic elements -- here fragmentary figures -- with just rhythms. It sounds somewhat like a dense shower of dots of color spattered onto a musical canvas. The organic and natural flow of the heterogeneous, complex polyphony is remarkable. The nine sections of this last part are separated by long pauses (15 seconds each). The polarity between pure rhythm and melodic gesture, central to the entire work, is summarized in a symbolic manner in the last section. A passage of just rhythm is followed by polyphony of cello and recorder. While the recorder plays a line of wide interval leaps, the cello simultaneously counters with a line of smaller leaps yet of equal impact through emphasis on energetic strokes on the instrument -- a colorful statement closing a splendid work.

codex I (2001) for six players "is a structural foundation upon which the performers create their own music: events are timed, but not precisely; the number of instruments for a sound-event are specified, but not which instruments; a (broken) thread of sustained pitches runs through the piece but is typically encrusted with improvised divergences; some parts of the score have completely "gone missing" and inferences are to be made as to what kind of improvisation might appropriately replace them; and so on" (Barrett). In an exciting manner the music starts with long-stretched wind chords that are full of inner life; they are wavy, glissandoing, fluttering. Later on, there are sound points tossed between the players, flurries, fragmentary gestures. Long-stretched tones continue to play an important role; wa-wa effects are created by mutes. The music is full of tension and energy, with timbres of the electric guitar, complementing the winds, to match. They are raspy, growling and howling, with heavy `industrial' accents at times, and at some points squealing of trombone and trumpet amplifies the roughness of timbre. The raw impact of this free-flowing music is exhilarating.

Symphony No. 1 & Mavis in Las Vegas
Symphony No. 1 & Mavis in Las Vegas
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5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful symphony with distinctive sound colors, September 7, 2012
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Among the first impressions of this symphony are its distinctive colors and the might and sheer gorgeousness of sound. The timbres are often of an icy, crystalline quality, driven by dissonant brass, the use of high-pitched percussion (prominently glockenspiel and celesta), and high-pitched violins that quite often play tremoli. There are many woodwind sounds of an icy quality as well, yet there are also moments of seductive warmth, in which particularly flute and alto flute tend to have a prominent role. In general, and also in this symphony, Maxwell Davies' colorful writing for woodwinds is exceptional. Loosely interspersed timpani strokes enhance the power of sound at select moments, and they help define the sound signature right at the start of the music. In some passages double basses are prominent; they are mostly plucked rather than bowed. The sounds of the symphony are harmonically rich and differentiated, also when they are dissonant. There are alluring moments of mysteriousness of sound as well.

Structurally this is enormously abstract music, with basically no melodies and hardly any themes. Rather, it mostly features mere gestures -- it paints with sound and gesture. There are expansive surges of energy and tension in this mostly rather slowly moving music, and the music often propels forward in broad strokes, not seldom with wide interval leaps. Yet there is also a lot of filigree and fine detail -- in some spots the sound even seems 'hyper-detailed' in a great way. The abstract nature of the music is underlined by an open-ended narrative, where in each movement the music ends up rather removed from where it started. This structural characteristic, organically developing, is an arresting feature often found in the composer's instrumental music, up to the splendid string quartets that he wrote more than a quarter of a century later (the symphony is from 1976).

Yet while the music is abstract, and features a mostly gestural narrative, the development of the music in time combined with the gorgeous sound is powerful and compelling. It may not be ideal for those in need of melodies, but it may be thrilling for adventurous listeners who are open to any quality experience in music. This symphony, inspired and already fully mature, is the first of a string of symphonies that in my opinion make Maxwell Davies one of the important symphonists of the 20th century.

The first movement starts out with music that features slow moving brass chords, underlined by powerful timpani strokes. The sounds evoke for me giant sheets of ice clashing and grinding against one another. There are several "windows" in the music where it becomes more intimate and enriched with filigree; after the fourth of such windows (at around 6 min.) the music enters a new phase. Starting from a restrained sound level, long-stretched sound planes move forward, initially featuring sustained woodwind chords of complex harmony and color that, while dissonant, are intensely glowing. Very gradually, over several minutes, the music builds up energy once more, and finally flows into a somewhat turbulent ending.

The second movement that eventually will develop into "a scherzo of a kind" (the composer), begins on a mysterious note. It features a series of surges of motion and energy. The first surge, in brass, is reminiscent of the music of the opening movement (yet in fact it is the current movement that was written first, see the composer's remarks in the CD booklet). A particularly furious surge (at around 4 min.) begins with strings and concludes with piercing brass. The organic nature of the cumulative build-up of tremendous force within the shortest time span is stunning. Some of the upwellings do not rise to high volume, yet you can always feel the tension of the driving force underneath. The mightiest swelling of the music comes towards the end, in a passage that produces a whirl-wind like howling of strings, supported by brass. There are several more subdued, partially warmer sounding, "interludes" between surges, some of them exquisitely colored by woodwinds.

