Meredith Monk is best known for her vocal works. However, she has been writing for the piano since early on in her studies and has mature works in her catalog that date back to the 1970s. Starting in the 1980s, she began to write a number of pieces for piano duo. Both solo works and duos are represented on this ECM CD of her piano music, played expertly and energetically by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker. They even engage in a bit of hand percussion and vocal call and response on the ebullient “Folkdance.“
As Monk points out in her liner notes, these are pieces that may seem simple on the surface. This is deceiving. Accounting for all their details and dealing with the slightly off-kilter rhythmic sensibility that is so often brought to bear in the works is quite tricky. One might wonder why the selections are called “Piano Songs.” Truth be told, Monk’s work, be it for instruments or voices, retains such a strongly vocal quality to the shaping of its lines that calling these pieces songs, much like Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, seems apt.
The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, Timothy Weiss, conductor
Oberlin Music 2xCD
While not hot off the presses (it was released in 2012), this disc is new to me and I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time with it. Richard Hawkins is a clarinetist with superlative technique and keen musicality. The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Timothy Weiss, accompanies him in enthusiastic fashion. Their rendition of the Carter Clarinet Concerto (1996) is a study in contrasts, with the group playing muscularly while Hawkins spins arcing lines with cool command. There’s a similar dichotomy to be found in the performance of Benjamin Broening’s Clarinet Concerto. This does not in any way show the ensemble in a bad light. In fact, after hearing dozens of cool-as-ice performances by New York and European groups, it is a breathe of fresh air to hear these young musicians dig in con brio! Broening’s piece itself features many thrilling passages and is, as is most of his music, from a formal vantage point exquisitely well sculpted.
Things come into crystalline focus in the recording of the late William Albright’s Clarinet Quintet, with dovetailing strings turning on a dime and staccato and pizzicato passages delivered with precise accuracy. The piece is quite fetching; one hopes that more groups will take it up. The title work, by Aaron Helgeson, closes the proceedings in beautifully ethereal fashion. Hawkins and Weiss are not only a good team musically speaking; their curation of this recording’s program is thoughtful and artful.
New World Records
What if one wanted to focus on the contemplative nature of mythology’s Furies instead of their ferocity? They might want to hear Arthur Levering’s The Furies. Sequitur’s performance of the piece, conducted by Paul Hostetter, presents layers of counterpoint and corruscating lines with enviable clarity and precision. There are occasional eruptions, but one is more struck by the piece’s unerring pacing than any brash moments that ensue. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, give Il Mare Dentro a similarly detailed reading. Once again, Levering opts for a slow build with a gradual accumulation of material, much of it resonant with aquatic imagery: there’s even a sly quote of Debussy’s La Mer towards the work’s conclusion.
Four Drinking Songs is Levering at his most minimal. Harp and piano ostinatos accompany mezzo-soprano Krista River, whose warm tone and clear diction brighten the proceedings, on a multilingual tour of intoxication. The two-piano piece Partite sopra Ciaccona is more portentous in demeanor, but no less attractive than the larger works. Levering deploys a rich harmonic palette and supplies pianists John McDonald and Donald Berman with virtuosic passages a plenty to play. BMOP returns for the title work, which features its string section in a wide ranging theme and variations that combines soaring lines with a dissonant chordal sonorities. Once again, one hears frequent post-minimal ostinatos propelling the piece, but they are just part of a larger stylistically diverse tapestry that also encompasses post-tonal thinking, abundant counterpoint, and a postmodern sensibility. Levering is a talented composer whose works should be much better known. Hopefully this excellent disc will help.
Catalan composer and music critic Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) created a stylistically varied and compelling body of work. The pieces here demonstrate his music’s abundant vitality, continual curiosity, and eloquence. In particular, the two vocal works, Madrigal sobre un tema popular, which teems with attractive folk dance rhythms, and 5 Invocaciones al Crucificado, an affecting meditation on Christ’s passion, are given standout performances by the extraordinarily talented mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Violinist Tim Fain supplies an energetic and adroit rendition of the solo part in the neoclassical work Concertino 1+13, and flutist Sato Moughalian and pianist Blair McMillen negotiate the more modernist environs of Serenata a Lydia de Cadaques with technical skill and thoughtful musicality. The Perspectives Ensemble, conducted by Angel Gil Ordonez, provides stalwart support throughout. The disc is an excellent snapshot of a composer whose perseverance during the repressive time of Franco’s regime yielded a great deal of memorable music.
