Composer/conductor James Wood has long been one of the “go-to” British musicians when it comes to percussion writing. For a number of years, he led Darmstadt’s percussion courses. He’s also organized and led vocal ensembles, notably Schola Cantorum of Oxford and New London Chamber Choir. Thus, his latest CD on NMC, combining voices and percussion ensembles, is a near-ideal way to appreciate his work.
Tongues of Fire is based on the story of Pentecost. Originally composed for Yale’sGlee Club, the piece brings out a Pan-American sensibility in Wood’s writing. The voice parts, impressively performed here by the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, are in South American Spanish dialect. Correspondingly, the percussion parts feature salsa and other Latin rhythms. While the trip from Connecticut to South America seems a long one, the overall effect achieved here is stirring.
The second work, Cloud-Polyphonies, written for the Yale Percussion Group, is based upon various cloud-like formations. In the first movement, wooden instruments replicated the cries and flight of starlings. The second movement features metallophones creating mysteriously floating cloud-like formations. The finale, for over sixty drums, builds a thunderous buffalo stampede.
Tongues of Fire is led by Wood; Cloud-Polyphonies by Yale’s Director of Percussion Studies Robert Van Slice. Both do an admirable job with challenging pieces. As a composer, Wood not only has chops to spare. His aesthetic is an imaginative and purposeful one, which helps the listener to find compelling through-lines in each of his works.
This collection of choral music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt celebrates his eightieth birthday. It is programmed to emphasize his interpretations of Marian texts such as the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and O Antiphons, all of which are central to his choral output. It also includes an excerpt from the totemic Kanon Pokajanen, his largest choral work, as well as shorter excerpts such as The Deer’s Cry and I am the True Vine. (The latter is particularly beautifully performed.)
Aquarius, a group of twenty-four voices, seems “right-sized” for these works, with enough voices to provide the requisite heft and majesty where necessary while still being able to create diaphanous pianissimo passages elsewhere. Conductor Marc Michael De Smet does an exquisite job of shaping phrases, balancing chords, and, a very important consideration in the performance of Pärt, pacing the proceedings. I will be on the lookout for their complete recording of Kanon Pokajanen.
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.
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.
Kimberly Cole Luevano (Clarinet), Midori Koga (Piano), Lindsay Kesselman (Soprano)
Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano
Fleur De Son
Fleur De Son’s recently released “Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano” is an album that does right by new music in this country. It champions important composers who currently enjoy a range of notoriety through amazingly performed works that are strong and indicative of contemporary styles without sacrificing their reverence for tradition. There are two offerings by current big-namers Joan Tower and Libby Larsen and two more by accomplished and ascending Roshanne Etezady and Abbie Betinis whose path to dominance in new music’s near future will only be eased by their triumphant representation on this CD.
Of course, at the heart of any recording’s success or faaiure is the tremendous quality of its performers, and “Bright Angel” features three of today’s most fabulously gifted interpreters of contemporary music. Clarinetist Kimberly Cole Luevano and pianist Midori Koga appear throughout the disc, and Soprano Lindsay Kesselman joins them for Ms. Betinis’ song cycle Nattsanger. Their performances are exquisite as is their ensemble chemistry, which is demonstrated in moments like the opening of Ms. Etezady’s Bright Angel, when Ms. Luevano draws her sound out of a high, quartal or quintal harmony in the piano, or in the last movement of Nattsanger, when Ms. Kesselman’s scream of madness emerges from a high, screeching clarinet line.
As I alluded before, the pieces on “Bright Angel” are fairly centrist in their style, that is, they are certainly not aesthetically anachronistic, but are also not highly experimental or aggressive. Frankly, every work is extremely appealing, and represents the kind of music I wish could more frequently act as an ambassador of contemporary music to broad audiences. For example, Roshanne Etezady’s Bright Angel (which receives its recording world premiere on this CD) opens the album with warm lyricism and enthralling moments of virtuosity. Inspired by the architectural drawings of nineteenth century American architect Mary Jane Colter, Bright Angel possesses clear musical images of the West, which are conveyed clearly and thoughtfully through the grand tenderness of Ms. Etezady’s musical language.
Next up is Abbie Betinis’ Nattsanger (also a world premiere recording), which is a dramatic yet approachable song cycle on Norwegian texts depicting various stages of the night. Nattsanger presents dark, beautiful music that is skillfully orchestrated, namely in the way the clarinet and soprano play off each other’s similar colors and range. The performers are used conventionally with the exception of the fourth and eighth movements, where the texts’ underlying surrealism is most apparent. Here we find the clarinet and soprano used by themselves in a nervous duet (the fourth movement), and the aforementioned scream, which essentially ends the piece (the eighth movement). These are anchors of extremity, both in terms of the music’s expressive force, but also in the work’s symmetrical structure.
