Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Louis Andriessen is in poor health. The eighty-one year old composer finished his last work, May, in 2019. It received a belated premiere (sans audience due to the pandemic) in December 2020 by Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Cappella Amsterdam, conducted by Daniel Reuss (the linked broadcast of the piece starts forty-eight minutes in).
The Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, has released another of Andriessen’s final works, The Only One (2018), on a Nonesuch recording. It is a set of five orchestral songs, with an introduction and two interludes, for soprano soloist Nora Fischer. The texts are by Flemish poet Delphine Lecompte, who translated the ones used into English.
Fischer is a classically trained vocalist who is also adept in popular and cabaret styles. Her singing is abundantly expressive, ranging from Kurt Weill style recitation through honeyed lyricism to raspy screams. This is particularly well-suited both to the texts, which encompass a range of emotions, from rage to resignation, and to the abundantly varied resources Andriessen brings to bear. In The Only One, his inspiration remains undimmed; it is a finely wrought score. Much of it explores pathways through minimalism equally inspired by Stravinsky that have become his trademark. Andriessen is also well known for resisting composing for the classical orchestra for aesthetic reasons. Here he adds electric guitar and bass guitar and calls for a reduced string cohort, making the scoring like that used for a film orchestra. Harp and piano (doubling celesta) also play important roles. Esa-Pekka Salonen presents the correct approach to this hybrid instrumentation, foregrounding edgy attacks and adopting energetic tempos that banish any recourse to sentimentality.
“Early Bird” begins with birdsong, which morphs into a melody akin to cuckoo clock birds. Unlike Messiaen, the bird doesn’t indicate spiritual uplift, the song ends with the narrator abased by a humiliating situation. Memento mori are to be found frequently in both words and music, even a tongue in cheek rendition of the Dies Irae chant. Right alongside these are defiant retorts and much dance music. “Twist and Shame” is a (near) dodecaphonic dance. The bird call from “Early Bird” returns harmonically embellished in the final song, “Grown Up,” to signify a grotesque heron, part of a grim cast of characters that join in a waltz macabre. Afterwards, the piece closes simply with the words, “The grown-up that betrayed my inner child,” followed by eight quiet dissonant chords: the curtain falling irretrievably. As valedictions go, “The Only One” is an eloquent summary of a composer’s life and work.
Miniature Estrose – Primo Libro (1991-2003, revised 2009)
Erik Bertsch, piano
Pianist Erik Bertsch’s debut recording for Kairos is of composer Marco Stroppa’s most highly regarded piano works, the first book of Miniature Estrose. Bertsch was the first pianist to perform it in its entirety in Italy. The overall arch of the complete cycle of piano pieces, including a second book, has been sketched but not yet released. Even its partial completion is an impressive hour long demonstration of the capabilities of the piano in the twenty-first century.
The first selection on the CD, Passacaglia canonica, in contrappunto policromatico, is dedicated to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, reminding one of the auspicious pianists who have undertaken Miniature Estrose. Bertsch more than holds his own, crafting a detailed and energetic rendition of the piece with clear counterpoint and clarion interjections. On Birichino, come un furetto, incisive repeated notes in all registers are wittily deployed to demonstrate the roguish ferret of the title. Moai features sustained chords against rapid repeating notes, trills, and dissonant dyad pairs. As the piece progresses, intricate arpeggiations unfurl amid an increasingly emphatic demeanor.
Ninnananna is an exploration of repetition, but of a far more chromatic and embellished fashion than that of minimal music, concluding with enchanting bell-like timbres. Based on the Easter Island “bird-man” ritual, Tangata Manu is a varied creation, juxtaposing avian calls, ascending scales, insistently repeated notes, trills, inside-the-piano effects, and sustained bass sonorities. Innige Cavatina was written for Luciano Berio’s seventieth birthday. It is the piece most closely evoking the Romantic tradition, with bass octaves announcing dissonant verticals that are often echoed by enigmatically soft passages. The interplay of gestures in a wide dynamic range supplies the feeling of being aloft that is suggested by the composer’s description of the piece.
