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.
Bruno Taddia, Bajazet; Filippo Mineccia, Tamerlano; Delphine Galou, Asteria;
Sophia Rennert, Irene; Marina De Liso, Andronico; Arianna Vendittelli, Idaspe;
Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone, director
Naïve Vivaldi Edition Vol. 65
In recent years, there has been a reconsideration of Antonio Vivaldi’s stage works. A Vivaldi Edition is appearing on the Naïve label, its latest offering the pasticcio opera Il Tamerlano. Premiered in 1735 in Verona, the work contains arias by Vivaldi’s contemporaries Hasse, Giacamelli, and Broschi. Vivaldi composed recitatives and interludes and contributed several arias of his own. The various trunk arias may be from disparate sources, but the opera coheres around extraordinary vocal writing.
From top – Arianna Venditelli’s Idaspe, displaying extraordinary coloratura runs – to bottom – Bruno Taddia’s resonant yet flexible singing in the role of Bajazet – the cast is excellent. Particularly impressive is the countertenor Filippo Mineccia, whose wide-ranging voice drops into tenor chest notes and to the top of the staff for soprano register high notes. His tone is warm and portrayal poignant.
Il Tamerlano is an excellent opportunity to hear Vivaldi’s music measured against other prominent opera composers of the day.The high quality of his stage works are becoming firmly established, and the selections by the other included composers suggest that there is still more fertile terrain to explore in Italy’s high baroque era. Il Tamerlano is Sequenza 21’s Best Opera Recording of 2020.
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has been playing Philip Glass’s music live for the past few years. Her interpretations, recorded on an Orange Mountain CD (Glass’s label) reveal dynamic subtleties and a romantic sensibility that creates a sense of vulnerability in the three etudes presented here; many others have focused on the motoric quality of their compositional processes. When I heard Glass play these pieces, he suggested that an approach akin to that of Dinnerstein is correct. It is refreshing to hear a pianist with superlative technique play the etudes with such musicality.
Dinnerstein presents the Glass etudes alongside a watershed work of the early nineteenth century: Franz Schubert’s final piano sonata. Where Mitsoko Uchida emphasizes a poetic interpretation and Jeremy Denk the pathos of the piece, Dinnerstein imparts delicacy and subtle shifts of harmonic hues. Not that requisite power isn’t brought to bear when Schubert indicates forte passages. But in seeking “A Character of Quiet,” Dinnerstein’s approach explores varieties of touch and resonance that give the sonata a valedictory quality entirely in keeping with its date of composition (1828, the year of the composer’s death). One of finest piano recordings of the year, it makes our Best of 2020 list.
Dreams can be a potent force for creators. Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has harnessed her subconscious to make her strongest work yet. Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt is a double album, the first CD featuring a chamber orchestra and the second CD small ensembles, both performing the same dream-based compositions, with the second CD’s versions “turned upside down and inside out,” according to Laubrock.
Laubrock’s 2018 orchestral album, Contemporary Chaos, hinted at the skills she would bring to bear when writing for large ensembles. Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt goes even further towards an impressionist concept of sound. While I wouldn’t want to trade either disc for the other, it is also fascinating to hear the pieces reworked for a smaller group in lithe arrangements that feature electronics by Sam Pluta as well as contributions from Laubrock, Cory Smythe, Adam Matlock, Josh Modney and Zeena Parkins.
Atmospheric, harmonically complex, and filled with eloquent solos and intricate charts, the recording is one my favourite releases from this year. Best Jazz 2020.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor
Composer Harold Shapero (1920-2013) was a central figure during the mid-twentieth century. A member of the Boston neoclassical group of composers, he was one of the first professors hired by Irving Fine for a new composition program at Brandeis University. Shapero had three principal influences that are evident in his work: the craftsmanship of Nadia Boulanger, transmitted both through his work with her in Cambridge and his principal teacher at Harvard, Walter Piston, the neoclassical works of Igor Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland’s midcareer music. In the 1950s and 60s, Stravinsky and Copland both explored serial procedures in their music, leaving Shapero bereft. As a stylistic holdout, his productivity slowed down and music became unduly neglected. But as a teacher at Brandeis of numerous prominent composers, he remained an influential presence on the Boston scene.