Joan Tower’s Fantasy (…those harbor lights) and Libby Larsen’s Licorice Stick further underscore the skill and craft of the composers and performers featured on “Bright Angel”. Fantasy is appropriately impulsive in character and mysterious in its expression. The prominence of the clarinet and piano’s roles are constantly shifting as they trade off prominence and, at times, share it – particularly when the musical explodes with energy about a third of the way through, rollicking through winding scales and arpeggios for most of the remaining music. Licorice Stick is less expansive an endeavor as Fantasy but nonetheless powerful. The most extensively aggressive work on the disc, Licorice Stick shows off the clarinet’s flare for bombast by drawing on its heritage as a jazz instrument (I’m about 90% sure there’s a Rhapsody In Blue quote) with pitch bends, trills and screaming altissimo lines. Throughout the shredding clarinet solos, the piano punches through with driving bass lines that make the piece stagger along the way to its loud, stumbling conclusion.
A Good Understanding
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Before he became a Juilliard graduate, a session musician for stars such as Jonsi and Philip Glass, and then a famous composer with a pile of prominent performances and a bright future with lots of commissions, Nico Muhly was first a boy soprano. A Good Understanding, his latest Decca CD, one of two on the imprint more or less released simultaneously, demonstrates a strong connection to these musical roots and the choral music tradition. He’s also fortunate to have found ardent and well-prepared advocates in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its conductor Grant Gershon. It’s a winning combination.
Bright Mass with Canons is a surprising and fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and postmodern elements. Its Kyrie is a good example of this. Underneath soaring vocal counterpoint, which often embodies the Anglican sound world of composers such as Whitbourne and Bennett is an underpinning of nervously skittering organ licks. The Sanctus thickens the broth further, its dense organ chords eliciting intriguing polychords from the voices.
The mass, as well as the cinematically swept Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings which follow, attractively wed these varied elements into well-crafted works. The Christmas anthem Senex Puerum Portabat is equally imaginative. It starts with long stretches of moody sostenuto cluster chords, but these give way to jubilant singing as well as bright flourishes and ebullient sliding passages for brass ensemble.
The title track, with its long legato lines for the voice somewhat curiously punctuated by boisterous percussion and a busy organ part, feels a bit more diffusely ordered, but there are a lot of very attractive moments. The LA Children’s Chorus provides a supple and affecting rendition. Expecting the Main Things from You, a triptych of Whitman settings, employs a kaleidoscope of textures circulating through the music, including pitched percussion and a prominent solo violin part. Muhly seems to favor interruptive accompaniments, and perhaps is responding to the digressive nature of the source texts with effusive variety, but the piece never quite settles in. The use of a “morse code” vocal accompaniment adds a fragmentary quality to some of the music. But again, it features affecting moments of skillful writing for both voices and instruments.
Thus, while its second half is uneven, all told the CD contains some of Muhly’s best work to date.
CARTER: Horn Concerto; Mad Regales; Tintinnabulation; Wind Rose; Sound Fields; On Conversing with Paradise; Retracing I, II, III; Clarinet Quintet; Figment III, IV, V; La Musique; Due Duetti; Poems of Louis Zukofsky. Martin Owen, horn; BBC Symphony/Oliver Knussen; BBC Singers; New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble/Frank Epstein; Leigh Melrose, baritone, Birmingham Conteporary Music Group/ Oliver Knussen; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; Charles Neidich, clarinet; Juilliard String Quartet; Simon Boyar, marimba; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Jon Nelson, trumpet; Rolf Schulte, violin; Fred Sherry, violoncello; Donald Palma, contrabass; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; William Purvis, horn. Bridge 9314 A/B [2CD]. 103 minutes.
Anyone who has read my blog or my reviews here knows that Elliott Carter’s music means a lot to me. I’ve learned so much from his music it would be hard to list everything. Most important, though, is that I love how it sounds and its expressive depth. I’m not surprised then, when people ask me what pieces would be a good introduction.
With this new set of pieces, most of which were written between 2007 and 2009, I have my answer. This album includes virtually every kind of piece Carter has composed during his long career as well as a few that venture into what are, for him, very new areas.
The Horn Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet are major instrumental works, the kinds of piece Carter is best known for. The Concerto (like most of Carter’s concertos for solo instruments) explores and extends several aspects of the expressive nature of the instrument, in this case the horn’s lyrical and majestic sides in a series of short episodes with shifting orchestral accompaniment. Martin Owen’s performance of the solo part is expressive and assured.
The Quintet has a different formal approach, though one that Carter has used in the past. The piece is one continuous stream of music (14 minutes long) that is divided into five clearly recognizable movements. The majority of the piece is lyrical nature, but the occasional outburst, usually from the strings, provides the dramatic contrast that animates most of Carter’s music. Carter regulars Charles Neidich and the Juilliard Quartet play this piece with style and understanding.