The CD’s final work, Prologos: Anagnorisis I. Canones diversi ad consequendum, is also its most expansive. A prologue, five sets of cyclic canons, and an extended epilogue, Stroppa likens the piece both to the toccata genre and to the moment of climax, the recognition of truth, in a Greek tragedy. The composer is artful in his deployment of the venerable genre of canon amid a virtuosic, postmodern atmosphere. Bertsch’s strategic pacing of Anagnorisis reveals its intricate dramatic structure. This is also true on a larger level. The pianist does a masterful job of navigating the entirety of Book 1 with assured technique and clarity of expression. One presumes he will be one of the first to assay Book 2.
“Tulpa is a term appropriated by 20th century theosophists from Tibetan Buddhism to refer to a manifestation of a physical being generated purely by thought, sometimes also likened to an imaginary friend, a doppelgänger, or a shadow version of the self.”
Curtis K. Hughes
Curtis K. Hughes is Professor of Composition at Boston Conservatory. Tulpa is his second portrait CD and the programmed works span from 1995 to 2017. There is a consistency from the earliest to most recent works, with the principle change being an ever more assured compositional voice and a major work in Tulpa, a 2017 piece for ensemble.
The program is designed with several miniatures between the larger works, serving as interludes. Flagrant (2008) is a snare drum solo. Despite the reduced means at his disposal, Hughes imaginatively deploys various techniques and an overall approach to strikes on the drum that bring out a number of colors in zesty gestures. This segues nicely into the percussion ensemble piece Antechamber (2015). Played by the Boston Percussion Group, the piece is both colorful and varied in gestural profile. Some parts adopt fulsome grooves, while others are pointillist, with seamless transitions between demeanors.
Lesson Plan (2007) is a piece for bass clarinet dedicated to Lee Hyla on his departure from Boston for Chicago. Since the composer’s untimely passing, it serves as an affectionate homage through various quotes and a buffo blues cast. Merger (2016), for two cellos, is one of the finest pieces here in terms of construction. Angular counterpoint and hockets between the instruments are offset by piquant harmonies.
Wingtones (2009) for clarinet and piano, is cast in two movements. The first is a loose rondo. After a potboiler introduction, there is a Hindemithian fugue opener that is gradually discarded for a swing section. A slower paced fantasy ensues that once again returns to the swing section followed by a coda with flutter tongue and unison melodies. The second movement is more reflective, a fantasy that part way through speeds up and interpolates the swing from the previous movement. Despite occasional interjections of fast music, cascades of arpeggios and altissimo clarinet playing are reasserted. The piece closes with lush harmonies and tremolandos.
It Was Not Raining (1995) is the final interlude, a piece for solo marimba that features rhythmic canons and multi-mallet technique. This is followed by the title work, a piece for large ensemble cast in four movements. The first movement, “i. telophase,” features pitched percussion and piano creating a swath of disjunct melodies. The other instruments join in a contrasting lyrical section. Gradually the two strands merge in a propulsive stream now buoyed by ostinatos. A brash unison melody provides the first climactic passage of the piece. Things go sideways in “ii. manufactured (for a purpose),” with a section for low winds followed by a tantalizing brief violin solo interrupted by a cadenza for piano and percussion. Winds and percussion cohere into a fast-shifting section of glinting harmonies. The strings, led by two low cellos, are then added to the proceedings, providing a syncopated backdrop for a more straightforward ostinato by clarinet, percussion, and piano. Gradually, their disparate grids combine into a fulsome workout, which leads directly into “iii. ‘un amour inconnu’,” an evocative setting of a short passage from Proust’s Swann’s Way, sung with impressive microtonal inflections by soprano Rose Hegele. The final movement, “iv. the number of completion,” begins with a bassoon solo that is quickly succeeded by vibrant percussion, into which it reinserts itself, both gradually taking up a unison theme before the entire ensemble takes up disjunct fast lines that are passed from instrument to instrument. The piece concludes with a ferocious pileup of thick chords in repeated eighth notes. Tulpa is engaging throughout, and seems to be a culmination of the other, smaller, compositions on the CD. Whether for soloists or writ large, Hughes writes compelling music that is artfully crafted and energetically appealing.
Sequenza 21 has the pleasure of premiering a live performance video of Merger.
