Track of the Day: Section of Music for 18 – solo!

Erik Hall.

Erik Hall has made a recording of Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians – by himself. Created before social distancing, it still seems to be in step with the solitariness of pandemic time.

The recording will be released on May 8th via Western Vinyl.

Track of the Day: “Empty Quarter”

Golden Retriever and guitarist Chuck Johnson have joined forces on the Thrill Jockey album Rain Shadow (out May 25th). Today the trio release a teaser track, clocking in at nearly an album side of new music, titled “Empty Quarter.”

Barbara Hannigan – La Passione (CD Review)

La Passione

Barbara Hannigan, soprano and conductor; Ludwig Orchestra

Alpha Classics

La Passione is soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan’s second CD with Ludwig Orchestra. Their first collaboration, Girl Crazy, won a 2018 Grammy Award. Like Girl Crazy, the selections on La Passione are disparate, but they cohere into a convincing program. Whether she is performing a solo vocal piece by Luigi Nono, conducting a Haydn symphony, or conducting and singing a spectral work by Grisey, Hannigan is a compelling performer. This is also true of Ludwig Orchestra, who thrive in this setting. 

Luigi Nono’s solo vocal work Cjamila Boupacha eulogizes a dissident who, during the lead up to the French-Algerian war, was raped and murdered. Her story galvanized anti-colonial resistance in the country. The piece is a vocalize that often accesses the extreme upper register of the soprano’s range. Hannigan navigates its wide range and visceral expressive qualities with eloquence and impeccable technique.

It might seem strange to pair a Haydn symphony with a Nono piece, but Symphony No. 49, “La Passione,” explores grief with depth of feeling and dramatic flair. Composed in 1768, it is one of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” pieces. Its formal design is that of a church sonata, with an extensive slow movement preceding the sonata allegro second movement. In terms of both form and demeanor, it may have been played at Esterhazy during Holy Week. The first movement extends a mournful demeanor over a quarter-hour, and it is followed by a combative allegro. Hannigan provides a supple reading of the minuet and trio, with the latter finally allowing the listener let-up from f-minor’s pathos, which has thus far dominated the proceedings, with a glimpse, albeit brief, of F-major. The emotional finale truly embodies the “Sturm und Drang” aesthetic, ending the piece in powerful, albeit tragic, fashion.

French composer Gérard Grisey passed away in 1998 at age 52 from an aneurysm, leaving behind a compact but compelling body of work that helped to define the spectral approach to composition. His last completed piece was Quatre Chants pour Franchir les Soueil (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold”), premiered posthumously in 1999. In recent years Hannigan has championed Quatre Chants, notably performing it with Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Susanna Mälkki and Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. On La Passione, she undertakes the daunting task of both singing and conducting the piece. Of the recorded performance with Ludwig Orchestra, Hannigan has remarked, “It took us to our limits.”

A variety of texts are used: Guez-Ricord’s The Hours of Night, Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, a fragment from sixth century Greek poetess Erinna, and an extract from the Babyloninan Epic of Gilgamesh (courtesy Tim Rutherford-Johnson).  Overtone chords and micro-tunings abound. The instrumentation is distinctive, particularly the percussion cohort that includes fifteen tuned gongs that are played in quick arpeggiations at a low dynamic level, an impressive feat and singular sound. The bass drum has an evocative role as well, serving to toll a memento mori that divides the piece’s several sections. In the first song, “Death of the Angel”, is one of the piece’s signatures, bracing unison lines between soprano and trumpet that shatter an otherwise merely ominous atmosphere. A variety of wind instruments are employed throughout, including saxophones. Hannigan’s singing seamlessly intermingles with the various instruments, moving from sinuous angular lines to altissimo shrieks with myriad gestures in between. After the four songs is a postlude, “Berceuse,” haunting in its comparative reserve with a number of duets between Hannigan and various instruments in floating vocal lines.

An ambitious program with a “can’t miss” piece (the Grisey) and all of it exquisitely executed: recommended.

-Composer Christian Carey is Associate Professor at Westminster Choir College, Editor at Sequenza 21, and regularly contributes to Tempo, Musical America, and other publications. He has created eighty some compositions for orchestra, choir, solo voices, and chamber musicians. His electronic score for Gilgamesh Variations was produced at Bushwick Starr Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.

