Fred Hersch Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard

Fred Hersch Trio.
Photo: John Rogers.

Fred Hersch Trio

Village Vanguard

January 5, 2019

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Beginning the new year with a six-night long residency at the Village Vanguard, pianist Fred Hersch had a lot to celebrate. His current trio, in which he is joined by bassist John Hebert and drummer Kevin McPherson, has been together for a decade. They have received a Grammy nomination for their 2018 Palmetto Records CD Live in Europe. In December, Palmetto released another recording of Hersch in a trio setting, this one from 1997 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. 97 @ The Village Vanguard is the only live recording of this acclaimed ensemble. The CD also documents Hersch’s debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard.

 

Many celebrations include guests and Hersch’s residency was no exception. For the last three nights of shows, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a Grammy nominee himself and a Guggenheim Fellow and MacArthur Award winner to boot, joined the trio. It proved to be a felicitous pairing. After the trio opened the set with Hersch’s meditative “Plainsong,” Zenón joined them on the pianist’s salsa original “Havana,” sending its sinuous melody soaring and building an exquisitely paced solo. Hebert and McPherson created a fulsome groove. McPherson’s ability to move from the pianissimo textural playing of “Plainsong” to the driving polyrhythms of “Havana” demonstrated versatility that turns on a dime. Hebert keenly targeted his playing too, moving between registers, engaging in melodic colloquy with Hersch, supporting the changes, and acting in concert with McPherson. All of this is even more noteworthy when one considers his uncanny ability to know exactly when and where to provide Hersch’s playing registral space.

 

Hersch’s music is often rhythmically intricate. In addition to the facility of the rhythm section, Zenón proved his mettle in the abstract phrasing and polyrhythmic environments of Hersch tunes “Snape Maltings” and “Skipping.” The latter tune elicited a verve-filled solo from Hersch. The pianist and saxophonist also made great foils for each other, one developing melodic breadcrumbs that the other had strewn in a previous solo. Zenón’s playing had a bite in the post-bop material, but was smooth and suave in the Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Zenón’s composition “Temes” was an engaging part of the set, and it was fascinating to hear Hersch go to town on material new to him, displaying  a vivid imagination.

Hersch frequently writes compositions in homage to other jazz artists. “Lee’s Dream” is a contrafact tune, using the changes of Nacio Herb Brown’s “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with a new melody. It is dedicated to Lee Konitz. “Monk’s Dream” is dedicated to Thelonious Monk. During his set at the Vanguard, Hersch had Monk in mind. The closer was a one-two punch of the pianist’s harmonically inventive version of “Round Midnight,” followed by the group playing a rousing rendition of “Let’s Cool One.” Obliged by applause to share an encore, Hersch chose Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes,” starting in eloquent simplicity and then transforming the tune with intriguing modulations into a Chopin-esque reverie. The sold-out crowd seemed delighted to share in the celebrations.

 

Best of 2018: Instrumental and Recital CDs

Best of 2018: Instrumental and Recital CDs

Best Recital

Hanging Gardens

Works by Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern

Jacob Greenberg, piano with Tony Arnold, soprano

Rather than the customary bifurcation, Impressionism and Expressionism are related to one another on Hanging Gardens, pianist Jacob Greenberg’s loving curated, beautifully performed double CD. He is joined by soprano Tony Arnold for Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens, a work that epitomizes the overlap that occurs between the aforementioned styles. Their performance rivals the other best one on record, by Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish.

Greenberg authoritatively performs a number of works by Debussy, including both books of Preludes. His renditions of the Berg Sonata and Webern Variations are also compelling. Once again, he finds subtle connections between the atmosphere of the Second Viennese School composers and their Parisian counterpart Debussy. It makes the works seem airier, more supple, and like one is listening afresh.

Best Solo CDs

Christopher Fox

Headlong

Heather Roche, clarinets

Métier

Composer Christopher Fox has crafted an imaginative output, employing diverse approaches and many different technical resources. His latest Métier CD, Headlong, is devoted to clarinet music, for instruments of varying sizes. Heather Roche is the stalwart interpreter of these pieces. Her own versatility and facility with myriad extended techniques make Roche an ideal performer of Fox’s music. Indeed, the clarinetist’s website serves as a compendious catalog of techniques used to play contemporary works. This recording serves as an ideal accompaniment to her web-based pedagogical forays.