Clocking in at well over three hundred minutes in duration, Michael Finnissy’s eleven-movement cycle for solo piano The History of Photography in Sound (composed 1997-2000) is a gargantuan effort for both composer and performer. Ian Pace is the foremost advocate for and interpreter of Finnissy’s piano music – over the past two decades, he has performed all of it and is presently writing a monograph about the composer. One cannot imagine a more heartfelt nor technically skilful performance of this work.
From a composer with a more directly programmatic bent, a work titled “North American Spirituals,” as is this piece’s third movement, would sound very different. But Finnissy’s musical language revels in a complex interplay of far flung reference points, ample virtuosity, and a penchant for pungent, dense harmonies and a coruscating rhythmic grid. Thus, musical program can sometimes be integrated in earnest or with a measure of critical distance – oftentimes, both aspects of dealing with narrative are at least somewhat present. The past, especially past music, can sometimes seem to be a far-off memory distantly evoked; it can also seem to be lampooned in over-the-top fashion.
Finnissy has been called a “New Complexity” composer, and late modernism is merely one strain of his work. While Ives’s sense of collage and quotation certainly is a touchstone, so too are Scriabin, Schoenberg, Liszt, folksong, pop standards, and, yes, Ferneyhough. Also present are a variety of recurring themes – homosexuality, freedom, violence, sensuality, Christianity, community, literature, poetics – the list goes on.
The question many listeners inevitably will have, particularly with the prospect of 5 ½ hours of Finnissy’s music ahead, is how to make heads or tails of an overarching message or narrative: it would seem to elude one’s grasp. And that’s because, as far as this writer can tell, there isn’t a single idée fixe to be had: that’s not the reason for this cycle’s existence. We may like to think that a monumental and cyclic composition must have a single thread for us to wend our way through it – even the twists and turns of the Ring Cycle have a mythological framework for us (tenuously) to grip. Pace has written often of Finnissy’s generous spirit, and if there is a through line to be found in The History of Photography in Sound, it is that spirit of generosity bestowing upon us all the many musical ideas Finnissy has to offer: and that’s quite a lot. So, don’t worry about “getting it” on first hearing: that’s not the point either. Instead, revel; wallow even, in the embarrassment of riches and abundant virtuosity on display here. Then, listen again, gradually peeling away successive layers to find your favorite bits.
Caution: The History of Photography in Sound is a heavy dose for a single sitting, much like watching a season of Breaking Bad in a single weekend: binge at your own risk! Still, this is a boxed set that is wholeheartedly recommended.
The follow-up to Listening to Istanbul, Seda Roeder’s CD spotlighting Turkish composers, Black and White Statements provides a wide-ranging overview of Austrian composers who write for the piano. Roeder is a champion of composers of many nationalities and stylistic backgrounds. On Black and White Statements, a couple of the works are quite severe; in particular, Mattias Kranebitter’s Drei nihilistische Etüden über eine Liebe der Musikindustrie is a tough sit. But most composers prove themselves adventurous and thoughtful, rather than assaultive, in crafting their miniatures. Many ably employ Roeder’s considerable prowess.
For example, Liszten to … Totentanz doesn’t settle for a pun(-chline) to win over listeners; it is clever, well-crafted music as well. The piece, by Johanna Doderer, channels the virtuosity of the Liszt work it cites into a postmodern cascade of ostinati that serves as departure and wry comment on the original. Similarly, Dla Rajun by Manuela Karer pits jazzy chordal interjections against more vigorous textural moments and passagework to create a witty juxtaposition of elements. Other composers are decidedly less interested in conventional pianism. Karlheinz Essl’s aphoristic Take the C Train uses the piano as a percussion instrument and allows Roeder the chance to evoke some train horn like keening from it as well. On the other hand, Rupert Huber’s Teardrops IIa lavishes traditional imagery upon the listener; but his reliance on irregularly repeated patterns and distant-sounding resonances allow the “teardrop” motif to avoid lapsing into sentimentality.