There have been few recent recordings of Shapero’s music. As they have in championing so many underserved figures, Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), conducted by Gil Rose, has come to the rescue with a CD of his orchestral works. Sinfonia in C minor is given a muscular reading, its heraldic fanfares and vinegary wind outbursts punctuate neo-baroque dotted rhythms and taut solo writing. More mellifluous is Credo for Orchestra (1955), the closest Shapero came to writing an Americana piece. On Green Mountain for jazz ensemble is a Third Stream work. Played with impressive verve here, it demonstrates Shapero’s fluency in a traditional jazz idiom. As with so many releases by BMOP, this disc makes one hope that the programmed pieces achieve wider circulation. Best Orchestral Recording 2020.
Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile
Sony Music Masterworks
Not Our First Goat Rodeo, a second album for the grouping of fiddler Stuart Duncan, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and mandolinist Chris Thile, adopts a popular hybrid: bluegrass meets classical. The past three decades have seen a number of releases in this mold, many of them spearheaded by Meyer and Thile. But this particular recording captures a certain spark, an ebullience that can elicit a smile even in the midst of the dark days of 2020.
The group plays together beautifully. Edgar Meyer’s long glissandos give an Eastern feel to “Your Coffee is a Disaster.” Stuart Duncan’s fiddle is deployed in a ‘high lonesome’ fashion on “Waltz Whitman.” Yo-Yo Ma, as the classical musician reading notation, would seem to be an outlier in this group, with charts by Meyer and Thile circumscribing his contribution. That said, he plays with brilliant tone and rhythmic verve, clearly enjoying being in this different context again. His playing is particularly poignant on “Waltz Whitman.” Thile’s supple playing and singing, in a duet with guest vocalist Aife O’Donovan, buoy the standout track “Every Note a Pearl.” All of the players and vocalists create a hypnotic interplay on “Not for Lack of Trying,” and album closer “757 ml.” is catchy as all get out.
The Beethoven Year has skewed toward profundity, but sometimes in the isolation of social distancing, abundant fun has been just the ticket. Best crossover release of 2020.
Yuja Wang, piano; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Adés Conducts Adés
Kirill Gerstein, piano: Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano, Mark Stone, baritone;
Boston Symphony, Thomas Adés, conductor
This year saw the release of two formidable new piano concertos on Deutsche Grammophon: John Adams’s third piano concerto, titled Why Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (a quote from Martin Luther about using popular melodies as chorales), and a concerto by Thomas Adés. The recordings feature two of the most dynamic soloists active today, pianists Yuja Wang and Kirill Gerstein. The Adés release also includes Totentanz, an impressive vehicle for mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and baritone Mark Stone.
Adés has crafted a piano concerto that pays homage to past pieces in the genre, with more than a passing nod at those by Ravel and Gershwin. Buoyancy typifies the outer movements, with jaunty swinging passages appearing in both, but the middle movement is a searing adagio in which dense harmonies are set against a poignant piano solo. Gerstein is extraordinary in his virtuosity and versatility. His playing is particularly impressive during the latter portion of the third movement, where weighty terrain reminiscent of the second movement is once again encountered, at the last possible second veering back to the fast demeanor of the opening and a brilliant cadenza followed by a strongly articulated final cadence.
