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.
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.
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.
NEW YORK – On Saturday, December 8th, pianist Simone Dinnerstein made a return appearance to Miller Theatre to perform an intriguing and eclectic solo recital. The stage was set with subdued lighting, with electric “candles” placed throughout and, over the course of the evening, small shifts of color. Ms. Dinnerstein, dressed in elegant, flowing attire, created an atmosphere through her performance demeanor as well. The recital was announced with no intermission and the pianist paused from playing only once, midway through, to acknowledge applause and take a brief break. However, by otherwise starting each piece immediately after the final notes of the one it preceded, she communicated clearly that this was not to be an event in which musical continuity would be broken by applause between numbers. Thankfully the audience complied, mutually agreeing to allow the atmosphere to envelop them too.
Dinnerstein played two pieces by the Eighteenth century harpsichord composer Francois Couperin, one at the beginning and another right before the break. This is the first time she has programmed the composer. Her approach to Les Barriades mystérieueses was sonorous, eschewing ornamentation in favor of unadorned, shapely melodies. Like the Goldberg Variations, the second piece required interlacing the hands to play everything on the piano keyboard that would have required two manuals on the harpsichord. Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Mallotins featured motoric clockwork and brisk filigrees that were an excellent foil for the Philip Glass work that immediately preceded it.
Mad Rush (1979),one of Glass’s best known piano pieces, was first composed for the organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the composer performed it for an appearance by the Dalai Lama. Arranged for piano, the piece is forceful and filled with contrasts. Its delicate passages were played with a spacious sense of breath by Dinnerstein, while the more emphatic central section in piece’s the repeating loop was performed powerfully with fleet-fingered accuracy. Last year, Dinnerstein’s account of Glass’s Third Piano Concerto was impressive; here, she made a further case for a place in the pantheon of Glass pianists. Contrast played a large role in Dinnerstein’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s Arabesque. Once again, she emphasized the breath between phrases, allowing the audience a sense of deft transition between the various emotive sections as they unspun.
Erik Satie’s Gnossiene No. 3 received the mysterious performance its ambiguous markings and lack of bar-lines evokes. One part cafe music and another modal Impressionist excursion, the piece was rendered with an evasive, lilting quality.
The pianist, in general, avoids overt and flashy displays of hyper-virtuosity, preferring instead to pick distinct places in which she allows her playing to be unrestrained. Dinnerstein’s performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana provided several excellent opportunities for effusive virtuosity, and they seemed all the more special for the way that the pianist set them in relief against the more contemplative portions of the work. Fleet arpeggiations flew and the fugal passage in the final movement was a brisk cannonade.
Dinnerstein’s aforementioned penchant for allowing the music to breathe, as well as the atmosphere she created for her performance, encouraged a normally bustling New York audience to truly slow down and breathe themselves: a welcome respite during the busy holiday season. When the encore she favored them with was not some barnstormer but instead a reprise of Les Barriades, allowing the program to come full circle, it seemed entirely appropriate.
NEW YORK – The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, made their annual appearance in New York as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown. The program was billed as a dual celebration — the 45th anniversary of the Tallis Scholars and Miller Theatre’s 30th anniversary season.
In honor of the occasion, Miller Theatre commissioned a new piece for the Tallis Scholars by composer Nico Muhly. Muhly has, of late, garnered a great deal of attention for two Metropolitan Opera commissions — Two Boys and Marnie — but he often talks about his first love being choral music (he began his musical career as a chorister). Muhly’s choral works are exquisitely crafted and texturally luminous. Rough Notes (2018), his new piece for the concert at St. Mary’s, took its texts from two diary entries by Robert Falcon Scott, written near the end of his ill-fated voyage to Antarctica. The first excerpt describes the aurora australis, providing words such as “arches, bands, and curtains” that are ripe for colorful musical setting. The second was Scott’s stoic expression of confidence in his team’s ability to accept their impending deaths with dignity. Muhly’s use of lush cluster chords in the first section gave way to more sharply etched, but still glinting, harmonies in the second, as well as poignantly arcing melodies. The divided choir of ten voices was skilfully overlapped to sound like many times that number. It is always fascinating to hear the Tallis Scholars switch centuries, and thus style, to perform contemporary repertoire; for instance, their CD of Arvo Pärt’s music is a treasure. One hopes that they might collaborate on a recording with Muhly in the future.
The rest of the program was of considerably earlier music, but ranged widely in chronology. The earliest piece was an elegant and under-heralded Magnificat setting by John Nesbett from the late Fifteenth century that is found in the Eton Choirbook. Chant passages give way to various fragments of the ensemble that pit low register vs. high for much of the piece. It culminates by finally bringing all the voices together in a rousing climax. The Tallis Scholars has, of yet, not recorded Nesbett, but Peter Phillips has committed the Magnificat to disc in an inspired performance with the Choir of Merton College, Oxford (The Marian Collection, Delphian, 2014).
