Posts Tagged “chamber music”
Music of Mohammed Fairouz
- Tahwidah – Mellissa Hughes, soprano; David Krakauer, clarinet
- Chorale Fantasy – Borromeo String Quartet
- Native Informant – Rachel Barton Pine, violin
- Posh – Christopher Thompson, baritenor; Steven Spooner, piano
- For Victims – David Kravitz, baritone; Borromeo String Quartet
- Jebel Lebnan – Imani Winds
If you can’t tell by the star-studded cast of performers on this disc, a lot of people like performing the music of Mohammed Fairouz and with good reason. This Naxos release gathers recordings of some of Fairouz’s recent chamber works (only Tahwidah and Chorale Fantasy date before 2011). Overall, the music is focused and dramatic, emotively powerful, and full of rich harmonies and sumptuous melodies. Fairouz does wear his influences on his sleeve and his borrowings from the classical canon and Middle-Eastern traditions mix well into an authentic and unique voice. Chorale Fantasy, for example, sounds very much like the slower harmonic sections of Shostakovich’s 8th quartet pressed through a colander of Arabic modes.
Tahwidah for soprano and clarinet is a prime example of Fairouz’s emotional and lyrical style. On one level, the music is lithe and sensual and without reading the text I figured it was a juicy love song. The text, while rich with omnipresent love metaphors, is actually being spoken by a mother to her son at his funeral. A second listening brought out the darker and elegiac qualities while still resonating the ideas of eternal love.
The solo violin sonata Native Informant also collects moments of supreme elegy alongside playful and fiery energy. Each of the five movements maintains a specific character throughout and most of these characters are simple and straightforward. “Lyric Sketch” is just that. “Rounds” is a peppy and zippy Arabic dance. In “For Egypt,” Fairouz crafts a haunting and woeful piece. While “For Egypt” has the gravitas to end the piece, the last two movements liven things up a bit. “Scherzo” is a cosmopolitan blend of Arab-inspired tunes which morph into and out of Tin Pan Alley-inspired tunes. The last movement, “Lullaby of the ex-Soldat” is another slow lyrical movement with a plaintive arpeggio motive in the middle. And of course Rachel Barton Pine sounds amazing throughout (I have yet to hear her play otherwise).
Vocal music is also served up on this disc. The brief song cycle Posh takes three poems from Wayne Kostenbaum’s collection Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films: “Ballade of the Layette,” “Blue Sea Songs,” and “Posh.” Of the three, my hands-down favorite is “Blue Sea Songs” which centers on a dreamt collection of Ned Rorem songs. Fairouz does a great Rorem impersonation (musically, anyway, I don’t know about personal). While Rorem-via-Fairouz is delightful, Fairouz’s own language serves the voice well with harmonic and orchestrational support. Christopher Thompson earns the fach “baritenor” well with a deep, rich, and powerful lower range and a light, floating, unstrained high register. For Victims is darker, thicker, and more intensely dramatic. David Kravitz navigates the David Shapiro text quite well and the blend between Kravitz and the Borromeo String Quartet is well done.
The final work on the disc is the colorful and charming Jebel Lebnan for wind quintet performed by the Imani Winds (again, when have they ever sounded less than amazing?). Each of the short character pieces, inspired by events from the Lebanese Civil War, is richly orchestrated and uses color and rhythm to their maximum. The spiky and chunky “Bashir’s March” shows obvious Stravinsky influence. The solo flute “Interlude: Nay” is the perfect transition into the bassoon solo which begins “Lamentation: Ariel’s Song.” “Dance and Little Song” try to be cheerful but have a dark and moribund underlayer that keeps the music from being truly joyous. The last movement, “Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh” closes off the disc with another Arab-inspired round dance.
