Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs with Voices

Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs with Voices

 

Requiem

John Harbison

Nashville Symphony Chorus and Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Naxos Records

 

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.

 

Cymbeline

Charles Fussell

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor

BMOP/Sound

 

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.

 

Arche

Jörg Widmann

Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg, Kent Nagano, conductor

ECM Records

 

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.

 

Best Chamber Music CDs of 2018

Best Chamber Music 2018 

Prism I

Danish String Quartet

Prism I

ECM Records

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

Marsyas Trio

In the Theatre of Air

NMC Recordings

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.


Duo Gazzana

Ravel, Franck, Ligeti, Messiaen

ECM Records

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.

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan at Jazz Standard

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Claire Stefani
Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan, Winter Jazz Fest 2016. Photo: Claire Stefani

 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan

The Jazz Standard

December 10, 2017

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – Like the dearly departed duo of Jim Hall and Charlie Haden, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan make a sound much greater than the sum of their parts. This is not an issue of amplitude – their set on Sunday December tenth at the Jazz Standard was perfectly scaled for this intimate space. However, in terms of richness of rapport, musical detail, and imaginative improvisation, they can stand toe-to-toe with many larger groups. In part, they seem like a bigger ensemble because of the sheer number of notes per bar that their interplay encompasses and the quick shifts that occur between registers on their respective instruments.

 

There is another touching and musically fulfilling aspect to the pairing. While Frisell is the “veteran,” chronologically speaking, Morgan needn’t and doesn’t adopt a subordinate role: their interplay is on an equal footing. Frisell and Morgan began with “Days of Wine and Roses,” a venerable pop song turned jazz staple by pianist Bill Evans and memorably interpreted by guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Here, there was no feeling out process; it was an interweaving dialogue from the get-go. Frisell and Morgan seldom look at one another; such is their sense of each other’s unfolding strategy that they seldom need to do so. They seamlessly “duck” above and below each other, covering several octaves in their musical repartee.

Small Town (ECM, 2017).

Some of the set took tunes from Small Town (ECM, 2017), Frisell/Morgan’s live recording of a March 2016 stint at the Village Vanguard. A standout that appears on the CD is the fetching ballad by Morgan, “Pearl,” a tune with a turn around that contains just a whiff of “My Only Love” and is adorned with chromatic changes. Frisell supplied an original of his own, “Strange Meeting,” originally recorded back in 1984 on the guitarist’s ECM album The Rambler.  While Morgan generally takes a polyphonic and harmonic approach to bass playing, here he imitated the pulsations found on the original recording (courtesy of Jerome Harris and Paul Motian), his instrument thrumming with intensity.

 

Both Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Subconcious Lee” by Lee Konitz gave the two opportunities to switch gears to demonstrate facility in the bebop idiom. Later, the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” presented another avenue of inquiry long in Frisell’s kitbag: the refraction of Americana and folk music through a jazz lense.

 

In a year fraught with violence and strife, it seemed especially appropriate for the set proper to end with Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” a tender, but not overly sentimental, take on yet another iconic pop song turned standard. Warmly received, the duo returned for an encore from the Bond song catalog, John Barry’s “You Only Live Twice.” You can hear another Bond film theme by Barry on Small Town: “Goldfinger.”

 

Worthy of mention is the hospitable atmosphere at Jazz Standard. Their “quiet policy” makes it most conducive to listening, and the audience on Sunday readily complied, seeming earnestly engaged throughout. The servers are attentive, but they observe the quiet policy too. In addition, the Standard supplies customers with the best food to be had in a New York jazz establishment. Planning to see Billy Hart in February!