Several works here are ten-minute essays that have time to build and, in places, to breathe (as, one hopes, Roche is afforded as well). Even slightly shorter works like the gentle, fragmentary seven minutes of …Or Just After are given time enough to display significant exploration of the materials used in their construction. Here, there is a contrast between plummy low register melodies and higher single, sustained notes. Gradually and after many iterations, the upper line gains a note or two. This subtle shift in texture feels seismic and changes the registral give and take of the work. Likewise, small shifts are meaningful moments in the six-minute long Escalation. Originally written for Bb clarinet and here played on contrabass clarinet, the piece explores a mid-tempo stream of short phrases of chromatically ascending notes. In this incarnation, the sepulchral register in which these occur accentuates a kind of “walking bass” character that imparts a hint of jazzy swagger.

Some of the pieces include overdubs, either of electronics or other clarinets, and a couple are transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments or else for unspecified woodwinds. Originally composed for oboist Christopher Redgate, Headlong includes an ostinato electronic accompaniment that the composer suggests could sound like video games from the 1980s. The real fun here is the morphing of tempos through three different ratios:  5:4, 9:8 and 5:3. It makes for intriguing interrelationships between the instrumental part and the accompanying motoric bleeptronica. Headlong is an engaging mix of tempo modulation and minimal pulsation that shows a different and appealing side of Fox’s creativity.

On stone.wind.rain.sun, Heather Roche overdubs a duet with herself. The two clarinets converge and diverge throughout, with sustained and repeating notes in one instrument serving as a sort of ground for the chromaticism of the other voice. Registral changes, such as a leap downward to the chalumeau register to add single bass notes to the proceedings, divide the counterpoint further still, at any given moment affording one the impression of three or four distinct voices in operation.

One of my favorite compositions on the CD is Straight Lines for Broken Times, another piece employing overdubs. One track samples bass clarinet playing polyrhythms while the other two explore the “harmonic riches of the instrument,” as Fox describes a plethora of upper partials. Extended techniques are abundantly on offer. Altissimo notes, multiphonics, microtones, and harmonics create a swath of textures. However, the polyrhythmic underpinning assures that the piece feels guided in its course, beautifully shaping what could be a melange of overtone clouds. Straight Lines for Broken Times encapsulates Fox’s proclivity for experimentation in multiple domains: that of the recording medium, a wide palette of pitches that encompasses microtonal harmonics, and fluidly morphing tempos with intricate layers of local rhythms. The result never ceases to be of interest.

Solo Bass Clarinet – Contrabass Clarinet

Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson

Works by Jesper Pedersen, Franco Donatoni, Alistair Zaldua, Jacob Deal, and Thrainn Hjalmarsson

Lúr

Ensemble Adapter’s bass clarinetist Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson strikes out on his own on his first solo CD. The disc contains two outstanding pieces by Franco Donatoni, Soft I and II  and Ombra I and II. Another standout is Tinted/Milieu for contrabass clarinet and electronics by Thrainn Hjalmarsson; it revels in some of the deepest tones one can elicit from the instrument. For the same forces, Jesper Pedersen’s Kesselschleicher allows the electronics to take on a more active role. Jacob Deal’s Suada exercises Vilhjálmsson’s flexible upper register on the bass clarinet, while Alistair Zaldua’s Something other than it is explores the many extended techniques available to the instrument. With a diverse selection of composers, Vilhjálmsson’s CD is an excellent complement to Roche’s Headlong.

Still

James Romig

Ashlee Mack, piano

New World Records

Composer James Romig has spent the past twenty years cultivating a body of work that embodies both rigorous structuring and a wide-ranging gestural palette. As is explained in Bruce Quaglia’s excellent liner notes for Romig’s first New World CD, Still, there is good reason for these two aspects to be so important to Romig. His training as a composer was with American modernists Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, while his background as a performer – a percussionist – included a number of works by minimalists such as Steve Reich.