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music of Tom Johnson
performed by Carol Robinson, Tom Johnson, and Dante Boon
Maria De Alvear World Edition
Tom Johnson’s music is very much like magic. I don’t mean necessarily that his music is magical more that his music works in the tradition of close-up or “micromagic.” As is often the case in close-up magic, the magician is telling you in no uncertain terms what he/she is doing without ever really revealing HOW any of it happened. The end result is a compelling “I can’t believe that just happened” experience and this is the area that Tom Johnson’s music occupies. Pieces like Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass or Narayana’s Cows include a narrator which explains, in no uncertain terms, how this piece works. An Hour for Piano or The Chord Catalogue relegates this information to program notes and such (the notes for An Hour for Piano should be read while listening to the piece; an internal narrator, if you will). The magic in Johnson’s music comes when he does exactly what he told you he was going to do but not HOW they are compelling and captivating.
Music and Questions is a prime example of how straightforward Johnson’s music can be. Five bells, all arranged in half-steps, are played in every possible permutation of single strikes. Between each permutation, Carol Robinson asks a simple question. The questions always relate to the listener’s experience of the piece and how the listener relates to the questions or the music. She also announces each section by stating which of the five bells are being struck first. That is it. For 23 minutes. No rhythmic motive to trace, no groove elements, no fancy orchestrational tricks, no surprise emotional outbursts, just a clinical exploration of 120 bell tones. It might be cliche to refer to this as a Zen listening experience but I honestly have no other words for it. There is absolutely nothing boring about this music but my brain tells me the music should be boring. That is the magic.
Music with Mistakes puts Robinson in the role of narrator and basset horn soloist. Listener engagement is key with Johnson and Music with Mistakes brings foreground listening to an audience that might otherwise expect to “zone out” during a typical process-oriented “old school” minimalist piece. Instead of the constant interruptions for questions, though, Music with Mistakes starts with the statement that melodic material will be played multiple times but only once without mistakes. The listener is to try to hear the mistakes. Arts organizations are constantly looking for ways to “engage the audience” with their repetitive concerts of warhorse literature. Johnson builds audience engagement into each piece. That is the magic. What is even better is that Johnson includes the answers at the back of the liner notes.
Same or Different operates under a similar basic principle as Music with Mistakes. Thick piano chords are played but the underlying question is: are they the same or are the different? A motive is played and the repeated: are they the same or are the different? This game lasts for about 27 minutes and it is some of the most active listening I’ve done in a while. I would love to give a copy of this disc to Edwin Gordon just to see how he does.
Since the music is, at its core, so simple and direct it is hard to say anything about the performances. Is there a word for this kind of virtuosity that puts the performers in a quasi-game where their detachment is a the primary fundamental skill? In the last two pieces, Carol Robinson and Dante Boon have to play their pieces without giving anything away. They have to make micro-changes and repetitions into a cheeky game of “did I or didn’t I” for considerable lengths of time. Not only is Johnson inviting the audience to hyper-scrutinize each micromotion of the performers he also gives them an extremely thin veil to hide behind. The whole disc is a delight to listen to. That is magic.
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Song from the Uproar
Abigail Fischer and the NOW Ensemble
New Amsterdam Records
- Abigail Fischer – Isabelle Eberhardt
- Celine Mogielnicki, Amelia Watkins, Kate Maroney, Tomas Cruz, and Peter Stewart (other voices)
- Sara Budde, clarinet & bass clarinet
- Logan Coale, double bass
- Mark Dancigers, electric guitar
- Michael Mizrahi, piano
- Alexandra Sopp, flute & piccolo
- Steven Osgood, conductor
Missy Mazzoli’s opera Song from the Uproar is proof positive that opera is alive and well in the world. A true 21st century production incorporating a lean number of performers and simple yet hauntingly effect electronics, Song from the Uproar also draws upon the basic core of operatic storytelling: expressive emotional content. While the musical foundation of Song from the Uproar is postminimalism, Mazzoli’s music has a gloriously expressive surface to pair with Uproar’s rhythmic/harmonic engines.
