Tora Augestad, vocalist; Frode Halfti, accordion; Svante Henryson, violoncello; Trygve Seim, tenor and soprano saxophones
Coleman Barks is the best known contemporary English translator of the works of 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273). His work is the inspiration for saxophonist Trygve Seim’s off-kilter yet musically engaging Rumi Songs, a collection of present day lieder with a medieval Persian twist. The ensemble assembled for this project is an unorthodox grouping, with Seim on saxophones, mezzo-soprano Tora Augestad serving as vocalist, accordionist Frode Halfti, and cellist Svante Henryson.
The combination of textures that the group summons to accompany Augestad’s winsome vocals is abundantly varied but invariably pleasing. Halfti, in particular, brings a mercurial set of tone colors to bear, shadowing Seim and/or Henryson to craft beautiful amalgams of sound. Seim brings a strongly melodic sensibility to his solos, often doubling what was previously uttered by Augestad, but with the addition of tasteful filigrees. Although his sonorous tone sometimes anchors the low end, Henryson doesn’t just function in a bass-line role, but often revels in supplying countermelodies to fill in the proceedings. While it is an unexpected treatment of his poetry, Rumi is well served here by imaginative compositions in compelling arrangements.
Cuerdas del destino
Jake Arditti, countertenor; Irvine Arditti, solo violin; Arditti String Quartet
Aeon Records CD AECD 1439
Hilda Paredes provides a family portrait on Cuerdas del destino, her latest CD. The works are written for violinist Irvine Arditti, her husband, countertenor Jake Arditti, her son, and the Arditti Quartet, with whom she has enjoyed more than twenty years of artistic partnership. This CD is also significant in that it celebrates the Arditti’s fortieth anniversary.
The title work is Paredes’s second quartet. It is filled with ricochets of pizzicato and playful grouped glissandos set against pensive harmonics. Canciones lunáticas, settings of Pedro Serrano, expands this sound world to include tremolando. Jake Arditti’s voice is pitch perfect, with a strong upper register. Imitating the interplay of the strings, he brings out consonants, particularly sibilants.
Irvine Arditti plays the solo work In Memoriam Thomas Kakuska, an homage to the violist of the Berg Quartet, with exquisite attention to the detailed score. Paredes has said that the piece’s exploration of short motivic utterances iss meant to reflect Kakuska’s sense of humor; his contrasted sense of gravitas is depicted in the work’s piquant harmonic language.
Two versions of Papalote, a setting of Rocío González, are provided here. The first, for voice and violin, was written when Jake Arditti was still a boy treble as a father-son duo. The second is for countertenor with the full quartet. Once again, the voice part adopts or resembles many of the techniques performed by the strings: glissandos, terse accents to go along with pizzicato punctuation, and high, floating lines of tremendous purity to balance with harmonics and sostenuto legato melodies. The overall effect is mesmerizing.
Boston composer Scott Wheeler is a prolific creator of large-scale compositions. However, his latest Bridge CD, Portraits and Tributes, reveals a different side of the composer: the author of occasional pieces. Twenty-seven pieces devoted to friends and family, anniversaries and birthdays, reveal Wheeler’s comfort in an array of styles, ranging from Copland-esque Americana to ragtime. The latter style plays an important role in this collection: Wheeler seems to love ragtime with an enthusiasm rarely heard since William Bolcom’s principal works were in wide circulation. I’m particularly fond of those pieces, such as “Bleeker Study,” that blend styles – it channels both Kurt Weill and early Arnold Schoenberg with equal skill. The gentle “Cowley Meditation” is also a nice contrast to the plethora of rags here.
Donald Berman is the fleet-fingered pianist who plays all of the works on the CD. Like Wheeler, he has chameleon like tendencies when it comes to interpreting various styles. Any collection of occasional pieces is bound to vary in quality to a certain degree, but Portraits and Tributes is surprisingly strong and, perhaps even more crucially, entertaining from beginning to end.
