Ora Singers – Spem in Alium.Vidi Aquam (CD Review)

Spem in Alium. Vidi Aquam

Ora Singers, Suzi Digby

Harmonia Mundi, 2020

English choral group the Ora Singers, led by Suzi Digby, present Thomas Tallis’s magnificent forty-part motet Spem in Alium on their latest Harmonia Mundi recording. Split into eight choirs of five apiece, the singers are given many opportunities to overlap in successive entrances, interact among cohorts, and sound immensely scored chords. The Ora Singers present a beautiful performance that combines purity of sound with thrilling forte climaxes. Digby deserves plaudits for her careful shaping of phrases and mastery of Spem’s myriad challenging balancing acts. 

Most of the rest of the recording contains Latin works by composers active in England during the sixteenth century. These include three of foreign descent – Derrick Gerrard, Philip Van Wilder, and Alonso Ferrabosco the Elder. Van Wilder’s Pater Noster is filled with delicately corruscating lines and the composer’s Vidi civitatem is particularly poignant, with arcing entries blending with subdued declamatory phrases. Ferrabosco is as well known for suggestions of criminality and spying (for Queen Elizabeth, no less) as he is for his music. Ferrabosco’s In Monte Oliveti contains widely spaced, sumptuous harmonies while Judica me Domine is performed with long flowing imitative lines and solemn pacing. Gerrard’s O Souverain Pastor est maistre is a deft display of canonic writing, while his Tua est Potentia employs pervasive imitation. There is relatively little by Gerrard that has been recorded, which is a pity: he is a fine composer. 

Works by more famous composers include Tallis’s covertly recusant motet In jejunio et fletu, in a particularly moving performance, and a delicately shaded Derelinquit impius. William Byrd is represented by two motets,  Domine, salva nos, its introductory homophonic passages tinged with chromaticism and succeeded by elegant imitative entries, and Fac cum servo tuo, which instead begins in canon straightaway. 

The recording’s closer is a contemporary piece written in response to Spem in Alium, Vidi Aquam, a forty-part motet by James MacMillan. Using small paraphrases of the Tallis piece interwoven with new material, MacMillan creates an exuberant composition  filled with an abundance of stratospheric ascending lines.  it is a thrilling, and tremendously challenging, companion work.

-Christian Carey

Anna Höstman’s Harbour (CD Review)

Anna Höstman 

Harbour 

Cheryl Duvall, piano 

Redshift Records, 2020 

Harbour, a recital recording of Anna Höstman’s piano works played by Cheryl Duvall, reveals an emerging composer who both synthesizes her research interests – she has written about Feldman and Linda Caitlin Smith – while developing a significant voice of her own. Thus, gradually developing fields of sound remind listeners of the aforementioned composers, but Höstman’s gestural palette is significantly different. Examples of this include the ornaments on “Allemande” and the blurring gestures of “Yellow Bird.”

The title piece is a twenty-five minute long essay that begins with flourishes that remind one of Messiaen’s birdsong, as well as gliss-filled descending lines, set against a slow moving series of polychords. Registral expansion affords these three elements considerable latitude and points of intersection. The verticals take on a reiterated ostinato that alternates with linear duos and the glissandos, allowing for the music to gradually grow more emphatic in demeanor. There is a long-term crescendo that allows for these elements to take on a certain bravura that transforms them, at least for the moment, into emphatic post-Romantic material. However, the sound soon scales back and Harbour returns to a quietly mysterious space.

Pianist Cheryl Duvall is an excellent advocate throughout, bringing a graceful touch and finely detailed shadings of dynamics and voicing to the music. Composer and pianist seem to be an ideal pairing on this consistently engaging release. 

-Christian Carey 

Anna Höstman 

Ralph van Raat Plays French Piano Rarities (CD Review)

French Piano Rarities

Ralph van Raat, piano

Naxos 8.573894

I was fortunate to hear the US premiere at New York’s Weill Recital Hall by Ralph van Raat of Pierre Boulez’s early work Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo (1944). Composed when he was just nineteen, the piece is a substantial one, twenty-seven minutes long. Unlike Boulez’s works from 1945 onward, as is evidenced by a recording here of 12 Notations from that year, the piece predates his fascination with Webern and total serialism, instead seeking a rapprochement between tradition and Schoenbergian dissonant harmonies. Van Raat’s recording of the work for Naxos is authoritative, details large and small shaped with impressive care and bold playing. 

“Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo” serves as the centerpiece of the French Piano Rarities recording, but it is accompanied by fascinating fare. In addition to the aforementioned, a late Boulez piece, Une page d’éphéméride, is also included, resembling late Stravinsky in its use of small repeating collections in post-tonal fashion. Olivier Messiaen is represented by three pieces, Morceau de lecture á vue from 1934, with strong polychordal verticals, two movements from the piano version of Des canyons aux étoiles…, filled with birdsong and color chords, and La Fauvette passerinette from 1961, a rapid birdsong essay.

Three earlier works by French masters are included: a gently ephemeral Menuet from mid-career Maurice Ravel, and two late pieces by Claude Debussy: Étude retrouvée and Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. They all prove that, past the well-worn selections one frequently hears on recitals, there are many underserved pieces that hardly deserve to be “rarities.” 

-Christian Carey

Spektral Quartet (Recording review)

Spektral Quartet

Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), Russell Rolen (cello)

Experiments in Living

New Focus Records (digital release)

The Spektral Quartet takes advantage of the open-ended playing time of a digital release to create effectively a double album for their latest recording, Experiments in Living. While double albums often suffer from a bit of flab, this one doesn’t have an extraneous moment. It is a well curated release that attends to meaning making in contemporary music with a spirit that is both historically informed and deeply of this moment.

A clever extra-musical addition to the project is a group of Tarot cards that allow the listener to ‘choose their own adventure,’ making their way through the various pieces in different orderings. These are made by the artist/musician øjeRum. The tarot cards may be seen on the album’s site

It might seem strange to begin an album of 20/21 music with Johannes Brahms’s String Quartet Op. 51, no. 1  in  C-minor (1873). However, Arnold Schoenberg’s article “Brahms as Progressive”  makes the connection between the two composers clear. It also demonstrates Spektral’s comfort in the standard repertoire. They give an energetic reading of the quartet with clear delineation of its thematic transformations, a Brahms hallmark. 

Schoenberg is represented by his Third String Quartet (1927). His first quartet to use 12-tone procedures, it gets less love in the literature than the oft-analyzed combinatorics of the composer’s Fourth String Quartet, but its expressive bite still retains vitality over ninety years later. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931), an under-heralded masterpiece of the 20th century, receives one of the best recordings yet on disc, its expressive dissonant counterpoint rendered with biting vividness.

Sam Pluta’s Flow State/Joy State is filled with flurries of glissandos, microtones, and harmonics to create a thoroughly contemporary sound world punctuated by dissonant verticals. One of Pluta’s most memorable gestures employs multiple glissandos to gradually make a chord cohere, only to have subsequent music skitter away. Charmaine Lee’s Spinals incorporates her own voice, replete with lip trills and sprechstimme that are imitated by string pizzicato and, again, glissandos. 

Spektral is joined by flutist Claire Chase on Anthony Cheung’s “Real Book of Fake Tunes,” which combines all manner of effects for Chase with jazzy snips of melody and writing for quartet that is somewhat reminiscent of the techniques found in the Schoenberg, but with a less pervasively dissonant palette. Cheung’s writing for instruments is always elegantly wrought, and Chase and Spektral undertake an excellent collaboration. One could imagine an entire album for this quintet being an engaging listen.  

The recording’s title track is George Lewis’s String Quartet 1.5; he wrote a prior piece utilizing quartet but considers this his first large-scale work in the genre. Many of the techniques on display in Pluta’s piece play a role here as well. Lewis adds to these skittering gestures, glissandos, and microtones the frequent use of various levels of bow pressure, including extreme bow pressure in which noise is more present than pitch. The latter crunchy sounds provide rhythmic weight and accentuation that offsets the sliding tones. Dovetailing glissandos create a blurring effect in which harmonic fields morph seamlessly. The formal design of the piece is intricate yet well-balanced. More string quartets, labeled 2.5 and 3.5, are further contributions by Lewis to the genre. One hopes that Spektral will take them up as well – their playing of 1.5 is most persuasive.

-Christian Carey

Liza Lim on Kairos

Liza Lim

Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus

Sophie Schatleitner, violin; Lorelei Dowling, bassoon;

Klangform Wien, Stefan Asbury and Peter Rundel, conductors

Kairos CD 00140220KAI

Composer Liza Lim’s creative projects have long embraced a variety of ecomusicology. The environment in her home country Australia and the treatment of indigenous peoples there have featured in several works. 2018’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus casts an even broader net, addressing concerns of climate change worldwide. Scientific studies assessing projected extinction of flora and fauna due to the impact of the climate change disaster suggest that, unless humanity changes its ways quickly, a vast number of creatures vital to the ecosystem will no longer remain. 