Brabant Sings Hellinck and Lupi (CD Review)

Lupus Hellinck – Missa Surrexit pastor bonus

Johannes Lupi – Motets

The Brabant Ensemble; Stephen Rice, conductor

Hyperion CD A68304

Lupus Hellinck (1493-1541)  isn’t a household name among mid-Renaissance composers. Based on a new recording of his Missa Surrexit pastor bonus, Hellinck’s work deserves wider currency. Despite having several pieces attributed to him that were actually by more prominent composers (Gombert and Verdelot among them), Johannes Lupi (1506?-1539) has also flown under the radar of many listeners. This excellent compact disc recording by the Brabant Ensemble should do good service in restoring both of them to rightful places of greater prominence. 

Hellinck’s mass juxtaposes imitative lines within tautly constructed movements  – the Agnus Dei, for instance, only has two rather than three sections. The Brabant Ensemble has a well-blended sound, its intonation precise. The counterpoint is well-delineated, especially in the Agnus Dei, where canonic entries proliferate until a luminous cadential close. Particularly lovely are the “Domine Deus,” “Et Resurrexit,” and  “Benedictus” sections, in which duets and trios are employed to good effect. 

Lupi uses a number of motives in each section of a piece that accumulate into large-scale motets.  The ensemble also displays a more daring approach to musica ficta (chromatic accidentals) in the Lupi motets, creating some delightful crunch chords as a result. Several prolonged cadences give the opportunity to play with tempo and dynamics, the Brabant ensemble alternating nimble and expansive approaches, usually to better express the text. The most extensive and impressive of the Lupi pieces is a polyphonic setting of the Te Deum, one of only about sixteen extant examples from the sixteenth century (several of which were alternatim settings). By comparison, there are over a hundred extant Magnificat settings from this time period. Lupi’s penchant for “black notes” often presents quicksilver passages of corruscating counterpoint. Part of the plainchant appears at various points in the piece, including transposed and inverted statements that accumulate into swaths of imitation. Duple and triple meter are also used to delineate sections of the work, with a fast triple meter section concluding the proceedings with a rousing cadential elaboration. 

The Brabant Ensemble sings this music persuasively enough that it stands up besides better known counterparts in the era of its composition, such as Clemens and Gombert. One hopes a second disc of the composers’ works might be in the offing. 

Adés Conducts Adés (CD Review)

Adés Conducts Adés

Kirill Gerstein, piano; Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano; Mark Stone, baritone; 

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adés, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon CD/DL 4837998

Thomas Adés is in his third year as Artistic Partner of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It has been an extraordinarily fruitful pairing. Adés has performed with the ensemble as a conductor and pianist, contributed new pieces to its repertory, and curated events such as the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. In the midst of this plethora of activities, the March 2019 premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was a highlight. Both the performance of the BSO under Adés’s direction and the brilliant playing of the work’s soloist, Kirill Gerstein, were widely acclaimed. The DG recording of its premiere confirms the buzz — the concerto is indeed a formidable work and the performance is radiant.

Cast in the traditional three movement structure (fast-slow-fast), the concerto demonstrates Adés’s encyclopedic familiarity with composers of the past, including hat-tips to Prokofiev, Ravel, Liszt, and Stravinsky. Despite revelling in touchstones of eras past, Adés ultimately distills them into a glinting, sharply contoured language with a distinctive character all its own. The first movement contrasts extensive glissandos with clock-like ostinatos. Sustained chorales create an aura of poignancy in the middle movement. The finale juxtaposes upward and downward scalar passages that provide a tilt-a-whirl of intensifying momentum that ends the piece aloft – and on a brilliantly orchestrated major triad to boot. 

In these times of pandemic and social distancing, Adés Totentanz (2013) is a particularly sobering piece. It is based upon the text of a fifteenth century frieze, which depicts all walks of life, from the Pope to an infant, being invited to dance with the Grim Reaper. Baritone Mark Stone embodies Death with a muscular and menacing delivery. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sings the parts of the various people attempting to elude his grasp as heartfelt laments. Adés creates a searing score that allows space for declamation while interpolating ominous interludes, often supplying aggressively syncopated ostinatos that suggest the inexorable dance. Bracing listening, but engaging throughout. Recommended.

CD Preview: Jeff Parker “Suite for Max Brown”

Max (Maxine Brown)

Celebrating a new partnership between Nonesuch and International Anthem, two of the gold standard labels for adventurous music, January 24 will see the release of Jeff Parker and the New Breed’s Suite for Max Brown. Combining samples, some decidedly old school in origin, and exploratory improvisation, the music makes connections to Parker’s long tenure in Tortoise while adding still more depth to his musical profile.

Listeners will doubtless wonder: who is Max Brown? Parker’s mother’s maiden name was Maxine Brown, but her nickname is Max. The New Breed band name comes from the name of a store owned by Parker’s late father. Thus, the entire project is enacted as a tribute to family. The suite is Parker’s most personal, musically potent, statement to date.