Jonathan Powell Plays Sorabji (CD Review)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

Sequentia Cyclica – Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis

Jonathan Powell, piano

Piano Classics PCL10206 (7 CD boxed set; digital)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) was the composer of some of Western classical music’s most intricate, extended, and ambitiously virtuosic works to date. His output encompassed seven decades, from 1914-1984. The serial composer Milton Babbitt, often himself described as the creator of tremendously difficult pieces, ranked Sorabji, alongside Brian Ferneyhough, as the most complex composers of the Twentieth century (Talking Music, William Duckworth). This is not just due to the massive scope of the pieces – several last a number of hours in duration – nor to their formidable technical demands, although both of these aspects of Sorabji’s music are ubiquitous. The notation of the music poses challenges as well. It is a welter of corruscating counterpoint and its rhythmic shapes are seldom delineated with bar-lines; nor do their gestures readily suggest metricity. Dynamics and tempo indications are infrequent and the music is often laid out on several staves. Thus, a lot is left open to interpretation.

Despite these challenges, Sorabji’s music is being documented by stalwart performers. Happily, a performance practice for the music is taking root that is helping to clarify some of the aforementioned difficulties. Noteworthy among these interpreters is the English pianist Jonathan Powell, who has championed the composer for over two decades. He has taken a number of Sorabji’s works in manuscript and transcribed them into performing editions, toured them widely, and begun the challenging task of creating recorded documentation of the piano oeuvre. His most recent project has been Sequentia Cyclica, a piece lasting nearly eight hours that he has presented in marathon single-day concerts in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Piano Classics has released a seven-CD boxed set of Powell’s rendition of the piece. It is an extraordinary recording of a totemic work. 

Sequentia Cyclica (subtitled Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis) is a set of twenty-seven variations on the Dies Irae sequence from the Catholic liturgy of the Mass for the Dead. Composed sometime in the thirteenth century, the Dies Irae has taken on extra-liturgical significance through its use in a number of concert works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most famously in  the Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, but also in a plethora of other piece including ones by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, and Dallapiccola. Sorabji’s employment of the theme serves multiple ends. It gives a nod to its presence in works by predecessors, particularly in Rachmaninoff’s piano music, it serves as a contrapuntal motive that is treated with a near-encyclopedic array of variants, and, judged by the voluble praise-filled postscript appended to the work, as an object of Christian devotion. Sorabji made an initial (201-page long!) pass at a set of Dies Irae variations in the 1920s. They were to be dedicated to the recently departed composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, but the piece was withdrawn in favor of the 1949 version recorded here, dedicated to Busoni’s pupil the pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962). 

True, eight hours is a long time to fill with a very familiar melody, but Sorabji creates a startling array of presentations, sometimes only employing the head motive and at other times the entire sequence. Elsewhere, it is submerged in other material, only to triumphantly rise up when called to the surface. Character pieces such as Hispanica, Marcia Funebre, and Quasi Debussy demonstrate imaginative deployments of the sequence in myriad styles. Trying to play “spot the influences” will provide the listener with glimpses at a panoply of creators, including Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach, Messiaen, and Rachmaninoff, to supply just a partial listing. None of these reference points is overarching; it is remarkable how adroitly Sorabji distills their essence into his own distinctive language. An enormous passacaglia with 100 variations takes up a disc-and-a-half worth of the recording and the piece concludes with an eighty-minute long fugue that successively builds from two-voice counterpoint to six, followed by a stretto on steroids that rousingly concludes this magnum opus. 

Jonathan Powell’s traversal of Sequentia Cyclica is authoritative. The program notes are some of the finest I have read in a long while. His performance is deftly nuanced, technically assured, and powerfully rendered. It is a benchmark that will provide a tough act for future interpreters to follow, but hopefully his performance editions will encourage them to do so regardless. Powell’s dedicated work on behalf of Sorabji makes the composer’s legacy seem assured. 

(Those looking for a more theoretical explication of Sequentia Cyclica are directed to Andrew Mead’s excellent article Gradus ad Sorabji in the Winter 2016 issue of Perspectives of New Music).