In Must the Devil…, Adams displays the polyglot language he has cultivated since the 1990s, in which the post-minimalism of his earlier works takes on the role of a background grid while rich harmonies, American pop references, and a demanding solo part take the fore. The first movement is marked “gritty, funky, and in strict tempo,” and the rockabilly riff that Wang and the orchestra lock into propels the action. It is succeeded by a double time riff from the orchestra over which Wang plays incisive chords and fleet runs. A cadenza deconstructs the riff into angular punctuations and arpeggiations. The second movement features delicate shadings of repeated pitch cells and frequent trills haloed by long descending scales in the strings. Gradually, counterpoint in the winds joins the proceedings and the piano part thickens to lush textures. Textures dissolve until we are left with pointillist versions of the original arpeggiations. Repeated chords lead attacca into the third movement, the repeating pulse undertaken by the orchestra while the piano takes up a wide-spanning perpetual motion figure. A vigorous march, punctuated by chimes and brass and thick chords in the piano supplants this, eventually offset by a triplet riff that gives us just a hint of the piece’s opener. Moving back and forth between double time iterations and solid beat-note blocks of sound, the stage is set for a flurry of activity from the piano. The soloist and orchestra interlock in a brisk groove that periodically is interspersed by mini-cadenzas. The coda takes on a machine like ostinato that ends vigorously. Wang’s encore is China Gates, one of Adams’s prominent early works that has stood the test of time. Here and in the concerto, her playing is superlative, vivacious, and detailed.
Roland de Lassus (1530-1594) – also known as Orlando di Lasso – was one of the most important vocal composers of the sixteenth century. His extant catalog contains more than 2,000 pieces in nearly every sacred genre as well as madrigals, chansons, and lieder. Much of his career was spent in Munich in the service of Duke Albrecht V of Prussia. The motets that appear on Inferno, a Harmonia Mundi CD of six and eight voice pieces, come from this stage of his career. They are penitential in character, the last published motets taking on a particularly melancholy demeanor that seems to impart the composer’s reflections on mortality in old age.
Cappella Amsterdam, directed by Daniel Reuss, has a beautiful sound, superbly balanced with warmth in every register. Reuss shapes the programmed pieces to demonstrate clarity of counterpoint, expressivity of utterance, and, importantly, the resonance that these frequently mournful works require.
Among several standout performances, particularly affecting is Media vita in morte sumus, which is preceded by a limpidly executed rendition of its plainchant. The motet contains considerable antiphony, a technique that Lassus uses in a fashion reminiscent to Adrian Willaert’s choral music for St. Mark’s in Venice. In Omnia tempus habent, Lassus similarly splits up the voices, with ricocheting entrances offset by rich, tutti eight-part textures.
Lassus was also a master of word-painting. Published the year of Lassus’s death, Deficiat in dolore vita mea, has a particularly plaintive cast, its text a paraphrase of Psalm 30, verse 11: “Let my life end in grief, and my years in groans, that I may find rest in the day of tribulation” – set as a moving bewailment. From the same 1594 collection of six-voice motets, Vidi Calumnias begins with staggered entrances that gradually give way to scintillating chords.
Not all of the texts are ones of mourning. Published somewhat earlier, in 1582, Cum essem parvulus sets one of the most beloved passages of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child …” with florid canonic passages offset by richly voiced harmonies. Thus, while Inferno is a solemn document, it is still one that contains glimmers of hope around its edges. Best choral release 2020.
Jazz pianist Matthew Shipp turned sixty this year and celebrated in part with the solo release The Piano Equation. Shipp is an extraordinarily prolific recording artist, with dozens of releases as leader or co-leader and numerous more as a supporting musician; his solo catalog alone is extensive. Despite this embarrassment of riches, The Piano Equation is a standout recording, a state-of-the-art summary of the myriad playing styles at Shipp’s disposal.
The title track shifts harmonic identities from modal changes to dissonant structures, all of them buoying an arcing, long-lined melody. “Swing Note from Deep Space” has a Monk-like vibe, with hard bop phrasing, buoyant walking bass, and filigreed passagework. In one of several multifaceted pieces on the recording,
“Void Equation” moves between pointillism and bluesy riffs and builds a fast-paced ostinato before returning to the fragmentary nature of its opening.
“Piano in Hyperspace” is an intricate ballad with staccato vertical interjections providing a bit of grit to counteract otherwise limpid textures. Two other ballads, “Land of the Secrets” and “Tone Pockets,” show Shipp creating impressionist whorls of neo-traditional materials in a delicate contrast to his more modern offerings.