The third movement (adagio) once more begins with a mysterious tone, featuring gorgeous sounds in lower strings overlaid with icy, and later warmer, woodwind chords. Slowly the music rises to higher register, and again moves with swelling of motion and energy that now develops at a very measured pace and in a restrained and wave-like manner. The underlying slow-burning tension is gripping. Eventually, at about 8 minutes, the music returns to sound (brass, timpani) and gestures reminiscent of the first movement. From there strings mount the most expansive surge in this movement, flowing into pronounced successions of interval leaps with legato double (sometimes triple) notes on each pitch and energetic emphasis on the repeat strokes. This passage is later echoed on a more intimate level in woodwinds, and with that the movement finally subsides.

In this music even tempi are abstract, and differences in tempi are often defined by just the speed of surface activity; the background of slower-moving sound planes in the 'fast' movements is rather reminiscent in character of the motion in the slow movements. This is again evident in the last movement, "Presto", which really does not feel like very fast music at all (the first movement of rather moderate overall tempo was a "Presto" as well!). Often it rather moves like a viscous gel, on which fast flurries of activity are overlaid. Particularly notable are the frantic figures in trumpets in the middle of the movement, later on a fury of celli, and at the end a meteor shower of activity in high-pitched percussion against a mounting crescendo of the rest of the orchestra.

This abstract music is certainly an experience that is entirely different than, say, a Beethoven symphony. Is it an experience that is similarly worthwhile? It is up to the individual listeners to find out for themselves.


The symphony is coupled on this Naxos re-release of Collins recordings with the much lighter "Mavis in Las Vegas", a humoristic orchestral composition that in contrast to the symphony is very melodic: yes, the composer is more than capable of writing "regular" melodies when he intends to. At first the music appears mostly as a potpourri of different show tunes (not surprising, given the title), yet strictly spoken it is a theme with variations. The theme is introduced at the beginning in the solo violin. The music is situated in different localities of Las Vegas (see CD booklet), and changes in character accordingly. Delightful and well done.

Note: in order to fully enjoy the (truly excellent) deep bass in the symphony, you may need to turn up your subwoofer higher than usual; for "Mavis in Las Vegas" regular levels suffice.

Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
by Raymond Tallis
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5.0 out of 5 stars A well-reasoned and exciting book, September 4, 2012
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As a neuroscientist, Tallis writes with obviously intimate insider knowledge of the field, and he argues with a lot of common sense as well as with deep philosophical understanding and reasoning regarding the issues. He shows the severe methodological and conceptual limitations of brain scans and he refutes in detail what he calls Neuromania, the tendency to reduce the human mind and consciousness to the firing of neurons, and "Darwinitis", the attempt to minimize the profound differences between humans and animals via a misguided biologism. While he debunks Darwinitis, Tallis is a full-blown Darwinian (as am I, except when it comes to the human soul). He is also an atheist, which may make his knowledgeable and fearless attacks against Neuromania and Darwinitis, which are in themselves mostly rooted in atheistic views, considerably more devastating than if they had come from a theist (of course there is no shortage of effective theistic rebuttals of these intellectual tendencies, but they usually follow different avenues of argumentation).

Against popular modern philosophical thinking, the author strongly affirms the obvious realities of consciousness, qualia and intentionality. It is most impressive and intellectually delicious how, with razor-sharp reasoning, Tallis lays waste to Dan Dennett's ideas who seeks to explain these issues "away" (at some point he rightfully argues why Dennett's book "Consciousness Explained" should rather be called "Consciousness Evaded"). He also superbly demolishes Dawkins' meme theory and, while he does not mention his name that frequently, Steven Pinker's ideas as well. Tallis convincingly demonstrates why evolutionary psychology and its spin-offs neuroaesthetics, neuroethics, neurolaw and neurotheology, among others, are thoroughly misguided (and in part dangerous) pseudo-science -- even if some of the studies have been published in the most reputable top scientific journals like Nature and Science. He also refutes the popular but unfounded idea that the human mind is (like) a computer, and shows how hollow the assertion is that one day computers may acquire consciousness once they are "complex enough". Tallis affirms that the mind is not identical with the brain, but that it is far more than just the brain. His arguments to that effect, which do not invoke an immaterial soul, are original, and while I do not by any means think they tell the entire story, they certainly appear to have considerable merit.

