Posts Tagged “String quartet”
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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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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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: CD Review, chamber music, electronics, iO quartet, Jay Batzner, Michael Chertock, Odense Symphony, orchestra, Paul Mann, String quartet, Tod Machover
music of Tod Machover
Odense Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Mann
- Sparkler for orchestra and live electronics
- Interlude 1 – “After Bach”
- Three Hyper-Dim-Sums for string quartet
- Interlude 2 – “After Byrd”
- …but not simpler… for string quartet
- Jeux Deux for Hyperpiano and orchestra (Michael Chertock, Hyperpiano)
The intersection of music and technology is one that is constantly fraught with peril. The balance between these two elements is difficult and when both elements click some sublime music can be made. Tod Machover’s career has been largely built through the application of technology onto musical environments (or the application of music onto technological environments). This disc shows that sometimes the balance is just right but sometimes technology can seem superfluous or, even worse, a detriment.
Sparkler is an appealing orchestral work that riffs on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with Coplandish harmonies and orchestration. The live electronics are balanced well in the orchestral textures but more often than not they are overshadowed by the colorful instrumentation Machover uses on his various gestures. I don’t find that the usage of live electronics really enhances the piece to a point that they are wholly necessary.
The string quartet portion of the disc is very well handled. Two interludes, one based on Bach and the other on Byrd, are fixed media pieces meant to sound like an augmented string quartet. The textures to both of these pieces is interesting and each interlude matches up well with the following acoustic piece. The timbre of the instruments does have an edge to it that denies a purely acoustic origin. Instead of the thickening texture emerging as a surprise, an unexpected moment of “I thought I was listening to just four people,” that virtual instrument sound serves as an aural obligation for the work to build into something that the performers alone could not create.
When Machover is entirely acoustic, the pieces work quite well. The 3 Hyper-Dim-Sums are charming miniatures for string quartet, played with vigor and nuance by the iO Quartet. …but not simpler… transitions beautifully from the Byrd interlude and continues to be colorful and engaging. Machover certainly knows color and he uses all means of string sounds in this floating 14 minute movement.
Jeux Deux, a three movement concerto for Hyperpiano and orchestra, has wit and energy about it but again the technology is more often a sore thumb than an ally. It could be that piano virtuosity has reached a state where I simply can’t tell when the piano is using technology to supplement the performer but the times when the technology is ouvert, it is painfully so. Mechanical trills, devoid of humanity, are just irritating. The concept behind the piece, one that uses a computer to augment and enhance the piano’s material in real time, is an intriguing one, but to my ears this is a case of the technological idea winning over the musical implementation.
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Music of Vladimir Martynov
- The Beatitudes
- Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) (with Joan Jeanrenaud, cello)
- Der Abschied
David Harrington and John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola, Jeffrey Ziegler, cello
Vladimir Martynov’s flavor of minimalism (if you will allow me to call it that) is incredibly sneaky and pleasurable. When I received this disc in a simple, nondescript cardboard sleeve, I was unfamiliar with Martynov’s music but I was certainly looking forward to anything Kronos was going to play. At first, I was surprised by the complete conservatism of the first track The Beatitudes. A simple melody is repeated incessantly for five and a half minutes with an unsurprising and standard tonal harmonic progression. The thing is, it works. The tune is gorgeous in its sparseness and further listenings revealed subtle harmonic changes. It makes me think of one of the most important composition lesson’s I learned from the music of Schubert: you can’t go wrong with pretty. This piece is an arrangement of a choral work and while usually instrumental transcriptions of vocal pieces fall flat on me the variety used in scoring this music for four performers keeps the music fresh in the absence of text.
Speaking of Schubert, the Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) was maddening at first listening. Schubertian harmonies and gestures abound but anything remotely melodic is surprisingly absent. It truly sounds like Martynov found a fragment of another Schubert quintet, one in which Schubert would later add a melody, and presents it whole for the listener to experience. The repetition of dramatic motions makes the work seem stuck at times but that only leads to more pleasurable breakthroughs as the piece evolves.
The epic Der Abschied does to Mahler what Martynov previously did to Schubert. A small moments and hints of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are stretched out and composed through for 40 minutes. If you like Mahler but wanted it to have more breath and stillness, then this work is for you. What is even better is that you don’t need to have any connection to the Mahler prior to hearing this work. It is, in some ways, the antithesis of The Beatitudes which opened the disc. Der Abschied is a constantly shifting unresolved mist that keeps its hooks in you through tensions which are never satisfactorily released (sounds like Mahler, doesn’t it?) and holds you, breathless, until the music just floats away. I swear I could still hear the final string harmonics and cadences for the next half hour after the piece ended. It never lets go.