Matthew Sharp cello Orchestra X / Nicholas Kok conductor The Continuum Ensemble, Ensemble X / Philip Headlam conductor Quartet X
Tim Harries bass guitar Errollyn Wallen voice
NMC Recordings NMC D221
A composer, vocalist, and pianist, Errollyn Wallenwears many hats and works in a plethora of styles. Photography, a disc devoted to her orchestra music, demonstrates that polystylism in exuberant abundance. References to Bach, Britten, and Vaughan Williams appear alongside moments that remind one of Duke Ellington. Wallen’s Cello Concerto alone mixes Impressionist harmonies, modernist angularity, touches of modal jazz, and ebullient virtuosity. The solo part’s challenges are handled with assuredness by Matthew Sharp, an artist who plays the cello with particular sweetness in its upper register and fleet trills (technical demands incorporated by Wallen). Conductor Nicolas Kok shapes the sometimes intricate counterpoint found in the orchestral writing with crystalline clarity.
Philip Headlam leads the Continuum Ensemble in The Hunger, a muscular piece with brawny brass fanfares, explosive interjections from percussion, and darkly hued interludes for the whole ensemble. It is some of Wallen’s weightiest and most portentous writing for instruments to date.
The title work, on the other hand, beams with vivacity. The first movement’s burbling ostinatos give way to the second movement’s stately fugato texture. The third movement, at first lyrically reflective, fills with ominous pile-ups of dissonance. Wallen has said that the final movement revolves around the type of modality in favor with the English pastoral school. So it does, but she puts her own stamp on it with a bustling dance over a drone that closes out the piece in exuberant fashion.
Wallen herself joins Quartet X and bass guitarist Tim Harries for In Earth, a gloss on Purcell’s famous aria from Dido and Aeneas. The piece features a long introduction populated by extended techniques and glissandos. Gradually, the famous ground bass and melody emerge from these textures, followed by Wallen, singing sotto voce, in a supple and poignant rendition of the aria. Certain melodic passages are fragmented and extended, making for a fascinating kaleidoscope of materials. Photography often deals with music of the past, but Wallen brings it vividly into communication with music of the present.
Björk’s most recent studio album has already received two releases: Vulnicura and the “unplugged version” Vulnicura Strings. Each has their virtues, but Vulnicura Live brings the best aspects of both, darkly hued electronica and sensuous strings respectively, together with singularly emotive performances by the singer. Thus, one could make a case that Live is even more appealing than the studio albums. It outlines her recent breakup and recovery from it with an on the surface display of feelings that many other singers could learn from — if they dared to be as vulnerable as Björk.
On the electronics side, Björk receives aid from Arca and Haxan Cloak. The textures that they weave are a pensive counterweight to the sonorous strings, allowing them to be underpinned with an anguished mixture of beats and synthetic textures just as appealing as they are at times distressing. The strings, supplied by members of Alarm Will Sound and New Heritage Orchestra, keen with abandon when called upon as an amplification of the singer’s grief. Correspondingly, they bring warmth to the proceedings’ latter half, in which Björk begins to share songs of resilience and recovery.
So, is this the breakup album you’d recommend to a friend on the outs with their ex? That all depends on their own proclivities – are they up for the ride? Björk presents grief and resiliency in equal measure and finds her own way to catharsis by Live’s conclusion. My take? It’s an object lesson that will likely help empower many in the throes of distress. That, in addition to its many musical merits, makes Live one of Björk’s most vital offerings to date.
Eirik Hegdal, saxophones/clarinettes; Trygve Seim, saxophones; Thomas T Dahl, guitar; Rob Waring, vibraphone/marimba; Harmen Fraanje, piano/fender rhodes; Olavi Louhivuori, drums; Mats Eilertsen, bass
In his debut as a leader on ECM, Rubicon, bassist Mats Eilertsen fronts a formidable septet of musicians with whom he has collaborated on many previous sessions. To be fair, many of the tracks on Rubicon feature subsets of the larger group, but the overall musical effect is filled with fascinating textures regardless. Apart from a single tune by pianist Harmen Fraanje and a group-composed piece, the compositions here are all by Eilertsen. He proves to be as adept a creator as he is a performer.