Narrative in instrumental music is an elusive business. However, like John Luther Adams and R. Murray Schafer, Lim is adroit at creating aural imagery that is evocative of environmental subject matter. Rain sticks, air-filled noises, and terse, insectile solos provide a sense of place and population to the piece. Baying brass announce movement breaks with poignant glissandos. The third movement, Autocorrect, features fluid solos by violinist Sophie Schatleitner offset by microtonal bends in the brass and flourishes from winds and percussion. During Dawn Chorus, the last movement, extended woodwind drones and terse sepulchral lines provide a slow-moving, harmonics filled background. 

Especially impressive is the 2013 solo bassoon piece Axis Mundi, which is performed by Lorelei Dowling. Angular lines and glissandos that frequently fade are set against boisterous trills and blatting bass notes. It parses the piece into clear registral areas to create post-tonal and timbrally enhanced counterpoint that allows the disparate parts of the piece to cohere.

Songs Found in a Dream uses a similar palette as Extinction Events, feeling something like a more boisterous sketch for the larger work. However, Songs’ quicker pacing and frequently saturated textures distinguish it from the latter piece.  On both works, Klangforum Wien creates supple, nuanced, and, where necessary, powerful performances. The Kairos CD sounds excellent, with a strong feeling of dimensionality among the various parts of the ensemble. Highly recommended. 

-Christian Carey

Two composer portrait CDs on Sono Luminus (CD Review)

Páll Ragnar Pálsson

Atonement

CAPUT Ensemble, conducted by Guðni Franzson, Tui Hirv, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

Halldór Smárason

Stara

Siggi String Quartet, Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir, Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir, Helga Björg Arnardóttir, Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir, Gulli Björnsson

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

In recent years, the prominence of Icelandic composers on the international stage has grown considerably, many of them championed by the Sono Luminus label. New discs on the imprint are portraits of two more composers whose careers are in ascent: Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b. 1977) and Halldór Smárason (b. 1989). They are abetted by some of Iceland’s finest chamber musicians, the Siggi String Quartet and CAPUT Ensemble.

This is Pálsson’s second solo CD, consisting of works written from 2011 to 2018. He has a varied background. In his twenties he was a rock musician and then took an extended sojourn for studies in Estonia. Atonement encompasses those experiences and is also about the composer’s return to Iceland after his time abroad. Pálsson says that the importance of place is a significant touchstone for his approach to composing.

Relationships also play a pivotal role in his work. The abundantly talented soprano Tui Hirv is Pálsson’s spouse. She features prominently in several pieces, singing minute shadings and sustained high passages with tremendous dynamic control and expressivity in the title work. On Stalker’s Monologue, singing a text adapted from the Tarkovsky film, Hirv demonstrates more vocal steel and the accompaniment takes on a bleary-eyed cast. Midsummer’s Night features recited text instead of singing, with a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

The CAPUT Ensemble acquits themselves admirably as well. Lucidity features the ensemble crafting microtonal shadings and exaggerated trills, the latter sometimes doubled in strings and winds to kaleidoscopic effect and punctuated by swells of percussion. The extended ensemble passages on Wheel Crosses Under Moss are an excellent response to the keening part sung by Hirv. 

Smárason’s debut solo CD features the Siggi String Quartet. The title work is a good example of the composer’s aesthetic. Spacious use of silence is complemented by long sustained notes that generally have an “edge to them,” in terms of dissonance or playing technique. The quartet are dispatched on a similar errand on the piece Draw and Play, but the gestures between the rests are more animated. Blakta, also for strings, features gentle pizzicato against harmonics and upper register pileups of verticals. 

A guitar and electronics piece, Skúlptúr 1, requires the performer, Gulli Björnsson, to make his way through a challenging hop scotch of techniques in a specified time frame in order to avoid an alarm from the electronics part. Happily he makes it on the recording. 

The best piece on Stara is also the one for the largest ensemble, Stop Breathing. The Siggi Quartet is augmented with bass flute, clarinet, and piano. Breathy whorls and wind glissandos are set against harmonic ostinato passages as well as aggressive squalls of sound. 

A number of current composers are concerned with silence and pianissimo stretches. On Stara, Smárason distinguishes himself by filling in the silence with music of an uneasy demeanor from which one receives little respite or release. His work is unerringly paced and delicately unnerving. Both Atonement and Stara contain excellent performances of provoking works: recommended. 

