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.
Irvine Arditti, violin; Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman; ensemble recherché; Alberto Rosado, piano; Adrián Sandi, bass clarinet
Born in Tehuacan, Puebla, Mexico in 1957 and a resident of London since 1979, Hilda Paredes is one of the most prominent Mexican composers of contemporary concert music. Her latest recording on Mode presents five chamber pieces in riveting performances.
The title work, written in memory of British composer Jonathan Harvey, is a collaboration between violinist Irvine Arditti and Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman. Like many of Paredes’s works that include stringed instruments, Señales features a great number of glissandos, both fingered and sliding. Wind instruments supply gusting, whistling glissandos too. This technique is complemented by long sustained notes and fast angular passagework. The piece also displays deft use of percussion, including vibraphone, marimba, cimbalom, and all manner of unpitched percussion.
Páramo de voces, for piano and tape, is performed here by Alberto Rosado. Acerbically nimble sections of melodic writing are succeeded by emphatic fifths and octaves. There is some playing of the interior of the piano and the tape part adds resonance and sustained flute-like timbres to the proceedings. The Pierrot plus percussion piece Homenaje a Remedios Varo, premiered by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble but played here by ensemble recherché,is cast in five short movements, almost like character pieces. The opening has a Feldman-esque sensibility about it: pianissimo and slow, with ambling placement of intervals. Elsewhere, the piece is populated by whirling motion and trills, harmonics, and Paredes’s ever present glissandos. There is a gradual buildup to a piano cadenza, followed by an exuberant finale filled with fast passages for each ensemble member in turn.
Adrián Sandi performs the solo bass clarinet piece Intermezzo malinconcio with precision and energy. Percussive single note punctuations, repeated passages, pitch bends, and angular lines demonstrate this as a composition that distills the essence of many of Paredes’s gestural interests. Some nice microtonal inflections too. ensemble recherché returns for the disc’s final work, Recuerdos del Porvenir. The group asked Paredes to use a particular plainchant, “Gloria Tibi Trinitas,” upon which to base the composition. The chant moves from the surface in melodic presentations to eventually be subsumed into the piece’s background. Recuerdos del Porvenir is remarkable in its composer’s imaginative use of this economic motive, deriving a great deal from the chant yet retaining the highly gestural and chromatic environment of her style. This recording is an engaging portrait of a fascinating composer.
Kliment Krylovskiy, clarinet
Vanessa Mollard, violin
Riko Higuma, piano
Blue Griffin Records CD/download
Formed at Manhattan School of Music in 2006, the Zodiac Trio have been ambitious in their commissioning projects. Joined by guest cellist Ariel Barnes, on their second album Dreamtime they tackle a program consisting entirely of 21st century music.
The CD features two substantial commissioned works: Lamentations, by Richard Danielpour, and Andrew List’s Klezmer Fantazye. As one might well expect, both use the scalar patterns and gestural language of Klezmer, Danielpour in plaintive fashion and List with greater exuberance. On Aboriginal Dreamtime, List uses that culture’s creation myth as a starting pointing for an evocative piece. The group switches gears on John Mackey’s Breakdown Tango. Joined by Barnes, the Zodiac demonstrates ample virtuosity, playing with rhythmic verve and tight knit ensemble coordination.
Dreamtime is capped off with Across the Universe, a twelve-piece collection featuring one-minute pieces all inspired by signs of the Zodiac. It is a great way to put a distinctive stamp on the commissioning process (each piece responds to its particular sign thoughtfully and imaginatively) and to provide a “taster platter” of several composers’ styles. Standouts include Stanley Hoffmann’s lilting dance for Capricorne, James Romig’s delicately mysterious Virgo, John McDonald’s piquant Scorpio, and Francine Trester’s bumptious Aries.
One hopes that Zodiac will continue commissioning. Dreamtime demonstrates that they excel at bringing new compositions to life.
Works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Missy Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke
New Amsterdam CD/DL
Pianist Michael Mizrahi’s sophomore album Currents is out this week via New Amsterdam Records. Below is the considerably charming video introduction to the release, featuring excerpts from Troy Herion’s Harpsichords.
The title track, by Sarah Kirkland Snider, is a real standout. It adroitly covers a wide swath of both emotional and technical terrain. Thus, it is an ideal solo vehicle for Mizrahi, a pianist who clearly treasures this collection of works, each one filled with abundant variety. And the way that he plays them, he’s likely to make many listeners treasure them too.