Matthew Shipp Trio – “Signature” (CD Review)

Matthew Shipp Trio, ‘Signature’ (ESP, 2019)

Matthew Shipp Trio

Signature

ESP (ESPDISK 5029CD)

Pianist Matthew Shipp has recorded prolifically, but Signature is the first outing of his current piano trio. Joined by bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, Shipp thrives in this configuration, one of the most celebrated and venerable in jazz history. Indeed, taking the piano trio to new places seems tailor-made to his adventurous style and superlative musicianship.  

All of the pieces here are improvised first takes. The title track hews the closest to a more traditional approach, with post-bop chord voicings and engaging colloquy between the three performers. Pleasing twists and turns in the sequencing make for welcome surprises. The collaborators take solo turns that intersperse group ventures. Bisio’s “Deep to Deep” serves as an arco droning intro to “Flying Saucer,” in which the piano and bass lines are both nimbly played yet forcefully delineated while the drums provide a propulsive underpinning; a thunderous, virtuosic excursion. Baker presents a New Orleans inflected solo called “Snap.” As if to belie its lineage, the drum solo is followed by the group in a contemporary mindset on “The Way,” which begins suavely only to build to somber cadence points that sound like dissonant chorales. A return to delicacy allows room for Bisio to take an arcing solo, only to have it washed away by a stentorian oscillating pattern from Shipp. This encourages a convergence on an ostinato which builds the piece to a boisterous climax, with fleet soloing matched beat-for-beat by rollicking rhythms.

“Stage Ten” features Shipp performing inside the piano against a swinging bass line from Bisio and drumming by Taylor Baker filled with fills. It is an arresting melange of modernity, both of the classical and jazz varieties, like Henry Cowell meeting Thelonious Monk. “Speech of Form” finds Shipp playing solo in a vein of chromatic, modally inflected jazz that he has mined before and returns to here with good results. “Zo #2” is an uptempo number that owes debts both to Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor. Shipp’s elegant pirouettes and unison octave lines are complemented by skittering drums and articulate bass.

“New Z,” another solo, gives Taylor Baker an opportunity to use world music percussion alongside shimmering cymbals. The CD concludes with “This Matrix,” the most extended cut on the date, clocking in at more than sixteen minutes. Driving playing, with quick angular melodies punctuated by booming clusters, “This Matrix” is an excellent example of the trio at its best: ardent, musically sophisticated, and capable of turning on a dime. The piece builds to a tremendously dexterous double time section. It is  followed by a languorous solo from Bisio that starts a long denouement, gradually reintroducing the entire trio in a coda of poignant delicacy.

Signature is very much an album of 2019, in which jazz seems more capable than ever of acting in dialogue with its long tradition while simultaneously forging promising pathways forward. Shipp has a large discography, but each successive release captures the moment in which it lives, epitomizing the essence of improvised music. Recommended.

  • Christian Carey (christianbcarey.com)

Anna Webber: Clockwise (CD Review)

Anna Webber

Clockwise

Pi Recordings (2019)

Saxophonist/flutist/composer Anna Webber, a thirty-five-year-old who has already won a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous other plaudits, makes her Pi Recordings debut with Clockwise.Joined by an estimable group of avant-jazz musicians – pianist Matt Mitchell, Jeremy Viner playing tenor saxophone and clarinet, trombonist Jacob Garchik, cellist Christopher Hoffman, bassist Chris Tordini, and percussionist Ches Smith-Webber plays tenor saxophone and flute on the CD. Her compositions are mostly extrapolations of pieces for percussion by twentieth century classical composers Morton Feldman(King of Denmark)Iannis Xenakis (Persephassa), Edgard Varése (Ionisation), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Zyklus), Milton Babbitt (Homily), and John Cage (Third Construction). Employing percussion music to organize musical structures yields fascinating and fertile hybridized compositions. 

Array, based on Babbitt’s Homily, a solo piece for snare drum, uses the score’s serialized dynamics and attack points to craft a welter of overlapping arpeggiations inhabited by the entire group. King of Denmark is visited in three different incarnations on Clockwise, the first lifting off with a bracing hail of noise-inspired multiphonics before moving into an undulating groove that positions the rhythm section front and center. The second features an introduction in which Smith plays glissandos on timpani alongside chiming interjections. This is succeeded by a sultry main section, pitting walking lines from Tordini against microtonal winds. King of Denmark III is the briefest trope on Feldman, juxtaposing a roiling arco solo from Tordini against saxophones overblown. 

The title track takes the modularity of Stockhausen’s original as a cue for its own set of disparate, time-linked sections. Cage’s Third Constructionis channeled on Hologram Best, which features angular saxophone and brass lines in ebulliently spinning motion. Idiom II is the sole track on the disc to be composed with Webber’s own material. Near unison saxes, just slightly out of sync, create a loping tune that is punctuated by thrumming percussion and bass notes. Gradually, the rhythm section exerts a more intrusive presence that rivals the saxophone ostinato. Ultimately, the head is banished in favor of a saxophone-piano duet, in which Mitchell plays from an attractive palette of complex harmonies. Inexorably, the saxophones push back. Now no longer in near-unison, deployed in counterpoint, they take a break of their own that is only gradually infiltrated by the rhythm section. The final section of the piece features ostinatos again, this time with blocks of reeds, harmonizing the original tune, taking the front line in the proceedings while the rhythm sections positively roars its propulsive support. A brief reappearance of the head ensues, and then the door slams shut on the most compelling music of the recording. 