-Christian Carey 

Jonathan Powell Plays Sorabji (CD Review)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

Sequentia Cyclica – Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis

Jonathan Powell, piano

Piano Classics PCL10206 (7 CD boxed set; digital)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) was the composer of some of Western classical music’s most intricate, extended, and ambitiously virtuosic works to date. His output encompassed seven decades, from 1914-1984. The serial composer Milton Babbitt, often himself described as the creator of tremendously difficult pieces, ranked Sorabji, alongside Brian Ferneyhough, as the most complex composers of the Twentieth century (Talking Music, William Duckworth). This is not just due to the massive scope of the pieces – several last a number of hours in duration – nor to their formidable technical demands, although both of these aspects of Sorabji’s music are ubiquitous. The notation of the music poses challenges as well. It is a welter of corruscating counterpoint and its rhythmic shapes are seldom delineated with bar-lines; nor do their gestures readily suggest metricity. Dynamics and tempo indications are infrequent and the music is often laid out on several staves. Thus, a lot is left open to interpretation.

Despite these challenges, Sorabji’s music is being documented by stalwart performers. Happily, a performance practice for the music is taking root that is helping to clarify some of the aforementioned difficulties. Noteworthy among these interpreters is the English pianist Jonathan Powell, who has championed the composer for over two decades. He has taken a number of Sorabji’s works in manuscript and transcribed them into performing editions, toured them widely, and begun the challenging task of creating recorded documentation of the piano oeuvre. His most recent project has been Sequentia Cyclica, a piece lasting nearly eight hours that he has presented in marathon single-day concerts in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Piano Classics has released a seven-CD boxed set of Powell’s rendition of the piece. It is an extraordinary recording of a totemic work. 

Sequentia Cyclica (subtitled Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis) is a set of twenty-seven variations on the Dies Irae sequence from the Catholic liturgy of the Mass for the Dead. Composed sometime in the thirteenth century, the Dies Irae has taken on extra-liturgical significance through its use in a number of concert works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most famously in  the Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, but also in a plethora of other piece including ones by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, and Dallapiccola. Sorabji’s employment of the theme serves multiple ends. It gives a nod to its presence in works by predecessors, particularly in Rachmaninoff’s piano music, it serves as a contrapuntal motive that is treated with a near-encyclopedic array of variants, and, judged by the voluble praise-filled postscript appended to the work, as an object of Christian devotion. Sorabji made an initial (201-page long!) pass at a set of Dies Irae variations in the 1920s. They were to be dedicated to the recently departed composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, but the piece was withdrawn in favor of the 1949 version recorded here, dedicated to Busoni’s pupil the pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962). 

True, eight hours is a long time to fill with a very familiar melody, but Sorabji creates a startling array of presentations, sometimes only employing the head motive and at other times the entire sequence. Elsewhere, it is submerged in other material, only to triumphantly rise up when called to the surface. Character pieces such as Hispanica, Marcia Funebre, and Quasi Debussy demonstrate imaginative deployments of the sequence in myriad styles. Trying to play “spot the influences” will provide the listener with glimpses at a panoply of creators, including Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach, Messiaen, and Rachmaninoff, to supply just a partial listing. None of these reference points is overarching; it is remarkable how adroitly Sorabji distills their essence into his own distinctive language. An enormous passacaglia with 100 variations takes up a disc-and-a-half worth of the recording and the piece concludes with an eighty-minute long fugue that successively builds from two-voice counterpoint to six, followed by a stretto on steroids that rousingly concludes this magnum opus. 

Jonathan Powell’s traversal of Sequentia Cyclica is authoritative. The program notes are some of the finest I have read in a long while. His performance is deftly nuanced, technically assured, and powerfully rendered. It is a benchmark that will provide a tough act for future interpreters to follow, but hopefully his performance editions will encourage them to do so regardless. Powell’s dedicated work on behalf of Sorabji makes the composer’s legacy seem assured. 

(Those looking for a more theoretical explication of Sequentia Cyclica are directed to Andrew Mead’s excellent article Gradus ad Sorabji in the Winter 2016 issue of Perspectives of New Music).