Two Recordings by David Felder (CD Review)

David Felder

Jeu de Tarot

Irvine Arditti, violin; Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman, conductor; Arditti Quartet

Coviello CD COV91913

David Felder

Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux

Laura Aikin, soprano; Ethan Hesrchenfeld, bass;

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor

BMOPsound CD 1069

David Felder has taught for a number of years at SUNY Buffalo, running the June in Buffalo Festival and mentoring countless contemporary composers in the school’s illustrious graduate program. His own works are multi-faceted, incorporating muscular gestures, modernist harmonies, innovative timbres, and, oftentimes, electronics. Felder’s recent music is given sterling performances on two CDs, one of his chamber music on Coviello and another of his orchestra piece Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux on BMOPsound.

The Coviello disc consists of three works that feature violinist Irvine Arditti. Its centerpiece, Jeu de Tarot, a chamber violin concerto based on seven of the twenty-two main tarot cards, reveals a mystical side to Felder’s music. Each movement is an interpretation of the character on its card – The Juggler, the Fool, the High Priestess, et cetera. Thus, the musical surface is multifaceted, unspooling a variety of characteristic textures. Arditti performs the solo part with laser beam incisiveness and Signal supplies comparable clarity, performing the piece’s interlocking rhythms with impressive coordination. Some sections of the piece, such as its finale “Moonlight,” explore a mysterious ambiance akin to Expressionism. Here, Arditti’s tone takes on a supple quality. He dovetails with the winds to provide intricate counterpoint.

The Arditti Quartet contributes Netivot, a work for strings and electronics, to the disc. On Felder’s website, you can see the optional video component, which adds another layer to the piece. By itself in two channels, there is considerable antiphony and with this setting one can only imagine how immersive the piece must be live. The recording also has an SACD layer which allows for surround listening, an engaging adventure that gets the listener closer to being there.

At times, string harmonics and pizzicatos meld with synthesized parts. Elsewhere, the strings and electronics trade registers. The overall effect is one of extensive integration of the elements into a “super-instrument” that swirls colorfully. Irvine Arditti concludes the disc with a solo piece, Another Face. Motoric ostinatos, mercurial leaps, and microtonal inflections contribute to an overarchingly variegated impression. Arditti plays with virtuoso technique and a questing manner.   

Joined by soprano Laura Aiken and bass Ethan Herschenfeld, Boston Modern Orchestra Project performs one of Felder’s most prominent pieces, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux. This is the second recording of the piece; the other is by Ensemble Signal with members of SUNY Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta. Each is an assured rendition, with BMOP stressing the dramatic sweep of the piece while Signal focuses with granularity of detail. The texts Felder employs in Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux are by Réne Daumal, Robert Creely, Pablo Neruda, and Dana Gioia. Most are Daumal’s, whose work Felder discovered via Buffalo-based writer Kathleen Frederick Rosenblatt’s biography of the polymath author. Felder does interesting things to treat the texts. He intermingles electronics with the vowels of the Daumal to create an ethereal quality. One of the two movements featuring Creeley’s poems emphasizes its sibilants, the other maps the consonant attacks onto the percussion, creating an intriguing sound world. Gioia’s poem is treated to the piece’s most stentorian and angular writing, clearly distinguishing it from the other texts.

Felder was a chorister with the Cleveland Orchestra in his teens but has only recently begun to set text. His vocal writing is ambitious, operatic in scope and compass. The piece opens with a series of spectral chords, over which Aiken’s voice soars, effortlessly managing pianissimo dynamics and altissimo high notes. She is worthily matched by Herschenfeld’s resonant low notes and seamless legato phrasing. The first section culminates in a rapturous duet in which the vocalists both navigate their upper registers fluently. In the section “Fragments (from Neruda),” an impressively thunderous tutti orchestral passage is matched by clarion singing from Aiken. A rousing duet rendition of Daumal’s “Stanza 3b” matches the Neruda’s intensity, and “Stanza 4a” is treated to a sepulchral solo by Herschenfeld in which he is accompanied by intertwining brass. He goes still lower on “Stanza 4b,” shadowed by sustained chords that move from strings to brass. Then, the vocal line is mimicked in counterpoint by the lower brass. Timpani thrumming is juxtaposed against choral-like passages as the piece moves into an instrumental postlude in which a clamorous buildup of drums heralds the final entrance of Aiken, her arcing solo haloed by trumpet glissandos, ascending to her top register and then plummeting down to conclude the piece.