“I’m sitting on a galaxy. Stars and moons blanket the deep red spa chairs. I rest on constellations. Space itself supports me. Luna lifts me.”
Thus begins Anna Heflin’s debut recording, which encompasses a spoken word play, sound art, and string duets filled with secundal dissonances and sustained drones. Heflin acknowledges a debt to Mozart in the violin/viola duo textures of the music, as well as to Bartôk’s own dissonant writing, but these touchstones do not encompass the variety of microtones and the scratching textures that are brought to bear in her music. The spoken word interludes range from the spaciness in the above quote to more mundane questions about everyday life. The Redundancy of the Angelic is an unusual assemblage, but a quite compelling one.
A Softer Focus
American Dreams Records
Claire Rousay creates sound collages that combine spoken word, ambient sounds, and warm synths. Place making is a central issue of A Softer Focus, her latest recording on American Dreams. Crackling street noise in “Preston Avenue” introduces us to Rousay’s varied sound world. It is followed by a contrasting track of sumptuous minimal synths on “Discrete (the Market).” “Peak Chroma” (video below) draws out a minor chord, successively adding overtones and a mournful melody. Eventually, the harmony progresses, with each chord is given a weighty presence corroscated by fragmentary speech samples. “Diluted Dreams” alternates sounds of children at play and traffic noises with minimal repetitions and extended held tones. Altered vocals and industrial percussion populate “Stoned Gesture.” “A Kind of Promise” closes the recording with glacially paced piano and cello (with spoken word around the edges). An enthralling listen.
“Peak Chroma’ is one of two tracks on a softer focus featuring sung lyrical content. The lyrics for it started as an iPhone Notes entry. This entry was a reminder to not fall into traps of nostalgia and the second-guessing that sometimes follows that. Reminiscing on something that not only is in the past but is something that is never coming back.” – Claire Rousay
Stephanie Cheng Smith inhabits sound sculptures of two different varieties for the extended compositions on her latest A Wave Press release Forms. The first, “Birds,” uses b-z-bowls, which the composer describes as, “an instrument of suspended, vibrating plastic bowls that are filled with and muted by various objects (i.e. bells, balls, beads, clips, and cups).” B-z-bowls create a plethora of textures, from subtle shakes to swaths of white noise, and Cheng Smith does an excellent job using these deliberately restricted means with artful pacing. “Fish” is for violin, dark energy synthesizer (!), and laptop. It was performed within Anja Weiser Flower’s “Cosm, Organization-Construction, Second Instance” at Human Resources Los Angeles. Thus, the performance occurs within an artwork, using it both as an acoustic and aesthetic site. Thrumming, serrated synths against an insistent bass drone accompany violin harmonics and glissandos. This texture is replaced by bubbling percussion and short wave style distortions in an extended middle section. Gears shifting in grinding gestures signal a final section in which the electronics begin to spin out, joined by upper register scratched violin textures. The registral spectrum is filled out with muscular noise envelopes down a couple octaves from the main fray, only to have the top drop out and the bass register plumbed with muscularity. A denouement of progressively spaced out static attacks followed by an oscillating third on dark synth concludes the piece. The album title points out one of the most compelling aspects of Cheng Smith’s compositions: their unerring formal designs.
Erik Carlson, violin; T.J. Borden, cello
The first iteration of “Tide” was in 2015 for double bassist Zach Rowden, who overdubbed a ten instrument cluster of sustained notes and pealing harmonics. The composer, Matt Sargent, fed sine tones to Rowden while he played, each one exhorting him to match it in realt time, creating an evolving of upper register harmonics. The current release captures two new versions of the piece, both for higher instruments and correspondingly more stratospheric results. The first is for ten overdubbed violins and ten overdubbed cellos. The two instruments’ span of harmonics interact, creating a texture that is sometimes gritty and at others glassine. The second version is for ten violins. Its shimmering harmonics are offset by downward glissandos that provide a counterweight to the altissimo highs. Both new versions of Tide supply significant and intriguing diversity within prevailing sonic density.
