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Reviews: Madsen: 24 Preludes & Fugues - Jens Harald Bratlie

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Reviews: 3

Site review by Polly Nomial July 10, 2007
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Site review by ramesh September 17, 2007
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This is a highly recommendable 2 SACD set of contemporary music, in eclectic compositional styles, which will appeal to those who like jazz, New Age, baroque and romantic classical music. Because of this versatility, it would make an interesting present for a music lover.

I had not heard of this composer before this set. According to the booklet notes, Trygve Madsen was born in Norway in 1940, to a family of professional musicians. Apart from a thorough grounding in classical music, Madsen discovered American jazz through records. Although he didn't formally study jazz, he reports that playing jazz piano remains a hobby to the present day. As was the case with most classical composition students in the Fifties, he was inducted into the high serialism of the Second Viennese School. How many compositional voices were choked by this formalist musical orthodoxy remains unknown, but Madsen proved not to be one of dodecaphony's victims. He has been based in Norway for most of his professional life, and composes in virtually every genre, including musicals, opera, Norwegian song, and symphonic music.

The 24 preludes and fugues were composed between December 1995 and January 1996. To demonstrate the diversity of his musical idiom, I quote from the booklet notes : 'Madsen's A major fugue [ no. 5 ] begins with an A followed by three quaver rests- this is how Bach's first A major fugue of the '48' begins. In his B flat minor prelude [ no. 20 ] Madsen plays around with the theme of Bach's first C sharp major fugue. A hidden tribute is to be found in motifs derived from Bach's and Shostakovich's names : the last fugue has a theme consisting of the notes D, E flat, C, B, B flat, A, C, B. In Norwegian these notes are written d, ess, c, h, b, a , c, h-- a combination of D-S-c-h [ from the German spelling of D Shostakovitch ] and B-a-c-h.
A combination of Shostakovich's and Madsen's C major preludes illustrates the difference : both pieces are sarabandes. Madsen, however, introduces a syncopation in the second bar which immediately gives the music a jazz feel.
Latin American rhythms can be heard in the G major prelude [ no. 17 ], which is in the form of a habanera or tango, depending on the performer's choice of tempo.
The harmonic language of both Shostakovich's and Madsen's works is necessarily tonal, although both digress towards atonality in their respective D flat major fugues. Madsen's fugue [ no. 19 ] is a complete twelve note row."

Mixing Bach with Shostakovich, and adding jazz syncopations, tango and dodecaphony is a fair summary of these 24 preludes and fugues. I have held off reviewing this set for many months, since I wanted to discover how many times I came back to this music. I can firmly say that these discs are a good musical investment for the non-doctrinaire piano lover. For jazz enthusiasts, I found the compositional richness here greater than that contained in the Keith Jarrett improvisational discs I've heard, such as the 'Tokyo Solo' and 'Carnegie Hall Concert' issues. Coming back to these SACDs over and again, I found new facets on every hearing.

A set such as this may unfortunately fare poorly if reviewed in a magazine such as 'Gramophone' or 'Fanfare', if the critic has very fixed ideas on the nature of originality or value in contemporary classical composition. One can compare Madsen's '24' to the 24 Preludes by the fine Russian composer Lera Auerbach [ born 1973 ] on Bis. Auerbach's music strikes one as immediately more intense, probing, concentrated. All these are terms of approval in the argot of the elevated cultural critic. Auerbach's music sounds contemporary in a high modernist vein. Madsen in contrast generally sounds more relaxed, or discursive.

Going back to Madsen's formative years in the 1950s is instructive, when he learned jazz yet also was taught to compose in the 12 tone method. Jazz was looked down upon by the high European modernists, for whom even Ravel's jazz-inspired works were somewhat suspect. What was taught in conservatories and universities had strictly defined limits on 'proper' avant-garde music. Of course, everything has changed in the last forty or fifty years. Gone is the notion of the strict linear development of art music in the equal temperament popularised by JS Bach in his 48 Preludes and Fugues.