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This release combines three recent program pieces by Clark University’s Matthew Malsky, performed by the Boston-based string quartet QX.
Lacan (2007) “for string quartet with electronic sounds” is Malsky’s take on a medium reified by Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988). Like Reich’s composition, Malsky’s incorporates recorded speech and is built around a historical-political program. Unlike Reich’s, though, Malsky’s is free-wheeling and whimsical (with a touch of cynicism)–successfully evoking, in his own words, “the sound of vivid dreams, inspired by a mix of half-heard news reports and other thoughts bouncing around my unconscious.” The QX Quartet keeps up admirably with a rhythmically challenging score, injecting humor into each glissando, tremolo and pizzicato.
Although the string writing is characteristically rhetorical–sometimes in a four-way conversation or debate and at other times in homophonic declamation–it rarely bears a readily apparent relation to the spoken words of the electronic track. The electronics feature snippets of political figures “posturing” (Malsky’s word) on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, interspersed with recordings from that same day in the composer’s own life. (At one point, we hear the composer talking with his children about dandelions, broccoli, and brussel spouts.) In contrast to Different Trains, whose rhythm and tonal shape is informed at every turn by spoken words, the quartet in Lacan seems to comment on or around the public and private speech without reacting to it directly. In some places, the electronics seem merely incidental to the strings. A tighter relationship between the two would have been more aesthetically satisfying, but perhaps less dream-like.
The one-movement work is an arc divided into seven sections, framed by a question and answer posed to and given by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. But don’t listen too carefully for discrete parts. The piece carries its dream conceit through to the end, playing on liminal states of wakefulness and the blending of disparate speech-influenced dreams. Twice, the strings break into an unexpected tango before morphing back into the more abstract forms that characterize the piece.
The highlight of the disc is Malsky’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (2009), his anachronistic accompaniment to a 1920′s silent film of the same title. You can watch it with music here, but the Malsky’s score stands alone well thanks to its quasi-minimalist construction. Several micro-motifs interact in a charming whole: Rippling water at the beginning of the film inspires a two-note oscillation; an arpeggiated triad traces the grandeur of its buildings; a driving mollosic meter (strong-strong-strong) suggesting the city’s mechanization–its locomotives and factories–but shifts into antibacchic meter (strong-strong-weak) to depict the heartbeat of Berlin’s citizens. QX renders with feeling and precision the human and mechanical elements that make this piece a success.
The disc ends with Valley of Dying Stars (2003), which Malsky describes as a “literal but wordless setting of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men.’” To this listener, the music gets too caught up in its program to succeed musically. It lacks the somewhat more self-evident structure of Lacan and the transparency of Berlin. The piece nevertheless keeps one’s attention all the way to its anticlimactic “whimper” of an ending, thanks to rich phrasing and rhetorical pathos inspired by the poem and convincingly conveyed by QX.
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String Quartets 2 & 3
Ida Kavafian, Violin I
Mark O’Connor, Violin II
Paul Neubauer, Viola
Matt Haimovitz, Cello
With credentials as both a folk/bluegrass fiddler on one hand and a classical violinist on the other, Mark O’Connor’s journey through the world of music has been unique. So don’t expect anything ordinary about this offering on his own OMAC label. String Quartets 2 and 3, subtitled “Bluegrass” and “Old-Time,” respectively, are clear signposts on that journey as well as O’Connor’s tribute to his own early American family roots, which include New Amsterdam Dutch and Mohawk Indian strains. (And come of think of it, when have you last heard a classical composer talk about “hot licks” in describing his music?)
With the aid of three collaborators who are all well known to conoisseurs of string music in America, O’Connor launches us, in his “Bluegrass” Quartet, on a thrilling ride that will have many listeners unable to resist the urge to toe-tap and move in time to the music. The authentic whine and twang of bluegrass is present here, as well as the soulful harmonies and (of course) those hot licks we spoke of. That includes a lot of rhythmic “bow chopping” in the fast movements. A highlight of the slow movement is the down to earth somber melody with ”gospel yearnings” (O’Connor) taken by the first violin to sublime lengths. In the third movement (there are no descriptive markings) Bluegrass makes its closest approach to the four A’s of modernism: A-tonal, A-symmetrical, A-stringent, and A-tomic. The finale builds to almost unconscionable lengths, dying to a fall and rising again at several points, until we end with a well-deserved flourish.