Tallis also affirms the profound and common-sense reality of human freedom, against all the facile and pseudo-scientific dismissals, born from nothing more than plain naturalistic dogma, that it is just an illusion of our brains. He tries to argue for freedom from the perspective of intentionality which, he appears to think, simply allows us to somehow step back from the laws of nature and make choices by "aligning ourselves for our means" with one law or another. Yet Tallis treats intentionality as a brute given, and it seems hard to envision how intentionality, even from his particular view of how the mind is more than just the brain, somehow might escape the web of determinism without the assumption of an immaterial soul. This section appears rather contrived, and to me clearly shows some of the limitations of an atheistic world view. Tallis shines the right light on the common-sense reality of human freedom and he does it so well; the more stunning it seems how his solution appears so flawed. Yet this is an exception in a book that is otherwise soundly reasoned (a few remarks here and there also reveal a crude lack of understanding of theistic philosophy; yet these remarks are not directly relevant to the ideas discussed in the book).

Tallis rightfully rejects scientism, the silly and dogmatic idea that science is the only valid source of human knowledge and understanding (just like him, I reject the idea also as a scientist, knowing the limitations of science). He restores proper authority to philosophy which, while it should be informed by science, is not subservient to it. Interestingly, while as an atheist the author repeatedly dismisses dualism and what he calls "supernaturalism" as unnecessary alternative, he ultimately has to admit that he has no good explanation for the mysteries of the human mind himself -- which puts into question if dualism is really as unnecessary an alternative as he wants it to be. It makes the impression that Tallis does protest a bit too much. It is refreshing, however, that he exhibits the intellectual honesty, the profound philosophical thought and the common sense to admit to these mysteries, rather than being content with modern materialistic pseudo-explanations.

This book should be considered mandatory reading for atheists who are interested in genuine reasoning about the reality of the uniqueness of the human mind, rather than in superficial pseudo-scientific reasoning that is rooted in Neuromania and in a simplistic biologism that seeks to minimize what distinguishes us from the remainder of the animal world, including apes. It should also be considered mandatory reading for theists who want to inform themselves how a convincing case can be made that evolutionary psychology, Neuromania and Darwinitiis are terribly mistaken, simply by reasoning "from within", without having to invoke an immaterial soul (I do believe that correct philosophy about human rationality and freedom is ultimately impossible without the concept of a soul, but that is another issue). Be prepared though to invest some mental energy into following the arguments, which can be demanding at times. But it is worth it.

I recommend this well-reasoned and exciting book in the highest terms.

Peter Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartets, Nos. 7 & 8
Peter Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartets, Nos. 7 & 8
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sublime musical architecture, July 17, 2011
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Naxos Quartet # 7 (2005), a large work of almost an hour duration, was inspired by the work of the Italian architect Borromini. Maxwell Davies describes in the CD booklet how as a student in the 1950s in Rome he "began to appreciate the extraordinarily original manipulation of space and light in Borromini's work." He continues: "More than in any other seventeenth-century building, a small space would appear huge, due to exaggerated angles and recesses, and to the pulsating rhythms of decoration." The composer then describes in detail the particular architectural inspirations for each of the seven movements, which makes for the most interesting read after the listener is already familiar with the music.

Almost all of the music is slow, and a lot of the time it is rather introspective. Its complex proceedings demand immense concentration on the part of the listener, yet the rewards stand in generous proportion to this effort. The stretching of space in Borromini's architecture is mirrored with pronounced arches of musical structure and tension, both on the larger and the smaller scale. On a number of occasions a sense of stretching is also conveyed by violin playing in the upper or even uppermost registers, and a good amount of filigree is found in the music. Several times the music is imbued with great urge. Some unique structures are created.

Right at the beginning of the first movement the music draws the listener in with caressing, seductive melodic polyphony. After some time a series of long waves of intensification begins, leading to great stretching and tension within the musical architecture of the 10-minute movement. Nonetheless in the first few minutes the dynamic level rarely exceeds mezzoforte; only after the 6 minute mark the music develops in a dynamically much more expansive manner, leading to dramatic surges. Finally, over its last minute, the music subsides in a quiet fashion. The stylistic timelessness of the music, which is also found elsewhere in the quartet but is especially striking here, is a remarkable achievement.

The second movement first introduces a very slow music in which mysterious harmonies unfold. A melodic polyphony ensues in which two main voices are divided over muted violin in high register and cello. The contrast between melodies and register results in a vulnerable, arresting tension. After a while the voices switch register. Later on dynamic surges driven or accompanied by tremoli are heard, flooding the music with luminosity as they move to higher registers; such `tremolo surges' will resurface in later movements as well, beginning with the next one. The music then continues with melodic polyphony.

