Author Archive

Journaling

Innova Recordings 831

 Cornelius Dufallo, violin and electronics

Cornelius Dufallo seems to be everywhere of late, making great music wherever he goes. At one time best known for his work as a violinist with the adventurous string quartet ETHEL, Dufallo has now turned his full attention to a wide-ranging career as a composer and soloist. Having established a recital series, Journaling, devoted to collaborations with fellow composers, Dufallo’s new release of the same name documents those partnerships alongside his own music.

Dufallo’s two pieces on Journaling are driven by loops. Violin Loop I serves as a propulsive opener, and Violin Loop V as a meditative interlude. These works are inextricably tied to the composer’s explorations of his instrument as a performer: Dufallo’s gliding lyricism, pure tone, and sensitive use of varied techniques and technologies articulate a sound world all his own.

The album includes uniformly strong contributions from a broad range of composers: John King’s restless Prima Volta; Joan Jeanreneaud’s mesmerizing Empty Infinity; pianist-composer Vijay Iyer’s contrapuntally rich Playlist One (Resonance), which culminates in a melody of understated beauty; Huang Ruo’s soulful, sinuous Four Fragments; and Kenji Bunch’s wistful Until Next Time.

The centerpiece of the disc is John Luther Adams’s Three High Places, written in memory of the composer’s longtime friend Gordon Wright. For those who know Adams’s music primarily from his larger-scale soundscapes, this eloquent study in open strings and natural harmonics will sound at once familiar and revelatory.

Both as a composer and as a performer, Dufallo has a gift for personal, direct communication. Journaling affirms that he has found kindred spirits along his musical journey, and affords a rewarding glimpse into the private world that they are creating.

 

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Terrestre

New Focus Recordings FCR 122

Claire Chase, flute

International Contemporary Ensemble

The only drawback to a Claire Chase CD is that you don’t get to watch her play. Fortunately, the performances and production on Terrestre are such that Chase’s visceral energy comes through loud and clear. She is joined on several pieces by her outstanding colleagues in the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

Terrestre opens with the title track, by Kaija Saariaho. ICE has worked with Saariaho on several occasions, and it’s apparent from this vibrant recording that Chase, violinist Erik Carlson, cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman, harpist Nuiko Wadden and percussionist Nathan Davis feel a deep connection to her music.

The old chestnuts on this disc are by modernist icons. Chase and pianist Jacob Greenberg romp through Pierre Boulez’s Sonatine and Franco Donatoni’s Fili, while she and clarinetist Joshua Rubin spar elegantly in Elliott Carter’s Esprit Rude, Esprit Doux.

The highlight of the album is Dai Fujikura’s Glacier for solo bass flute: a subterranean, twenty-first century answer to Debussy’s Syrinx. Chase follows it with a graceful reading of Laura Mullen’s poem was-O, closing out her second solo release and building anticipation for her third.

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Ligeti/Beethoven

Nonesuch 530562

Jeremy Denk

I recently took part in an online conversation about Bach’s Goldberg Variations in which several pianists affirmed their devotion to Glenn Gould’s legendary 1955 recording. For many, it serves as the benchmark against which all subsequent accounts (including Gould’s own) are measured.

The same might be said of Pierre Laurent-Aimard’s world-premiere recording of György Ligeti masterful Piano Études (1985-2001). Even as these works have been taken up by a growing number of pianists, one still experiences an initial shock of unfamiliarity when a performer launches into the first étude, Désordre, at a more deliberate tempo than Aimard’s.

But Jeremy Denk’s more poetic, less kinetic conception on his new Nonesuch disc is wholly convincing. Ligeti’s late works are profoundly concerned with the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythms and tempi, which Denk approaches as one might a Bach fugue: these performances are all about phrasing and voicing. Denk’s sensitive pacing affords greater breathing room to Ligeti’s underrated lyricism, and to his fleeting nods towards triadic harmony.

The pairing with Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, op. 111 in C minor, is at once inventive and unremarkable. Indeed, the most gratifying aspect of Denk’s superb recording is that it offers up the Études simply as great piano music. Ligeti’s varied influences – from Chopin and Debussy to the player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, from jazz and non-Western music to chaos theory – recede into the background, as we listen to an eloquent pianist bring timeless sensibilities to bear on an evolving canon.

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Bach Crossings

New Focus Recordings FCR 124

DUO Stephanie and Saar

The music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág evinces a deeply personal connection to the music of the past. Many of his spare, elliptical works pay homage to other composers: his six-volume Játékok (“Games”) for piano include tributes to Scarlatti and Stravinsky. In his piano transcriptions of music from the cantatas and organ works of J.S. Bach, Kurtág engages directly with the work of a master.

Kurtág and his wife Márta have performed and recorded several of the transcriptions for piano four-hands on ECM. On this recent release from New Focus Recordings, DUO Stephanie and Saar – themselves a married couple – offer their own take on Kurtág’s Bach. The disc also includes Bach transcriptions by Max Reger and Franz Xaver Gleichauf, as well as Kurtág’s transcriptions of two pieces by one of Bach’s most significant precursors, Girolamo Frescobaldi.