Quartet 3, commissioned by the Hudson River Quadricentennial Music Project, pays its respects to old-time folk fiddling such as O’Connor’s ancestors found when they migrated from the Hudson Valley down the Appalachians to the south in the early 1800’s. The fast movements here are even more condensed and tightly wound than those in the “Bluegrass” Quartet and there is no real slow movement as such, and so the playing time is appreciably shorter, about 25 minutes compared with 35. As in the earlier quartet, O’Connor’s music is not as simple as it might at first appear, since he employs techniques such as canonic variation and re-harmonization to bring original but authentic-sounding folk phrases in line with the sound of contemporary music. One may question whether it represents a new direction in American music, based as it is on this composer’s unique history and keen personal interests, but it’s all tremendously exciting. The finale builds to a peak, and then ends suddenly and dramatically.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Choral, DaCapo, Jay Batzner, Symphony, tags: CD Review, da capo, Jay Batzner, Nørgård, String quartet, Symphony
Symphonies 3 and 7
Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir
Thomas Dausgaard, conductor
DaCapo has released a new recording of Per Nørgård’s Symphony #3, a masterpiece of color and structure to say the least. The only other recording of this work that I have ever encountered (and perhaps the only other recording) is the Chandos release paired with Nørgård’s piano concerto. The Chandos recording has served me well over the years and was a major contributor to me becoming a fan of Nørgård’s music. This new recording, however, is sonically superior in almost every respect. The sounds are sharper, crisper, and more detailed.
From the opening piano notes, through the glistening high-pitch descending lines, to the rich full brass and vibrant flexatone in the first three minutes, I felt like I was hearing this work for the first time again. The sonic clarity and crispness of the performance is perfectly stunning. The orchestra and voices perform with an infectious sense of joy and tranquility. I can’t listen to the piece without my stomach fluttering.
There are moments in the piece that I think are best left to recording, dare I say, instead of a live performance. This symphony is a work in which anything can and will happen. The organ’s entrance is a moment of musical perfection, especially when you don’t know it is going to happen (sorry to spoil the surprise). The same goes for the choir’s entrance 10 minutes into the second movement. You didn’t know that you wanted to hear voices until they emerge. Ulla Munch’s solo is buttery and lovely.
The disc also presents the world premiere recording of Nørgård’s Symphony #7. This composition is an excellent pairing to Nørgård’s Symphony #3 as there are many similar sonic elements but the overall tone is much darker with more drive. Instead of languishing in transcendant lush harmonies and colors from the symphony from the 70s, Nørgård’s most recent symphony (completed 2006) is full of agitation and motoric contraptions. The first movement’s molto agitato looses its steam for just a moment in the middle before winding back up again. Simple melodic paths and sprawling chords form the second movement but still placed together in a disquieted way. The ending movement is a jagged and dance-like romp that sounds like it could serve as a contemporary Petrouchka ballet. The same high-quality recording and performance holds true in this symphony. You hear everything that happens and everyone is performing on their highest level.
String Quartets 7, 8, 9, 10
The Kroger Quartet
The same coloristic worlds that are explored in Nørgård’s symphonies are still at work in the more intimate genre of the string quartet and the Kroger Quartet sounds to be the perfect vessel for these four works. Each of the quartets on this recording were written in collaboration with the Kroger Quartet and these later quartets span the early 90s to the mid 2000s (Quartet 10 is from 2005).
Quartet 7 is a very extroverted display of Nørgård’s colorful style in an approachable harmonic and gestural language. Quartet 8, subtitled Night Descending Like Smoke, spans 5 short movements and captures moods and materials from Nørgård’s chamber opera Nuit des Hommes. The Kroger quartet nails the tense sound, terse language, and microtonality. This quartet is my personal favorite on the disc, even though all four quartets are given rich and nuanced performances and once again display DaCapo’s knack for a transparent capturing of sound.
Quartet 9, Into the Source, tracks the notion of moving against the flow of things. The gestures are energetic and driving throughout, even in the calmer second movement. There is a sense of disquiet that I find foreshadows much of what I hear in the depths of Nørgård’s Symphony #7.