The third movement begins with a brief introductory section, after which a sequence of transformations of an extended melodic phrase is heard, leading further and further away from the original melodic statement. Dynamic surges accompany each of the appearances of the phrase, and they often end in intense `tremolo surges'. In this manner wave after wave follows one another as in the first movement, but now in considerably shorter intervals and often with much steeper inclines towards the end. After the music has quieted down a bit towards the middle, while still harboring a brewing underlying tension, it erupts into its fiercest yet also mightiest surge, developing in a prolonged way over 2 minutes time, through several successive stages. It builds a huge large-scale arch in the music.

A quirky dance-like melody is heard in the fourth movement, starting out as a duet between higher and lower registers. The long-stretched, intricate unfolding and treatment of the melody is admirable.

The fifth movement begins with the surge of a soaring melody from the cello below to the highest registers of the violin, an intricate and impressive large-scale process that spans more than a minute. The composer explains that the movement was inspired by a spiral tower of one of Borromini's buildings, which is well audible. Variations of the melody ensue that keep on traversing diverse registers. In the middle of the movement, at around 3.5 min., another long-stretched surge from below occurs. Yet it is different from the one that started out the movement and it ends up building an even more extended arch in the music. After reaching the low registers once more, several dramatic surges of intensity ensue. Following the last one, built on another drive of the music from low to high registers, and ending on a set of powerful, glowing tremoli, the music subsides.

A long, searching pizzicato passage full of harmonic and rhythmic friction opens the sixth movement. It is followed by playing on high register of a soaring, slowly unfolding melodic pattern, which develops by melodic elements floating and alternating between instruments, while sound planes of close harmonic and polyphonic interplay are created. Slowly the average pitch descends. In the middle a new melodic phrase is introduced that is spun forth into longer strings by linkage of variations, and it wanders through the diverse instruments.

The introduction of the main motivic material at the beginning of the 7th and final movement is embedded in tremoli played at high volume. The violent intensity of the music is later, at around 1'20", accentuated by whirlwind concatenations of arpeggio-like figures. Around 2.5 min. an imitation of the previous phrases very softly, as a distant echo, initially seems just a short intermezzo, yet after another short outburst that quickly subsides again, it turns out to have laid the groundwork for an extended, quiet and songful adagio ending of the music. This intriguing detail fits well with the originality of the movement's overall structure.

Once the fascination of this string quartet has the listener in its grip, which may very well be at first listening, the listener may find him/herself drawn towards this music time and time again.

Naxos Quartet # 8 (2005) is based on `Queen Elisabeth's Galliard' by Renaissance composer Dowland and is, with a duration of 18 minutes, relatively short. Maxwell Davies: "The Dowland is present in some form throughout, but only emerges plain and unadorned towards the work's single movement's close, appearing there in a bright F sharp major, with the melody initially in the cello." (It is worthwhile reading the remainder of the comments on the structure by the composer in the CD booklet.) The viola opens the work with the slow presentation of an ascending three-note motif, taken from the original melody by Dowland, and from there the texture beautifully soars into the high registers. The passage sets the stage for much of the music, where long, tension-filled lines are created out of minimal or very slowly developing motivic material. This is made possible by, among others, superb steering of harmony and colorful use of register range available across the four instruments.

After three minutes the music enters a faster tempo, commencing a section of more than three minutes duration where the Dowland melody with its dance-like character is represented in an abstract manner. Also here long lines are woven, in which ever different strands in the polyphony rise to the forefront. Eventually, in a short passage, the texture recedes to soft dynamics, which allows slow music to take over once more. For a brief episode the faster dance-like music returns, at first tentatively, then more firmly, only to subside again. The melodic and harmonic proceedings in the subsequent extended adagio section are sublime.

Around 12.5 minutes a repeated broad four-note motif, played forte by the viola and doubled by the cello on every other note, dramatically introduces the final stage of the music, which over several phases finally leads to the introduction of the original melody by Dowland. The presentation of the melody is a distinctive moment, but also a fleeting one. The music ends on a mysterious, pensive note.

The playing of the Maggini Quartet combines effortless technical finesse with immense sensitivity for the music's drama and inner tension -- the admirable performances on this disc appear to be exemplary.

12 Songs
12 Songs
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4.0 out of 5 stars Some exceptional songwriting, September 13, 2010
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This review is from: 12 Songs (Audio CD)
This record is a testament to how good Neil Diamond really can be. Good melodic invention is one thing, quite another is writing compelling, irresistible melodic progressions -- the development of melodies from one moment to the next in a directional manner that creates larger, overarching structures. At his best, Neil Diamond excels in the latter department like few songwriters do, while his basic invention of melodic phrases is always good. I know that many people don't take him too seriously, finding him a shallow entertainer, but he seems to me consistently underrated in his talent.