Extra-musical touchstones also play a significant role as inspirations for the composer. A series of National Park residencies has provided him with natural beauty to contemplate while composing. Abstract Expressionist painters such as Clyfford Still, who is the titular reference point for Romig’s piece on this CD, also enliven his imagination.

Nowhere in Romig’s output to date is this confluence of influences more apparent than in Still, a nearly hour-long piece for solo piano. One can see the pitch material’s progression in a chart in the liner notes and note the comprehensiveness of its organization. Unlike Romig’s portrait disc Leaves from Modern Trees, where the pieces tend towards tautly incisive utterance, here the progression of pitch material evolves slowly in a prevailingly soft dynamic spectrum. Ashlee Mack, a frequent performer of Romig’s music, provides a sterling interpretation. Slow tempi are maintained no matter what local rhythms (some complex) ripple the surface texture. In addition, Mack voices the harmony skilfully, allowing the piece-long progression to be presented with abundant clarity.

One more composerly ghost lurks in the room: that of Morton Feldman. Also an appreciator of Abstract Expressionism, who created long single movement pieces that transformed slowly and remained primarily soft, Feldman could seem to be Still’s natural progenitor. While surface details and scale of composition are similar, there is a significant musical difference between Feldman’s paean to a painter like Philip Guston and Romig’s reference to Clyfford Still. As pointed out by theorists such as Thomas DeLio, the undergirding of a Feldman piece is indeed subject to an organizational structure. That said, his work seems more intuitive than Romig’s, which is methodical in the unfurling of its linear components and their constituent harmonies. Whether Feldman’s surface in any way inspires the depths of Still, I am not sure; it would be an interesting question to pose to Romig. Either way, Still is his most engaging and beguiling piece to date. One looks forward to hearing more works that accumulate Romig’s proclivity for parks, painters, maximalists, and minimalists; these many ingredients make for intriguing results.

Garlands for Steven Stucky

Various Composers

Gloria Cheng, piano

Bridge

Steven Stucky passed away from cancer in 2016. For Garlands for Steven Stucky, Pianist Gloria Cheng commissioned thirty-two pieces in the composer’s memory from Stucky’s friends and colleagues. There are many stirring tributes here, ranging from those who use their offerings as expressions of grief, such as Fratello by Magnus Lindberg, Donald Crockett’s stirring Nella Luce, and Elegy by Joseph Phibbs, to fond remembrances: And Maura Brought Me Cookies by Andrew Waggoner and A Few Things (In Memory of Steve) by Steven Mackey. Other composers, such as Brett Dean in Hommage à Lutoslawski and Michael Small in Debussy Window, commemorate Stucky’s engagement with other composers’ music. Finally, there are pieces that celebrate craft in memory of a master craftsman: Waltz by John Harbison, Capriccio by Julian Anderson, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Iscrizione. Soprano Peabody Southwell and oboist Carolyn Hove join Cheng in Stucky’s Two Holy Sonnets of Donne (1982), a moving valediction.

Dreams Grow Like Slow Ice

Works by Michael Kallstrom, Alan Theisen, Andrew M. Rodriguez, Jay Batzner, and David Mitchell

Tammy Evans Yonce, flutes

971317

In addition to working with a conventional instrument, flutist Tammy Evans Yonce has made a specialty out of playing with a glissando headjoint. For her debut CD, Dreams Grow Like Slow Ice, she commissioned several pieces from active composers, some for glissando flute, and some with electronics to boot. While she is careful to delineate the various bends, microtones, and portamento phrasings afforded to her by this setup, the change of timbre that the headjoint affords is also an appealing element at play. Fire Walk by Jay Batzner could be a masterclass for the various techniques one can employ. On the title piece, Batzner adds drone-based electronics to the microtonally festooned proceedings. Highways by Andrew M. Rodriguez marries flutter-tonguing to glissando effects. Angularities by David Mitchell uses small pitch cells to construct an elaborate multi-tiered work that delivers as advertised. Solo pieces on the CD without the glissando headjoint are equally diverting. Michael Kallstrom’s Behind the Day supplies lyrical lines with Shakuhachi-liked inflections while his The Falling Cinders of Time is filled with soaring melodies. Commendo Spiritum Meum, by Alan Theisen, is an exquisitely constructed post-tonal miniature.  