The opera works exceedingly well as one continuous hour-long work but the piece also breaks into component “numbers” rather nicely. I have found myself listening to “You Are the Dust” quite a lot, actually, with its gorgeous melodic line, pulsating electric guitar delay and high double bass. Abigail Fischer’s voice on this particular track, and throughout the whole opera, has a dense mournful quality. Fischer’s sound is as complex as her character. There is a lot of heavy drama in the story and it would be easy to focus on the bleak and mopey tragedies Isabelle Eberhardt experienced. Fortunately, Mazzoli is a lot smarter than that. The excitement Eberhardt felt on her adventures spawned moments like “I Have Arrived,” a mostly instrumental segment brimming with bright and infectious energy. Mazzoli treats the small ensemble of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano in such a way that maximizes color and sonic potential. You’d swear that there are a lot more people playing. Mazzoli has worked with NOW before and that familiarity with their sound pays off well. Similarly, musical ideas in Song from the Uproar have been explored by Mazzoli before in other pieces. One such example is that the final scene of the opera appears as “The Diver” on Victoire’s Cathedral City album. The time and attention Mazzoli has put into crafting this opera shows.
I went ahead and got one of the “Deluxe Limited Editions” available from Mazzoli’s Bandcamp page. The whole package includes the complete libretto with additional imagery from filmaker Stephen S. Taylor and a DVD, not of a staged performance, but rather an abstract accompanying film also created by Taylor. Taylor uses old black-and-white film to create a sort of “visual sense memory” of Eberhardt’s life and world. A sample of this footage can be found in the video for “You Are the Dust.” I enjoyed the progression of visual imagery as it evolved throughout the opera and Taylor’s choices flexed between “on the nose” and “abstractly poetic” in a compelling way. Still, I want a video of a fully staged performance of Song from the Uproar. It deserves one.
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death speaks performed by: Shara Worden (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Owen Pallett (violin), Nico Muhly (piano)
depart performed by: Maya Beiser (multi-tracked cello), Elizabeth Farnum, Katie Geissinger, Alexandra Montano, and Alex Sweeton (voice)
For my ears, one of most striking features of David Lang’s music is its austerity. I have heard interviews with Lang where he speaks about eschewing a specific emotional context for his music and writing music in which the listener provides their own unique emotional response to the work. In other words, Lang tries not to manipulate the listener directly but rather create an aural space in which the listener affects themselves via the music. How well does that tactic work with such an emotionally charged idea as “death speaks?” Quite well, indeed.
The text for the five movements are all drawn from Schubert lieder in which Death speaks to the living. Lang translated the text and worked it to meet his needs as he did with Little Match Girl Passion a few years back. Shara Worden’s voice rides the edge of emotional detachment by giving just the slightest hints of tenderness. Worden’s voice is a testament to “complexity through simplicity.” She does not sing overtly virtuosic melodies; the overall shape of her lines is fairly static but she embues each phrase with subtle power and resonance. Lang’s sparse but constant instrumental textures are extremely colorful and provide a great balance between stasis and activity. The second movement, “I hear you” has vigorous bass accents but otherwise the music simply floats and drifts in consistent yet irregular clouds.
depart achieves the same affectless-affect as death speaks but adds a wonderful edge of tension via the sustained harmonies. Beiser’s cello is omnipresent through the veil of detached voices and as the harmonies build, tension mounts. At times, Lang sits on dominant-functioning harmonies but not once is such a chord resolved in a conventional manner. Lang holds your hand through the build-up of harmonic tension and walks you to the Precipice of Expected Resolution. Once staring over the cliff, though, Lang backs slowly away through a different route and leaves you (or me, anyway) feeling bewildered. But the music keeps going and I’m following him towards the precipice again…
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Music of Bill Ryan
Ashley Bathgate, cello; Vicky Chow, piano; David Cossin, percussion; Michael Lowenstern, bass clarinet; Pablo Mahave-Veglia, cello; Jonathan Nichol, saxophones; Todd Reynolds, violin; Paul de Jong, cello
- Simple Lines
- Towards Daybreak
- Rapid Assembly
- A Simple Place
- Solitude in Transit
Billband is another fine example of a post-minimalist/alt-classical chamber ensemble. Bill Ryan’s compositions fit the model well with direct and clear musical ideas well-paced and orchestrated for his mixture of performers. Whereas (gross generalizations follow, prepare yourself) Build draws from a jazz combo sound, Newspeak leans towards aggressive and edgy literature, and Victoire centers around a subdued synth-driven music, the Ryan/Billband sound world is heavily connected to a more traditional chamber music aesthetic with occasional bits of rock drumming deftly added to the mix.