The quality of songwriting is a bit uneven on this album (hence only four stars overall, while the best songs easily transcend that). There are some songs that are indeed just nice, innocuous melodies and nothing more, like "Save Me a Saturday Night" and "We". Then there are songs that feature solid songwriting above average, like "Captain of a Shipwreck" and "I'm On To You". Yet then there are those six songs, half of them all, that to my ears contain impressive melodic progression. These are "Hell Yeah", "Evermore", Delirious Love", "Man of God", "Create Me" and "Face Me". Any young songwriter who could write something like just one of these six songs would have the chance to be an immediate overnight sensation. Yes, these songs are that good.

The mostly stripped down sound with acoustic guitar at its core, often from multiple players, suits the music well. It lays bare the raw songwriting talent of Diamond. While his voice is not anymore as clear and steady as in earlier days, it is still rich, perhaps now even more emotional and warm, and can still pack an impressive energetic punch (e.g., in "Delirious Love").

Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartets Nos. 3 & 4
Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartets Nos. 3 & 4
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful, May 25, 2010
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These string quartets are in my view among the most engaging music in the genre, and I have been drawn back to them repeatedly over the last few years. The music freely moves between more consonant and more dissonant textures, and between tonal and atonal elements. It sounds modern yet not 'avantgarde'. The polyphonic writing is consistently attractive. The music features an impressive timbral palette, supported by a sophisticated harmonic fabric, which is achieved without employment of 'extended' techniques. Transformations within the music are extensive, as often in the composer's works that unfold on the larger structural scale, and lend the musical narrative an open-ended character that is captivating.

The third Naxos quartet is written in four movements, lasting about half an hour. First movement: The principal melodic gesture, introduced in the first violin, is swiftly transformed away from its initial shape. Somehow fragments of the melodic roots always appear recognizable, yet mostly just as subtle hints. Rather than undergoing common 'variations', the melodic gesture resurfaces time and again as a series of fleeting allusions, wandering about in all instruments and registers. The finesse of the compositional proceedings is quite spectacular. Matching the fragmented presentation of melodic gesture is an increasing distortion of the musical flow, which "gradually transforms the material into a military march of a fatuous and splintered nature" (the composer, from the CD booklet); the invasion of Iraq affected the composition of the quartet (March and April 2003). This dissolves into slow, desolate music. Eventually, after an 'outcry', featuring an intense variation of the principal melodic gesture, the movement subsides.

The second movement is slow. After an introductory pizzicato, the cello intonates an abstract melody that beautifully and very slowly rises in register through the viola to the violins. In the process it reveals itself as a freely flowing, even soaring 'endless' melody. After just a brief resting point on sustained chords (at ca. 2 min.) the melodic line develops further, now harmonically and polyphonically enriched by the combined playing of instruments. The 'endless' melody continues in this manner close to the 5 minute mark. In the second half of the movement the melodic expression is more fragmented, yet there are episodes where for a while melodic lines gain new cohesion and direction. Moods are rather dark and subdued. In a more dissonant passage towards the end the rhythmic landscape of the third movement is foreshadowed. The composer's comments in the CD booklet about use and symbolism of plainsong in this movement are revealing.

The third movement "stands in for a scherzo" (the composer). Over variations of a lively rhythmic structure, diverse melodic gestures appear. Simultaneous motion and countermotion contrast one another in ever new forms. The music becomes gradually more urgent in motion and tone. Finally, after a brief moment of quiet suspense, a highly unsettled passage distorts the material, and the movement ends with an episode 'stucchevole' (cloying, nauseating).

The composer: "The Finale, 'Fugue', begins with successive instrumental entries in period style, recalling the typical procedure of the form. This is soon interrupted and replaced by quicker, more dynamic music, suggesting the Italian 'fuga' (flight) rather than the form Bach perfected."

The 'flight' episodes are full of violent friction. They feature not just fierce forward motion, but also rough counter motions that seek to hold back the fleeing subject. There is a tentative return of the more quiet fugue, but the 'flight' section again pushes through. The music ends with a soaring fugue episode that is repeatedly and violently interjected with a stopping device from the 'flight' sections, two strong strokes of short notes that quickly follow each other. Finally the stopping device runs rampant, repeating itself on its own a few times, and the music ends on a grinding held chord.

The fourth Naxos quartet, a distinct favorite of mine, is written as a single movement, lasting about 25 minutes. It was inspired by the Brueghel picture of children's games (1560), which can easily be found on the web.

