Jenny Olivia Johnson
Don’t Look Back
Innova Recordings CD 925
Wellesley professor Jenny Olivia Johnson presents a program of synth-inflected songs on Don’t Look Back, her debut recording for the Innova imprint. Like many good indie classical songwriters, her formula combines beautiful sounds with stark lyrics: I like to think of it as the “Corey Dargel effect.” Very fine interpreters sing the songs: Megan Schubert, P. Lucy McVeigh, and Amanda Crider. Johnson’s performances as percussionist and electronic musician are seamlessly melded with instrumental contributions by some of the luminaries from the current indie classical scene: violinist Todd Reynolds, cellist Peter Gregson, flutist Jessica Schmitz, clarinetist Eileen Mack, and pianist Isabelle O’Connell among them. Conductor Nathaniel Berman leads the ensemble in assured renditions of the material. While plenty of composers are reveling in the electro-acoustic playground, there aren’t too many that have the orchestrator’s ear and sense of pacing possessed by Johnson. Recommended.
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Innova Records CD 928
To celebrate his thirtieth wedding anniversary, composer Mark Applebaum composed three pieces for percussion ensemble. They can be played successively or simultaneously. Each celebrates a different decade of the couple’s marriage Applebaum isn’t the only composer who has created works that have this capacity, but here it is no mere musical trickery. Each of the pieces adds a different layer of textures and rhythmic contour. When they are overlaid in various permutations, one hears startlingly fresh variations. I’m particularly taken with the ones that incorporate the “Third Decade” segment, filled as it is with succulently shimmering sounds. “30” is a CD of imaginative music by a composer who is brave enough to be willing to let us in on his creative process.
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Three String Sonatas
Centaur CD CRC 3266
Composer Andrew Rudin worked on his three string sonatas in stages, premiering initial versions and then substantially revising them. He has also orchestrated two of the three into concertos (the violin and viola sonatas). The consummate craftsmanship is evident. These are pieces where every note counts and there is an evident emotional quality behind every gesture.
Although the connection to Debussy is seldom overt, Rudin cites his cello sonata as a touchstone. The four movements are structured so that each one gains a minute of runtime, moving from a lithe two minute “Proclamation” to a lyrical five minute long “Consolation.” The balance and pacing of the piece’s design is supported by the clarity and strong ensemble interplay of the performance by cellist Samuel Magill and pianist Beth Levin.
Written in memory of George Rochberg (the piece includes a quote from Rochberg’s Second Symphony), Rudin’s Viola Sonata has enjoyed a staunch advocate in Brett Deubner. Indeed, according to Rudin the violist made many valuable suggestions during the work’s genesis. Deubner also gave the premiere of the viola concerto based upon the work with Orchestra 2001. Joined here by the talented pianist Marcantonio Barone, the violist brings out the many demeanors and techniques present in the sonata – from lithe pizzicatos to angular melodic gestures – with nuance of dynamic shape and enviable accuracy.
Rudin’s Violin Sonata is cast in a single movement, marked “Amabile.” Within it is an imaginative formal design in which materials return recast with different demeanors. Thus, as Rudin describes it, “they are often heard in a manner that inverts their original emotional quality, so that what was wistful becomes angry, what was playful becomes nostalgic, etc.” The piece is given an extraordinarily detailed and passionate performance here by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck. If one is seeking music that balances technical rigor with strong emotional impact, they need look no further than Rudin’s sonatas.
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A Sequence by Manfred Eicher
ECM New Series 2454/55 2xCD
For over thirty years, producer Manfred Eicher has been one of the greatest champions of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Indeed, the very first ECM New Series release was Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. It seems only fitting that Eicher and ECM would celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday in handsome fashion. With Musica Selecta, a double-CD retrospective, they certainly have done so.
Called “A Sequence” by Manfred Eicher, it includes seminal early pieces such as Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Für Alina as well as more recent ones such as Alleluia-Tropus and Da Pacem Domine. Performers often associated with Pärt’s work – conductors Dennis Russell Davies and Tõnu Kaljuste and groups the Hilliard Ensemble, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra – are represented. It goes without saying that, with such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, the performances are all exemplary: some iconic. While this serves as an excellent starter kit for those previously unacquainted with Pärt’s music, even those who have some of the New Music CDs would still benefit from hearing Eicher’s sequencing. It is thoughtful and musical: compositional in scope and sympathy. Recommended.