Star Maker Fragments
Tak Ensemble: Laura Cocks, flute; Madison Greenstone, clarinet; Marina Kifferstein, violin; Charlotte Mundy, voice; Ellery Trafford, percussion;
Taylor Brook, electronics
Star Maker Fragments is a setting by Taylor Brook of fragments from Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker. A history of billions of years and an early example of multiverse theories, Star Maker is one of the most ambitious early science fiction books and remained influential for generations. The ensemble and Brook create a suitably interstellar landscape, one that encompasses extended techniques and sounds both lush and at times akin to the bleeps on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It is left to vocalist Charlotte Mundy to carry the narrative components of Star Maker Fragments forward, which she persuasively does through spoken word and singing. One of the most imaginative sections of the piece is “Musical Universe,” which in the book is depicted as a universe that contains only music and no physical space. Tak and Brook respond to this prompt in a rapturous vein. Brook is an abundantly creative composer to watch.
I have two new recordings available on Bandcamp of piano works played by Ashlee Mack, a dedicated advocate for my music. There is also be a chance to buy the whole discography, with more tracks to come.
While scholarly consensus on Josquin’s birthdate has moved around over time (current estimates are around 1450), his death was in 1521, five hundred years ago. To mark this anniversary, three of the best ensembles singing early music have released recordings devoted to the composer’s works.
The Tallis Scholars began their Josquin masses recording project decades ago, and this program of Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie,Missa D’ung aultre amer, and Missa Faysant regretz completes their cycle of these totemic works with a ninth recording (on a previous CD, they even included a mass that may be by Bauldewyn or Josquin, just to be safe). They have saved some of the best works for last. Missa Hercules Dux Ferrari is the first known soggetto cavato mass, mapping syllables of the name of its dedicatee, Duke Ercole I D’este of Ferrara, onto solfege syllables. The motive is repeated a number of times, often in the texturally prominent tenor voice, commemorating the dedicatee resplendently and demonstrating a technique that would be taken up by a number of composers. Missa D’ung aultre amer is an earlier and relatively compact work, with more syllabic and homophonic writing than one often finds in Josquin. It uses a rondeau quatrain by Johannes Ockeghem as its principal building blocks. Unusual yes, but also fascinating and fetching. Missa Faysant regretz is based on a three-part rondeau that is either by Gille Binchois or Walter Frye. The mass is saturated with a four-note motive that appears more than 200 times; it is divided up among all of the voices and appears in various rhythmic guises. Faysant regretz rivals Missa Hercules in compositional virtuosity. While retaining a number of longtime personnel, the Tallis Scholars sound vivacious and well-balanced from sonorous basses to shimmering upper sopranos. They keep a crisp pacing throughout, and the rhythmic verve they demonstrate serves to clearly delineate the counterpoint in all three masses.
A collection of motets and mass movements are featured on the Brabant Ensemble’s recording. Ricocheting entrances contrast sumptuous, widely spaced verticals in O Bone et dulcissime Jesu. Pungent dissonances and imitative counterpoint enliven a setting of the Stabat Mater. The included mass movements, rather than being part of an Ordinary cycle, are freestanding. The Gloria de beata virgine and the Sanctus and Benedictus de Passione are easily as musically substantial as sections of complete mass settings and serve as a reminder that, irrespective of the way in which Renaissance music is often presented in concert and on disc, service music in practice was far from a tradition of monolithic cycles. The Brabant Ensemble and Stile Antico share some personnel, notably Helen, Kate, and Emma Ashby in the soprano and alto sections. The singers in both groups create a warm and impressively blended sound.
Stile Antico’s first Decca CD features a premiere recording of the beautiful chanson Vivrai je toujours. The rest of their selections include some “greatest hits” – Ave Maria Virgo Serena, Inviolate, integra, et casta es, Salve Regina, and a charming but slightly incongruous inclusion of El Grillo. The centerpiece is Missa Pange Lingua, a paraphrase mass from late in Josquin’s career that employs one of the central hymns of the Catholic liturgy. Stile Antico takes a spacious approach to the mass, with relaxed tempos and impressive delineation of the pervasive appearances of the hymn that define much of the mass. Two laments on the death of Josquin, Dum vastos Adriae fluctus by Jacquet De Mantua and O mors inevitabilis by Hieronymus Vinders, provide a fitting and stirring conclusion to this compelling recording. If asked to choose I would say: get all three.
