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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Naxos has released a new Composers Concordance CD titled Song Cycles, featuring the works of eight composers with text by eight poets. Each song cycle is comprised of two to four short selections and the subjects range from failed relationships to the classic character portraits of the Canterbury Tales. The playing and singing are beautifully realized on the entire CD and each piece convincingly carries forward its story with music and voice.
Carefully Try Balance is the first song cycle, consisting of three sections written by three different composers, all based on the poetry of Toby Roberts. The first of these, Part 1 was composed by David Gotay and begins with a strong piano chord and blustery flute passages. The clear soprano voice of Elizabeth Cherry soon joins, singing of winter weather; a metaphor for a relationship that is going cold. The flute answers each passage in the voice and the blend is very effective. The singing is precise and easy to follow, with good tone and clear annunciation. There is a chill in this that sets the stage for the sections that follow Part 2, by Zach Seely, begins with deep piano notes, dark and melancholy. The soprano enters with spoken text followed by dramatic singing whose volume and emotion approach operatic dimensions. This is the breaking up of the relationship with low, dark notes in the piano and coldly spoken words.
Part 3, by Thomas Carlo Bo, opens with a lighter, more optimistic piano line and the soprano now embarks on a more bluesy, reflective line. There is a sense of getting past the pain of the breakup, a more philosophical feel: “Life and romance can be cruel – both are over too soon.” The three sections, although separately composed, work very well together and the arc of the story is carried forward seamlessly throughout. This is also a tribute to the artful playing and singing that infuse this work. Carefully Try Balance is a fine example of the power of good writing and close artistic cooperation.
The second song cycle on the CD is Blues From an Airport Bar, composed by Gene Pritsker, with poetry by Jacob Miller and vocals by Charles Coleman. These three are reunited having appeared together on an earlier CD, Manhattan in Charcoal. The feel is similar and this four-movement work opens with a bluesy piano and Coleman’s solid baritone lamenting the departure of his former lover aboard an airplane that has just taken off. He is a poet who has lost at love and now considers his fate from an airport bar stool. There is a sad, confessional feel to this – almost Sinatra-like – as the alcohol begins its work. Movement 2 has a wonderfully tipsy line in the piano and just a bit less coherence in the lyrics as the singer drinks further into his cups. There are recriminations and regrets, but this movement ends on a questionably sincere “I wish her the best…”
Movement 3 is much slower and nicely evokes the effect of alcohol fully felt. The low notes in the piano and voice point to the depressive effect of the liquor and the lyrics meander through unconnected thoughts, honest realizations and unlikely scenarios of reconciliation. The singing here is outstanding; precise yet fully expressing that hazy combination of honest assessment and alcohol-induced fog. Movement 4 is upbeat, with a sense of release – the failure of the relationship is taken into a bigger context and the experience will become grist for the poet’s art. Blues from an Airport Bar charmingly captures the pain of a lost love in the familiar confines of an airport watering hole, the sadness, anger and alcohol perfectly reflected in the music and lyrics.
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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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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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Los Angeles-based Populist Records has released PRISM, a new CD of music by Scott Worthington. Composed between 2010 and 2012, PRISM widens the circle of masterful work heard on his previous CD Even the Light Itself Falls. All the pieces on this new album are performed by Scott Worthington on the double bass, some accompanied by electronics with others recorded and layered three or five times.
At Dusk (2010), for double bass and electronics, is the first track and this begins with a satisfying pizzicato thump followed by a low growling arco note and a series of higher, questioning tones. The sequence repeats with variations, each passage ending in silence but with a faint, quivering echo in the electronics. More sequences follow with the same elements, but more complex now in their variations. There is a nice mix of textures and tones that are captured as ghostly echoes that seem to hover in the air. The sense is of low intensity power, like looking at the sun on the horizon. At 7:15 the feeling turns a bit more settled and gentle – the reverberations becoming more optimistic and less alien. More complex rhythms follow, but there is less roughness in the lower notes and a smoother, more welcoming feel. At 12:00 there is a sense of fading energy – as if the sun is setting – and there are some lovely passages with pleasing reverberations. By 14:00 there is a growing sense of departure and the piece concludes on a series of higher notes that fade quietly away.
The quiet echoes heard in At Dusk are reminiscent of one of the techniques employed by Helmut Lachenmann in his Got Lost (2007/2008), where strong notes from the singer are sympathetically echoed by the strings of an open grand piano. At Dusk demonstrates the amazingly versatile sounds that can be elicited from the double bass and Worthington’s perceptive use of them when combined with electronics.
Tracks 2 and 4 comprise two versions of a Quintet (after Feldman)(2011). Both of these pieces are short – a bit more than 3 minutes each – but consist of five separate layers of double bass. Version 1 begins with a low, rumbling chord with a rough, woody bottom and slightly metallic tones in the middle and higher registers. The tones are smooth and sustained, discordant and with a somewhat alien feel at times, but mostly warm and accessible. There is a sense of grandeur in the lowest tones, like being deep in the unknown world of dark ocean depths.
