Gwendolyn Dease, marimba and percussion
Bridge Records CD 9454
Not so long ago, a composer portrait CD consisting entirely of solo marimba music would have been unthinkable. Idle Fancies, a new Bridge Recording of Paul Lansky’s complete music for marimba, demonstrates that the composer, despite being a non-percussionist best known for his contributions to electroacoustic music, really knows his way around mallet instruments too. The three substantial works here, each different in character and demands, provide plenty of variety; something that, given the instrumental palette on display, is no mean feat.
Spirals (2013), vide the title, surveys a panoply of chromatic harmonies in swirling, constant movement. Three Moves are a simultaneously virtuosic and charming set of character pieces. The title work is a collection of six pieces. Lansky adopts the detailed ostinati found in his post-minimal music as a foundation on which to build interesting variations. Some of the movements incorporate additional percussion instruments. Used judiciously, at times these supply the proceedings with non-pitched punctuation; at others with a Gamelan-like ambience.
Marimba player Gwendolyn Dease is a superlative advocate for Lansky’s music, bringing out every nimble run and nuanced dynamic with accuracy and artistry. One can readily hear why he entrusted her with this project. Though this may be it for Lansky’s marimba scores, perhaps we can look forward to another large-scale work for percussion instruments, written, of course, for Dease.
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Guillaume de Machaut
Muriel Cantoreggi: viola;
Geneviève Strosser: viola;
Jürg Dähler: viola
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James: countertenor;
Gordon Jones: baritone
Begun in 2001 and composed over a ten-year period, Machaut-Transkriptionen is one of composer Heinz Holliger’s most imaginative and attractive works to date. Using pieces by medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) as a jumping off point, Holliger refashions the original material for three violas and the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble (now, alas, disbanded). They are employed in startling ways, encompassing frequent dissonances, extended techniques in the strings, vocal clusters, and alternate tunings.
The cycle begins with alternations between Machaut’s original vocal works and string trios that are recompositions of the same selections. A gradual morphing of roles eventually brings the voices into the contemporary sound world of the strings. In some of the pieces, there is a coexistence between lines from Machaut and Holliger’s original ideas. In others, Holliger uses techniques and formal designs from Machaut pieces as compositional groundwork for otherwise far flung fantasies.
The CD is capped off by a stirring quarter of an hour: a redesign of Machaut’s Complainte for voices and violas. It is here that all of the techniques found in the preceding selections are brought to together to craft a work that, on its surface, bears little resemblance to medieval music. But the spirit of the Ars Nova period in which Machaut composed, with its enthusiasm for experimentation and, for its time, great abstraction, clearly motivates Holliger, with fascinating results. Recommended.
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Used, Broken, & Unwanted
Laura Cetilia, cello, autoharp, voice, and electronics
Estuary Ltd. CD
A live recording from 2013 made in Providence, Rhode Island, Used, Broken, and Unwanted demonstrates to good effect the wide-ranging timbral palette and drone-based structures that artist Laura Cetilia explores. The title track makes use of repetition, not in the symmetrical fashion of process-driven minimalism, but to create an undulating undergirding for the wisps of vocal and cello melodies that sporadically emerge. This elegantly segues into the exquisitely fragile “Thrum/Pin.”
“Plucked from Obscurity” makes efficacious use of pizzicato; the electronics with which it contends range from the bell-like to the percussive. Particularly lovely is the delicate album closer “Tears of Things,” in which the main, initially pizzicato-driven, ostinato is gradually supplanted by sweeping guttural electronics and an accumulation of upper register sustained notes.
In the surprisingly burgeoning field of cellists who sing, Cetilia is a distinctive one. Alternately penetrating and atmospheric, Used, Broken, and Unwanted is a stimulating listen throughout.
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Looking Back – Flute Music of Joseph Schwantner
Innova Records (Innova 919)
Jennie Oh Brown, flute; Jeffrey Panko, piano;
Karin Ursin, flute and piccolo
; Janice MacDonald, flute and alto flute; Susan Saylor, flute and bass flute
Joseph Schwantner has written a substantial body of work featuring flutes. On her Innova recording Looking Back, flutist Jennie Oh Brown provides superlative performances of several of these compositions. Brown’s interpretations are vividly detailed, presenting the various nuances of Schwantner’s scores in enthusiastic and vital fashion (one is recommended to flutist and composer Cynthia Folio’s liner notes; they provide excellent analysis and detailed descriptions of both compositional and technical aspects of the pieces at hand).
The title work, composed in 2009 and dedicated to the memory of legendary flutist and teacher Samuel Baron, is a case in point. The first movement is a challenging duet with the estimable pianist Jeffrey Panko. They revel in contrapuntal dialog and cascading virtuosic doubled lines. The middle movement is a solo, which involves various extended techniques, including overblowing in the altissimo register, singing and speaking into the instrument, and stabbing accents. The final movement “Just Follow …” builds a lattice of ascending scalar interplay between flute and piano, sending the music aloft in a final valediction.
Black Anemones, another duo, revels in sumptuous harmonies, punctuated by piano octaves, with melodies that feature the flute’s lower register, played in sultry fashion by Brown. The short work Soaring has a more dissonant palette, with upper register punctuations and fleet-fingered runs culminating in a dazzling passage of repeated notes and a final flourish.