In selecting the fifteenth century “L’Homme Arme” tune as the centerpiece for his quintet by the same name, composer Douglas Boyce demonstrates an affinity for connecting music of the past with an individual contemporary voice. The piece leads off his portrait CD Hunt by Night, and it matches a structural integrity akin to Renaissance talea with an energetic, propulsive demeanor. Chamber ensemble counter)induction impressively navigates the intricacies of the score, particularly impressive in their rhythmic coordination of a number of turn-on-a-dime entrances.
Two pieces from Boyce’s A Book of Etudes both deal with rhythm in still more intricate fashion. Stretto Perpetuo, played by cellist Schuyler Slack and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, deals with, as its title suggests, constant and varied kinds of overlap. A recurring ostinato is broken into sections where the opening gesture is treated in different tempos and various playing techniques. Metric modulation further complicates the structure of Stretto Perpetuo, but Slack and Jokubaviciute present a detailed and robust performance of even the work’s thorniest challenges. The title work, a trio played by clarinetist Benjamin Fingland, pianist Ning Yu, and cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, members of counter)induction, is filled with ostinatos as well; its three-fold repetitions of small melodic cells take on a post-minimal cast. Fingland plays impressively, employing glissandos and rasps reminiscent in places of Klezmer. Elsewhere, all three instrumentalists engage in an elaborate game of follow-the-leader that suggests the title’s hunting metaphor. The coda reenacts this passage in slow motion, culminating in a delicately arcing descent to the bass register.
Piano Quartet No. 2 is sinuously textured, with glissandos and repeating fragments providing a counterweight to angular melodies. Repetitions are offset to create a kaleidoscopic panoply of gestures. Trio Cavatina, joined by violist Beth Guterman Chu, provides supple sliding tones, explosive repeating gestures, and characterful delineation of the piece’s sectional progress and playful conclusion.
Sails Knife-bright in a Seasonal Wind, the title taken from Derek Mahon’s poem Achill, was written for counter)induction members violinist Miranda Cuckson, guitarist Dan Lippel, and percussionist Jeffrey Irving. Boyce dedicates the piece to his then four year-old son, and the younger Boyce’s loves – a half-size guitar, movement and dance, and the moon and the stars – all evoke touching moments in the piece. Lippel’s playing takes on a puckish character, while Cuckson’s violin outlines a jaunty dance tune adorned by colorful percussion from Irving. Finally, the games end, naptime encroaches, and we are treated to a dreamscape presented as a gentle lullaby. Boyce moves easily between technical fluency and emotional resonance, making Hunt by Night a most satisfying collection of his music.
Ferenc Snétberger, guitar; Keller Quartett: András Keller, Zsófia Környei, violins; Gábor Homoki, viola; László Fenyő, violoncello; Gyula Lázár, double bass
Recorded live in the Grand Hall of Budapest’s Liszt Academy, Hallgató chronicles an ongoing collaboration between guitarist Ferenc Snétberger and the Keller Quartett. The concert’s program is one of memory and mourning, referencing the Holocaust and repression in Russia and Eastern Europe under Stalin. For the guitarist, whose mother was Roma and father Sinti, a sense of collective mourning, alongside a spirit of resistance, are closely intertwined aspects of his biography and musical resources. The Keller Quartett are fellow Hungarians and prove to be estimable collaborators.
Snétberger’s guitar concerto, In Memory of My People, was composed in 1994 to commemorate the half-century since the Holocaust. It is presented on Hallgató in an arrangement for guitar and string quintet. The first movement begins with an achingly slow cadenza. Joined by the strings, this is followed by a supple lyrical theme. After a reprise of the cadenza, a buoyant folk dance makes a brief appearance before the movement waxes rhapsodic once again. The second movement also traverses slow musical terrain, but here the material is imbued with brief allusions to Brazilian guitar and jazz. The concluding movement’s fleet-footed Roma dance music provides a delightful contrast and excellent finale for the piece.
The Keller Quartett performs Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, one of his most harrowing works. A fugue using the DSCH motive (a note cipher for the composer’s name), the famous “knock on the door,” a warning that Stalin’s agents might take the composer at any time, and a number of self-quotations of his most defiant music make this an unrepentant statement by a composer under threat of death. The Keller Quartett’s rendition embodies searing pathos and is riveting throughout.