Varése and Xenakis inspire the works Kore I and Kore II. The latter opens the disc with undulating pizzicato strings that are eventually joined successively by flute, piano, and the rest of the ensemble in an off-kilter, post-tonal dance. Kore I closes the recording with another pileup of material, starting from pianissimo feints from the rhythm section and eventually building to a portentous moto perpetuo in which solos from Tordini, Webber, and Garchik are finally subsumed into a furious tutti coda. 

Whether Webber is exploring avant-garde classical masters or paving her own pathways, she proves to be a compelling creator. Her collaborators, to a person, are stellar. Clockwise is heartily recommended. 

Blue Heron in New York (Concert Review)

Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder

Blue Heron: The Lost Music of Canterbury

Music Before 1800

Corpus Christi Church

February 10, 2019

Sequenza 21 

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – On February 10th, the Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron made one of its regular appearances at the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights. Directed by Scott Metcalfe, an ensemble of a dozen vocalists performed five selections, all votive antiphons, from the Peterhouse Partbooks. 

Copied by John Bull during the reign of Henry VIII, the partbooks now reside at Peterhouse College of Cambridge University. The tenor book is missing, as are large sections of the treble book, but musicologist Nick Sandon has spent his career reconstructing pieces from the collection. Apart from a few performances and recordings made by British and Canadian ensembles, Blue Heron have been the principal advocates for this rediscovered cache of polyphonic music written for the Catholic Church. Bull compiled the music just a few years prior to the establishment of the Church of England, which brought with it entirely different liturgical practices that rendered the music obsolete. Many partbooks were destroyed during the ascendency, successively, of Anglicanism and Puritanism. This makes Sandon’s contribution all the more noteworthy, in that it restores enough music to significantly add to the choral repertoire available from the pre-Reformation period.   

Blue Heron recently released The Lost Music of Canterbury,a five-CD boxed set of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks with selections by a range of composers, from the well-known Nicholas Ludford to the entirely obscure Hugh Sturmy. The quality of both the music and recorded performances is extraordinarily high. Blue Heron have a beautiful sound custom crafted for this repertoire and display impeccable musicianship. Sadly, none of the antiphons presented on the Corpus Christi concert have yet been recorded by Blue Heron. Indeed, there is a massive amount of music left in the Peterhouse collection yet to be documented. While the group has moved on to other projects – they are currently at work on recordings of the complete songs of Ockeghem and works by Cipriano de Rore – one hopes that at some point funding might allow them to commit the votive antiphons from the Peterhouse repertoire to disc. They proved most compelling in a live setting.  

Votive antiphons were extra-liturgical and traditionally performed in the evening, after Vespers and Compline, by a group of singers gathered around an altar or icon. Marian antiphons were most common and were represented on the concert by two pieces, Arthur Chamberlayne’s Ave Gratia plena Maria and Ludford’s Salve Regina. The former is a vibrant piece articulating a thoughtfully expanded trope of the “Hail Mary” text. Described by Metcalfe as “a word salad,” it does indeed contain a great number of independent lines in overlapping declamation. The sole piece attributed to its author, it provided a tantalizing glimpse of the idiosyncrasies permitted during this time of musical innovation and diversity. Ludford’s uses a more traditional text and is gentler in demeanor; as Metcalfe suggested, a valediction wishing those gathered to hear the antiphon a peaceful evening. 

The other three antiphons invoked various saints. O Willhelme, pastor bone, by John Taverner, was the lone short work here, clocking in at around three minutes; the rest were each about a quarter of an hour in duration. The piece has a fascinating backstory for those who study the history of the Tudors. It was written for Cardinal College, Oxford, where Taverner was instructor of the choirboys, to its patron Saint William, Archbishop of York. It also includes a verse uplifting Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who founded Cardinal College. Yes, that Cardinal Wolsey, the one who ran afoul of Henry VIII because of his thwarted attempts to obtain a divorce for the monarch. The piece itself is full of Taverner’s characteristic sustained high lines and contains some lovely harmonies. 

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church. Photo: Alex Rainer.

One of the composers that Sandon has helped to reinvigorate with his scholarly writings, as well as score restorations, is Hugh Aston. Blue Heron have been champions of Aston since 1999, their founding year. The composer is well-represented on the Lost Music of Canterbury, which, among several pieces, includes his own Marian motet, Ave Maria dive matris Anne, a work of eloquence and fervent yearning: one of the highlights of the CD set. The concert program featured Aston’s O baptista vates Christi, a supplication to Saint John the Baptist. One can see why Blue Heron would like to sing O Baptista: the text asks for protection for the choir, and what choir doesn’t sometimes need protecting? Of course, no such safeguards were necessary at Corpus Christi Church: Music Before 1800 attracts a friendly audience for the group. 

While the aforementioned antiphons impressed, the most remarkable composition on the program was the first one the group performed, O Albane deo grate by Robert Fayrfax. This piece features prominently in Fayrfax’s output. He also fashioned a setting of it dedicated to Mary, O Maria deo grata, with the same music but different words, and used its material as the basis for his parody mass Missa Albanus. The words here commemorate Saint Alban, traditionally considered the first British Christian martyr. Metcalfe usually allows the music to speak for itself, limiting himself to brief introductory remarks. However, before beginning the performance of O Albane, he gave a short demonstration of just a few of the myriad musical treatments by Fayrfax of the plainchant on which it is based. This proved most illuminating, as one could look forward to hearing the hymn fragment interwoven into the counterpoint at key places in the work. Equally enlightening was Metcalfe’s post-concert talkback, in which he fielded questions on a variety of topics, from Reformation worship practices to score restoration to sixteenth century tuning in England. I look forward to hearing Blue Heron again very soon. On March 9th,I will be making a pilgrimage to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hear them sing Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. Look for coverage here on the site. 

(For more about the Lost Music of Canterbury 5 CD boxed set, see www.blueheron.org)

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.