Much as the Kurtágs met during their studies at the Franz Liszt Academy, Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia connected as graduate students at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where Leon Fleisher encouraged them to play Beethoven’s string quartets at the piano together. The duo’s elegant, unaffected interpretations of Kurtág’s arrangements are realized with clarity and warmth, affording the listener a glimpse into the eighteenth century by way of the twentieth.

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Du Yun: Shark in You

New Focus Recordings FCR 118

Du Yun

There’s something uniquely satisfying about encountering music that doesn’t sound quite like anything one has heard before. This was my experience of Shark in You, a new CD from composer Du Yun. A rising star in the contemporary classical scene – she is a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and one of three composers on Boosey & Hawkes’s inaugural Emerging Composers roster – Du Yun has released a non-classical debut that matches the idiosyncratic, compelling strangeness of her concert music.

The infectious beats and breathy vocals of the first few tracks of Shark in You initially call to mind Björk. But as the album unfolds – and it is very much an album, best experienced as a whole – new dimensions continually emerge. The vocal and instrumental inflections seem to migrate imperceptibly from Asia to the Middle East. There are visceral cabaret numbers, songs that sound like Kurt Weill ballads reimagined for the twenty-first century, with Tom Waits and Jeff Buckley lurking in the wings. The disc culminates, surprisingly and effectively, in an effervescent remake of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”

While Du Yun’s sonic imagination and evocative vocals are at the heart of Shark in You, the album represents a collaborative effort among a collection of stellar musicians: Cody Brown (drums), Peter Evans (trumpet), Gareth Flowers (trumpet), Peter Hanson (kazoo/accordion), Matt Haimovitz (cello), Andy Hunter (trombone), Brad Henkel (trumpet), Daniel Lippel (guitar), E.J. Parker (bass), Erik Spangler (beats, theremin, turntable), Chris Trzcinski (drums), J.Q. Whitcomb (trumpet), and ZIYA (tabla/percussion). Spangler co-wrote four tracks with Du Yun, while Flowers and Haimovitz each co-wrote one.

The resonance between Du Yun and Björk ultimately has more to do with sensibility than sound. Their art doesn’t render genre irrelevant so much as it revels in transcending it. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has written that Björk’s work is “free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music. The creative artist once more moves along an unbroken continuum, from folk to art and back again.” Shark In You reveals a similar fearlessness, a willingness to venture across stylistic boundaries in pursuit of a singular musical vision.

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Lisa Bielawa: Chance Encounter

Orange Mountain Music CD 7004

Susan Narucki, soprano

The Knights

Lisa Bielawa’s 2007 Chance Encounter is a kindred spirit to the recent spate of “random acts of culture” documented on YouTube. The work is meant to be performed in public spaces, with the musicians emerging gradually from their surroundings, and audience members choosing a vantage point from which to experience the music. The piece has had notable outings in Manhattan and, during Bielawa’s residency at the American Academy in Rome, on the banks of the Tiber River.

An inventive song cycle for soprano and twelve instruments, Chance Encounter consists of texts overheard in public spaces like those in which the work is presented. Bielawa finds quiet profundity in everyday speech, questions and observations grouped into songs named for their prevailing sensibility: “Topos Nostalgia,” “Drama/Self-Pity,” “Nothing,” “Aimlessness Song.” The songs are interleaved with instrumental transitions, each of which anticipates the material of the subsequent song.

Bielawa’s vocal writing – more traditional here than in some of her other works, but no less engaging – is performed by the esteemed soprano Susan Narucki, who collaborated with Bielawa in compiling the texts. Though the words are at times difficult to understand, Narucki sings with characteristic warmth and expressivity throughout. The work’s elegant instrumental textures are expertly rendered by The Knights, a versatile chamber orchestra comprised of some of New York’s finest young musicians. The soloists featured in the interludes – Eric Jacobsen (cello), Colin Jacobsen (violin), Ben Baron (clarinet) and Lance Suzuki (flute) – deserve special mention for the clarity and conviction of their playing.

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Glass Heart

Orange Mountain Music CD 7006

Maria Bachmann, violin

Jon Klibonoff, piano

When it comes to minimalism, I must admit I’ve always been more of a Steve Reich guy. But I was quite taken with Philip Glass’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (2008), the work at the heart of a new disc on the composer’s Orange Mountain Music label. This world premiere recording by violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff highlights a Romantic urgency I hadn’t heard in Glass’s music before. Indeed, Glass’s program note cites a childhood memory of listening to recordings of the Brahms, Fauré and Franck violin sonatas with his father, at the time a record-store owner in Baltimore.

The fundamental Romanticism of Glass’s piece is underscored by Bachmann and Klibonoff’s programming, which places his recent duo alongside nineteenth-century staples: the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, and Schubert’s magisterial Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 162 (in the liner notes, Bachmann notes a “similar pathos” shared by the Schubert and Glass sonatas). The disc is rounded out by Ravel’s intriguing Sonata Opus Posthume, a work written in 1897 but left unpublished at the composer’s request, only to be discovered and published in 1975.

I first encountered Bachmann and Klibonoff on their eloquent recording of Paul Moravec’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy, a work composed for their ensemble, Trio Solisti, and clarinetist David Krakauer. The warmth and assurance of their playing is such that I would happily listen to them play most anything, canonical or contemporary, and their commitment to new American music is a boon to composers and audiences alike.

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