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.

 

Christopher Fox: Headlong (CD Review)

 

Christopher Fox

Headlong

Heather Roche, clarinets

Métier CD

MSV28573

 

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 of the pieces 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.

 

Fox and Roche are an ideal pairing. While Fox has a number of CDs to his credit, listening to this one, an ideal future project comes to mind. Next time out, one imagines the composer adding a couple other instrumentalists or a vocalist to the mix to provide Roche with more foils and a few less overdubs. Fox’s ensemble pieces also expansively embrace the musical materials that exemplify today’s experimental wing of contemporary music. With Roche aboard as “team captain,” the result would certainly be another serving of diverting performances.