Throughout, BMOP plays impressively. Rose shapes the piece beautifully and provides a detailed account of its myriad details. Hopefully, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux will be followed by more vocal music from Felder. It is a formidable entry into his catalogue of works. Recommended.  

Christian Carey is editor at Sequenza 21 and an Associate Professor of Music Composition, History, and Theory at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey (www.christianbcarey.com).

Barbara Hannigan – La Passione (CD Review)

La Passione

Barbara Hannigan, soprano and conductor; Ludwig Orchestra

Alpha Classics

La Passione is soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan’s second CD with Ludwig Orchestra. Their first collaboration, Girl Crazy, won a 2018 Grammy Award. Like Girl Crazy, the selections on La Passione are disparate, but they cohere into a convincing program. Whether she is performing a solo vocal piece by Luigi Nono, conducting a Haydn symphony, or conducting and singing a spectral work by Grisey, Hannigan is a compelling performer. This is also true of Ludwig Orchestra, who thrive in this setting. 

Luigi Nono’s solo vocal work Cjamila Boupacha eulogizes a dissident who, during the lead up to the French-Algerian war, was raped and murdered. Her story galvanized anti-colonial resistance in the country. The piece is a vocalize that often accesses the extreme upper register of the soprano’s range. Hannigan navigates its wide range and visceral expressive qualities with eloquence and impeccable technique.

It might seem strange to pair a Haydn symphony with a Nono piece, but Symphony No. 49, “La Passione,” explores grief with depth of feeling and dramatic flair. Composed in 1768, it is one of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” pieces. Its formal design is that of a church sonata, with an extensive slow movement preceding the sonata allegro second movement. In terms of both form and demeanor, it may have been played at Esterhazy during Holy Week. The first movement extends a mournful demeanor over a quarter-hour, and it is followed by a combative allegro. Hannigan provides a supple reading of the minuet and trio, with the latter finally allowing the listener let-up from f-minor’s pathos, which has thus far dominated the proceedings, with a glimpse, albeit brief, of F-major. The emotional finale truly embodies the “Sturm und Drang” aesthetic, ending the piece in powerful, albeit tragic, fashion.

French composer Gérard Grisey passed away in 1998 at age 52 from an aneurysm, leaving behind a compact but compelling body of work that helped to define the spectral approach to composition. His last completed piece was Quatre Chants pour Franchir les Soueil (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold”), premiered posthumously in 1999. In recent years Hannigan has championed Quatre Chants, notably performing it with Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Susanna Mälkki and Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. On La Passione, she undertakes the daunting task of both singing and conducting the piece. Of the recorded performance with Ludwig Orchestra, Hannigan has remarked, “It took us to our limits.”

A variety of texts are used: Guez-Ricord’s The Hours of Night, Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, a fragment from sixth century Greek poetess Erinna, and an extract from the Babyloninan Epic of Gilgamesh (courtesy Tim Rutherford-Johnson).  Overtone chords and micro-tunings abound. The instrumentation is distinctive, particularly the percussion cohort that includes fifteen tuned gongs that are played in quick arpeggiations at a low dynamic level, an impressive feat and singular sound. The bass drum has an evocative role as well, serving to toll a memento mori that divides the piece’s several sections. In the first song, “Death of the Angel”, is one of the piece’s signatures, bracing unison lines between soprano and trumpet that shatter an otherwise merely ominous atmosphere. A variety of wind instruments are employed throughout, including saxophones. Hannigan’s singing seamlessly intermingles with the various instruments, moving from sinuous angular lines to altissimo shrieks with myriad gestures in between. After the four songs is a postlude, “Berceuse,” haunting in its comparative reserve with a number of duets between Hannigan and various instruments in floating vocal lines.

An ambitious program with a “can’t miss” piece (the Grisey) and all of it exquisitely executed: recommended.