Engage

J.S. Bach, Anthony Braxton, Taylor Brook, Josh Modney, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper, Eric Wubbels

Josh Modney

New Focus

Highly regarded for his work with Wet Ink, violinist Josh Modney’s recital recording Engage is a stirring two-hours of music. There are a number of Modney’s own improvisations/compositions, pieces by colleagues in Wet Ink, a searing version of Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 222, and the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita played in just intonation. Jem Altieri, by Sam Pluta, features distressed playing alongside avant electronics. A duo with composer/vocalist Kate Soper pits the soprano playing with the timbre of vowel dislocations alongside similar sounds via bowings on repeated notes by Modney. Vocalise by Taylor Brook features a detuned G string and an “offstage” drone to hypnotic effect. The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire by Eric Wubbels is an unflinching behemoth for violin and prepared piano. Modney’s solos are at turns meditative and fiery creations, blazing with intensity.

Inconnaissance

Séverine Ballon, cello

All That Dust

Many composers have been fortunate beneficiaries of the advocacy of cellist Séverine Ballon. In a CD for new contemporary music imprint All That Dust, Ballon, for the first time, records her own compositions and improvisations. Informed by the works she has championed, such as those of Liza Lim, Rebecca Saunders, and James Dillon, the cellist displays an acute awareness of the various techniques – many extended – and stylistic approaches of composers at the European vanguard. She deploys them with skill, taste, virtuosity where it counts, and an impressive patience in shaping formal structures.

Best Chamber CDs (Part Two)

Bozzini+

Bozzini Quartet; Sarah Jane Summers, fiddle; Philip Thomas, piano

Works by Bryn Harrison, Mary Bellamy, and Monty Adkins

Huddersfield Contemporary

A project begun in 2016, under the auspices of the Centre for Research in New Music at Huddersfield University, brought together the Montreal-based Bozzini Quartet, the Scottish hardanger fiddler Sarah-Jane Summers, and Huddersfield artists pianist Philip Thomas, and composers Bryn Harrison, Mary Bellamy, and Monty Adkins. Some of the resulting music is heard on Bozzini+, a double-CD featuring an extended work by each of the participating composers. Bryn Harrison’s Piano Quintet revels in juxtaposing irregularly repeating piano filigrees with with whorls of glissandos from the quartet. Bellamy’s beneath an ocean of air crafts high-lying, tenuous sounds interrupted by occasional submersive thrusts. Still Juniper Snow, by Adkins, emphasizes sustain, with long drones held against folk-inspired melodies, creating a slow paced, sumptuous surface.

Blueprinting

Aizuri Quartet

Works by Gabriella Smith, Caroline Shaw, Yevgeniy Sharlat, Lembit Beecher, and Paul Wiancko

New Amsterdam

Bluprinting is a thrilling debut recording from the Aizuri Quartet, consisting entirely of new works by active American composers. The pieces vary in impetus but are all compelling. Gabriella Smith’s Carrot Revolution deconstructs everything from chant to fiddle tunes, Caroline Shaw’s Blueprint harvests harmonic material from an early Beethoven quartet, Lembit Beecher uses sonic sculptures made out of bicycle wheels and wine glasses, Yevgeniy Sharlat incorporates mournful melodica into a piece written in remembrance of a composition student, and Paul Wiancko’s Lift traverses extended techniques, “maniacal” swing, and post-minimal exuberance. The Aizuri Quartet negotiates each successive challenge with brilliance. Their advocacy for new music is exemplary.

Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs

Best of 2018 – Orchestral CDs

 

In ictu oculi

Kenneth Hesketh

BBC Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Christoph Mathias Mueller

Paladino

 

Three large orchestra works by British composer Kenneth Hesketh are attractively scored in multifaceted, often muscular, fashion. Hesketh’s unabashed exploration of emotionality, imbued with strongly etched motives and intricate formal designs, provides a cathartic journey for listeners.