Bach's '48' was revolutionary, for it codified a compromise in tuning which made possible the future progress in chromaticism. Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues was a neoclassical glance back in time for the bicentennial of Bach's death. At first glance, it would seem quixotic of Madsen to compose a '24' with such strong homage to Bach and Shostakovich, whilst incorporating such a wild blend of influences. However, the unifying architecture of preludes and fugues in all the keys has given him the liberty to be exuberantly eclectic at the local level. If postmodernism can be described as a 'style of utilising styles', this is Madsen's virtue in his '24'. Unlike his titanic predecessors, he strikes out in a different direction. He presents a conspectus of the various musical styles available for the piano in the late twentieth century, with the major exception of the Cage 'prepared piano'. This is what makes a fair artistic assessment of the work rather fraught. A jazz purist, tango aficionado and contributor to 'Grove' would all object that the individual preludes or fugues are insufficiently 'worked' in their preferred vein. For me, this is a fundamentally misconceived approach to artistic achievement. In such a work of magpie eclecticism, it is in the juxtapositions between preludes and fugues of such variety that much musical interest resides. Admittedly, in these 48 pieces, of which the shortest lasts about 55 seconds and the longest at about 5 3/4 minutes, there aren't a succession of grand preludes or fugues which distinguish the Bach or Shostakovich sets. If there is an overall emotional or compositional trajectory to the two hours of music here, it eludes me. However, if one listens to several pieces in succession, these works glow with the originality of the genuine voice. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The piano has been recorded in 24 bit 44.1 kHz. Although in principle it could be argued that the piano has been recorded a shade close, I find this is preferable. I found much the same in the two definitive Nikolayeva recordings of the Shostakovich 24, one for Melodiya in close sound, and the later recording by Hyperion : warmer, more resonant and distant, but which blurred the contrapuntal austerity of the composer. 2L's sound is never hard, in fact, this label seems to achieve superb piano sound in its various issues. One can hear every note in Bratlie's pithy performances, which were overseen by the composer.

Review by threerandot May 9, 2007 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
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Trygve Madsen is a Norwegian composer who was born into a family of musicians and has played piano and composed music since the age of six. Madsen's biggest influences are Bach, Prokofiev, Ravel, Mozart, Haydn as well as Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Shostakovich. The influence of some of these composers can be heard throughout this series of Preludes and Fugues, which he began composing in 1995 and completed in January of 1996.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues in this collection cover a lot of ground and I don't know how many will want to sit and listen to them all in one sitting. The composer has indicated that the work be performed as whole, with breaks after the eigth and sixteenth fugues.

Having said that, these are still enjoyable and relaxing pieces that are very accessible. Madsen does not wear his heart on his sleeve like Rachmaninov, nor would I say the music is sterile. There are no storms in most of this music, but a more lyrical and relaxing quality. Madsen also seems to prefer tonality and only adds touches of atonality here and there.

Many of these preludes and fugues display the influence of composers like Debussy in the F# major prelude; jazz in the A minor prelude or Bach in the A major prelude and fugue. The G major prelude is a dance-like tango, but at a very slow pace, showing some Spanish influences. Sometimes Madsen will utilize a slow, persistent repeated figure in the left hand, with the right playing the melody as in the E minor prelude. Another stand out is the Prelude in D minor with its dance-like rhythms, colorful harmonies and obvious latin-jazz influence. The prelude and fugue in E major is also notable for a fast and jazzy prelude leading into a grand fugue which reminds me of a bach chorale. (Bach's influence is never far away). The Prelude in B flat major also stands out with its driving rhumba rhythms, heavy accents and dynamic energy. The prelude in G minor seems to be a march with russian influences of prokofiev and shostakovich.

The 2L team have gone for a somewhat closer acoustic in this recording with less air around the sound. Nevertheless, this does place one closer to the soloist, which I think is probably more appropriate for these intimate works. There is not much action from the rear speakers in surround, hence there is less depth in this recording. I also wish the sound had been warmer. Jens Harald Bratlie is an accomplished soloist and gives these pieces the attention to detail they deserve. The 2L team have done a good job of capturing plenty of piano nuance and color. I think Bratlie would be great in a cycle of piano works by Debussy or Ravel.

This is certainly an interesting disc, but I don't see myself returning to it on a regular basis. Still, this is a relaxing collection that I will return to from time to time when I want something soothing, intimate and heartfelt. This music communicates directly with the listener. Recommended.

(This review refers to the MCH portion of this disc.)

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