As a composer, Ryan gets a lot out of a little. His penchant for simplicity (aside from appearing in several titles) makes for affective music making. Simple Lines is just that, good melodic gestures woven together using an overdubbed Ashley Bathgate. A Simple Place contains more surface action but it maintains attractive and clear emotional trajectories. Towards Daybreak and Sparkle are other contemplative pieces which paint clear aural pictures. Blurred uses copious piano pedal and reverb to gently smear an otherwise driving pulse towards its inexorable climax.
Ryan contrasts his contemplative nature with a handful of more groovy and driving works. Rapid Assembly starts with a thin groove which picks up speed and energy as the whole composition comes together. Friction jumps right in with a heavy rock groove. To my ears, it sounds like something someone is about to rap over but no real melodic material emerges until the drums subside and the whole piece quiets down. Even in his more driving works, Ryan has a delicate hand at orchestrating his ideas. Each instrument has not only its own musical space but also serves a vital role in creating a single ensemble sound. Most of the music utilizes strings, piano, and metal pitched percussion but the woodwinds are well balanced and blended in the group (expressively played by Lowenstern and Nichol). The whole of the Billband sounds great on this disc and I look forward to more releases.
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Wood and Forest
works by Jacob Bancks, Kenji Bunch, Robert Pateron, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and Michael Torke
American Modern Recordings
- The Trees Where I was Born for solo marimba – Jacob Bancks
- Duo for Viola and Vibraphone – Kneji Bunch (with Kenji Bunch, viola)
- Forest Shadows for solo marimba- Robert Paterson
- Arbor Una Nobilis for marimba and violin – Jacob Bancks (Jesse Mills, violin)
- Winik/Te’ for solo marimba – Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez
- After the Forest Fire for marimba, flute, and cello – Michael Torke (David Fedele, flute; Wilhelmina Smith, cello)
Makoto Nakura has assembled an impressive array of compositions which feature not only his fluid solo playing but also his superior collaboration and chamber musician skills. The solo marimba compositions by Bancks, Paterson, and Sanchez-Gutierrez each draw on different kinds of virtuosity from Nakura and he delivers wonderfully compelling performances of each. Banck’s The Threes Where I was Born is fairly disjunct in texture yet cogent in thought throughout the three movements. Nakura is nimble and graceful as he zips around the whole range of the instrument and connects the musical dots in a salient manner. Forest Shadows by Paterson is less theatrical and notey, using sustained chorales to build and resolve tension. Nakura does a wonderful job creating a musical through-line and solid sense of emotional trajectory. Winik/Te’ stands out from the pack with its brighter, crisper gestures and groovier rhythmic structures. Nakura plays the piece with admirable amounts of spunk and vigor.
This is not just a solo recital recording, though. Nakura’s chamber collaborations are just as excellently performed as the solos. Bunch’s Duo for Viola and Vibraphone is probably my favorite composition on the disc (right up there with Winik/Te’). The warm, throaty sound of the viola pairs well with the cooler vibraphone and Bunch’s music embraces simple musical textures and moods over complex virtuosity. Bancks’ chant-inspired Arbor Una Nobilis puts the violin in the primary role adding sparse yet important flourishes in the marimba. The final composition on the disc, After the Forest Fire by Michael Torke, casts the marimba in an even more traditional role than the Banck’s work. The marimba is an erstaz-piano providing conventional boom-chicks and arpeggios of functional harmony while the flute and cello do their best to hog the melodic spotlight. Regardless of where Nakura is in the musical texture, featured soloist or in various stages of the collaborative relationship, he is an impressive performer who knows how to pick music that features his many skills.