-Composer Christian Carey is Associate Professor at Westminster Choir College, Editor at Sequenza 21, and regularly contributes to Tempo, Musical America, and other publications. He has created eighty some compositions for orchestra, choir, solo voices, and chamber musicians. His electronic score for Gilgamesh Variations was produced at Bushwick Starr Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.

Brabant Sings Hellinck and Lupi (CD Review)

Lupus Hellinck – Missa Surrexit pastor bonus

Johannes Lupi – Motets

The Brabant Ensemble; Stephen Rice, conductor

Hyperion CD A68304

Lupus Hellinck (1493-1541)  isn’t a household name among mid-Renaissance composers. Based on a new recording of his Missa Surrexit pastor bonus, Hellinck’s work deserves wider currency. Despite having several pieces attributed to him that were actually by more prominent composers (Gombert and Verdelot among them), Johannes Lupi (1506?-1539) has also flown under the radar of many listeners. This excellent compact disc recording by the Brabant Ensemble should do good service in restoring both of them to rightful places of greater prominence. 

Hellinck’s mass juxtaposes imitative lines within tautly constructed movements  – the Agnus Dei, for instance, only has two rather than three sections. The Brabant Ensemble has a well-blended sound, its intonation precise. The counterpoint is well-delineated, especially in the Agnus Dei, where canonic entries proliferate until a luminous cadential close. Particularly lovely are the “Domine Deus,” “Et Resurrexit,” and  “Benedictus” sections, in which duets and trios are employed to good effect. 

Lupi uses a number of motives in each section of a piece that accumulate into large-scale motets.  The ensemble also displays a more daring approach to musica ficta (chromatic accidentals) in the Lupi motets, creating some delightful crunch chords as a result. Several prolonged cadences give the opportunity to play with tempo and dynamics, the Brabant ensemble alternating nimble and expansive approaches, usually to better express the text. The most extensive and impressive of the Lupi pieces is a polyphonic setting of the Te Deum, one of only about sixteen extant examples from the sixteenth century (several of which were alternatim settings). By comparison, there are over a hundred extant Magnificat settings from this time period. Lupi’s penchant for “black notes” often presents quicksilver passages of corruscating counterpoint. Part of the plainchant appears at various points in the piece, including transposed and inverted statements that accumulate into swaths of imitation. Duple and triple meter are also used to delineate sections of the work, with a fast triple meter section concluding the proceedings with a rousing cadential elaboration. 

The Brabant Ensemble sings this music persuasively enough that it stands up besides better known counterparts in the era of its composition, such as Clemens and Gombert. One hopes a second disc of the composers’ works might be in the offing. 

Adés Conducts Adés (CD Review)

Adés Conducts Adés

Kirill Gerstein, piano; Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano; Mark Stone, baritone; 

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adés, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon CD/DL 4837998

Thomas Adés is in his third year as Artistic Partner of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It has been an extraordinarily fruitful pairing. Adés has performed with the ensemble as a conductor and pianist, contributed new pieces to its repertory, and curated events such as the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. In the midst of this plethora of activities, the March 2019 premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was a highlight. Both the performance of the BSO under Adés’s direction and the brilliant playing of the work’s soloist, Kirill Gerstein, were widely acclaimed. The DG recording of its premiere confirms the buzz — the concerto is indeed a formidable work and the performance is radiant.

Cast in the traditional three movement structure (fast-slow-fast), the concerto demonstrates Adés’s encyclopedic familiarity with composers of the past, including hat-tips to Prokofiev, Ravel, Liszt, and Stravinsky. Despite revelling in touchstones of eras past, Adés ultimately distills them into a glinting, sharply contoured language with a distinctive character all its own. The first movement contrasts extensive glissandos with clock-like ostinatos. Sustained chorales create an aura of poignancy in the middle movement. The finale juxtaposes upward and downward scalar passages that provide a tilt-a-whirl of intensifying momentum that ends the piece aloft – and on a brilliantly orchestrated major triad to boot. 