Quartet 10, Harvest Timeless, is the only quartet in a single movement and the long lyrical line that laces the whole movement together feels deeply personal. This might sound strange, but I feel like this quartet is like eavesdropping. I hear the joy and serenity from Nørgård’s Symphony #3 doing battle with the darker tone of Symphony #7 throughout this quartet. Throughout it all, The Kroger Quartet has chameleon-like powers of color shifting and timbral transformation. If you are into Nørgård in any capacity, neither of these discs should escape your ears.
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String Quartets (Complete)
Ensō Quartet, with Lucy Shelton, soprano (Quartet 3)
Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) listed three periods in his development as “Objective Nationalism” (1934-1948), “Subjective Nationalism” (1948-1958), and “Neo-Expressionism” (1958-1983). His best known works, the ballets Panambí and Estancia, are from the first period, in which he consciously used the folk music of his own country as inspiration. Considering that fact, and since the musical world is still coming to grips with the original and exciting ways in which he combined what he’d learned in Period 1 with modernist trends such as serialism, microtones, and polytonality, it is good that each of the three string quartets we hear on this disc represents the height of each of Ginastera’s periods. That these performances by the U.S.-based Ensō Quartet are nothing less than sensational, pushing the envelop in terms of all a performing quartet can do in terms of ingenious phrasing and rhythmic vitality, is a definite plus.
I was really taken by the athleticism of this performing quartet, consisting of Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; and Richard Belcher, cello. These young artists, who came together in 1999 while students at Yale, do exciting things with Ginastera’s technically intricate writing in Quartet No. 1 (1948), which includes accumulated trills and fascinating interactions between the players. In this rhythmically intense work whoseopening movement is marked Allegro violento ed agitato, the composer was obviously striving to go considerably beyond the simple folkloric level. The outer movements can be violent and frenetic sounding indeed, reminding us of the rough gauchos of Ginastera’s homeland.
Quartet 2 (1958) contrasts the pulsating rhythms of the outer movements with the quiet, anguished moments we find in the second movement, marked Adagio angoscioso, in which the music rises from a barely audible humming to a pronounced climax of great intensity. The middle movement (of five) is marked Presto magico, and brother, is it magic, with contrasted fragments tossed back and forth and with glissandi and pizzicati taken at speed. The fourth movement, marked Libero e rapsodico (free and rhapsodic) involves all four players in virtuosic roles: Violin I states the main theme, followed by a cello cadenza, a solo for Violin II, and then the viola plays the final variation. Agitated rhythms, perpetual motion, syncopations, and explosive outbursts of energy characterize the final movement, marked Furioso, a word that can imply madness as well as propulsion.
Soprano Lucy Shelton joins the Ensō in Quartet 3 (1973), and gives an incredible performance in a work making as severe demands on the vocalist’s art as it does the instrumental. Ginastera set poems by Juan Ramí³n Jiménez, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Rafael Alberti in four of the five movements. They are a rare synthesis of great poetry and great musical settings. La Míºsica (Jiménez) in movement 1 equates the awakening of love in a woman with the image of lilies in a starry firmament, shattering the darkness with a passionate cry of ecstasy. The final section alternates between lines sung normally and lines spoken as if in hushed amazement. The second movement, Fantastico, is a nocturne for the strings only, rising in intensity from a quiet beginning to a passionate chorus. In Movement 3, Amoroso, the music brings out the satire, bitter irony and sexual desire in Belisa’s song from Lorca’s play The Love of Don Perlimplin: “Love, love, / Between my secret thighs, / The sun swims like a fish. / Calid water through the rushes, / Love, / Cock crow and the night is fleeting! / Do not let it go. Oh, no!” In the fourth movement, the setting of Alberti’s Morir al sol (Death in the sun) calls for the singer to veritably shout with grief at the death of the soldier in an open field by the woods, then recreate the howling of a dog in lamentation for his death. Its demands pale, however, in comparison with the ending of the setting of Jiménez poem Ocaso (Twilight) in movement 5 which evokes a mood of sadness on the duality of music and silence, ending with Shelton’s sustained high note on the word eternidad (eternity) in the final line, followed by an even more sensational prolonged note breaking through the stillness of the night. That Ginastera originally wrote the vocal part in this quartet for the great American soprano Benita Valente speaks volumes for the skill required to realize it. That makes the present performance by Shelton all the more impressive.
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