Six Mallet Marimba
music of Robert Paterson
American Modern Recordings
- Stillness (with Sarah Schram, oboe)
- Clarinatrix (with Meighan Stoops, bass clarinet )
- Duo for Flute and Marimba (with Sato Moughalian, flute and alto flute)
- Tongue and Groove (with Jeremy Justeson, alto saxophone)
- Braids (with Victoria Paterson, violin)
- Links & Chains (with Robin Zeh, violin)
- Fantastia (with Dan Peck, tuba)
Also released last week by American Modern Recordings, a disc of the music of Robert Paterson using Paterson’s unique six-mallet marimba technique (and featuring Paterson on marimba throughout). The addition of two more mallets is actually more subtle of a change than I expected. The texture is mildly thicker but what really comes through are more nuanced shapes on the inside voices rather than a bombastic “listen to all those notes!” kind of effect. The solo works Komodo and Piranha are great compliments to each other (Paterson wrote them to be so) in that Komodo fixates on the lower range of the instrument while Piranaha surfs and splashes nimbly in the upper register. I must confess that oftentimes I have difficulties with the form of solo marimba music since a lot of it sounds (to me anyway) as inspired by a stream-of-consciousness narrative that never connects with my ears. Paterson’s works do not suffer from this ailment, however, and his fluid forms are well communicated.
The bulk of the disc features the six-mallet marimba as an accompaniment instrument for a wide variety of performers: oboe, bass clarinet, tuba, violin, and flute. In each case, Paterson largely regulates the marimba to the background of the texture, providing harmonic support for facile and enjoyable melodic writing. Paterson is adept at mixing and matching the timbre of the marimba with these various instruments so it never sounds as if he is recycling materials or techniques from one piece to the next. The feature of the disc, after all, is the six-mallet technique. Paterson’s range of music expressions show variety in using six mallets, whether it be ominous dark chords with Stillness or the sultry bass lines of Clarinatrix and the middle movement of the Duo for Flute and Marimba. Nuanced arpeggiations are possible and displayed in the Duo as well as Tongue and Groove. I am particularly fond of Links & Chains for violin and marimba with its tightly woven accompaniment and edgy yet lengthy violin melody. I’m not sure how wide-spread the technique of using six mallets is but this disc and Paterson’s music show lots of potential for those willing to try.
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Ain’t Nothin’ But a Polka Band
Polka from the Fringe
29 polkas by various composers
Aint’ Nothin’ But a Polka Band are: Guy Klucevsek, accordion and vocals; John King, electric guitar, electric violin, dobro, vocals; David Hostra, Fender bass, doublebass, tuba; Bill Ruyle, drums, marimba, triangle; David Garland, lead vocals, whistling.
Confession time: I didn’t know what to think about this disc when I first received it. I thought I had gotten on the wrong person’s mailing list and couldn’t understand why anyone would send me a polka disc (much less a 2 disc set of polkas). All I really know about polkas I learned from Weird Al. Then I started looking at the disc: Starkland? Mary Ellen Childs? Aaron Jay Kernis? Carl Stone? Fred Frith? Lois Vierk? William Duckworth? What?!? I instantly put the discs in and all my questions were answered.
While far from being some kind of “gag disc” or collection of jokey compositions, this double-disc set is a heck of a lot of fun. Each composer makes their own work on the subject of “polka,” some are very traditional sounding others flirt with polka-ness, others take the instrumentation and write their own thing. The boisterous opening “The Grass, It Is Blue” sets the stage well with its riffs on Gershwin. Peter Garland’s “The Club Nada Polka” stutters and stammers through polka world. Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Phantom Polka” sounds like bits of Petrushka which were swept up off the floor and stitched back together. Bobby Previte’s epic (8 minutes seems appropriate for a polka to be called ‘epic’) “The Nove Scotia Polka” is equal parts polka and fantasia. Disc two contains just as many gems as disc one. William Duckworth’s “Polking Around” has all the subversive rhythmic arpeggiation grooves you would expect. Fred Frith’s “The Disinformation Polka” is full of fits and starts which make me chuckle every time I hear it. I would talk about each piece but there are just too many!