Two arrangements of John Dowland songs follow, “I Saw My Lady Weep” and “Flow My Tears,” combining the “consorts” of Renaissance music by having Snétberger play an embellished version of the lute part while the strings bear the melody and intermittent accompaniment. Dowland’s motto was “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” (Always Dowland, always doleful), and these two songs add another layer to the pervasive grief of Hallgató. The quartet takes up another piece famous for its expression of lament, the Molto Adagio movement from Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11. Through a constantly interweaving minor-key melody, it creates a kind of funereal keening. After a number of bathetic accounts of the piece by other interpreters, the Keller Quartett’s recording is remarkable in its restrained dignity.
A glimmer of hope amidst the tragic resides in Snétberger’s solo piece “Your Smile.” The disc concludes with “Rhapsody 1,” arranged for guitar and strings. It was originally written as music for a film about the Roma people and the Holocaust. Wistful guitar solos alternate with arcing passages for the whole ensemble, evincing a sense of yearning, mourning, and resignation. Hallgató is a bit hard to translate, and it has different meanings in Hungarian and Roma, but it connotes a sense of listening. This release certainly invites listening, preferably many times, to savor its exhortation to remember.
Co-commissioned by Huddersfield Festival, Chapter, and Counterflows
Multi-instrumentalist Rhodri Davies created the piece Transversal Time in 2017. This recording is of its performance at Chapter, captured by Simon Reynell (also known for his own label, Another Timbre). The assembled musicians are a who’s who of today’s experimental cohort and Davies gives them imaginative prompts for the music they are to play. These involve a variety of time systems – standard time, decimal time, and hex time – creating a layering of tempos.
The tone colors elicited are particularly attractive and, while often blended, each performer gets a standout moment. Sofia Jernberg’s wordless vocals play a role early on, then electronics from Ryoko Akama, Adam Parkinson, and Pat Thomas create sine tones and glissandos that are then imitated as sustained pitches and slides by the rest of the ensemble. Later, birdlike chirps become an extended call and response. The prevailing dynamic level is piano and there often is a delicate sensibility to the proceedings.
The incorporation of contrabass recorder, played by Pia Palme, and bassoon, provide a sturdy grounding for the rest of the treble instruments. A lengthy percussive interlude by Davies, Lucy Dalton, and Thomas combines harp, cello, and inside-the-piano work. Davies alternates between pedal and electric harps and is very much a member of the ensemble rather than a soloist. That said, one can hear the harp as an instrument that urges the various time streams forward and in that sense Davies is a master of ceremonies. Gradually, electronics and then the rest of the ensemble are reincorporated, the different speeds creating a hocketing effect. A coda of soft sustained notes and electronic smears is a fitting denouement.
Transversal Time lasts thirty-eight minutes, but is so absorbing that it feels like it passes in a blink of an eye. The interwoven textures reward multiple listenings, and the recording comes highly recommended.
I was fortunate last year to hear pianist Igor Levit’s US debut, where he played a Beethoven concerto with an ebullient demeanor that was truly stirring. He has remained a touchstone artist for me throughout the pandemic. Levit has been generous in sharing mini-recitals via his Twitter account, with a range of repertoire that is astounding, from ragtime to Rzewski with all points in between. But especially Beethoven.
Released in 2019, Levit’s recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas (Sony Music) has remained in heavy rotation at our home. It is the most eloquent release of these thirty-two masterworks in a generation.
2020 has seen the release of Encounter, Levit’s second Sony Music CD recording, a double album with an eclectic program: Bach and Brahms chorale prelude arrangements, Max Reger’s Nachtlied, and Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari. The chorales are played with fleet-fingered delicacy, the Reger with poignant romanticism, and the Feldman’s fragmentary phrases are rendered with jewel-like precision. Encounter, as well as the Twitter recitals, reveal depth and versatility in Levit’s playing that is, in its own way, as impressive as his watershed renditions of Beethoven. Both the sonatas and Encounter, as well as regular visits to his Twitter site, are highly recommended. Levit is Sequenza 21’s Artist of the Year for 2020.