It is particularly interesting to hear Eilertsen interact with the comping instruments, Thomas T. Dahl’s guitar, Rob Waring’s vibraphone and marimba, and Fraanje’s piano and Fender Rhodes. There is a sense in which the bass’s walking lines set up another whole layer of harmony, allowing chordal interjections to be interposed with linear excursions by all three aforementioned players. This sense of “walking harmony” and the rhythmically propulsive quality in Eilertsen’s playing is equally savory when juxtaposed against the playing of the two saxophonists on the date, Eirik Hegdal and Trygve Seim. Seim is well known to ECM listeners; Hegdal makes his debut. The enveloping quality of their duets is stirring and it makes for formidable counterpoint against the rhythm section.
photo: André Løyning
Album opener “Canto” begins with a winds cadenza, accompanied by marimba, after which Eilertsen makes his presence known and Fraanje supplies a wistful solo. Eilertsen’s subsequent solo is pristine in its lyricism and drummer Olavi Louhivuori provides subtle interjections. “March” may be a slow-paced composition, but it has an adroit buildup and memorable melodic material. Waring’s vibraphone playing is marvelous. “Lago” begins sparely, with a duet between Fraanje and Eilertsen that only gradually cedes some territory to the saxophone. Fraanje shapes his solo with technical poise and a keen sense of pacing, later further developing its melodic material alongside the saxophones.
“Wood and Water,” co-composed by Eilertsen with Waring and Hegdal, features the latter musician playing clarinet. It begins misterioso, but in two minutes travels to considerably more jocular terrain. Short and sweet, but one wishes this trio played on longer. More expansive is album standout “September” which is given its motor by a riff first stated in the vibraphone and then taken over by the bass. The vibraphone takes on a more linear role, joined by saxophone and guitar on overlapping melodies. Both guitar and vibraphone are given ample room to solo and eventually are joined in ensemble passages by the saxophone. All of this builds to the piece’s climax, followed by a denouement that returns the proceedings to the simple ostinato riff from the opening in the vibraphone, gently coaxed to its conclusion by the other ensemble members. Whether the band is given room to develop material or are directed to take a more aphoristic collective approach, Eilertsen’s Rubicon has many moments of noteworthy music-making.
Works by James Primosch, Stephen Albert, and Christopher Patton
Lucie Shelley, treble; Mary Mackenzie, soprano
21st Century Consort; Christopher Kendall, conductor
Albany Records CD Troy 1615
Washington’s National Cathedral might not be the first place one considers as the best to record chamber forces. But Cathedral Music, the 21st Century Consort’s new Albany recording, revels in the space. Soprano Mary Mackenzie’s supple rendition of James Primosch’s Sacred Songs and Meditations sounds clear as crystal. The song cycle collects ancient hymns and refashions them into a beautiful collection of graceful, often chant-inflected, melodies.
The intricate polyphony and antiphony of the title work, by the late Stephen Albert, is warmly acoustically attired. Like all of Albert’s work, the orchestration is sumptuous, providing an intriguing palette of colors that complements the primarily angular melodic gestures. Christopher Patton’s Out of Darkness provides a muscular closer, with clarinet cadenzas set against boisterous percussion and angular chordal punctuation. Conductor Christopher Kendall and company are to be commended for negotiating a host of balance challenges to craft a fine document of three compelling works.
There are several recordings out this year commemorating Steve Reich at eighty (Allan Kozinn provides more about this in an excellent WSJ article). I haven’t yet heard the LSO’s CD, but I agree with Kozinn’s assessment that both Third Coast Percussion and Ensemble Signal have provided us with stirring listening in their respective new entries into Reich’s discography.