What I really love about the disc is, well, everything I suppose. You can tell that the composers had a good time writing these pieces and Ain’t Nothin’ But A Polka Band delivers clean and genuine performances of each work, no matter how “un-polka” they get. I don’t get the send of this being Hugely Important and Reverent Music. This is a boatload of composers writing out of the joy of writing. Some days you want to be blown away by profound artistry. For every other day, there are discs like this full of joy, pleasure, and talent.
- The Grass, It Is Blue - Guy Klucevsek
- The VCR Polka - David Garland
- Polka Dots And Laser Beams - Guy De Bievre
- Diet Polka - Daniel Goode
- The Club Nada Polka -Peter Garland
- The 22nd St Accordion Band - David Mahler
- The Nova Scotia Polka - Bobby Previte
- Happy Chappie Polka - Elliott Sharp
- The Winnemucca Polka - Robin Holcomb
- (Do The) Lurk – Part 2 – Polka - Bill Ruyle
- Oa Poa Polka - Mary Ellen Childs
- Peek-A-Boo Polka - Joseph Kasinskas
- Solidarity-Polka Song - John King
- Phantom Polka - Aaron Jay Kernis
- Prairie Dogs - Carl Finch
- Guy, Won’t You Play Your Accordion? - William Obrecht
- Polking Around - William Duckworth
- The Imperial Buzzard - Tom Cora
- The Disinformation Polka - Fred Frith
- Medjunarodni Nacin Polka - Anthony Coleman
- From Here To Paternity Polka - Steve Elson
- (The) Who Stole the Polka - Peter Zummo
- Some of that “Old Time Soul” Polka - Guy Klucevsek
- Polka I - Rolf Groesbeck
- Attack Cat Polka - Lois Vierk
- Fuddle The Shux - Carl Stone
- Guy De Polka - Mary Jane Leach
- Pontius Pilate Polka - Phillip Johnston
- Wild Goose - Dick Connette
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: Andrès, CD Review, chamber music, Currier, harp, Jay Batzner, Kathryn Andrews, Kristi Shade, Lizaotte, Paterson, Taylor
music by Andrès, Paterson, Lizotte, Currier, and Taylor
American Modern Recordings
- Le Jardin des Paons – Bernard Andrès
- Scorpion Tales – Robert Paterson
- Raga – Caroline Lizotte
- Crossfade – Sebastian Currier
- Unfurl – Stephen Taylor
- Parvis – Bernard Andrès
I must confess that harp duos aren’t something I’ve thought a lot about in the past. Duo Scorpio’s first release, Scorpion Tales, has me thinking a lot more about this ensemble and this particular duo. On the whole, Duo Scorpio’s album simultaneously affirms and denies any stereotypes you might have about music for two harps. Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade deliver stellar performances throughout the disc regardless of how conventional or unconventional the compositions might be.
The disc is bookended by works of Bernard Andrès. Le Jardin des Paons reflects the impressionistic tendencies of the harp but also highlights many nuanced coloristic possibilities which might not be as readily explored in other ensemble writing. Parvis contains more drive and darkness, ramping up the timbral possibilities by quite a few notches. Parvis is quite an exciting barn-burner to close the disc, too. Both compositions are thickly scored at times, showcasing the duo’s ability to create huge clouds of sound across their entire range. Andrès treats the duo as if it was a quartet and that treatment pays off.
The title composition for the disc, Robert Paterson’s Scorpion Tales, is a three movement work which treats the duo more as one hyper-instrument. Gestures and textures stay unified throughout the duo, blurring the lines between Andrews and Shade and presenting singularly focused musical shapes. Similarly, Crossfade by Sebastian Currier takes a more “single instrument” approach to the harp duo by shifting ideas in and out of the ensemble gradually. Counterpoint between the two instruments is kept on the micro-level until the loudest and most active sections.
