John Potter, voice; Anna Maria Friman, voice and Hardanger fiddle; Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, lutes
ECM New Series 2441 CD
John Potter is best known for his work with the recently disbanded Hilliard Ensemble (writing recently disbanded for that estimable group is saddening indeed). But he has kept an active profile as a soloist as well. On the ECM label, he has focused on lute songs, with albums devoted to the Dowland Project. Anna Maria Friman is a member of Trio Medieval, who also record on ECM. They are joined by lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman on Amores Pasados, a most imaginative project. The central repertoire are lute songs written by rock musicians: John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin), Tony Banks (of Genesis), and Sting. Potter and company have also included selections by 16th century composer Picforth and by John Campion, a 17th century composer famed for his lute songs. Rounding out the recording are Potter and company’s arrangements of songs by early Twentieth composers and compatriots E.J. Moeran and Peter Warlock.
For those who misread this as one of too many “casual” crossover projects, don’t forget the background of the pop musicians involved. Tony Banks played 12-string guitar on the early Genesis albums, Sting has recorded an entire album of songs by John Dowland and Robert Johnson, and John Paul Jones is a versatile and formidable musician. This is in part why the results of this collaboration are so successful. The other factor, of course, are the performances. Whether in tuning the achingly beautiful close part harmonies in Jones’s No Dormia or navigating the harmonic and rhythmic shifts found in abundance in Banks’s “The Cypress Curtain of the Night,” Potter, Friman, and their lutenist colleagues prove skilful and sympathetic collaborators. They make no pretense to be pop singers, performing with classically trained singers’ diction and tone. The way they manage to meet these songs in the middle is rhythm and phrasing: they readily adapt to the syncopation that is ubiquitous in pop songs and amply present in those collected here.
With material so uniformly strong, it is difficult to call out favorites. However, Sting clearly picked up a great deal about ayres when recording The Labyrinth. His “Bury me deep in the greenwood” could pass for a song by one of Dowland’s contemporaries: it is quite stirring. I would love to have a crack at the sheet music – even if I had to negotiate lute tablature!
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ECM Records New Series 2040 CD
In his recent music, Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür has dispensed with some of the polystylistic juxtapositions of his earlier works in favor of a methodical, mathematically devised approach he calls “vectorial writing.” While this approach does seem to create a more unified sensibility to his harmonic language, the results never seem mechanical. Rather, Tüür’s recent music is capable of a passionate immediacy that’s often quite refreshing. Yet at the same time, he’s unafraid of employing swaths of dissonance and creating intricate formal designs.
Strata, Tüür’s Sixth Symphony, is an intense work, brimming with dynamic power. Emerging from icy verticals and bustling counterpoint are myriad swells of knotty cluster chords and fierce, angular melodies, which gradually build to explosive orchestral climaxes. Strict constructionists may quibble with calling a single-movement work a symphony; but then again, they’d have to argue with Lutoslawski on that score too! Strata certainly tends to favor the heft and developmental formal trajectory of a large-scale symphonic work rather than the episodic/programmatic elements of a tone poem. In a confident and detailed performance, the Nordic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anu Tali, makes a strong impression here in their debut for the ECM imprint.
Strata is paired with Noesis, a double concerto for the sibling duo of violinist Carolin Widmann and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. Their solo lines emerge from a slowly evolving, prevailingly ominous orchestral backdrop, which is only occasionally brightened by shimmering chords from pitched percussion. The Widmanns are given numerous dovetailing duets and ebullient solo turns which contrast with their stark accompaniment. Eventually, the orchestra gives chase, adding propulsive countermelodies, jagged repeated string chords, sustained dissonant wind clusters, and eruptive brass and drums to the proceedings. Once again, Tüür has fashioned a labyrinthine journey in a single formidable and fascinating movement. Recommended.
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Henri Dutilleux: D’ombre et de silence
Robert Levin, piano
Ya-Fei Chuang, piano
ECM New Series CD 2105
Born in 1916, Henri Dutilleux remains one of France’s most important living composers. In the first recording to feature his work on the ECM imprint, pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang tackle his piano music for both one and two pianos. The works collected here are an eloquent overview of Dutilleux’s gradual refinement of his musical language.
His early Sonate (1946-8) is perhaps best described as post-Impressionist, inhabiting the lush yet fluid world of Ravel and Debussy with several knowing glances at the rhythmic vitality of Francis Poulenc. Already by 1950, Dutilleux is exploring birdsong in a sympathetic manner to Oliver Messiaen in the brief but charming “Blackbird.” Conversely 1976’s Figures de résonances demonstrates an awareness for innovations by the Postwar avant-garde. This work, which features both pianists, is a stirring essay in sostenuto verticals, with dramatic outbursts followed by an intricate unfolding of reverberating overtones. A collection of preludes from the 1970s and 80s, as well as 1981’s Petit air à dormir debout distill this intricate vocabulary into limpid miniatures. The preludes combine moments of exquisitely shaded delicacy with ferocious outbursts.
With ardent performances and captivating sound throughout, D’ombre et de silence serves as an excellent introduction to this talented elder statesman’s music.
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