All in all, Black and White Statements suggests that the piano miniature remains a lively laboratory for compositional ingenuity, and that there’s much of that to be found in Austria.
with electroacoustic music by John Downey and Jenny Kallick
Libretto by Jenny Kallick
Navona Records CD/DVD
Pulitzer prizewinning composer Lewis Spratlan, abetted by electronics from John Downey and Jenny Kallick, crafts an elegant meditation on creativity in the chamber opera Architect. It is based on the ideas and life story of 20th century Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn. The avant electronics palette of Downey and Kallick is well integrated into the score: Spratlan balances elements of traditional orchestration with a conspicuous amount of percussion that helps to bridge the divide between the acoustic and electronic elements.
Three singers are called upon to play five roles; in addition to the title character there are the Guide, the Engineer, the Healer, and Woman. Spratlan is known for the quality his vocal music – his opera Life is a Dream was the winning work for the aforementioned Pulitzer. While the demands of Architect on the singers are significant, the composer always writes so well for the voice that they sound terrific. He also knows how to pick an excellent cast of singers. Baritone Richard Lalli and tenor Jeffrey Lentz both bring vivid characterization and musicality to their respective roles. Soprano Julia Fox exhibits laser beam accuracy and evenness of sound throughout a wide range, even when the vocal lines she is required to sing are quite angular. The Navona release, generously stuff with information and extras, is an ideal complement to the multidimensional view of the creative life provided by the opera.
In the early 90s, I sang a small role in Jacob Druckman’s opera Medea in the Juilliard Opera Center’s semi-staged production of it. I was struck by its synthesis of old and new, and demanding yet felicitous writing for the voice. Later I worked with Druckman at the Aspen Music Festival and saw him again in a masterclass at Boston University. At the latter he seemed unwell, but retained his charisma and sense of humor. Little did I know that he was terminally ill with cancer; he passed away some months later. Although my contacts with Druckman were brief, I miss him. Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s portrait disc devoted to Druckman is a pleasing way to renew, or begin, one’s acquaintance with his potent music.
Druckman died a decade and a half ago, yet his influence is still palpable for contemporary classical composers. In the 1980s, his work exemplified the modernists’ version of postmodernism. Contemporary dissonances coexist with past practices; many of his compositions incorporate influences ranging from mid-century Americans such as Copland at his most modern, late Romantic masters such as Strauss, whose orchestrations he often praised, and early baroque opera. Indeed, several of his pieces recompose the latter material, leaving it recognizable but significantly changed and thoughtfully re-orchestrated. Two of these works, a suite of material from Charpentier’s Médée (hear a stream of a short excerpt from the suite on our blog’s Tumblr page) and an aria by Francesco Cavalli, appear on BMOP’s Druckman recording. Conductor Gil Rose and the group do a fine job giving both the “old” and “new” sensibilities of Druckman their due, in one piece mimicking aspects of a period ensemble and in the next hefting a sound three times that size.
All of Druckman’s work, whether it contains pre-existing material or not, displays a singularly incisive yet colorfully deployed harmonic language. And one is struck again and again by his masterful orchestrations. That Quickening Pulse is the perfect curtain-raiser; an orchestral overture that shimmers and thums with passionately played percussion, corruscating wind and brass lines, and icy string verticals, leavened with still more (pitched) percussion. Both low and high brass chorales articulate formal divisions, leaving skittering lines from the other sections as a written out echo chamber in their wake. Nor Spell Nor Charm is a fetching, indeed beguiling, work that started out life as a song for mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani; after her own terminal illness, it became a memorial work that retains the beautiful lines Druckman imagined the singer would perform, but set instead for orchestra (with a vintage eighties Yamaha synthesizer featuring prominently).
The disc’s title composition features vocalist Lucy Shelton, who is called upon to sing in four different languages: Ovid in Latin, folk conjurations in French and Malay, and a snippet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde auf Deutsch. The narrative shifting through this cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope is the story of Lamia, an unfortunate Queen from ancient Libya whom the gods transform into a child-eating daemon. It has resonances with another long-time interest of Druckman, the story of Medea, and presages some of his later work using that tale. It also features spatial notation in places, allowing for a certain amount of rhythmic flexibility. Shelton is an excellent interpreter of Druckman’s music, capturing its emotional volatility, earthy incantations, and soaring climaxes with vocal assuredness and consummate expressivity.
It is hard to choose among BMOP’s many excellent recordings: call this one something of a sentimental favorite that comes highly recommended.