Version 2 continues in a similar pattern with low, sustained chords agreeably layered among the five double bass tracks. There is slightly more dissonance here, but this never results in an unsettled feel and the effect is to increase the exotic ambiance. Both versions of Quintet (after Feldman) seem to shift between the familiar and the unknown, but always with a deliberately comforting elegance.
Prism (2010) occupies track 3 and this consists of three double bass layers. This starts with a single high chord followed by silence. This is repeated three times, then again with notes that skip about, although the overall feeling is quiet and solemn. The piece proceeds in this way, a series of passages followed by a few seconds of silence. In one section the notes seem to chirp between the high and middle registers with an almost reedy sound. There is a lonely, open feel to all of this, with a touch of emptiness. Deeper notes appear, adding mystery.
At 4:10 a series of active notes are heard above a deep counterpoint. By 5:00 the tempo slows and thin, sustained tones are heard floating above soft, darker notes in the middle registers. Higher notes, now alone, produce a feeling of remoteness but this gradually evolves into a warm wash below with playful, bouncy notes riding above. Now a sudden low rumble with dissonant sounds that are followed by a light sustained tone, fading at the finish. Scott Worthington manages to evoke a wide variety of feelings from the double bass and the layering is artfully done.
The last track on the CD is Reflections (in memoriam Stephano Scodanibbio) (2012), for double bass and electronics, and this begins with a low drone that alternates between a dissonant growl and a somewhat thinner moan. High, sighing tones join in, adding to the mournful mood. Some roughness and a questioning feel are heard in the middle registers producing a sense of anguish and uncertainty. The relentlessness of the drone now becomes oppressive, like a great weight bearing down on the texture. The low, melancholy sounds fill the ears and seem to inhabit the listener’s head. Great sonic tears are falling and cry out in their sadness. By 9:00 the tempo slows, the drone diminishes and this compelling statement of disconsolate sorrow concludes as the sound slowly fades away.
Reflections is a fine tribute and a powerfully empathetic work that will move all who have experienced permanent loss.
PRISM was recorded at the Conrad Prebys Music Center in San Diego, CA and the sound engineering here – given the layering and subtle use of electronics – is first rate. PRISM expands the scope of Scott Worthington’s music to encompass an extraordinarily wide variety sensations and emotions, all conjured from the traditional double bass.
PRISM is available from Populist Records.
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Twilight of the Dreamboats
Cold Blue Music has released a new CD titled Twilight of the Dreamboats composed, performed and recorded by Chas Smith in 2014. Featuring a combination of sound sculptures and steel guitars, this electro-acoustic work is “…an ever-evolving single gesture, a seamless blend of tones and timbres.” Chas Smith has an extensive resume, including study with Morton Subotnick, Mel Powell, James Tenny and Harold Budd and he is also active as a performer in film scores.
The sonic materials that comprise this work are sound sculptures designed by Smith with names like Bertoia m718, Que Lastas, lockheed, Mantis and Sceptre. Additionally, Chas Smith performs on a series of modified steel guitars. The result is a precise, smooth sound that flows like liquid metal and evokes a variety of colors and feelings as it proceeds.
Twilight of the Dreamboats begins with a low, continuous tone that is soon joined by higher harmonics. There is a sense of discovery here, of something new and uncharted right in front of us. A low pedal tone enters, adding a sense of the profound. There is a haunting, continuously smooth texture to this; pensive but not dark or ominous. Swirling tones at 4:00 gradually break up this assurance and the feeling turns more mechanical and industrial as if we are in the presence of some large machine. A great, low rumbling soon overwhelms, like a large airplane passing overhead.
By 7:30, a softer, gentler feel emerges and the higher tones have again turned more optimistic and uplifting. Gradually the tone darkens somewhat, becoming more mysterious. A low moaning arises within and underneath the sound, adding a bit of anxiety. Halfway through the piece, a more approachable sound is heard and even the low tones have become warm and consonant. A soft wobbling is heard, reminiscent of the sound a worn bearing makes as it turns and this gives a sense of purposeful motion. By 16:00 we are in a whirring dream scape that contains some large, unseen mechanical force.
Now a high, barely perceptible pitch floats faintly over the swirling darkness, an arc of light in the gloom. The heavier sounds slowly dissemble, becoming less coherent by 22:00. A metallic moaning is heard, as if some large structure is breaking up. The pace slows, the sounds become quieter and there is a sense of settling as the piece slowly fades away.
That Twilight of the Dreamboats elicits such a wide range of feelings and emotions without a beat, recognizable musical instruments, harmonic progressions or familiar musical gestures is quite remarkable. The aesthetic power of the electro-acoustic processes and techniques deployed by Chas Smith on this CD is impressive and demonstrate just how far his music has evolved into a sound world of singular character and power..
Twilight of the Dreamboats is available from Cold Blue Music (CB0045)
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