The composer: "These illustrations liberated my musical imagination, but I feel it would limit the listener's perception to be too specific about which game relates to exactly which section of the work. Suffice it to say that there is vigorous play - leap frog, bind the devil with a cord, truss, wrestling - alongside quieter pastimes - masks, guess whom I shall choose, courting, odds and evens. The single movement juxtaposes these activities as abruptly and intimately as they occur in Brueghel. [...] As work on the quartet progressed I became aware that I was reading into, and behind the games, adult motives and implications, concerning aggression and war, with their consequences. It was impossible to escape into innocent childhood fantasy."

The abrupt juxtaposition of activities translates into numerous sections of different musical motion that follow one another in discrete blocks. Within the more agitated or faster sections, the drivers of activity are sequences of concatenated, varied repeats of short motifs that are rhythmically accentuated. The four instrumental strands often move at different speeds or are rhythmically shifted against one another. The resulting polyphony is complex yet amazingly transparent at the same time - a feature that contributes to an enduring fascination of the music.

In slow passages the music is laden with suspense, yet it is often serene nonetheless, and at times mysterious. The harmonic and timbral development in several of these sections is expansive and impressive in its directionality.


The music, recorded on a Naxos CD, is played with intensity and commitment by the Maggini Quartet; the sound is palpable and detailed.

PS: Some reviewers have commented that Maxwell Davies' quartets draw on the sound world of Bartok and others. I myself have thought that some passages in the first few quartets sound similar to Bartok, and several movements in the 7th quartet similar to Shostakovich. Yet I found that this is not the case, after actually re-listening to all of Bartok's quartets 2 - 6, and to several Shostakovich quartets. Maxwell Davies' quartets sound quite different; the composer has very much his own voice.

On Alligators
On Alligators
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great American composer, January 6, 2006
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This review is from: On Alligators (Audio CD)
The disc features:

On Alligators (1972) for small ensemble, 14:50
Fourth string quartet (2000), 21:44
Natural Fantasy (1985) for organ, 12:53
Piano concerto # 3 (1983), 28:49

The 4th string quartet (2000) begins with slow-moving layers (here the harmonies are reminiscent of Bartok's 4th and 5th quartets but soon go their own way). Gradually faster gestures arise, and the more the one-movement quartet progresses, the quicker the succession of moments of dense gestures, developing with considerable speed, becomes. Only towards the end the music calms down again.

The music is highly polyphonic and masterful at that. It is a particularly dense and beautiful example for a certain kind of quartet writing:

The diverse strands are very disparate from each other, yet still the polyphony does not produce independent simultaneous lines; rather, one gesture or gestural complex - as a short outburst or more extended - is sculpted as a synergistic result of several of the disparate strands working together. To that aim, the leading voice in the polyphony changes rapidly between instruments or is divided among them, instead of remaining associated with one instrument for a longer period of time than just a brief moment. This holds particularly for the faster music that becomes more and more prominent. - The calming down at the end is into, for the most part of those few minutes, (quasi-) homophonic, beautifully harmonized music of great gestural strength and subtlety.

The music is so riveting and well crafted that I can say with confidence that this string quartet is one of the very best that I have ever heard - and I know quite well the quartets of Beethoven and Bartok (which are basically considered the benchmark for quartet writing), among other older ones, and also a number of the famous quartets of the last 50 years. During the many times that I have listened to the Wuorinen quartet, the music has become better and better for me with every single exposure, and it still surprises me with new riches each time.


The first movement of the piano concerto # 3 (1983) begins with a driven piano solo of great momentum and density, yet its narrative uses just a few basic gestural elements. The orchestra enters only in the second minute, and at first limits itself to lively drum percussion, supplementing the forward push of the music. Finally, after four minutes, other sections of the orchestra chime in, led by brass. The energetic momentum of the music remains unrelenting.

The second, slow movement, which spans almost half of the work's duration, is a musical marvel. It is captivating how the music, at a measured pace, more and more builds from static beginnings to agitated, affirmative outpourings of energy - towards the end leading to sharp brass attacks too. The music hovers between fluid lines and emphasized interval leaps; the balance between these shifts during the music and is continuously redefined in its expression. Abstract powers of gesture are at play, but to visceral effect. It is beguiling how in some places the melodic lines and timbral patterns are woven by interplay of the piano with harp and metallic percussion (mainly vibraphone).

The last movement is fast and features perpetual, intense forward drive just like the first one, yet from the start the music is much more a product of communcation between piano and the orchestra. Asymmetric rhythmic shifting of lines against each other brings about an intriguiging kind of instability amongst the unyielding momentum, which is broken only briefly in the middle for a moment of rest and reorientation. The ebullient, gutsy music has a joyous, assertive energy, bristling with life. The movement ends with an orchestral tutti that is dominated by a rollicking high-speed staccato line in the brass.