Carter wrote a good deal of choral and vocal music in the early part of his career. As he developed his characteristic style he concentrated on instrumental music until returning to the voice in earnest in the 1970s. This program includes a piece for unaccompanied voice, a cycle of songs for voice and clarinet, a cycle of songs for voice and small orchestra, and piece for a choir of six voices. These pieces are settings of texts by Modern poets of a variety of backgrounds. On Conversing with Paradise, is a setting of excerpts of some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and an excellent example of the composer’s dramatic settings, with its somewhat menacing percussion in contrast to the stark support of the strings and winds.
The three Figments and three Retracings are part of Carter’s tendency in recent years to write very short pieces for performance in solo recitals. The Retracings are reworkings of significant solo lines from larger compositions, like the trumpet solo that opens A Symphony of Three Orchestras, here given a vivid performance by Jon Nelson as Retracing III. In addition to providing solo instrumentalists with short, substantial pieces to play, these miniatures are demonstrations of the composer’s interest in and ability to write strong, if not exactly tuneful, melodies.
Due Duetti is a two-movement piece for violin and cello. In this performance by Carter veterans Rolf Schulte and Fred Sherry, Due Duetti comes across like a miniature (both in instrumentation and scale) version of one of Carter’s string quartets. The transparent texture and condensed scale are both characteristic of Carter’s recent music.
The revelations on this disc (as least for me) are three pieces for large, homogeneous ensembles, the first such pieces of his career. Tintinnabulation (percussion ensemble), Wind Rose (wind ensemble), and Sound Fields (string orchestra) are studies in color and texture. Tintinnabulation is restricted in its being made entirely of non-pitched percussion; its musical argument, then, is made almost entirely through changes of color. Wind Rose and Sound Fields make theirs through contrasts in thickness and subtle shifts in color. These pieces are reminiscent of middle period Morton Feldman in their insistence on finding musical expression in their limited resources.
Listeners with an interest in this composer will find something of value in this collection. The performances are outstanding and the sound is very good. Longtime Carter annotator Bayan Northcott’s notes are informative and insightful.
I used to be somewhat dismissive of the music of Philip Glass. I was big into Elliott Carter and it isn’t hard to see Glass as being diametrically opposed to everything that I was listening to. I always respected that Glass was writing the music that was genuine for him and I never thought of him as a fraud or a sellout. Glass’ voice is so distinct and confined that, popular or not, this is the music he is going to compose. Over the last decade, I’ve softened my stance on Glass and I do enjoy more of his music than I did in the past. The respect of his style is still there even if I don’t always enjoy the end result.
Inspired by the hydro-electric dam on the border of Paraguay and Brazil, Itaipu is Glass at his most obvious. Glass does nothing to strain his limited choice of harmonic progressions and textures. The performing forces of chorus and orchestra are treated as fairly blunt instruments (pun partially intended). The four movements are mildly different from each other but none of the sections are particularly memorable. The differences lie in simple changes such as block chords in one movement and arpeggios in another. The words of the chorus seem unimportant to the piece and the voices are used as another timbre for Glass’ harmonic repetitions. These choices tie somewhat programmatically into the work’s inspiration (a giant concrete slab is probably best described through block chords, after all) but I haven’t found that repeated listenings to this work provide anything deeper than a cursory once-over. The piece is, to my ears at least, a work without surprises.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale and the orchestra “made up of the best studio players in Los Angeles” sound excellent under the leadership of Grant Gershon. The performance is austere and detached, well blended and mixed, letting the music do what it does. If you enjoy the music of Philip Glass already, I don’t think this particular piece is going to bring you much that you haven’t already heard. If you are new to Glass, then Itaipu is a worthy place to begin. Joking that Itaipu is “the best dam piece Glass ever wrote” is fun, too.
The sleeper-hit on this disc is the Three Songs for choir a cappella performed by The Crouch End Festival Chorus National Sinfonia, conducted by David Temple. Glass’ treatment of the chorus, without any of his usual instrumental accompaniment tricks, reveals the clever and insightful craft that good Glass can possess. The harmonic skeleton of all of Glass-dom is present but revisited and made more potent by obvious text painting. The music is not complex but I find each of the three movements much more listenable and enjoyable than Itaipu. Where Itaipu is a summer blockbuster with a big budget, thin plot, and forgettable characters, Three Songs is a lean and tight flick with a killer ensemble cast.
PACCIONE: Rhapsody; Stations–To Morton Feldman; Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Page for Will; Three Motets: Arabesques; Five Songs from Christina Rossetti; “Postlude,” from Planxty Cage. Molly Paccione, cl; Jenny Perron, p; Michael Campbell, p; Western Illinois University Singers/James Stegall; Nurit Tilles, p; Terry Chasteen, tenor; Moisés Molina, vcl; Andrea Molina, p. New World 80706-2. 57 minues.
