Tarik O’Regan on NMC (CD Review)

Tarik O’Regan

A Celestial Map of the Sky

Hallé

Hallé Youth Choir

The Manchester Grammar School Choir

Jamie Phillips conductor

Sir Mark Elder conductor

NMC Recordings CD

 

Tarik O’Regan’s music has appeared upon some thirty recordings, but NMC’s CD, A Celestial Map of the Sky, is the first entirely devoted to his orchestra music. The disc supplies an excellent overview of the British composer’s work. The title piece is persuasively performed. The Hallé Youth Choir and The Manchester Grammar School Choir make music worthy of cherubim and the Hallé Orchestra accompanies them with clustered harmonies that glow. The piece has a fascinating back story: it was inspired by two woodcuts of the celestial hemispheres engraved by Albrecht Dürer in 1515. These are among the oldest “star charts” that have been found in Europe. Latent Manifest takes its inspiration from a few centuries later, in a single gesture from a Bach violin sonata which then undergoes procedures of expansion until it positively flourishes. Premiered at the BBC Proms, Latent Manifest is a muscularly orchestrated work that features Hallé’s formidable brass section to stirring effect.

 

O’Regan is of Moroccan descent on his mother’s side. When he was growing up, he lived for a time in Africa. Raï and Chaâbi present elements of African folk music through a Western lens.

Components from that tradition – African instruments, choices of timbre, and, particularly, rhythmic patterns – enliven both pieces. It is here that O’Regan’s music takes on its most “post-minimal guise,” exploring percussive ostinatos punctuated by strings. Here and elsewhere, the orchestral forces are martialed with incisive command by Jamie Phillips and Sir Mark Elder. The disc is capped off with Fragments from Heart of Darkness, a suite of instrumental music from O’Regan’s chamber opera based on the Joseph Conrad book. It begins suitably mysteriously with sinuous chromaticism but gradually moves toward another bevy of ostinatos, first folk-tinged and then martially stentorian.

 

Those who would like to hear a bit of the composer’s famed vocal music aren’t left wanting by this project. A bonus download-only track, “Now Fatal Change,” features countertenor Ryland Angel and violinist Lara St. John. A reworking of material found in Chaâbi, with a text originally set by Henry Purcell, it is an attractive piece fetchingly performed by the duo. Angel has a rich, resonant voice that handles both registral edges of the vocal part with ease. St. John draws similarly plummy tone from her instrument, finely tuning the many passages of multiple stops and performing ostinato sections with verve.

 

He may be as prolific as all get out, but A Celestial Map of the Sky marks itself as a special project in O’Regan’s catalog. Recommended.

Fifth House and Baladino – Nedudim (CD Review)

Fifth House Ensemble & Baladino

Nedudim

Cedille Records/Baladino CD

 

Fifth House Ensemble’s second CD for Cedille, Nedudim (Hebrew for “wanderings”) employs material from a plethora of folk traditions: Appalachian American, blues, Greek, Balkan, Turkish, and Indian, to name only some of them. Fifth House enlists as their performance partners the versatile world music group Baladino. Composer Dan Visconti and Baladino member Thomas Moked Blum supply imaginative arrangements that juxtapose notated material for Fifth House and quasi-improvisatory guides for Baladino. In addition to standard Western instruments – horn, flute, clarinet, saxophone, piano, and strings – the listener is also greeted by didjeridu, duduk, oud, ney, and African percussion.

 

The combination of these two ensembles is a successful one, creating a fluidity of rhythmic interaction that many crossover albums with folk elements lack. Indeed, the coexistence of instruments East and West and pieces that hew closer to classical or folk traditions provides the CD with enjoyable variety. A star in the proceedings is the incredibly versatile vocalist Yael Badash, whose singing matches the fluency of the instrumental performances. Nedudim traverses a great deal of musical ground, but never strays.

 

 

Bryn Harrison on Another Timbre

at96

Bryn Harrison
Receiving the Approaching Memory
Aisha Orazbayev, violin; Mark Knoop, piano
Another Timbre CD 96

Another Timbre’s  96th CD is devoted entirely to Bryn Harrison’s “Receiving the Approaching Memory,” a violin-piano duo lasting nearly forty minutes. Throughout its duration, the piece consists of overlapping spirals between the violin and piano, corruscating gently but emphatically. The piece is divided into five sections. While each has a similar gestural language, the pitch material starts with a regular circulation of the total chromatic and, with each section, gradually has the parts drop shared notes until, by the end, only two pitches (C and F) are held in common. While these common tones might suggest glancing against tonality (they form a fifth), Harrison instead sets up “shadow selves” among the increasingly impoverished means. The thinned texture points up the repetitive nature of the gestures rather than any sort of pitch consolidation. As such, it is a fascinating and often beautiful work. Harrison is fortunate in his advocates: violinist Aisha Orazbayev and pianist Mark Knoop play with accuracy, musicality, and indefatigable stamina. Recommended.