 

Sur Incises

Pierre Boulez

The Boulez Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

There is a previous, much vaunted, studio recording of Pierre Boulez’s composition  Sur Incises (1998), one of the composer’s most highly regarded late works (in the year of its premiere, Sur Incises won the Grawemeyer Prize). This 2018 rendition of the work was performed live at a new space dedicated to Boulez, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. Acoustically marvelous, it is perhaps the ideal location in which to hear the composer’s music. Barenboim is one of Boulez’s great champions, and the ensemble gathered here play it with supple rhythms (slightly less ‘incisive’ than the studio version, but warmer in affect). They also deftly shape Sur Incises’ labyrinthine form to provide musical “bread crumbs” along its myriad pathways.

 

Berio: Sinfonia – Boulez: Notations I-IV – Ravel: La Valse

Roomful of Teeth, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Seattle Symphony Media

 

Composed in 1968-’69 for the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia helped to herald postmodernism in music. Roomful of Teeth has now done the piece with the Philharmonic, providing a new generation of performance history for Berio. It is excellent to have Roomful of Teeth’s performance of Sinfonia documented in a superlative outing with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The orchestra is equally scintillating in Pierre Boulez’s long gestated modernist masterpieces Notations I-IV. The disc is capped off with a rollicking rendition of Ravel’s La Valse.

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies 4 and 11 (“The Year 1905”) Live

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, conductor

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

Even with an ensemble as fine as the Boston Symphony, it is hard to believe that this is a live recording. Seamless transitions, admirable dynamic shading,  gorgeous sounding strings, and exceptional playing by the brass section. Nelsons has a great feel for Shostakovich’s music.

 

Harbison, Ruggles, Stucky: Orchestral Works

National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic, David Alan Miller, conductor

Naxos

 

David Alan Miller has long been a staunch advocate of contemporary music, recording a number of discs of new works with the Albany Symphony. The National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic’s young players, aged 15-21, are a fantastic ensemble in their own right. Their rendition of Carl Ruggles’ Sun Treader is up there with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas on the complete works recording; and that’s saying something.

 

Recently departed composer Steven Stucky created a fluently retrospective piece when composing Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (2003); the piece won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It includes quotations from a host of great composers as well as ample amounts of music in Stucky’s masterful contemporary voice.

 

Composed for the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz in 2003, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 is one of his most compelling pieces in the genre. In the debut recording, the Boston Symphony’s rendition of the symphony took a fairly edgy approach. Miller elicits something more lissome from the NOI players. Both versions make an eloquent case for Harbison’s piece.

 

Topophony

Christopher Fox

John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Alex Dörner, Paul Lovens, soloists

WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, Ivan Volkov, conductor

HatHut

 

Christopher Fox’s orchestral work Tophophony accommodates both renditions for orchestra alone and with improvising soloists. The WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, led by Ivan Volkov, record three different versions of the piece. By itself, Topophony has a Feldman-like, slow-moving, and dynamically restrained surface. It provides fertile terrain for both the duos of trumpeter Alex Dörner and drummer Paul Lovens and saxophonist John Butcher with synthesizer performer Thomas Lehn. All three versions are absorbing: it’s fortunate one doesn’t have to choose between them.

Symphony No. 6, Rounds for String Orchestra, and Music for Romeo and Juliet

David Diamond

Indiana University Chamber Orchestra, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, Arthur Fagen, conductor

Naxos

 

This is the best recording of David Diamond’s music since the iconic CDs by the Seattle Symphony under the baton of Gerard Schwarz. Indiana University has long had one of the best music departments in the country, but they outdo themselves here, with a brilliant version of Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra and nimble phrasing in his Music for Romeo and Juliet. But it is Symphony No. 6 (1951) that is the star of this CD.

Those who relegate all of Diamond’s music to American romanticism (which, admittedly, is a fair assessment of some of his work) are in for a surprise from this bold, Copland-esque work. Indeed, when I was a student at Juilliard, Diamond proudly told me that his ballet Tom predated Copland’s adoption of an Americana style. With Symphony No. 6, Diamond made a strong case to have his work set alongside the “usual suspects” in the genre.

