Lynsey Marsh, clarinet; Hallé Orchestra and Hallé Soloists; Sir Mark Elder and Jamie Phillips, conductors
NMC Recordings NMCD 199
Helen Grime is Associate Composer of the Hallé Orchestra. The ensemble has given her a generous portrait CD on NMC with excellent performances of both chamber and orchestral works, all composed in the past seven years. It commences with her Virga (2007), which has enjoyed enormous success; it has been championed by luminary conductors Oliver Knussen, Stéphane Denève, and Pierre Boulez. Hearing the glistening coloristic orchestral palette and unerring sense of pacing – with strong gestures succeeded by passages of fragile delicacy and a coda that beguilingly vanishes into thin air – one can readily understand why it might have attracted such attention. Composed in the same year, her string sextet Into the Faded Air provides a similarly shimmering effect.
The first work I heard of Grime’s live was her Clarinet Concerto in a sterling performance by Fellows at Tanglewood’s 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music. The Hallé’s recording of the piece stands up to that fond memory, with soloist Lynsey Marsh providing fleet cadenzas and unerringly cutting through the forceful accompaniment (again a testament to Grime’s savvy and skilful orchestration).
Composed for the BBC Scottish Symphony, Everyone Sang (2010) is a set of variations on a melody that typifies the linear writing found in Grime’s work: angular yet vivacious. There is counterpoint aplenty here too, with competing passages from the upper and lower registers of the ensemble. Night Songs, a gift for Oliver Knussen’s sixtieth birthday, distills this distinctive language into a taut six minutes of abundant variety. One can certainly hear affectionate nods to some of Knussen’s works, but Grime never stoops to mimicry.
The beginning of Near Midnight (2012), a work composed for the Hallé, finds lower register instruments and the percussion section holding sway. Eventually clarion trumpet calls, flutes, and divided strings are inserted into the proceedings, creating a colloquy between registers and a bevy of traded gestures. The piece’s middle section calms things down, allowing the strings a long, arcing line against which occasional flurries from the other sections interject. Out of this builds a crescendo in which fragmented passages and terse melodic utterances are once again traded between sections of the ensemble. Fluid upward gestures are countered by more earthbound sustained passages. The gradual denouement that concludes the work contains glinting shimmers that vivify the overall fadeout.
Dream Play Records
Composer/pianist Adam Berenson makes an eclectic array of music: classical compositions, controlled improvisations, electronic music, and jazz. Lumen, his latest release for Dream Play Records, collects two CDs of his works.
Spanning more than two decades of documentation, it features performers Bob Moses, Bill Marconi, Scott Barnum, Eric Hofbauer, and JACK Quartet. Berenson is at the center of the proceedings, playing piano, prepared piano, synthesizers, percussion, and live electronics. Reveling in diversity, Berenson’s variety of approaches yields several compelling pieces. For those who want to sample a bit of these before buying the discs, his Soundcloud page provides a wealth of audio examples. I enjoyed experiencing the mix of music Lumen has on offer.
Loud City Song
Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s latest full length recording, is her first foray into a professional recording studio. Eschewing the bedroom/laptop pop aesthetic supplies Holter’s music with greater ambience and roomier textures. However, in her case, polished product does not equate to losing creative abandon. Her approach to songwriting and arranging remain restlessly inquisitive and innovative. She even includes two different versions of the same song, “Maxim’s I” and “Maxim’s II.” These demonstrate the reach of her conceptualizing and arranging chops, moving from layered and gauzily atmospheric to pert and focused, delineating discrete vocal/instrumental textures.
Much of Loud City Song certainly is based on pop song paradigms; in that sense it may be some of Holter’s most straightforwardly structured work to date. That said, the comparison is relative. Holter’s credentials as a CalArts trained electronic musician are often cited by those discussing her work, and with good reason. There are still experimental bits peeking out from around corners: a blatting trombone intro, hissed underpinnings, breathy and percussive vocalizing, and tantalizingly elusive synth sounds. Moreover, Holter retains a “composerly” instinct that favors detailed structures and large-scale structural thinking in terms of song order and pacing. Thus far, each of Holter’s records has had a central conceit. As she mentioned in a recent interview (via our friends at Ad Hoc), Loud City Song references Gigi, both the 1944 novel by Collette and the eponymous 1958 musical film.
Rather than merely covering a song from Gigi, Holter instead decides to cover “Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis’s biggest hit from 1963. Reverb-soaked vocals and slowly undulating chordal pads give this a very different vibe from the original; sultry and evocative with nary a buoyant “she bop” to be found. This song choice, and its rendering, tease out myriad connections instead of favoring the obvious. On Loud City Song, Holter’s work has retained elusivity, while becoming further refined and even more becoming. Recommended.