Gidon Kremer at McCarter

KREMER_TOP2

Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica

McCarter Theatre Center

Friday, February 3, 2017

By Christian Carey

 

PRINCETON – I’ve wanted to hear violinist Gidon Kremer perform Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s iconic work Fratres live since I was a teenager. Back then, Kremer’s rendition of the work on an ECM Records New Series CD was transfixing and game changing: it became an almost totemic art object for me as a composition student. On February 3rd, I got my wish at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Unlike the recording, here Kremer pushed the proceedings forward, taking a quicker tempo and engaging in more taut phrasing than he did on the CD. The work is still transfixing, but it was moving to hear its story retold in a new way.

 

Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, the chamber orchestra of Eastern European musicians that he leads, have a new ECM CD out, this one of the Chamber Symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg, late works that sit astride Mahlerian late Romanticism and modernism that is a close cousin to the works of Shostakovich. Clarinetist Mate Bekavac, who also appears on the recording, was a sterling-toned soloist, unwinding breathless phrases and coordinating and blending seamlessly with the strings.

 

The second half of the concert had an interested concept that provided a bit of dramatic flair. Kremer began it with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancolique, leaving the stage on the last note, which led directly into Kremerata Baltica’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This was resolutely played, but the absence of brass and winds led to some strangely attenuated passages (Andrei Pushkarev, a percussionist, performed formidable gymnastics to reach all of the score’s instruments). At the piece’s conclusion, Kremer returned to the stage, playing Valentin Silvestrov’s solo Serenade nearly attacca.

 

There were yet more surprises to come. Two encores, Stankovich’s Lullaby and Alfred Schnittke’s Polka gave the audience distinct flavors of music-making – one poignant and one buoyant – to send them home.

 

This is Kremer’s seventieth birthday year. To celebrate, he has not only released the Weinberg disc on ECM, but has also recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Trios and the Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto (available on vinyl!) for DG.

kremer trios

 

glass kremer

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Steve Reich on ECM

Steve Reich

The ECM Recordings

Steve Reich and Musicians

ECM New Series 3xCD 2540-42

 

After some one-off studio LPs for a variety of imprints, composer Steve Reich found his first label “home” with ECM Recordings (his second, Nonesuch, came after this triptych of recordings). Initially known primarily as a jazz label, ECM had decided to diversify its offerings to include classical artists such as Reich and Meredith Monk. The first of Reich’s ECM recordings, Music for Eighteen Musicians, sold more than 100,000 copies, which certainly encouraged producer Manfred Eicher to continue to take on ambitious classical projects, ultimately starting the New Series in 1984 to present Tabula Rasa, the first recording in a long term collaboration with Arvo Pärt.

The Reich reissues contain an informative set of liner notes by Paul Griffiths, who helps to provide valuable context for these works as part of Reich’s output. Music for Eighteen Musicians is a totemic Reich work, and the performance here is authoritative, lively, and dramatically paced. Its successor, Music for Large Ensemble, luxuriates in an expanded sonic palette with a greater number of winds and strings. Violin Phase is a holdover from Reich’s early style of patterned “phase music,” while Octet hews close to Music for Eighteen, providing a taut sound world filled with contrapuntal excursions set against Reich’s ubiquitous ostinatos. Whereas Violin Phase is a backward glance, Tehillim looks forward to Reich’s many texted works of the 1980s and beyond. That said, its use of canonic drums and clapping also bring it full circle to the composer’s early experiments. Another connection: the titular psalm texts are rendered by four sopranos, put in a similar register to that of the singers in Music for Eighteen Musicians. While also sustaining substantial growth and departures, Reich’s repertoire is filled with connections such as these. The ECM box may not tell the full story of his music, but it sketches the outlines of its trajectory in admirable fashion.  

Mingus, Mingus, and More Mingus

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Mingus Mingus Mingus

I Am Three

Leo Records CD LR 752

The trio I Am Three, consisting of alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard, trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser, and drummer Christian Marien, interpret compositions by the late Charles Mingus on their debut release for Leo Records (Eberhard has previously recorded for the label with different configurations). Mingus is, of course, a totemic figure in jazz. But he was a musician whose work can be seen from many angles, ranging from the neo-traditional – blues and early jazz signatures abound in his work – to modern jazz and the “Third Stream” experiments of the 1950s and 60s. All of this coexists in a mélange of stylistic plurality that still retains an individual stamp.