 

Best of 2018: Holiday CD and Opera Recording

Best of 2018: Holiday CD, Opera Recording

Best Holiday CD

Nine Lessons and Carols: 100 Years

King’s College Choir, Stephen Cleobury, Director

Choir of King’s College label

 

2018 is the hundredth anniversary of Lessons and Carols at King’s College (and ninetieth year of radio broadcasts of the event). In order to celebrate, the Choir of King’s College has released a two-CD set of some of their most famous offerings from broadcasts over the years, as well as new music commissioned for the occasion. The release also celebrates Director Stephen Cleobury, who will be stepping down after an illustrious tenure with the group. Through the years, King’s consistent, extraordinarily high level of singing is truly dazzling.

Best Opera

Dr. Atomic

John Adams

Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock; BBC Orchestra, BBC Singers, John Adams, conductor

Nonesuch

 

The Nonesuch recording of Dr. Atomic, an opera about the atomic bomb test at Los Alamos, is the first audio release of this 2005 collaboration between composer John Adams and director/librettist Peter Sellars. The text is assembled from letters, declassified documents, and poetry (the first test’s site was named Trinity by Robert Oppenheimer, after a John Donne poem). An integral component of the love scene between the Oppenheimers (played by Gerald Finley and Julia Bullock)  is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. An island of respite in the midst of the intensity of the test countdown, it is some of the most affecting music written by Adams. Elsewhere, the orchestra and singers are given plenty of opportunities for fiery declamation. The large ensembles work on many levels, expounding the famously divergent historical viewpoints surrounding the test, ratcheting up the intensity until the inevitable big boom. Adams conducts a powerful performance of his most visceral work.

 

Best of 2018: Composer Portrait CDs

Best of 2018: Composer Portrait CDs

 

2018 saw the release of a bevy of excellent recordings of music by contemporary composers. These were the portrait CDs that most frequently captivated my ear and captured my CD player.

Ipsa Dixit

Kate Soper

Wet Ink Ensemble (Erin Lesser, flute; Ian Antonio, percussion; Josh Modney, violin)

New World Records

 

Composer and vocalist Kate Soper spent from 2010-’16 creating the multi-movement theatre piece Ipsa Dixit. Working in close collaboration with Wet Ink Ensemble, she has crafted a composition in which theatricality encompasses multiple texts – ranging from Aristotle to Lydia Davis – and the ensemble plays “roles” as well as formidable musical parts.

 

Recently presented in an acclaimed staging at Miller Theatre, Ipsa Dixit is perhaps best experienced live. However, the audio recording captures Soper and Wet Ink in a dynamic, versatile  performance. Whether speaking, singing, or, even in places, screaming, Soper is an expressive, indeed captivating, vocalist.

 

Emblema

Osvaldo Coluccino

Ex Novo Ensemble

Kairos

 

Italian composer Osvaldo Coluccino created a series of Emblema pieces for a commission by the Gran Teatro Fenice in Venice. Slowly unfurling, sustained pitches, deft employment of overtones and harmonics, and varied textures populate the works. On Coluccino’s Kairos portrait CD, the Ex Novo Ensemble performs them with attentive delicacy. One can hear echos of great composers such as Feldman, Scelsi, and Nono in these elliptical emblems, but it is the ghost of Webern that looms largest.

 

Quartets

Laura Schwendinger

JACK Quartet

Albany Records

 

JACK Quartet released a number of fine recordings in 2018, but the one to which I keep returning is their Albany CD of Laura Schwendinger’s string quartets. These feature richly hued harmonies, seasoned with dissonance, and are superbly paced throughout. Schwendinger’s music is some of the most eloquent work in a post-Schoenbergian aesthetic currently being composed. JACK’s  performances of them are a detailed and engaging listen. Jamie van Eyck joins them for Sudden Light, a stirring vocal work.

 

distant song

Reiko Füting

AuditiVokal Dresden, Art D’Echo, loadbang, Byrne:Kozar Duo, Oerknal, and Damask

New Focus

 

A faculty member at Manhattan School of Music, Reiko Füting’s distance song features performers who are MSM alumni as well as European ensembles. An amalgam of various styles and materials notwithstanding, Füting displays a strong hand and clear-eyed perspective throughout.