"Natural Fantasy" for organ (1985), duration about 13 min.:
The gestures in this work are quite abstract, yet form a fascinating fabric of music. After an extended, tense opening, grouped sequences of partially overlapping chords are heard. During each sequence the chords fan out within pitch space, a gesture that recurs from group to group in a varied way while the timbre becomes more and more bright. As the motion within the music becomes more agitated, the texture develops into a grand flickering of light that grows in vehemence. After a brief repose at about 5 minutes the game repeats itself - with intermediary phases - and eventually the music develops even more force than the first time around, along with a dramatic increase in chordal complexity and timbral saturation. Finally, the process flows into an organic end point in the form of an apotheotic and mighty effusion of saturated chords of extended duration.

The composer writes in the CD booklet how the work is unique in his catalogue, in the sense that "in all other works of mine, the note or pitch-class content has absolute priority over all other dimensions of a composition", whereas Natural Fantasy contains gestural shapes whose "actual note-content is made to fit the needs of the shape".


"On Alligators" (1972), the 15-minute title piece of this CD, is a work for small ensemble. I think in this work Wuorinen has not quite found a mature language yet (I do not, however, know other works from this earlier period as comparison). It features contrapuntal gestures that would be engaging, were it not that there is a constant use of shrill, strained sounds and a rigid employment of dissonance, both applied almost as a dogmatic compositional system. This continuous, unyielding and fatiguing bombardment with dissonance does not evoke an impression of the natural ease of true musicality, as it is found in the other works discussed here, where dissonance is much more functional. I am at a loss to find an expressive purpose for this kind of writing.


With the exception of "On Alligators", the very diverse works on this CD prove with authority that Charles Wuorinen is one of the great American composers. Wuorinen shares with Elliot Carter a predilection for composing uncompromising, dense "maximalist" music.
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Albedo 0.39
Albedo 0.39
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Albedo 0.39, December 19, 2003
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This review is from: Albedo 0.39 (Audio CD)
One reviewer here stated that Vangelis is comparable with Mozart and Beethoven and that he is the greatest composer of the 20th century. I cannot quite agree. Vangelis' composing does not have the degree of sophistication and refinement that the music of Mozart and Beethoven possesses and also the music of the best contemporary "classical" composers, such as Stockhausen and Boulez, just to name two (the former is also one of the most important pioneers of electronic music, see for example his Gesang der Juenglinge (1956) and his Kontakte (1960), and has created awe-inspiring synth music as well, such as Oktophonie (1991) - all those works are available at stockhausendotorg).
Vangelis' composing in Albedo 0.39 at times - though not always - seems a bit coarse, abrupt and when it comes to changing keys, simplistic (there should be more modulation involved) and a tad too obvious (arguably, the often maligned but in my view also great Chariots of Fire, for example, is more mature in that respect). However, his craft of composing is sufficiently impressive such that in connection with his truly awesome musical inspiration, the sheer power of his sonic imagination, his innovative and soulful use of synthesizer timbres that also convincingly adapts these to the diverse development stages of a given track, and his astonishing mastery of a great variety of styles, Albedo 0.39 becomes a fantastic and rewarding musical experience. The combination of above virtues also clearly makes Vangelis one of the greatest electronic musicians.
Moreover, the sometimes found simpleness of presentation of musical ideas (there is enough satisfying complexity as well) by Vangelis in Albedo 0.39, rather than routinely being just simplistic, often seems to be the result of a superior musical mind that knows that appropriate simpleness may be useful to achieve a powerful emotional effect. The abrupt transitions in the music and the few sudden - even slightly naive - outbursts of climactic, glorious or triumphant tone (on occasion they seem to symbolize moments of star birth) can be remarkable in their power, and sometimes the sudden transitions in the music appear to be sheer genius, such as in the track Alpha.
In this track of moderate tempo Vangelis paints boldly with broad brush strokes, presenting the original theme and counterthemes to it in varied and inspired ways, with the variations either dropping in suddenly or - towards the end - smoothly developing from the previous material. The large-scale build-up of this 6-minute-piece, easily going from a quiet, delicate "ticking clock" atmosphere to a glorious, free-flowing climax, is simply astonishing. The build-up is able to sustain unerring, powerful directionality over the very diverse stages, a directionality that is also aided by the seamless integration of the solidly driving rock rhythm into the tension of development.
As pointed out by others, the range of music on Albedo 0.39 is huge. You get quality synth-pop (Pulstar; I love those chords ferociously slashing through the music), jamming jazz-rock (Main Sequence), fast-paced and exciting power-rock where the thematic/melodic lines chase with high speed (Nucleogenesis 1 and 2), the above somewhat ballad-like Alpha, and a few quiet pieces that partially show Eastern timbral and melodic influences (especially Freefall).
I agree with many reviewers here that Albedo 0.39 is a most important and impressive work of electronic music. And highly enjoyable to!
Two more points:
1. Vangelis' playing of drums and percussion, though maybe not wizzard-hand virtuosic, is musically just awesome. Always the right and amazing accents.
2. Two passages in Albedo 0.39 sound eerily similar to two highly characteristic and very unique passages in Bruckner symphonies, in # 3 (1889 version) and in # 6 (1881). Compare Pulstar 2'52" to 3'10" with 11'08" to 11'28" in the Karajan recording of Bruckner Symphony 3, 1st movement and Nucleogenesis Part I 5'13" to 5'36" with 13'26" to 13'52" in the Karajan recording of Bruckner Symphony 6, 1st movement (the magical soft treatment of the main theme in horns and trumpets leading to the final climax of the coda; the Karajan recordings of these symphonies are the ones to get).--Are these striking similarities pure coincidence?