Thus, one might rightly think that Mingus would be a difficult composer with whom to grapple. While at first the muscularity of some of his best pieces would seem to indicate a durability that would allow for an open approach, artists who distort or exaggerate one aspect of his compositions’ multifaceted nature do so at the peril of unbalancing his nearly inimitable sound world. That is, in part, what makes I Am Three’s interpretations of Mingus so remarkable. The group manages to capture the spirit of piece after piece from his output with detailed touches that show careful study of the originals. At the same time, they bring original flourishes to the table, mostly by pushing Mingus’s music a bit further “out” than its original conception might have been. All of this is accomplished without a bassist.

 

For example, if one places I Am Three’s rendition of “Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue Silk” alongside Mingus’ various recordings of it, in solo piano and full band settings, the sense of homage is clear. The syncopated chordal refrain is kept intact, as is the chirping treble register interjection – here by Neuser instead of Mingus’s piano –  juxtaposed against a loping swing saxophone solo by Eberhard. All the while Marien alternates between accentuating the refrains in unison with the horns and pushing the beat slightly ahead of them to better underscore the laconic character of the solos. This all eventually devolves into a tutti passage of free jazz howling, ironically capped off by a return of the refrain in slow swing time.

 

“Better Get Hit in Your Soul” loses the inimitable bass and piano parts. I Am Three dispenses the tune without imitating them, focusing instead on the enwrapped horn lines and revelling in the tune’s lively groove. Neuser’s growling muted trumpet intro is a memorable feature of “Fables of Faubus,” as his succeeding polyrhythmic duet with Eberhard.

 

On “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” Marien’s drumming takes on an almost rock-like heaviness. After a blistering upper register tutti, once again the horns play independently minded yet intertwining solo lines. “Canon” provides a natural album closer, demonstrating Mingus’ ability to employ rigorous compositional procedures while simultaneously placing them firmly in a traditional jazz vocabulary. Mingus, Mingus, Mingus was my favorite jazz release of 2016, one to which I continued to return with great pleasure for fresh insights. Recommended.

 

Bach Christmas Oratorio – the Dunedin Consort

J.S. Bach

Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones. Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt.

Linn CKD 499 (2xCD)

First, I’ll admit that at Christmas Messiah has most often been my jam; I have several recordings, have performed it as soloist, accompanist, and conductor, and find it to be one of the most uplifting pieces out there. This year the Dunedin Consort, led by John Butt, has changed my tune. I’ve listened over and over again to their new recording of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. 

The oratorio is actually a collection of six cantatas that were performed during a particularly festive Christmas in 1735. They cover Sundays from the beginning of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Epiphany. Butt has chosen to perform them with eight soloists, four each alternating between the successive cantatas, and four ripieno singers. The use of a relatively small complement of vocalists lines up with current Bach scholarship. Butt primarily employs soloists with two to a part in passages like the chorales. This emphasizes the contrapuntal character of the vocal parts, treating the cantatas as chamber music rather than the large choral works that they are sometimes presented as in less period-informed settings. (Butt’s notes on the history of the Christmas Oratorio and his particular performance choices for the recording make for fascinating and enlightening reading).

Chamber music yes, but the instrumentation is both varied and vivid. Part One features virtuoso trumpet parts and timpani, the second extensive writing for woodwinds, the fourth buoyant horn duos and an “echo aria” with an extra soprano, and the last cantata returns to the use of brass and timpani in its climactic passages (it also features an oboe solo during the standout soprano aria “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,” beautifully sung and played by Mary Bevan and Alex Belamy, respectively).

Butt elicits a performance from the soloists and Dunedin Consort that is fleet-footed yet flexible, cleanly rendered yet never overly cool. Indeed, some of the recitatives and solos are quite emotively delivered. The conductor has also wisely chosen soloists who complement both the textual and textural aspects of each of the cantatas. For instance, Nicholas Mulroy is the more forceful of the two tenors. He balances well with the defiant music and ebullient orchestration of Part Six, while the more sweet-voiced Thomas Hobbs is sure-footed in the fluid recitatives and arias of Part Four. While each singer brings a different timbre and demeanor to the table, they blend seamlessly in the ensemble passages and to a person share exquisite tone and abundant musicality.

This is a recording that made me completely rethink my impressions of the Christmas Oratorio. Now, instead of writing it off as the lightweight cousin of the Bach Passions, I am ready to consider alongside the composer’s best known choral music, going toe to toe with them both in terms of ambition and quality. Recommended holiday or anytime listening.