The Song of the Stars
British Music for Upper Voice Choir
Naxos CD 8.573427
Wells Cathedral School Choralia, conducted by Christopher Finch; Eleanor Turner, harp; Elliot Launn, piano
Occupying as it does an important niche in choral literature, the CD Song of the Stars demonstrates the vitality and importance of Naxos Records’s “no stone left unturned” recording ethos. Apart from A Ceremony of Carols, A Survivor from Warsaw, and a few other well known works, many often think of SATB – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – groupings as the default vocal ensemble for which truly meaningful choral literature is created. Here we find a number of gems for upper voices – many of them in their debut recordings – that provide a strong case for inclusivity.
The program contains well known composers such as Gustav Holst, James MacMillan, and John Tavener, who rub elbows with some of the finest contemporary British composers: Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, and James Whitbourn. A find for me was the music of Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), represented on the disc by her Regina Caeli. The piece alternates lustrous polychords with sprightly counterpoint in an attractive blend of elements that makes me want to delve deeper into McDowall’s output. There are also works by composers familiar to me, such as O’Regan’s Alleluia, Iaus et gloria, that are impressive compositions made even more appealing by their authoritative performances.
This is the recording debut of the Wells Cathedral School Choralia. Conducted by Christopher Finch, this is a fine group that demonstrates strong technical skills, beautiful tone, and excellent musicality throughout Song of the Stars. Indeed, the title work, composed by former King’s Singers member Bob Chilcott, has a perilously demanding tessitura that conventional wisdom would suggest disqualifies some groups from attempting it. The Wells Choralia make it sound eminently attainable. One hopes that conductors and composers take a careful listen to this CD. It provides many ideas for possible programming and the creation of new works for upper voice ensembles. Recommended.
Video of Tarik O’Regan’s “Alleluia, Iaus et gloria”
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The Subliminal and the Sublime
Chris Dingman, vibraphone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone; Fabian Almazan, piano; Ryan Ferreira, guitar; Linda Oh, bass; Justin Brown, drums
Excellent albums contain many magical moments, but there’s often one that is a clue that a particular recording will be a special experience for the listener. Just such a moment occurs early on Chris Dingman’s aptly named CD The Subliminal and the Sublime. After a few minutes of shimmering textures created on the vibraphone, saxophonist Loren Stillman enters with a crescendo into a held note that completely changes the demeanor of the proceedings. It is then that you know that this recording will not just be about its leader, but that it will be an ensemble affair, artfully arranged and indelibly well paced.
Dingman’s compositional style sits astride contemporary jazz and contemporary classical composition. Befitting a percussionist led endeavor, there are many moments that recall the minimalism and prolific polyrhythms of Steve Reich. And while Stillman is a standout, frequently engaging in duets with the vibraphonist, everyone on the recording gets a turn to shine. Both Fabian Almazan and Ryan Ferreira are sensitive accompanists, but their solo spots, particularly the pianist’s dexterous endeavors, are memorable. Linda Oh and Justin Brown create a fulsome groove that propels the proceedings. Occasionally, one worries that Brown may overwhelm the vibes with his prolific use of crash cymbal paired with bass drum. But the sections containing his most energetic playing are well-timed and he provides a consistently engaging foil for his fellow percussionist Dingman.
Both of the miniatures on the album, “Tectonic Plates” and “Plea,” are particularly charming and chockfull of interesting harmonies. These are offset by much more extended tunes. One is hard-pressed to name a favorite, but the intricate architecture of the album’s longest cut, “The Pinnacles,” allows us to hear both Dingman the composer and the sextet at his disposal at the height of their current powers. One can only imagine that the way forward for them all will be even more promising.
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At the Speed of Stillness
NMC Recordings CD NMC D202
Claire Booth, soprano; Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano; Alexandra Wood, violin; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano; Huw Watkins, piano; Aldeburgh World Symphony, Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen, conductor
Charlotte Bray’s music displays steely determination and an expansively colorful textural palette. Her NMC portrait CD supplies an abundant view of these characteristics. The title work is particularly impressive; it is filled with piquant yet often spacious harmonies, frequent juxtapositions of orchestral groupings, and lithe pacing.
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer approaches Fire Burning in Snow, settings of poems by Nicki Jackowska, with clear diction and an emotive presence. Likewise the players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group give detailed precision to the work’s angular intervals and supply intensity to the nuanced dynamic shadings found in the accompaniment. Soprano Claire Booth, ably accompanied by Andrew Matthews-Owen, brings expressiveness and considerable beauty of tone to Songs from Yellow Leaves, settings of Caroline Thomas’s poetry.
Pianist Huw Watkins pulls double duty on the CD, deftly inhabiting the alternately shimmering, sprightly, and strenuous atmospheres of the solo work Oneroi. There are far more episodes possessing the latter demeanor in the piano concertino Replay. However, the variety of timbres found in the chamber ensemble’s accompaniment keeps the work from becoming overwrought. Explained in part by its title, the piece also contains considerable motivic repetition and development: an attractive addition to Bray’s arsenal of resources.
The two-part chamber concerto Caught in Treetops is similarly endowed with an enriched template of motives, ranging from repeated note flurries to widely spaced arcing lines. The work begins with a cadenza, introducing sterling soloist Alexandra Wood, a versatile and formidable violinist. Only gradually is the chamber ensemble invited in, filling the gaps with contrapuntal lines and forceful tutti. While Bray’s language remains primarily a chromatic one, Part Two of Caught in Treetops contains the addition of some beautiful, delicately announced harmonic verticals. The gentle close of the piece provides a perfectly enigmatic twist to the CD’s program, leaving one eager for more from this talented composer.
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ZOFO Plays Terry Riley
Sono Luminus Blu-ray/CD
Piano four hands duo Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi once again bring energy, virtuosity, and imagination to a composer’s work on their latest recording, a portrait of Terry Riley.
ZOFO arranged a few of the pieces on the album for four hands. Their rendition of “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in the Moonlight” is a powerfully incisive standout and “G Song” is supple and, given the breathlessly fast tempo, played with impressive rhythmic integrity. There is also a new piece on the CD, commissioned by the duo: the sprightly, syncopated, and surprisingly stylistically faithful Praying Mantis Rag.
The rest of the programmed pieces are from The Heaven Ladder, Books 5 & 7, collections commissioned by pianists Sarah Cahill and Gloria Cheng. The most expansive of these selections, “Cinco de Mayo,” is given a sterling rendition, filled with dynamic shadings, fleet passagework, and tightly knit exchanges.
Pointed up on the album is Riley’s versatility as a composer. While he can create churning ostinatos with the best of them, his connections to jazz, raga, and dance music of many varieties are just as prominently felt here as his status as an elder statesman of minimalism. Given their chameleon-like presence on previous recordings, ranging from Rite of Spring to Samuel Barber to David Lang, it is hardly surprising that ZOFO relishes in the eclecticism of the fare here. Recommended.
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Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, pianists
ECM New Series CD 2374
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.
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A Place Toward Other Places
Richard Hawkins, clarinet;
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.
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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.
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Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Tim Fain, violin, Sato Moughalian, flute; Blair McMillen, piano
Perspectives Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordonez, conductor
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.
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The History of Photography in Sound
Ian Pace, piano
Metier Records 5XCD set
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.
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Black and White Statements: The Austrian Sound of Piano Today
Seda Roeder, piano
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.
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