 

After an introduction of thunderous drum thwacks, AuditiVokal Dresden and Art D’Echo perform “als ein licht”/extensio and “in allem Fremden” – wie der Tag – wie das Licht with marvelous close-tuned harmonies and suspense-filled pacing. Gradually the percussion is reintroduced at varying intervals to provide a foil for the singers.

 

loadbang and the Byrne:Kozar Duo, the aforementioned MSM contingent, perform Mo(nu)ment and Eternal Return (Passacaglia), two pieces featuring microtones and extended techniques alongside Füting’s penchant for off-kilter repetition. The Dutch ensemble Oerknal performs Weg, Lied der Schwänd, in which both spectralism and quotation (of a madrigal by Arcadelt) are explored: yet two more facets of the composer’s palette.  Versinkend, versingnend, verklingend adds the vocal group Damask to Oerknal for a piece that combines still more quotations, ranging from Debussy’s piano music to a Fifteenth century German folksong.

 

Stadium

Eli Keszler

Shelter Press

 

Composer/percussionist Eli Keszler’s Stadium is 2018’s best CD on the sound art, rather than notated, spectrum of composed music.  It deftly weaves percussion and electronics together in an atmospheric collection of pieces that lilt and swing in equal measure. While there is plenty of electronica out there using percussion in innovative ways, Stadium incorporates its various sound sources with a composerly sense of organization, where timbre, beat, and, in some places, pitch, are mapped with a rigorous formal sensibility.

 

Aequa

Anna Thorvaldsdottir

International Contemporary Ensemble, Steven Schick, conductor

Sono Luminus

 

This CD is ICE’s second portrait recording of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music, and her third portrait CD overall. Yet Aequa truly stands apart from the others. Each piece has a sense of flow, sometimes akin to churning water or rippling wind, and in others to oozing lava. Amid these fluid forms are also found visceral pools of unrest. In his performance of Thorvaldsdottir’s Scape, pianist Cory Smythe affords the listener a generous taste of reverberation and overtones, marked by trebly plucking inside the piano. The interplay of high and low creates ear-catching wide intervals in Illumine. This texture is later followed by corruscating strings. Another standout is the ensemble work Aequilibria, where undulating lines are pitted against static, sustained harmonic series and harp arpeggiations. It has extraordinarily beautiful low woodwind solos. Both of these pieces are conducted, with characteristic verve and accuracy, by Steven Schick.

 

Alisei

Stefano Scodanibbio

Daniele Roccato, Giacomo Piermatti, double bass; Ludus Gravis bass ensemble, Tonino Battista, conductor

ECM Records

 

The too-soon-departed Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) was an extraordinary bass player and improviser. He was also a formidable composer, as the works for solo bass, duet, and bass ensemble documented here abundantly attest. Two virtuosic solo pieces, featuring an abundant number of harmonics and other special techniques, are impressively and energetically performed by Daniele Roccato. Roccato is joined by Giacomo Piermatti on Da una certa nebbia, a duo that is both an homage to and invocation of Morton Feldman.

 

The centerpiece of the CD is Ottetto (2012) for bass ensemble, one of the last works Scodanibbio completed before succumbing to motor neuron disease. It is sobering that, due to this debilitating illness, he could no longer play the bass at the time of the work’s gestation. Fortunately, Roccato enlisted a veritable who’s who of European bassists to populate the ensemble Ludus Gravis and, after Scodanibbio’s death,  carry the work forward. Ottetto’s recording is a stunning display of the many ways in which this low-end ensemble can be a versatile one, from sepulchral passages to high-lying harmonics, with seemingly every mode of playing in between. The piece showcases the intimate familiarity with his instrument that Scodanibbio developed over a lifetime of practice and playing: an incredible musical valediction.