Rihm: Jagden und Formen
Rihm: Jagden und Formen
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extreme statement on musical motion, June 7, 2003
This review is from: Rihm: Jagden und Formen (Audio CD)
"Hunts and forms": The CD booklet compares the motion of the music with that of a high-speed train - yet that comparison does not quite hold. In the main thread of the music there rarely is a "run-away" motion as can only be formed by regular rhythms; rather the irregular rhythms found in the main threads provide a constant game of holding back/jumping forward, with a jerking motion that nonetheless overall pushes the music ahead. This music does not establish a Beethovenian forward momentum, yet a high level of energy of motion is found nonetheless.
Regular rhythms - as "run-away" patterns - mostly occur just for a brief moments, only to quickly disappear again. Only in the second half of the work there are a few passages where the music moves in more extended, massive unison motion of fast regular rhythms; the massive circular motion in these few moments pushes the music forward with almost barbaric, primeval vehemence, in great contrast to the refinement and elegance of the musical motion and timbres usually found in the work. All these unison motions in regular rhythm disperse, crumble quite rapidly, however.
From the very beginning it is clear that not only the motion is agitated, but also that the music features an excited tone. This tone is at first mainly associated with the predominant playing of smaller ensemble groups; bigger tutti initially feature more massiveness than excitement of tone. Yet on a large-scale, over the course of the entire composition, there is a development of this excited tone into an all-encompassing, massive timbre, gaining sharp brightness along the way: in a statistical manner - not in a gradual continuum - massiveness and excitement of timbre more and more coalesce, the further the work progresses, up to the final climax (which is not the end of the work). This large-scale development, together with the common motivic material throughout the work, lends coherence to the music, even though the individual "hunts" never translate into a long, continuous thread along which the music might chase.
The two violins (later joined by other strings) present the motivic material that will be used throughout the work. Later woodwinds play an important role, the final sharpness of timbre is foreshadowed by polyphonic soloist playing of members of the trumpet section at about 1/3 through the work (after the first interruption of the "running" motion, see below), and in the final combination of massiveness and sharpness of excited tone the brass section as a whole plays an important role; percussion accents become more and more weighty as well. Woodwinds continue to play an important role until the end; the dominance of the string section at the beginning does not repeat itself. As coloring device, however, the sound of strings is used often in combination with other instruments, and strings may also contribute to the polyphony in separate strands. The ensemble of about 25 players often sounds like a larger orchestra in terms of weight.
The development of the motivic material at first may seem rather repetitive - the material is more oriented towards rhythm and interval than towards melody - yet it is not. Of course, the work is divided into sections that differ enough from each other as to make clear that there is a great level of non-repetition, yet it may take some time to discover how astonishingly little repetitiveness there is (actually none, strictly spoken) within one section, even though a given section may appear to be of rather uniform color. Given the "limited" material, the actual lack of repetitiveness seems the more admirable, the more one listens to the music.
Several times, at first about 1/3 through the work, the music comes to a halt, in drawn-out music that, at least partially, appears to represent broad augmentations of the motivic material in very slow motion. Those incisions in the music, full of tension since so much at odds with the main character of agitated motion, add to the complexity of the overall development of the work.
The main voice in the music may come from one instrument group, it may be formed by a dialogue between different groups, or there may be several main voices running in parallel and at different apparent speeds, forming diverse time layers.
The complexity of the polyphony is extraordinary. Following such polyphonic complexity in agitated motion over the entire length of the work with the concentration necessary to appreciate the musical argument is not easy, also given the relative uniformity of the musical material used throughout.
This certainly is one of those works that both challenge and train the listener's capabilites of perception, and in the end, the richness of experience fully rewards the effort. This is an important work: it says new things in music, and it does so with weight.

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