[DISCLAIMER: I’ve known Paul Paccione and his music for many, many years. The following may be read with this in mind.]
Paul Paccione’s music has always been concerned with the manipulation of musical space/time. That is, Paccione reconceives musical geometry (x=time, y-space) as a canvas on which musical objects are placed, like figures or brushstrokes in an abstract painting or drawing. These objects—chords and/or melodic gestures—retain their identity through repetition rather than development. Structure is projected through placement of objects at different coordinates on the musical canvas.
The result is a musical abstract expressionism that has developed over the years in surprising and gratifying ways. I first learned of Paccione and his music in the late ‘70s, when he was coming into his own as a disciple of Morton Feldman. His music at that time was quiet and sparse, with subtle melodic threads. His sense of color was (and is) so keen that a performance of his music gave a feeling of voluptuous austerity. In early pieces like Stations–To Morton Feldman (1987) the music is extremely spare—splashes of color on a blank temporal field, with a great deal of expressive silence.
In more recent years Paccione has embraced tonality, but his music still sounds like him. The Rhapsody for clarinet and piano (2005) is a good example. A lean piano part limns out a slow, non-dramatic chord progression in triplet eighth-note arpeggios while the clarinet plays lyrical melodic lines mostly above it. It’s as if the gentle triplets in the piano have replaced the blank canvas as a surface to be painted on.
The vocal or choral music Paccione composed early in his career was either wordless or was a setting of a short text that moved so slowly it may as well have been textless. In the pieces offered here, Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins (2007) and Five Songs from Christina Rossetti (2003), the non-dramatic but lyrical presentation of the texts serves as a vehicle for the composer’s characteristic tone explorations.
My favorite piece on this recording is the Three Motets: Arabesques (1999), for four prerecorded clarinets. These motets are simple—contrapuntal in the extreme, they are made of short, tonally-enigmatic melodic gestures that are imitated by subsequent instrumental entrances. The result is a haunting, subtly and constantly changing soundscape.
The performances and recording here are of the highest quality. Paccione teaches at Western Illinois University, and most of the performers are his colleagues there. Several pieces were written for clarinetist Molly Paccione, the composer’s wife, and her readings show deep understanding of the music.
 Not unlike Elliott Carter’s “time screen” in concept, but very different in practice.
Rose Garden Songs, Choral Songs, Motets and Hymn Melodies
Tamás Vetö, Ars Nova Copenhagen
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was a man clearly out of step with his time. Reportedly, audiences shunned him in his native Denmark, where he had to promote the premieres of most of his 16 symphonies himself for lack of interest. The trouble was in his sometimes-hysterical arch romanticism that flowed against the stream of the progressive trend in 20th century Danish music represented by Carl Neilsen, with whom he had actually studied counterpoint for about a month. He later had a falling out with Neilsen, whom he came to regard as the epitome of all that was wrong in modern music, and he was quite outspoken on the matter. A contemporary wag described Langgaard as “the white duckling who grew up to be an ugly swan,” and the unfortunate label stuck.
Posterity has been kinder to Rued Langgaard, particularly since the recording explosion that was ushered in first by the stereo LP and then the compact disc. “Neglected” romantics became a passion in the industry, and Langgaard was the beneficiary. Also, his fellow countrymen, who often used to laugh at his premieres, have had a change of heart towards his music, and most of his 400+ works have subsequently been published and performed.
The current program of choral songs by Langgaard reveals the less eccentric, more purely lyrical side of this enigmatic figure. The texts are simple-hearted and straightforward in their emotion, particularly in the Psalm and hymn arrangements of contemporary Danish poets. Langgaard set these to music distinguished by harmonic warmth and gentle expressiveness that has been largely absent from a capella music since Brahms. The three choral songs with secular texts reflect a genuine, refreshing love of nature, as in the following: “A bird flew over the fir-clad moon; / it sings forgotten songs. / It enticed me away from the beaten track; / and onto shadowy paths. / I came to hidden springs and ponds / where the elk slakes its thirst; / but the birdsong sounded still far away / like a hum midst the sighs of the wind; / Tirilil Tove, Tirilil Tove, / far away in the forest!” (Alluring Sounds, J.S. Welhaven)
The 12-member Ars Nova Copenhagen under Tamás Vetö is a premiere vocal ensemble, distinguished for its perfect blend, flawless intonation and expressiveness. This recording was originally released by Marco Polo in 1997, when Dacapo’s catalog was still being issued on that label. Dacapo thought highly enough of this offering to reissue it in luminous hybrid SACD sonics, making it even more attractive. Listeners who treasure great a capella singing will find this offering irresistible.