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.
Matmos (the duo of M. C. (Martin) Schmidt and Drew Daniel) uses an unusual sonic palette for their latest Thrill Jockey recording, Ultimate Care II. The sounds of the recording are made with the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II model washing machine in the basement of their home in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to a plethora of washing sounds – the spin cycle is quite striking – Matmos enlisted the aid of various artists –Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher (Horse Lords), Sam Haberman (Horse Lords), Jason Willett (Half Japanese), and Duncan Moore (Needle Gun) – to treat the machine both as a percussion instrument and as a source for computer music manipulations. The clincher: many of them do their laundry at Matmos’s apartment!
Jaded listeners might presume that the results would be gimmicky; they are anything but. To the contrary, one is startled by the array of sounds elicited from the Whirlpool and the thoughtful organization thereof. Who knew that riveting electronica could be made in a laundry room?
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke is a duo outing featuring keyboardist (and recently hired Harvard Professor) Vijay Iyer and trumpeter elder statesman Wadada Leo Smith. The most striking aspect of the duo’s approach is their willingness to cede each other space in the proceedings. Thus instead of the rapid call and response we frequently hear from jazz duos, here there are often successive solos which mine connected musical territories.
The central part of the album is an extended suite titled A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Dedicated to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), it finds the duo exploring a variety of textures. In addition to piano, Iyer breaks out electronics and a Fender Rhodes, leavening the proceedings with a judicious use of each. Smith frequently explores the stratospheric range of his instrument, punctuating his solos with trills, staccato outbursts, and overblowing. When the two come together in closer colloquy, the intervening soloing morphs into an impressively rich stack of piquant harmonies and imitative gestures.
The CD closes with a truly beautiful composition by Smith, “Marian Anderson,” named after the celebrated African-American contralto. Along with the album opener, Iyer’s “Passage,” it brings out a different demeanor from the musicians: lyrical, less angular, and more directly collaborative. While one certainly appreciates the approach on the central suite, offsetting it with these two tunes is an elegant touch.
Composer Tyshawn Sorey’s latest recording is of a massive two-hour long suite for Double Trio. The Inner Spectrum of Variables finds Sorey conducting a group of longtime collaborators. Sorey has said that his approach to conducting serves as homage to Butch Morris, whose ensemble leadership was called “conduction.” He also contributes the percussion parts to the recording, ranging from textural excursions to thunderous swing.
Given its leader’s voluminous list of stylistic interests, it is no surprise that The Inner Spectrum of Variables is persistently eclectic. With four string players and a pianist in the mix, there is a great deal of opportunity for Sorey to explore his more classically-based approach to composition and improvisation. But the group can turn on a dime and play folk music seemingly from the world over, or get into a fluent post-bop groove. Despite the work’s considerable duration, the amount of quick changes of demeanor can be head spinning. That said, the return of discrete sections helps to provide an overarching structure that undergirds the proceedings. And unlike previous Sorey compositions, long swaths of lyricism abound here: an appealing addition to his already formidable compositional kitbag. Recommended.
On the Albany CD Beasts, Collage New Music, directed by David Hoose, presents three vocal chamber works by Wellesley College professor Martin Brody. In his liner notes, Brody says that each of the pieces provide, “imaginative identification with something or someone outside one’s self as a catalyst of self-transformation.”
In the title work, featuring laser beam accuracy from soprano Elizabeth Keusch, the focus is on animals: the spider, the octopus, deer, mice, and a werewolf. Millenium Sightings uses the apocalyptic writings of 12 century monk Joachim of Fiore as its starting point, interweaving these with works by Abraham Abulafia and Miraji. Accompanied by bell-like timbres, mezzo soprano Janice Felty sings these angularly melismatic settings with strong declamation and a refined sense of tonal shadings. The Tree of Life shows Brody at his most expansive, combining texts by Ovid, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell. Mezzo soprano Pamela Dellal displays an impressive lower register, superb dynamic control, and unflagging stamina in these demanding settings. Throughout, Collage and Hoose are estimable accompanists, providing space for the vocal line while exploring the various interesting textures Brody has provided for them.
One quibble, for the publishers, not for Brody: many didn’t not allow reprints of their texts in the liner notes booklet. It would seem that this would serve both poets and composers by showing off their collaboration. One wishes publishers wouldn’t be so parsimonious with permissions.
This collection of choral music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt celebrates his eightieth birthday. It is programmed to emphasize his interpretations of Marian texts such as the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and O Antiphons, all of which are central to his choral output. It also includes an excerpt from the totemic Kanon Pokajanen, his largest choral work, as well as shorter excerpts such as The Deer’s Cry and I am the True Vine. (The latter is particularly beautifully performed.)
Aquarius, a group of twenty-four voices, seems “right-sized” for these works, with enough voices to provide the requisite heft and majesty where necessary while still being able to create diaphanous pianissimo passages elsewhere. Conductor Marc Michael De Smet does an exquisite job of shaping phrases, balancing chords, and, a very important consideration in the performance of Pärt, pacing the proceedings. I will be on the lookout for their complete recording of Kanon Pokajanen.