In these times of pandemic and social distancing, Adés Totentanz (2013) is a particularly sobering piece. It is based upon the text of a fifteenth century frieze, which depicts all walks of life, from the Pope to an infant, being invited to dance with the Grim Reaper. Baritone Mark Stone embodies Death with a muscular and menacing delivery. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sings the parts of the various people attempting to elude his grasp as heartfelt laments. Adés creates a searing score that allows space for declamation while interpolating ominous interludes, often supplying aggressively syncopated ostinatos that suggest the inexorable dance. Bracing listening, but engaging throughout. Recommended.

Michael Harley – Come Closer (CD Review)

Come Closer

Michael Harley, bassoon

Phillip Bush, piano; Ari Streisfeld, violin, Daniel Sweaney, viola; Claire Bryant, cello

New Focus Recordings

A longtime member of Alarm Will Sound, now on the faculty of University of South Carolina, Michael Harley makes his monograph CD debut with Come Closer on New Focus Recordings. The program features repertoire by living American composers in a variety of styles.

John Fitz Rogers uses overdubs on Come Closer to create a four-bassoon texture in a propulsive minimalist excursion replete with repeated notes. Pianist Phillip Bush joins Harley on several pieces, providing a Gershwin-esque theater jazz accompaniment on Stefan Freund’s Miphadventures and multifaceted textures and styles on Reginald Bain’s Totality. Harbinger of Sorrows by Caleb Burhans is achingly affecting and quite beautiful.The most successful duo is Carl Schimmel’s Alarum’s and Excursions, an energetic and often virtuosic tour-de-force.

The sole solo on the recording, Fang Man’s Lament, is an excellent extended work that involves overtones, vocalization, and microtonal inflections. Come Closer’s final piece, Yonder by Jesse Jones, is for bassoon, string trio, and piano. It combines post-minimal and alt-folk gestures in a finely wrought ensemble work that one hopes will gain wider currency.

Harley has done a double service with Come Closer, presenting music by some of the finest young and mid-career composers currently at work in the United States and substantially enlarging the repertoire for bassoon with his advocacy. Recommended.

Stile Antico’s Spanish Nativity (CD Review)

A Spanish Nativity

Stile Antico

Harmonia Mundi 902312

The “Golden Age” of Spanish polyphony (during the sixteenth century) yielded a number of pieces suitable for Christmastime by some of the finest composers of the Renaissance: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Franciso Guerrero, and Cristóbal de Morales. On the a cappella vocal group Stile Antico’s latest disc, A Spanish Nativity, these leading lights are set alongside Alonso Lobo, Mateo Flecha el Viejo, and Pedro Rimonte; all three’s music is worthy of revival.

The dozen singers of Stile Antico create an extraordinarily well-blended sound on Victoria’s great motet “O Magnum Mysterium,” Guerrero’s “Beata Dei genitrix Maria,” and the Lobo mass based upon it. The contrapuntal sections are clearly delineated and the chordal passages are resonant and beautifully tuned. Lobo adeptly parodied the textures of Guerrero’s motet while significantly embellishing the source material. It makes the case for Lobo’s music to be far better known. This appears at least somewhat likely; of late ensembles are making the case both for him and for Mateo Flecha – one is glad to see them having a moment.

Stile Antico is equally adept at the syncopated dance rhythms of Guerrero’s “A un niño llorando,” Rimonte’s “De la piel de sus ovejas,” and Flecha’s “El jubilate” and “Ríu ríu chíu.” The juxtaposition of motet and villancico (a ‘peasant song’) shows the range that Guerrero was able to employ in his work. Flecha was the premiere purveyor of “Ensaladas,” (yes, salads), quodlibets of secular songs that are nearly always about the nativity. Those programmed here are among his most famous Ensaladas.

The recording closes with a beautiful selection, Morale’s motet “Cum natus esset Jesus.” Built around a canon between the alto and soprano, its technical rigor is no impediment to beautifully flowing lines and deftly crafted cadences.

A Spanish Nativity is highly recommended, as is Stile Antico’s other 2019 release, In A Strange Land – Elizabethan Composers in Exile, which features music by recusant Catholic composers during the time of Elizabeth I. The ensemble has had quite a year and one waits expectantly for their next project in the studio – as well as their next concert tour of the United States.

-Christian Carey