Two Recordings by David Felder (CD Review)

David Felder

Jeu de Tarot

Irvine Arditti, violin; Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman, conductor; Arditti Quartet

Coviello CD COV91913

David Felder

Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux

Laura Aikin, soprano; Ethan Hesrchenfeld, bass;

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor

BMOPsound CD 1069

David Felder has taught for a number of years at SUNY Buffalo, running the June in Buffalo Festival and mentoring countless contemporary composers in the school’s illustrious graduate program. His own works are multi-faceted, incorporating muscular gestures, modernist harmonies, innovative timbres, and, oftentimes, electronics. Felder’s recent music is given sterling performances on two CDs, one of his chamber music on Coviello and another of his orchestra piece Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux on BMOPsound.

The Coviello disc consists of three works that feature violinist Irvine Arditti. Its centerpiece, Jeu de Tarot, a chamber violin concerto based on seven of the twenty-two main tarot cards, reveals a mystical side to Felder’s music. Each movement is an interpretation of the character on its card – The Juggler, the Fool, the High Priestess, et cetera. Thus, the musical surface is multifaceted, unspooling a variety of characteristic textures. Arditti performs the solo part with laser beam incisiveness and Signal supplies comparable clarity, performing the piece’s interlocking rhythms with impressive coordination. Some sections of the piece, such as its finale “Moonlight,” explore a mysterious ambiance akin to Expressionism. Here, Arditti’s tone takes on a supple quality. He dovetails with the winds to provide intricate counterpoint.

The Arditti Quartet contributes Netivot, a work for strings and electronics, to the disc. On Felder’s website, you can see the optional video component, which adds another layer to the piece. By itself in two channels, there is considerable antiphony and with this setting one can only imagine how immersive the piece must be live. The recording also has an SACD layer which allows for surround listening, an engaging adventure that gets the listener closer to being there.

At times, string harmonics and pizzicatos meld with synthesized parts. Elsewhere, the strings and electronics trade registers. The overall effect is one of extensive integration of the elements into a “super-instrument” that swirls colorfully. Irvine Arditti concludes the disc with a solo piece, Another Face. Motoric ostinatos, mercurial leaps, and microtonal inflections contribute to an overarchingly variegated impression. Arditti plays with virtuoso technique and a questing manner.   

Joined by soprano Laura Aiken and bass Ethan Herschenfeld, Boston Modern Orchestra Project performs one of Felder’s most prominent pieces, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux. This is the second recording of the piece; the other is by Ensemble Signal with members of SUNY Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta. Each is an assured rendition, with BMOP stressing the dramatic sweep of the piece while Signal focuses with granularity of detail. The texts Felder employs in Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux are by Réne Daumal, Robert Creely, Pablo Neruda, and Dana Gioia. Most are Daumal’s, whose work Felder discovered via Buffalo-based writer Kathleen Frederick Rosenblatt’s biography of the polymath author. Felder does interesting things to treat the texts. He intermingles electronics with the vowels of the Daumal to create an ethereal quality. One of the two movements featuring Creeley’s poems emphasizes its sibilants, the other maps the consonant attacks onto the percussion, creating an intriguing sound world. Gioia’s poem is treated to the piece’s most stentorian and angular writing, clearly distinguishing it from the other texts.

Felder was a chorister with the Cleveland Orchestra in his teens but has only recently begun to set text. His vocal writing is ambitious, operatic in scope and compass. The piece opens with a series of spectral chords, over which Aiken’s voice soars, effortlessly managing pianissimo dynamics and altissimo high notes. She is worthily matched by Herschenfeld’s resonant low notes and seamless legato phrasing. The first section culminates in a rapturous duet in which the vocalists both navigate their upper registers fluently. In the section “Fragments (from Neruda),” an impressively thunderous tutti orchestral passage is matched by clarion singing from Aiken. A rousing duet rendition of Daumal’s “Stanza 3b” matches the Neruda’s intensity, and “Stanza 4a” is treated to a sepulchral solo by Herschenfeld in which he is accompanied by intertwining brass. He goes still lower on “Stanza 4b,” shadowed by sustained chords that move from strings to brass. Then, the vocal line is mimicked in counterpoint by the lower brass. Timpani thrumming is juxtaposed against choral-like passages as the piece moves into an instrumental postlude in which a clamorous buildup of drums heralds the final entrance of Aiken, her arcing solo haloed by trumpet glissandos, ascending to her top register and then plummeting down to conclude the piece.

Throughout, BMOP plays impressively. Rose shapes the piece beautifully and provides a detailed account of its myriad details. Hopefully, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux will be followed by more vocal music from Felder. It is a formidable entry into his catalogue of works. Recommended.  

Christian Carey is editor at Sequenza 21 and an Associate Professor of Music Composition, History, and Theory at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey (www.christianbcarey.com).

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.