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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Music of Philip Glass
Paris-based artist Nicolas Horvath has released a new CD on the Naxos Grand Piano label titled Glassworlds 2 featuring the complete Philip Glass piano etudes, numbers 1 through 20. The etudes were begun in the mid-1990s by Glass to expand the repertoire of new music for what had become an active concert schedule for solo piano. These pieces were written after the success of Einstein on the Beach and the scoring of Koyaanisqatsi and represent something of a return by Philip Glass to his early studies as a student of Nadia Boulanger. Etudes 1 through 10 were written during the 1990s in between other works such as Hydrogen Jukebox, String Quartet No. 5 and Symphony No. 2.
These first ten etudes, known together as Book I, are technically challenging – but they are at a distinct stylistic distance from the early minimalism of, say, Music With Changing Parts that famously features repetition, limited dynamic range and static harmonies. Etude No. 1, for example, begins with four strong chords followed by rapid trilling and a crescendo-decrescendo style in the passage work that is reminiscent of the great 19th century piano virtuosi. There is a detectable echo of early minimalism here but it has been subordinated to requirements of a more demanding and expressive technique, masterfully provided on this CD by Nicolas Horvath. Etudes 3 and 4 are even more dramatically phrased, almost as if they were lifted from a piano concerto.
Etude 6 has a powerful emotional component – as well as a touch of pathos – that also lends itself to a more passionate interpretation. This etude has become a favorite of Nicolas Horvath, as he writes in the liner notes: “The only recording of Book I which was available for many years did not excite me, but while attending a recital in which the composer himself performed a selection I radically changed my view, inspired by Glass’ own poetical pianism, and helped by the hall’s acoustic, my instinct recreated them as if they were performed in a Lisztian or Rachmaninov-like manner and I suddenly understood their immense potential.”
Book 2 – Etudes 11 through 20 – were composed over a longer time period, from about 2000 onward to 2013. The music of Book 2 has a completely different point of view, as Philip Glass writes: “The first ten really have a pedagogical aspect to them for my own development. The second set have nothing or very little to do with that. I began working in the world of ideas… I did not put restrictions on the technique.” Etude 12, for example, opens with strong repeating figures that impart a complex, questioning feel along with cross currents and a swirling, unsettled aspect. Etude 13 is a frantic, slightly out of control piece, filled with powerful scales running up and down that seem almost disoriented at times. By contrast, Etude 16 is smooth and restrained, with a calm, reflective feeling that is beautifully brought out by the sensitive playing of Nicolas Horvath. Number 19 is slower with a series of single, deliberate notes in the bass line combined with nicely articulated counterpoint in the upper registers that produce a more contemporary feel. There is more variety in the Book 2 etudes and more scope for expressive technique.
Nicolas Horvath, with precise playing and imaginative interpretation has made Glassworlds 2 an indispensable reference for the serious enthusiast as well as marking an important milestone in the evolution of the music of Philip Glass.
Glassworlds 2 is available on Amazon.
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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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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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