Just as the pianist can play with considerable delicacy, Shipp also can let loose a tsunami of powerful free playing, as he does on “Vortex Factor.” “Radio Signals Equation” is a propulsive, swinging take on post-tonality, while “Clown Pulse” is a bumptious take on hard bop. Fleet and varied in terms of its surface, its asymmetrical blocks taking on a Stravinskyian cast, “Emission” is Shipp at his most distinctive. The album closer “Cosmic Juice” is another standout, with angular shifts between registers periodically suspended by minimal repetition and sepulchral low passages offset by treble register tightly voiced chords and shards of melodic material.
The Piano Equation is just one of several recordings released this year by the sexagenerian Shipp. His energy and creativity is indefatigable and shows no signs of flagging.
Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Cambreling, Johannes Kalitzke, conductors
A number of prominent European composers took part in Scelsi revisited, a festival, documented on this double-CD, celebrating Giacinto Scelsi’s music. Their tribute pieces were based on unrealized tapes of Scelsi playing the Ondiola, a three-octave tube synthesizer that was his preferred instrument for making drafts of his works. Some are incorporated directly into pieces, others remixed and morphed as part of larger electronic designs, and some merely outline materials subsequently reworked by the selected composers. The forces used are often that of Anahit, Scelsi’s piece for violin and ensemble, previously recorded by Klangforum Wien for Kairos.
Michael Petzel’s Sculture di Suono addresses the beating, tremolo, and fading in and out of material often present in Scelsi’s tapes. The piece contains beautifully distressed microtonal bends, particularly among the winds, ornaments by the oboe, and references to Scelsi’s “organ sound,” with its tonal implications and plethora of thirds and sixths. Michel Roth’s Moi (see the article referenced below) also demonstrates beating, including the rhythmical quality found on Scelsi’s tapes, difference tones, and a particularly varied and engaging orchestration.
Tristan Murail had a long association with Scelsi, performing some of his works with the ensemble L’itineraire in the 1970s. In Murail’s Un Sogno, the composer reworks Scelsi’s tapes, augmenting them with his own electronics and spectral harmonies for the ensemble, creating an imaginative tribute piece. Introduktion und Transsonation, by Georg Friedrich Haas, allows tapes to roll and encourages Klangforum Wien to improvise along with them.
Nicola Sani’s “Gimme Scelsi” deals with long sustained sounds that are then morphed by microtonal ornaments and harmonics, made all the more powerful by space in between the utterances. Later in the piece, block harmonies once again recall Scelsi’s “organ sound.” Clocking in at more than 42 minutes, Ulli Fussenegger’s San Teodoro 8 is the most expansive work on the recording. Fussenegger made tapes from Scelsi’s archives for all of the participating composers and he uses a great deal of this material in his own piece, which is also arrayed with original electronic components and melodic material based on monad and dyad formulations. The Ondiola material is front-loaded in a way that is seldomly done in the other pieces.Like Anahit, it also features a violin soloist, but a number of members of the ensemble get a chance to take a solo turn. Á tue tet by Fabien Levy is for nine winds distributed throughout the performance space. It juxtaposes pointillist shards of ricocheting fragments into gradual pile-ups of texture. The second disc closes with Cardinald by Ragnhild Bergstad, who takes the more gentle aspects of Scelsi’s artistry, as well as nature sounds, notably the song of the robin, to create a more placid surface than the other works presented here. An appealing denouement and gentle coda to a fascinating collection of pieces.
The booklet notes are excellent, including the Scelsi’ “symbol,” a rare photo of the composer, and Ragnhild Berstad’s thoughtful essay on reception history and the revisited project itself. Berstad doesn’t shy away from the controversies surrounding Scelsi’s legacy, notably the article “Scelsi c’est moi” by Vieri Tosattis, one of the musicians who helped Scelsi to transcribe his tapes to musical notation. Of the revisited project, Berstad instead suggests “Scelsi, c’est nous,” pointing out the myriad ways that the composer has made his presence felt here and elsewhere. Scelsi continues to inspire, as the composers and performers on this recording readily attest. One of the best releases of 2020.