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Franklin Cox is an indefatigable and prolific figure, both as a performer and as a musicologist. This, the second volume in his “New Cello” series, focuses on European composers. Using Klaus Huebler’s Opus Breve as a refrain, this rondo of nine performances encompasses a great deal of what’s happening in second modernity. Particularly fine are the brief but richly detailed Dove’s Figary of Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett’s 2-bowed essay Dark Ages, and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s La vision d’ange nouveau. The latter piece is based on an essay by Walter Benjamin written in response to a work by Paul Klee. It is not only rich in literary allusions, but multifaceted in its musical reference points as well, ranging from hyper-virtuosity to string effects to linear and rhythmic polyphony. Cox makes these pieces sound, well not easy, exactly, but more attainable than they truly are by lesser cellists. Still, if that helps them to secure a foothold in the contemporary cello repertoire, even with many hours spent in the practice rooms to obtain it, so much the better.
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Musik mit Musik
Nadar Ensemble, Daan Janssens, conductor; Ensemble LUX:NM; Ensemble Mosaik; Ensemble Modern, Johannes Kalitzke, conductor
Johannes Kreidler’s music is Darmstadt’s most persuasive response yet to hip hop’s sample and mixing DJ. On his in hyper intervals, snatches of voices and backbeat percussion intersect with aphoristic interludes of violin, piano, and clarinet from the Nadar Ensemble. Cache Surrealism takes a similar approach. Female voices in an R&B sample gain the lead, but the instruments seem to “fight back” with greater intensity from the get-go, occasionally banishing the samples from the soundstage. In addition to the sampling of voices, there is a substantial keyboard part and synthetic components with which the ensemble contends. The group here, from Ensemble LUX:NM, is a baritone saxophone, accordion, and cello. Having the accordion as part of the ensemble creates some interesting textures that refract against the samples. The drums reappear on Fremdarbeit, this time live from percussionist Roland Neffe. Here there is also a live keyboard to add an in person layer of synthesis to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Ensemble Mosaic’s flutist Bettina Junge and cellist Mathis Mayr interrupt with single notes and digressive lines. Product Placements is a short solo for electronics that jitters its way through various sampling techniques.
The disc’s finale, Living in a Box, pits Kreidler’s sampler against more substantial forces: the Ensemble Modern. The principle is still the same: fragmentary samples and skittering percussion are juxtaposed with instrumental interjections. Here, however, the instrumental component is writ large, making the potential for different live groupings exponentially greater. When Kreidler’s most verbose synthetic cut-ups combine with tutti passages, the results sound thrilling. Certainly not a release for the “decaf only” listener, Kreidler is instead a hyperkinetic force with which to be reckoned.
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Musiques Suisses CD
Daniela Müller, violin; Petra Ackermann, viola; Karolina Öhman, cello; Tamriko Korsaia, piano
Fabio Oerhli, Jonas Tschanz, alto saxophones; Christan Kohi, tenor saxophone; Stefan Rolli, baritone saxophone, alto saxophone
Jürg Frey, famous as a member of the Wandelweiser Collective, is given an excellent portrait CD on the Musiques Suisses imprint. Memoire, horizon for saxophone quartet is the longest piece on the disc, clocking in at a little over half and hour. It features sustained lines for saxophone, gradually shifting from consonant verticals to chords with added dissonant notes that spice up the proceedings.
Six pieces on the program are from the Extended Circular Music series. The chordal structures here are often more consonant, but there still is a slow moving pace to the proceedings. That said, the sounds never fully die away; there isn’t the kind of space for silence that one hears in some other composers’ music. Instead, chords gently saturate the sound space, treading evenly without a sense of dynamically articulated direction. It is hard to select standouts, as these feel “of a piece,” but I am quite fond of Extended Circular Music No. 2, for solo piano; it has some beautiful sonorities.
The second longest piece on the disc, Architektur der Emfindungen, for piano quartet, once again finds the piano initially taking the lead, providing upper register melodies and repeated notes while the strings supply undulating lines and chordal accompaniment. Eventually, roles reverse, and the strings get their turn in the lead while the piano plays a chordal accompaniment. By the piece’s conclusion, the transformations in ensemble groupings and instrumental roles have left us amid a panoply of changes in role, direction, and instrumental coloration. A fascinating introduction to a composer with a strong individual voice.