The flute quartet Silver Halo ups the ante and reprises the various playing techniques found in the other works, with several more added for good measure. Schwantner is a master colorist: the abundant variety of timbral combinations and imaginative doublings found in Silver Halo amply attest to this. Brown plays beautifully, and she is abetted by excellent colleagues: Karin Ursin, Janice MacDonald, and Susan Saylor. A compliment disguised as a minor quibble: one wants more! The disc clocks in at less than three quarters of an hour; it might have been nice to include another chamber work with flute. That said, Schwantner and Brown provide us with plenty to consider and savor: Looking Back is a winner of a recording.
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John Luther Adams
John Luther Adams, electronics; Glenn Kotche, percussion
In the Alaskan Inupiaq language, Ilimaq means “spirit journeys.” One can readily hear how John Luther Adams seeks to embody the many facets of the spirit journey on his album of the same name: the shamanic, the dream state, the heroic quest, et cetera. Powerful drumming from Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche is juxtaposed with atmospheric, at times ominous sounding, electronics from Adams. Kotche is a marvelous collaborator; throughout his playing is rhythmically sure and dynamically supple.
Given that there are two participants, instead of the full symphony orchestra found on Adams’s recent Become Ocean or the bevy of percussionists who populate his signature work Inuksuit, it is impressive how comparatively epic the scope and soundscape of Ilimaq are. This more intimate piece can go toe to toe with some of the composer’s largest works, and that’s saying something. Ilimaq is one of 2015’s finest releases: recommended.
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Chamber Music of John Burge
Ensemble Made in Canada
On his latest recording for Centrediscs, Canadian composer John Burge presents three pieces that showcase different members of Ensemble Made in Canada. Pas De Deux features violinist Elissa Lee and cellist Rachel Mercer, both playing soaring lines that serve to propel the proceedings. They then work themselves back in short angular bursts.
String Theory is another duo that has been arranged for several string instrument/piano combinations. This version is for viola and piano, played by violist Sharon Wei and pianist Angela Park. Passionate, throbbing glissandos abound in this Neoromantic work, as well as dazzling double stops and richly voiced piano chords.
Commissioned by the ensemble for their entire number, the Piano Quartet opens with repeated chords in a minimalist gesture. Contrapuntal writing interrupts this. It is only in the third movement of the piece, after a long three-movement arch (alternating slow-fast-slow tempos) has been established, that we hear this ostinato return to be resolved. Thus for Burge, minimalism is not a stylistic determination, but a musical gesture: one signature in a batch of them to be used, contravened, and ultimately unwound.
Artful composing and fine players: a good match.
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Poèmes pour Mi
Bruun Hyldig Duo (Hetna Regitze Bruun, soprano; Kristoffer Hyldig, piano)
Naxos CD 8.573247
Hetna Bruun is billed as a soprano here, but she routinely sings as a mezzo. Given that Olivier Messiaen’s song cycle Poèmes pour Mi was composed for a Wagnerian soprano, Marcelle Bunlet, to sing, Bruun’s voice has the perfect combination of requirements to do it justice: a warm vocal color and a mezzo’s timbre with fine control of an extended upper register. Similarly, Kristoffer Hyldig combines traits at the piano, playing with power where needed and acting elsewhere as a reserved colorist. The 1936 composition is a love letter to Messiaen’s first wife Claire Delbos (nicknamed “Mi” because she played the violin and its top string is tuned to “E”). The CD includes another song cycle dedicated to Delbos, Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938), one that celebrates the birth of their son Pascal in 1937. It is astonishing to be reminded that, even though both of these cycles are from relatively early in Messiaen’s career, they demonstrate most of the signatures of his mature musical language, harmonically and rhythmically. Vocalise-Étude is also included here. Of the three it is the least successfully performed, as it sits a bit higher than Bruun’s comfort zone. Still, all told, this is an impressive disc of Messiaen’s vocal music that reminds us of the prodigious feats he was capable of even early on in his career.
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Cedille Records CD 90000 157
The “M” word: minimalism: oft-quoted, sometimes maligned, often misunderstood, and seldom accepted as a self-descriptor by composers. We get into ever more thorny ground as we begin to contemplate “post-minimalism:” does it describe chronology, influence, or some kind of murky musical terrain? If we are to use the descriptor for chronology, even Philip Glass suggests that his pieces departed very early from minimalism. So what are listeners to do with a release such as Filament, on which there is a 17-minute long piece of process music (Two Pages by Glass) that clearly makes much out of comparatively little? Further, what do we call pieces by the younger generation of indie classical composers (another loaded term), clearly enamored with repetition, who make up the bulk of this disc? Perhaps it is better to avoid the style tags altogether and instead say that each of the pieces on Filament is composed by a creator fascinated with repetition, but each one in a different way.
Bryce Dessner channels the instrumentation and affect of murder ballads of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries to create the rustic ostinatos of Murder Ballades. Written for a celebration of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak is designed to hearken back to the “obsessive repetition” of the 1970s, but it does so in a powerfully articulated fashion. Son Lux’s contributions, abetted by the vocals of Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), are brief remixes of material from the album. Filament’s high point is a high octane and highly coordinated performance of Glass’s Two Pages. A single, propulsive line that can be played by any combination of instruments: the elements couldn’t be more minimalist in conception, but the execution is anything but.
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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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