 

Rube Goldberg Variations

Dmitri Tymoczko

Flexible Music, Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Amernet String Quartet

Bridge

 

Fools and Angels

Dmitri Tymoczko

New Focus

 

In 2018, Princeton professor Dmitri Tymoczko released not one, but two portrait CDs. The first, Rube Goldberg Variations, features three postmodern chamber pieces performed by estimable ensembles: Flexible Music, Atlantic Brass Quintet with pianist John Blacklow, and the Amernet String Quartet with pianist Matthew Bengston. On I Cannot Follow, broken consort Flexible Music performs the plethora of provided off-kilter postminimal ostinatos with elan. The group lives up to their name when inhabiting the piece’s supple dynamic swells. The title composition is also informed by postminimalism, but is more jazzy in terms of its chord voicings. Tymoczko cleverly tropes Igor in “Stravinsky’s Fountain,” and supplies Nancarrow-esque piano canons in “Homage,” over which sustained detuned brass asserts a grounded rebuttal. S Sensation Something ends the album in a triadic landscape distressed with pitch bends and persistent, biting seconds.

 

Fools and Angels is a different musical statement altogether, featuring vocals, electronics, and, often, an art rock aesthetic. Indeed, there is a Zappa-esque zaniness afoot, in which the composer juxtaposes repurposed madrigals, faux bebop slinkiness, and even risque monologues, amid persistent changes of meter, bellicose soloing, and sci-fi synthetic soundscapes. A who’s who of youthful contemporary classical performers — Mellissa Hughes, Caroline Shaw, Martha Cluver, Gabriel Crouch, Jason Treuting, and Pascal LeBoeuf, to name some — supply earnest and accurate performances of Tymoczko’s kaleidoscopic construction.

Waterlines

Christopher Trapani

Lucy Dhegrae, soprano; Marilyn Nonken, piano; Christopher Trapani, hexaphonic guitar; Didem Başar, qanûn, Longleash; JACK Quartet; Talea Ensemble, conducted by James Baker

New Focus

 

Rising flood waters in New Orleans as the theme. Alternate tunings, guitar vs. zither. The incomparable Longleash and JACK being given plenty of extended techniques to dig their teeth (and fingers) into. Lucy Dhegrae singing spectralism-inflected blues songs as only she can. Trapani has a thousand and one good ideas and has enlisted a fantastic slate of performers to realize them. This CD may be one of the few positives to come out of meditating on the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina.

 

Best of 2018: Compilation CDs

Best of 2018: Compilation CDs (Various Genres)

Wet Ink: 20

Wet Ink Large Ensemble

Carrier Records

 

Wet Ink Ensemble has been performing music for twenty years. To celebrate, they have released Wet Ink: 20, a collection of pieces by frequent collaborators, most from within  the ensemble. Intensity is the order of the day on this recording, on the distressed fragmentation of Eric Wubbels’s Auditory Scene Analysis, Sam Pluta’s two clangorous Portraits for electronics and soloists, and Alex Mincek’s edgy Chamber Concerto. The group also tackles Composition 56 by Anthony Braxton, on which Wet Ink adopts a sense of rhythmic suppleness and give and take among group members very much in keeping with the composer’s aesthetic. Vocalist Kate Soper channels Wallace Stevens, among others, in The Ultimate Poem is Abstract, a post-Cagean mash-up of materials and influences. This year Wet Ink also recorded Soper’s Ipsa Dixit for New World; that recording will appear in another of our year-end lists.

Miscellany

Chris Carter

Mute Records

 

Throbbing Gristle founder Chris Carter’s solo work from 1973-77 and three albums from the nineties are brought together on Miscellany. Just as the famous saying goes that during their early days, there were relatively few people who heard the Velvet Underground, but each started their own band, one could also say that Carter’s wide-ranging, abundantly creative oeuvre inspired adventurous musicians to take up music too; in this case a mixture of electronica and off-kilter pop. With CCCL, his first album in seventeen years, also seeing release in 2018, it is the perfect time to revisit Carter’s work.

 

Brainfeeder X

V/A

Brainfeeder Records

 

A double-CD celebrating Brainfeeder’s tenth anniversary, X’s 36 tracks are mostly devoted to unreleased material rather than greatest hits. It is a strong representation of the diversity of musical genres encompassed in the label’s ethos: electronica, psychedelia, afrofuturism, hip- hop, footwork, and more. A luminary cadre of artists appear on the compilation, ranging from label founders Flying Lotus and Thundercat to vocalist Georgia Anne Muldrow and funk luminary George Clinton. Not to be missed.