Two works on this disc use more unconventional approaches in exploring the sonic potential of this duo. Unfurl by Stephen Taylor, unwinds itself in sparkling arpeggios through Pythagorean tunings. The retuned instruments are a quite refreshing sound and add much to the harmonic resonance of the composition. Additionally, some of Taylor’s low range writing is rather impressive and enjoyable. Caroline Lizotte’s Raga is a real gem. Beginning with a haunting sound (a snare stick rubbed on the string) I am still not convinced that the piece doesn’t involve either of the performers singing. The gentle build in activity from these spacious and gorgeous tones flows naturally until Duo Scorpio hits their apex of chamber music writing outside of the Andrès pieces. With a little augmented percussion, Raga shows yet another rabbit hole for coloristic possibilities. Lizotte explores these colors incredibly well and Duo Scorpio makes it all seem completely natural and idiomatic.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: alex mincek, andy akiho, CD Review, chamber music, daniel wohl, electronics, Jay Batzner, mariel roberts, sean friar, String quartet, Tristan Perich
Mariel Roberts, cello
- Three Shades, Foreshadows – Andy Akiho
- Teaser – Sean Friar
- Saint Arc – Daniel Wohl
- Flutter – Alex Mincek
- Formations – Tristan Perich
My favorite quote from Mariel Roberts about this disc is “I wanted to make an album that sounds like the city I live in,” and I cannot think of a better aural enticement to move to New York City right now. These five solo cello/cello and electronics pieces are bustling with compelling energy and quirky sounds that constantly draw me in closer and closer. The Rodin sculpture-inspired Three Shades, Foreshadows by Andy Akiho bubbles and roils along. The electronic component stays strongly within the realm of natural sounds and the cello has been prepared with clothespins to change the pizzicato resonance. Any and all tapping and pizz sounds are used throughout the piece and the blend between live and recorded elements is perfectly seamless. Roberts has a perfect sense of timing to accentuate the grooves and create vibrant clouds of sounds.
Teaser is a monster of a solo piece in terms of technique as most of the music is made of double-stops. Roberts maintains a very playful and effortless energy throughout which belies the composition’s difficulty. Teaser’s form is mainly of moments which build and coagulate together into jaunty grooves (Sean Friar uses the title as a reference to the “tease” in storytelling). Teaser moves into and out of interesting spaces quite effectively and, while it doesn’t go where I expect on first listen, its arrival points are always worth the trip. Similar things can be said about Daniel Wohl’s Saint Arc, which brings electronics back into the mix. The piece itself uses timbral juxtapositions to build a sense of tension and release and Wohl shapes his piece quite well in that regard. Different than the Akiho work, the electronics are certainly cello-related/based sounds but the goal is the “otherness” of the sound and putting the live performer in relief to more sustains and shimmering backgrounds.
Alex Mincek’s Flutter is, pretty much, a perfect encapsulation of the title. Flutter is exactly what this piece does. Shuffling sounds swirl in and out of (what I think is) an electronic accompaniment and Roberts’ live cello seems to invoke these murmurs at first and then scrambles in ever-increasing counterpoint against them. If those initial sounds aren’t electronic, I have no idea how it is all being done. After the piece reaches its climactic peak, Roberts exhales out all the tension which was build up. The gradual detuning of the low C string for the piece’s extended final sighs is particularly haunting.
Closing the disc is the monolithic Formations by Tristan Perich for cello and 1-bit sounds. Perich’s signature blend of punchy and energetic synth timbres plays alongside a focused and repetitive live cello. The cello doesn’t always sit in the forefront of the musical texture which, while it makes for some interesting interplay with the synth world, might be an irritant for some. If you enjoy dynamic contrast, this is not the piece for you. The upbeat, active, and driving rhythmic interplay is always engaging and hypnotic. I find the piece right on the edge of captivating and irritating, which is a fascinating place to be. I have the feeling that you will know within 10 seconds of this piece’s beginning whether or not you will want to hear the whole 20 minutes. I wanted to, and I have on several occasions.
