Best of 2018 – Orchestral CDs
In ictu oculi
BBC Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Christoph Mathias Mueller
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.
The Boulez Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Barenboim
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
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
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.
John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Alex Dörner, Paul Lovens, soloists
WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, Ivan Volkov, conductor
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
Indiana University Chamber Orchestra, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, Arthur Fagen, conductor
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, 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.
Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock; BBC Orchestra, BBC Singers, John Adams, conductor
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
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.
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.
Ex Novo Ensemble
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.
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.
AuditiVokal Dresden, Art D’Echo, loadbang, Byrne:Kozar Duo, Oerknal, and Damask
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.
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.
International Contemporary Ensemble, Steven Schick, conductor
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.
Daniele Roccato, Giacomo Piermatti, double bass; Ludus Gravis bass ensemble, Tonino Battista, conductor
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
Flexible Music, Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Amernet String Quartet
Fools and Angels
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.
Lucy Dhegrae, soprano; Marilyn Nonken, piano; Christopher Trapani, hexaphonic guitar; Didem Başar, qanûn, Longleash; JACK Quartet; Talea Ensemble, conducted by James Baker
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 (Various Genres)
Wet Ink: 20
Wet Ink Large Ensemble
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.
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.
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.
Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs with Voices
Nashville Symphony Chorus and Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
John Harbison’s Requiem Mass had a long and fragmented gestation, but it certainly sounds of a piece. This debut recording by Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, led by Giancarlo Guerrero, emphasizes the contrasts between hushed reverence and explosive drama that make the work an exciting and vital addition to this well-populated genre. Harbison’s fluid orchestration and deft vocal writing are fully in evidence here. Despite his deep catalog, Requiem is one of his most compelling compositions to date.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor
Charles Fussell was a professor at Boston University and UMass Amherst before moving to New York. His works were long a vital part of the musical fabric of New England. With BMOP’s new recording of his 1980s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, It is pleasing to see that they still are. This is one of the first pieces in which Fussell incorporated the Neo-romantic style for which he is best known today. In addition to winsome soloists soprano Aliana de la Guardia and tenor Matthew Battista – both taking on multiple roles – Cymbeline also prominently features bagpipes, adding an element of Celtic exoticism.
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg, Kent Nagano, conductor
Composer Jörg Widmann’s most ambitious score to date, this live performance of Arche, a secular oratorio spanning two CDs, is an affecting paean to peace. It was composed to celebrate the opening of the new Elbphilharmonie Hall. With texts ranging from Nietzsche to Francis of Assisi, it is both thoughtful in its connection of disparate ideas and stylistically diverse yet musically compelling throughout. Under Nagano’s leadership, the musicians give a compelling rendition of this challenging piece – indeed, it is hard to believe it is an unedited live performance. Arche’s climax, in which a children’s choir rebukes their parents’ generation for its destructive ways, is the most moving use of children’s voices I have heard since Terry Riley’s pieces for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.
Best Chamber Music 2018
Danish String Quartet
Prism I is the first of five CDs by the Danish String Quartet, each featuring a work by Bach, a work by Beethoven, and a complementary piece. The key of E-flat is the central focus of this recording. J.S. Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major (transcribed from Book Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier) is a buoyant opener. Shostakovich’s last string quartet, in E-flat minor, vividly contrasts with it. Shostakovich brings together pensive passages, a funeral march, and what appears to be a reprise of the “knock on the door” from the Eighth Quartet, meant to describe the danger of the secret police to the composer: all intimations of fragility and mortality.
The disc concludes with the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, Op. 127 in, you guessed it, E-flat major. Writing for strings, it is fascinating to note how these composers have responded to this key. E-flat can be tricky: the instruments only have thirds (G and D), not roots, of the tonic and dominant triads to play as open strings, which lends interesting chordal voicings to these pieces. From the muted angst of the Shostakovich quartet’s opening to the nobility and grandeur embodied by Beethoven’s finale, the Danish Quartet are expressive and authoritative throughout. Looking forward to what else will be refracted through the Prism series.
In the Theatre of Air
A CD of flute, cello, piano trios by female composers (mostly British), In the Theatre of Air is thoroughly engaging. The title work by Hilary Tann is filled with the calls of various birds, ranging widely from goldfinches and starlings to white owls and wild geese in a poetic manner that, while quite distinct from Messiaen’s birdsong transcriptions, is eminently evocative. Laura Bowler’s Salutem provides a forceful representation of multiple epochs of human civilization, affording the ensemble the chance to let loose: even scream with abandon.
Several Concertos by Judith Weir gives each member of the trio a virtuosic solo turn. York Minster by Georgia Rodgers plays with off-kilter ostinatos, creating a loping groove with incisive punctuations. An arrangement of Thea Musgrave’s Canta, Canta is an all-too fleeting visit with this composer; a miniature finely sculpted with undulating, overlapping lines. Two charming short works by the Nineteenth century American composer Amy Beach round out the program.
In the Theatre of Air will likely provide a number of listeners with an excellent entrée into the music of these must-hear composers. The Marsyas Trio are formidable advocates for contemporary music.
Ravel, Franck, Ligeti, Messiaen
In their third recording for ECM, the violin-piano Duo Gazzana (Natascia and Raffaella) assay one of the great warhorses of the standard repertoire, the César Franck Sonata in A-major. Their rendition, full of life and long-breathed lines, rivals and bests many of the totemic recordings of the piece. The other works on the CD are under-programmed pieces by iconic composers, mostly early in their respective catalogues. Ravel’s Sonata Posthume, composed in 1897 but not published until after his death, is a lovely example of his early incorporation of stylistic hallmarks of Impressionism. Duo for Violin and Piano, filled with Bartokian ostinatos, was written by Gyorgy Ligeti to be performed by another famous composer: Gyorgy Kurtag. This is its first recording — it certainly merits a second and a third. Theme and Variations by Olivier Messiaen was written in 1932, but its musical language sounds of a piece with his more mature works, like Quartet for the End of Time and Vingt Regards, both from roughly a decade later. From their very first recording until now, Duo Gazzana have programmed imaginatively: this disc is exceptional both in terms of imagination and execution.