 

Set list

Days of Wine and Roses (Henry Mancini)

Misterioso (Thelonious Monk)

Pearl (Thomas Morgan)

Strange Meeting (Bill Frisell)

Subconscious Lee – (Lee Konitz)

Wildwood Flower (folk / Carter Family)

What the World Needs Now (Burt Bacharach)

encore: You Only Live Twice (John Barry)

Upcoming concerts by Frisell/Morgan

February 15 Mill Valley CA

(Sweetwater Music Hall)

February 17 Eugene OR

(The Shedd)

February 18 Portland, OR

(Revolution Hall, Portland Jazz Festival)

February 19th Seattle, WA

(Jazz Alley)

Maderna and Berio on ECM (CD Review)

ecm4815034

Now, and Then
Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
Pablo Márquez, guitar
ECM 2485

November 17 sees the release of Now, and Then, an ECM recording of transcriptions by composers Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio. In addition to his creative pursuits and new music advocacy, Maderna (1920-1973) was in demand as a conductor of classical repertoire. Rather than performing the instrumental music of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras with its original, reduced, forces, he made transcriptions of figures such as Frescobaldi, Legrenzi, Gabrieli, Viadana, and Wassenaer (all included on this CD) for the modern orchestra. They are successful arrangements, spotlighting the sonorous brass choirs that epitomize the antiphonal music of this era while deftly incorporating idiomatic passages for the other sections of the orchestra.Russell Davies leads sumptuous yet finely detailed performances of these pieces.

 

Berio (1925-2003) recreated his Sequenza XI for solo guitar as the ensemble work Chemins V (1992). It is a delirious, sensuous trope on the original, allowing the guitarist – in this case the estimable Pablo Márquez – plenty of virtuosic solo work, while responding to it with imaginative orchestral textures. Some of these serve to augment the percussive quality of the guitar, while others lengthen and sustain the pitch material, creating a haloing effect. Partway through, a thunderous climax in the percussion precedes the longest of the solo cadenzas, underscoring that this is no mere arrangement but a profound reshaping of the original.
In the United States, Russell Davies may be best known for his championing of minimalists. However, like Maderna, his catalog and duties have been widespread both in terms of repertoire and geography. Witnessing him, years ago, tackle formidably complex premieres with American Composers Orchestra, it is gratifying to hear him return to similarly intricate fare in the Berio. Now, and Then is an imaginative and finely wrought recording: recommended.

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.  

Thursday 11/19: De Mare at Symphony Space

Last month, I heard the second installment of Anthony De Mare’s Liasons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano project at Sheen Center. De Mare has commissioned dozens of composers to fashion arrangements of Sondheim songs. The results are as fascinating as they are eclectic.

On Thursday at Symphony Space, De Mare completes his live presentations of the commissions with a third concert. Among the featured composers are Steve Reich, David Rakowski, Paul Moravec, and Duncan Sheik. The concluding arrangement is by De Mare himself: “Sunday in the Park – Passages.” Sondheim will be on hand and the ECM recording, a 3-CD set, will receive its official release.

There are some tickets left to the performance (buy here).

Tre Voci on ECM

Kashkashian - Tre Voci Cover 2345

Tre Voci

Works by Debussy, Takemitsu, and Gubaidulina

Marina Piccinini, Flute; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Sivan Magen, harp

ECM New Series CD 2345

 

One of his last completed works, Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915) has been variously construed as a crystallization of Impressionism into a neoclassical mold, a nod to Debussy’s French compositional ancestors Rameau and Couperin, and an outlier in an otherwise venturesome output. I’m of the opinion that it is none of these things. Instead, the work is a late career example of the composer seeking out what was for him new formal terrain and compositional challenges. The performance on this ECM recording by flutist Marina Piccinini, violist Kim Kashkashian, and harpist Sivan Magen is utterly beguiling, with fluid interplay between the players, rhythmically decisive execution, and incandescent voicing of the work’s entrancing harmonies.

 

Toru Takemitsu frequently mentioned Debussy as a significant touchstone for his work. And then I knew ‘twas Wind’s title is inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem. This piece for the same forces as Debussy’s sonata is clearly written as an homage. Yet at the same time, it has a different style of pacing, an ebb and flow and a textural fragility that distinguish it from its predecessor.  Sofia Gubaidulina’s Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten adopts the works of multiple poets as reference points: Iv Oganov and Francisco Tanzer. The latter’s lines even make an appearance at the end of the piece as a spoken word component. Frequent harp glissandos and pianissimo effects from the viola are offset by alternately angular and voluptuous flute melodies. A surprising, yet engaging, response to Debussy.