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Songs We Like a Lot
Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, vocals;
Uri Caine, piano and organ;
Frankfurt Radio Big Band
A follow up to 2013’s Grammy-nominated Songs I Like a Lot, Songs We Like a Lot finds John Hollenbeck’s creativity surging. His originals are intricate charts that are navigated with assuredness by Uri Caine and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. In the cover songs, one sees a range of approaches from near complete deconstruction on “Get Lucky Manifesto” to intricate harmonic shifts and reshaping on “True Colors” and “Close to You.” Throughout, vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry respond to the challenges with their own imaginative approaches to the songs, ranging from close-part harmonies to throat singing. The frequent time signature shifts and thick chordal accompaniment on “How Can I Keep From Singing” might sum up this album best as one that celebrates song through its permutability rather than with stolid repetition of already heard arrangements.
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Save Your Breath
Kris Davis Infrasound
Clean Feed CD
Ben Goldberg, Oscar Noriega, Joachim Badenhorst, Andrew Bishop, clarinets; Nade Radley, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Jim Black, drums; Kris Davis, piano and compositions
On her new Clean Feed CD, joined by a cadre of clarinetists playing instruments in varying shapes and sizes, composer/pianist Kris Davis presents her latest suite of avant-jazz pieces. Save Your Breath features ardent solo work, not only from all of the clarinetists, but also from the members of the rhythm section. Organist Gary Versace’s sci-fi brilliance on “Union Forever” is a standout (he is matched pitch for pitch by the uniformly excellent clarinetist Oscar Noriega). The aptly named “Whirly Swirly” finds guitarist Nate Radley creating undulating syncopations that dovetail with clarinetist Badenhorst and Davis’s lines. The leader herself frequently contributes post-tonal percussive solos that propel the proceedings. Speaking of musical propellent, drummer Jim Black’s energetic playing keeps the music-making from ever lapsing into idleness.
Davis makes skilful use of the clarinet quartet, calling upon them to play on alternate instruments, testing them at either end of their registral extremes, from wailing up top to chorale-like textures on the bottom; some of the bass clarinet chords are spectacularly sepulchral. Throughout, there is a sense of a strong composer’s hand at work. Davis demonstrates that an imaginative approach can make even a very challenging ensemble grouping work handily.
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John Potter, voice; Anna Maria Friman, voice and Hardanger fiddle; Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, lutes
ECM New Series 2441 CD
John Potter is best known for his work with the recently disbanded Hilliard Ensemble (writing recently disbanded for that estimable group is saddening indeed). But he has kept an active profile as a soloist as well. On the ECM label, he has focused on lute songs, with albums devoted to the Dowland Project. Anna Maria Friman is a member of Trio Medieval, who also record on ECM. They are joined by lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman on Amores Pasados, a most imaginative project. The central repertoire are lute songs written by rock musicians: John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin), Tony Banks (of Genesis), and Sting. Potter and company have also included selections by 16th century composer Picforth and by John Campion, a 17th century composer famed for his lute songs. Rounding out the recording are Potter and company’s arrangements of songs by early Twentieth composers and compatriots E.J. Moeran and Peter Warlock.
For those who misread this as one of too many “casual” crossover projects, don’t forget the background of the pop musicians involved. Tony Banks played 12-string guitar on the early Genesis albums, Sting has recorded an entire album of songs by John Dowland and Robert Johnson, and John Paul Jones is a versatile and formidable musician. This is in part why the results of this collaboration are so successful. The other factor, of course, are the performances. Whether in tuning the achingly beautiful close part harmonies in Jones’s No Dormia or navigating the harmonic and rhythmic shifts found in abundance in Banks’s “The Cypress Curtain of the Night,” Potter, Friman, and their lutenist colleagues prove skilful and sympathetic collaborators. They make no pretense to be pop singers, performing with classically trained singers’ diction and tone. The way they manage to meet these songs in the middle is rhythm and phrasing: they readily adapt to the syncopation that is ubiquitous in pop songs and amply present in those collected here.
With material so uniformly strong, it is difficult to call out favorites. However, Sting clearly picked up a great deal about ayres when recording The Labyrinth. His “Bury me deep in the greenwood” could pass for a song by one of Dowland’s contemporaries: it is quite stirring. I would love to have a crack at the sheet music – even if I had to negotiate lute tablature!
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