Pianist Gloria Cheng’s first CD release, from 1995, was a recording of Messiaen’s music for Koch. Her interpretations of the French composer’s works have only grown richer with time, as evidenced by her latest recording, The Edge of Light, for the Harmonia Mundi imprint. The centerpiece of its program is the Preludes. Composed in 1929, they were only performed privately until their debut in a 1937 recital. Of course, Debussy’s Preludes loom large and undoubtedly influenced Messiaen. That said, it is extraordinary how refined and singular the younger composer’s aesthetic is by age 21.
We get a taste of the birdsong that will figure prominently in a great deal of Messiaen’s music. For instance, he replicates the cooing of a dove in “La Colombe.” Elsewhere, the wind is depicted in “Un reflet dan le vents.” Sometimes the natural world is eschewed in favor of the subconscious or inward-turned expression-filled emotional terrain, as on the beguiling “Les son impalpables du rêve.” Cheng seamlessly inhabits each of these moods, finely executing the multi-faceted textures and playing styles that evoke them. The Calder Quartet joins Cheng for Messiaen’s brief and mercurial Piéce for piano and string quartet (1991), a late work that captures a wide range of emotions, from brittle and incisive to languidly mystical, in just three-and-a-half minutes.
The quartet’s lower half, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers, also collaborate with Cheng on Kaija Saariaho’s trio Je sens un deuxième Coeur. Cast in five movements and composed in 2003, it sounds like an extension of Messiaen’s “color chords,” suggesting that these complex harmonies presaged spectralism and other explorations of resonance and timbre undertaken later in the 20th (and into the 21st) century; its second and fourth movements remind one more than a little of punctilious passages in the aforementioned Messiaen quintet. Not only does it pair well with Messiaen, the trio is a dazzling work in its own right.
Cheng also presents debut recordings of two of Saariaho’s solo piano pieces, both written in the last decade. Prelude is filled with limpid gestures and post-Impressionist harmonies; but these are given a strong tinge of postmodernism, set as they are against muscular arpeggiations and strongly articulated verticals. The Ballade seems to operate a bit less in conversation with the early 20th Century. It pits sonorous bass tolling against feverously repeated notes in the treble register. When its own arpeggiations arrive, there is a more portentous sensibility found in the Ballade’s gestures and harmonies. Cheng rendering of these disparate pieces is both fluid and fluent. This is my favorite recording of hers to date, and that’s a tall order. Recommended.
Maria Pia De Vito, voice; Francois Couturier, piano;
Anja Lechner, cello; Michele Rabbia, percussion and electronics
ECM CD 2340
The works of eighteenth century composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi have been subject to all manner of reinterpretation by contemporary artists in myriad styles: jazz, gospel, bluegrass, rock, and so forth. Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) hasn’t thus far been popular among those reworking baroque music. That may change with the release of Il Pergolese, a collaboration between vocalist Maria Pia De Vito, pianist Francois Couturier, cellist Anja Lechner, and percussionist Michele Rabbia that is emotive, imaginative, and stylistically fluid.
Pergolesi is best known for composing vocal music – operas and sacred music both (his Stabat Mater setting is particularly fine). De Vito’s singing of the evocative “Ogni pena cchiú spietata,” with its hauntingly repeated minor triads, sits astride baroque opera and pop chanteuse traditions, making the hybrid nature of this project clear from the outset.
Many of the arias from Pergolesi’s operas have been resurrected as staples of the repertoire studied by voice students, who treat them like “art songs” – recital repertoire – rather than presenting them in a theatrical context. Sometimes these “songs,” taken too lightly, are put before students out their depth. Thus it is particularly heartening to hear Lechner lead a beautifully soulful rendition of “Tre giorni son che Nina” on Il Pergolese, which serves to rehabilitate it from the aforementioned lowly fate of freshman recital fodder.
Rabbia’s ambient electronics halo De Vito’s melismatic, rhythmically free, and folk music inflected version of “In compagnia d’amore I;” in places her delivery is reminiscent of Cathy Berberian singing Luciano Berio folksong settings. Lechner and Couturier join Rabbia on “In compagnia d’amore II,” an interpretation more tilted toward ecstatic jazz than modern classical, with ardent soloing from the pianist, pizzicato cello lines, and articulative, rather than steadily pulsing, percussion gestures. Another fascinating selection is the exploration by De Vito and Couterier of material from the Stabat Mater, translated into Neapolitan to better show its roots in and connections to local traditions and music-making. Purists might balk, but this is a respectful and musically inventive homage to an underappreciated composer.