Palestrina’s motet Hodie Christus natus est, and the eponymous parody mass which uses this as its source material, were the centerpiece of the concert. The motet was performed jubilantly and with abundant clarity. The mass is one of Palestrina’s finest. He took the natural zest of its source material, added plenty of contrapuntal elaborations, and made subtle shifts to supply a thoughtful rendition of the text. Although we are, in terms of the liturgical calendar, in the midst of the reflective period of Advent, being propelled forward to the midst of some of the most ebullient yet substantial Christmas music of the Renaissance was a welcome inauguration of the season.
The two works that concluded the concert dealt with different aspects of the Christmas story. William Byrd’s Lullaby is actually quite an unsettling piece; its text deals with the Slaughter of the Innocents as ordered by Herod. One is left to imagine the infant Jesus being consoled by Mary and Joseph in the midst of their flight from persecution. Byrd composed it in the Sixteenth century (it was published in 1588), but Lullaby was the piece on the concert most tailored to this moment, evoking concerns of our time: the plight of refugees, the slaughter of innocent bystanders by acts of senseless aggression: particularly the vulnerability of children to indiscriminate bombing abroad and the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.
The last piece returned to a festive spirit and brought the Tallis Scholars to the cusp of the Baroque with Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat V with interpolations of two carols: Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo. During the Christmas season, interspersing carols and sections of the Magnificat was a standard practice in Baroque-era Lutheran churches; J.S. Bach might even have done so in the services he led at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Praetorius plus two carols gave the Tallis Scholars an opportunity to share three of their most-performed Christmas pieces. From seemingly effortless floating high notes to sonorous bass singing, with tons of deftly rendered imitative passages in the inner voices, the group made a glorious sound. One eagerly awaits their return to New York during their 46th season.
International Contemporary Ensemble, Tito Muñoz, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
New Focus Recordings fcr208
Composer Michael Hersch consistently writes music with emotional immediacy that explores aching vulnerability with consummate eloquence. His Violin Concerto is like a wound still raw. Soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja ramps up the intensity, as does ICE, conducted here by Tino Muñoz, rendering the work’s first and third movements with bracing strength and its second with fragile uneasiness. This emotion returns, amplified by high-lying solos and echoing attacks from the ensemble, to provide a tensely wrought close to the piece.
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is renown for their conductor-less approach to chamber orchestra works. Still, the coordination and balance they exhibit on Hersch’s end stages deserves particular praise. Glacial slabs of dissonant harmonies give way to howling French horn and a buildup of contrapuntal intensity. This is succeeded by a tragically mournful tune accompanied by a bee’s nest of clusters and sliced string-led attacks. Taut wind dissonances then punctuate an angular, rambling string melody, succeeded once again by nervous pile-ups of angular crescendos. The seventh movement is buoyed by heraldic trumpet and vigorous repeated string chords, while the finale returns to a colorful, harmonically ambiguous ambience. The piece is Hersch at his most Bergian, bringing together artful organization and visceral emotion. Recommended.
Caput Ensemble, Krista Thora Haraldsdottir, Icelandic Flute Ensemble, Ensemble Adapter, Nordic Affect
Composer Þráinn Hjálmarsson’s latest CD, Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone, revels in the exploratory sound world of effects and extended techniques. That said, his work is more than an assemblage of alternative ways to treat instruments. Rather, the technical extensions serve to expand Hjálmarsson’s considerable palette of expression.
The five different pieces on Influence of Buildings each employ a different ensemble. The title work features the Caput Ensemble, while “Grisaille” is performed by the Icelandic Flute Ensemble. Both pieces deal with an upper register melodic line that is slowly bent and distressed until it is entirely transformed.
Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir plays the solo viola work Persona, adopting a penetrating tone and easily reaching stratospheric harmonics and digging in to sections with varying bow pressure. A flair for the dramatic allows this piece to move from pensive to more animated gestures in a captivating meditation. Mise en scéne plays up the percussive capacities of Ensemble Adapter, eventually deploying sustained upper register flute lines against the percussive attacks of harp and percussion and breathy exhalations and plosive pops from bass clarinet. The piece develops into a more harmonic terrain, with shades of spectra creating beguiling verticals.
The album’s closer is the string trio Lucid/Opaque, performed by members of Nordic Affect. The strings repeat pitch patterns that, while not necessarily tonal in orientation, encompass individual partials of a harmonic series. The overall effect is enhanced by a reverberant space, lending a naturally ambient character to the proceedings, even more so the case because of the number of repetitions of the opening gesture. Gradually, the opening shape is altered, with splashes of string noise and edgy bowing, changes in rhythm, and the overall duration of phrase overlaps developing the character of the main line over time. The material becomes even more forceful as octave displacements, notably a low cello line and repeating altissimo violin notes, are added. Here, and elsewhere, Hjálmarsson’s Influence of Buildings on Music Tone demonstrates a judicious approach to the selection of material that is then most imaginatively deployed and developed. Recommended.