Brad Lubman leads Signal in musically detailed and energetic performances of both of the pieces included on this Harmonia Mundi CD. The first, Double Sextet (2007),garnered Reich the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Originally composed for six musicians – the chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird – to play against prerecorded versions of themselves, here Double Sextet is recast as a work for a dozen individual performers. Within each movement’s overall tempo, there are overlapping time strands operating at various tempi. The combination of these two factors – compositional and performative – allows for a virtuosic level of syncronization. This complexity of rhythm corresponds to the enhanced harmonic palette that Reich employs here, with many more “crunch chords” than is his usual wont.
Sure, Radio Rewrite does contain elements of two Radiohead songs: “Everything in its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place.” Their appearances are ephemeral and one gathers that the songs’ influence is to be felt far more beneath the surface of the piece than is to be found in mere quotation; they stoke the motoric engine that buoys this energetic and engaging work.
Tõnu Kõrvits, composer and kannel; Anja Lechner, violoncello; Kadri Voorand, voice;
Talinn Chamber Orchestra, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor.
Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits is presented to full advantage on his ECM Series debut Mirrors. Most composers would be leery of having a live concert (this one from 2013) represent the first entry in their discography. However, the performers recorded here are dedicated and superlatively prepared advocates. And the setting – the Estonian Methodist Church in Tallinn – couldn’t be more ideally suited to the ample resonance that makes Kõrvits’s music sing.
While Arvo Pärt is the most famous composer from Estonia in the West, his countryman Veljo Tormis is a compelling creator as well. Pärt has explored the Judeo Christian tradition throughout much of his oeuvre. Tormis’s work is deeply steeped in Estonian folk music. Given his own background as a folk musician, notably as a performer on the kannel (an Estonian zither), it is understandable that Kõrvits would gravitate towards Tormis as a mentor figure. In addition to Kõrvits’s own compositions, there are arrangements of songs by Tormis, as well as a piece based upon one, on Mirror. That said, one hesitates to unduly conflate the two of them, Kõrvits has an individual voice to share, even in his arrangements of Tormis. His sense of harmony is particularly special — it glints from one side of the divide between modal and chromatic writing to the other.
The star of the show is cellist Anja Lechner, whose gorgeous tone and technical command make her an ideal protagonist for Kõrvits’s intensely dramatic instrumental writing. The composer’s talents, coupled with Lechner’s, shine particularly brightly in the piece “Seven Dreams of Seven Birds,” in which the solo cello merges with vocal choir and strings. All manner of ensemble juxtapositions are demonstrated and Lechner’s effortless sounding upper register playing is marvelously displayed.
Kõrvits is a talent; one of the next generation of Estonian composers who, while paying homage to elder statesmen such as Tormis and Pärt, is carving out his own compelling voice. Mirror is well worth a sterling recommendation.
Composer/conductor James Wood has long been one of the “go-to” British musicians when it comes to percussion writing. For a number of years, he led Darmstadt’s percussion courses. He’s also organized and led vocal ensembles, notably Schola Cantorum of Oxford and New London Chamber Choir. Thus, his latest CD on NMC, combining voices and percussion ensembles, is a near-ideal way to appreciate his work.
Tongues of Fire is based on the story of Pentecost. Originally composed for Yale’sGlee Club, the piece brings out a Pan-American sensibility in Wood’s writing. The voice parts, impressively performed here by the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, are in South American Spanish dialect. Correspondingly, the percussion parts feature salsa and other Latin rhythms. While the trip from Connecticut to South America seems a long one, the overall effect achieved here is stirring.
The second work, Cloud-Polyphonies, written for the Yale Percussion Group, is based upon various cloud-like formations. In the first movement, wooden instruments replicated the cries and flight of starlings. The second movement features metallophones creating mysteriously floating cloud-like formations. The finale, for over sixty drums, builds a thunderous buffalo stampede.
Tongues of Fire is led by Wood; Cloud-Polyphonies by Yale’s Director of Percussion Studies Robert Van Slice. Both do an admirable job with challenging pieces. As a composer, Wood not only has chops to spare. His aesthetic is an imaginative and purposeful one, which helps the listener to find compelling through-lines in each of his works.