Another mild criticism some might have of the disc would be Roberts’ tone, which is much more on the edgy side of the spectrum and not the deep, dark, bassy kind of sound one would want for Brahms sonatas. I, for one, think he tone is spot on to the music she is playing which is the sign of a skilled performer. I would love to hear Roberts play something more lyrical and emotive in the future but this disc, as a presentation of Roberts’ voice, really rocks. There is a gesamtkunst-at-werk going on here: the energetic performances, the matching of tone to the aesthetics of the compositions, the language of the music chosen, it all creates a “unified field theory” making every detail of this CD point back to Mariel Roberts as Someone to Which We Should Be Listening.
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Ursula Mamlok: Volume 3
- Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (Heinz Holliger, Anton Kernjak)
- Stray Birds for soprano, flute, and cello (Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Harvey Sollberger, Fred Sherry)
- Fantasy-Variations for solo violoncello (Jakob Spahn)
- Panta Rhei (Time in Flux) for piano trio (Susanne Zapf, Cosima Gerhardt, Heather O’Donnell)
- Five Bagatelles for clarinet, violin, and cello (Helge Harding, Kirsten Harms, Cosima Gerhardt)
- String Quartet No. 2 (Sonar String Quartet: Kirsten Harms, Susanne Zapf, Nikolaus Schlierf, Cosima Gerhardt)
- Confluences for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (Helge Harding, Kirsten Harms, Cosima Gerhardt, Heather O’Donnell)
- Kontraste for oboe and harp (Heinz Holliger, Ursula Holliger)
This third volume of the music of Ursula Mamlok on Bridge Records is a great snapshot collection of Mamlok’s musical language captured in small chamber ensembles. The earliest pieces on the disc, Stray Birds and Five Capriccios, are fragmented atonal miniatures. Stray Birds (1963), a five movement work setting aphorisms by Rabindranath Tagore, evokes bird sounds in the voice, flute, and cello equally while giving each performer their own unique space. Given the sparse and angular nature of the melodic materials, Phyllis Bryn-Julson’s performance is absolutely stunning (as one might expect). Bryn-Julson connects even the most disjointed pitch sets into a coherent whole. Sollberger and Sherry, two names you can trust to do the same, balance Bryn-Julson perfectly, creating a chamber trio instead of an accompanied voice. Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (1968), are four charming pointillistic gems and one extended lyrical final movement. Holliger, as one has come to expect, navigates each moment with clarity and a subtly nuanced interpretation.
Mamlok’s penchant for collecting many short movements under one roof is a recurring theme of this disc. Oftentimes, as with Fantasy-Variations for solo cello, these shorter movements really catch my ear as part of a single narrative journey. One of my favorite works on the disc, Panta Rhei (Time in Flux) for piano trio, really blurs the lines between movements. The angular and pointillistic gestural trends are still present but in Panta Rhei I hear a slight softening of the pitch language. Dissonances aren’t as harsh, gestures are less frenetic, the piece seems to have a bit more breath and life to it. The trio of Zapf, Gerhardt, and O’Donnell do a wonderful job merging together in a sophistically orchestrated score. The Five Bagatelles for clarinet, violin, and cello are equally well scored and orchestrated and Harding, Harms, and Gerhardt take full advantage of the material. Again on this disc, the ensemble blends extremely well and projects a unified sonic trajectory which is easy to follow. Confluences does the same but with a bit more mystery and fullness to the ensemble sound. The Sonar Quartet’s performance of Mamlok’s String Quartet No. 2 is equal parts playful, tender, and fun. The most recent work on the disc, Kontraste for oboe and harp (2009/2010) is also the most playful (the Humoresque first movement) and spaciously lyrical (Largo e Mesto second movement).
Throughout the disc I hear a lot of similarities to the music of Alban Berg: finely crafted short movements (the oboe capriccios hit me in the same spot as Berg’s clarinet pieces), strong dramatic profiles and gestures (String Quartet No. 2 evokes Berg’s op. 3 in my ears), and atonal pitch constructions which still seem to be rooted in Romanticism somehow (pretty much everything on this disc sounds like that to me). If you, like me, wish that Berg could have composed more before his untimely death, you’ll enjoy Mamlok’s offerings.
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