Ora Singers – Spem in Alium.Vidi Aquam (CD Review)

Spem in Alium. Vidi Aquam

Ora Singers, Suzi Digby

Harmonia Mundi, 2020

English choral group the Ora Singers, led by Suzi Digby, present Thomas Tallis’s magnificent forty-part motet Spem in Alium on their latest Harmonia Mundi recording. Split into eight choirs of five apiece, the singers are given many opportunities to overlap in successive entrances, interact among cohorts, and sound immensely scored chords. The Ora Singers present a beautiful performance that combines purity of sound with thrilling forte climaxes. Digby deserves plaudits for her careful shaping of phrases and mastery of Spem’s myriad challenging balancing acts. 

Most of the rest of the recording contains Latin works by composers active in England during the sixteenth century. These include three of foreign descent – Derrick Gerrard, Philip Van Wilder, and Alonso Ferrabosco the Elder. Van Wilder’s Pater Noster is filled with delicately corruscating lines and the composer’s Vidi civitatem is particularly poignant, with arcing entries blending with subdued declamatory phrases. Ferrabosco is as well known for suggestions of criminality and spying (for Queen Elizabeth, no less) as he is for his music. Ferrabosco’s In Monte Oliveti contains widely spaced, sumptuous harmonies while Judica me Domine is performed with long flowing imitative lines and solemn pacing. Gerrard’s O Souverain Pastor est maistre is a deft display of canonic writing, while his Tua est Potentia employs pervasive imitation. There is relatively little by Gerrard that has been recorded, which is a pity: he is a fine composer. 

Works by more famous composers include Tallis’s covertly recusant motet In jejunio et fletu, in a particularly moving performance, and a delicately shaded Derelinquit impius. William Byrd is represented by two motets,  Domine, salva nos, its introductory homophonic passages tinged with chromaticism and succeeded by elegant imitative entries, and Fac cum servo tuo, which instead begins in canon straightaway. 

The recording’s closer is a contemporary piece written in response to Spem in Alium, Vidi Aquam, a forty-part motet by James MacMillan. Using small paraphrases of the Tallis piece interwoven with new material, MacMillan creates an exuberant composition  filled with an abundance of stratospheric ascending lines.  it is a thrilling, and tremendously challenging, companion work.

-Christian Carey

Anna Höstman’s Harbour (CD Review)

Anna Höstman 

Harbour 

Cheryl Duvall, piano 

Redshift Records, 2020 

Harbour, a recital recording of Anna Höstman’s piano works played by Cheryl Duvall, reveals an emerging composer who both synthesizes her research interests – she has written about Feldman and Linda Caitlin Smith – while developing a significant voice of her own. Thus, gradually developing fields of sound remind listeners of the aforementioned composers, but Höstman’s gestural palette is significantly different. Examples of this include the ornaments on “Allemande” and the blurring gestures of “Yellow Bird.”

The title piece is a twenty-five minute long essay that begins with flourishes that remind one of Messiaen’s birdsong, as well as gliss-filled descending lines, set against a slow moving series of polychords. Registral expansion affords these three elements considerable latitude and points of intersection. The verticals take on a reiterated ostinato that alternates with linear duos and the glissandos, allowing for the music to gradually grow more emphatic in demeanor. There is a long-term crescendo that allows for these elements to take on a certain bravura that transforms them, at least for the moment, into emphatic post-Romantic material. However, the sound soon scales back and Harbour returns to a quietly mysterious space.

Pianist Cheryl Duvall is an excellent advocate throughout, bringing a graceful touch and finely detailed shadings of dynamics and voicing to the music. Composer and pianist seem to be an ideal pairing on this consistently engaging release. 

-Christian Carey 

Anna Höstman 

Ralph van Raat Plays French Piano Rarities (CD Review)

French Piano Rarities

Ralph van Raat, piano

Naxos 8.573894

I was fortunate to hear the US premiere at New York’s Weill Recital Hall by Ralph van Raat of Pierre Boulez’s early work Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo (1944). Composed when he was just nineteen, the piece is a substantial one, twenty-seven minutes long. Unlike Boulez’s works from 1945 onward, as is evidenced by a recording here of 12 Notations from that year, the piece predates his fascination with Webern and total serialism, instead seeking a rapprochement between tradition and Schoenbergian dissonant harmonies. Van Raat’s recording of the work for Naxos is authoritative, details large and small shaped with impressive care and bold playing. 

“Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo” serves as the centerpiece of the French Piano Rarities recording, but it is accompanied by fascinating fare. In addition to the aforementioned, a late Boulez piece, Une page d’éphéméride, is also included, resembling late Stravinsky in its use of small repeating collections in post-tonal fashion. Olivier Messiaen is represented by three pieces, Morceau de lecture á vue from 1934, with strong polychordal verticals, two movements from the piano version of Des canyons aux étoiles…, filled with birdsong and color chords, and La Fauvette passerinette from 1961, a rapid birdsong essay.

Three earlier works by French masters are included: a gently ephemeral Menuet from mid-career Maurice Ravel, and two late pieces by Claude Debussy: Étude retrouvée and Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. They all prove that, past the well-worn selections one frequently hears on recitals, there are many underserved pieces that hardly deserve to be “rarities.” 

-Christian Carey

Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens: “It’s a Fire”

Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens have collaborated on a cover of Portishead’s “It’s a Fire,” which you can hear via Bandcamp (embed below).

Proceeds from the single benefit Free Black University.

Spektral Quartet (Recording review)

Spektral Quartet

Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), Russell Rolen (cello)

Experiments in Living

New Focus Records (digital release)

The Spektral Quartet takes advantage of the open-ended playing time of a digital release to create effectively a double album for their latest recording, Experiments in Living. While double albums often suffer from a bit of flab, this one doesn’t have an extraneous moment. It is a well curated release that attends to meaning making in contemporary music with a spirit that is both historically informed and deeply of this moment.

A clever extra-musical addition to the project is a group of Tarot cards that allow the listener to ‘choose their own adventure,’ making their way through the various pieces in different orderings. These are made by the artist/musician øjeRum. The tarot cards may be seen on the album’s site

It might seem strange to begin an album of 20/21 music with Johannes Brahms’s String Quartet Op. 51, no. 1  in  C-minor (1873). However, Arnold Schoenberg’s article “Brahms as Progressive”  makes the connection between the two composers clear. It also demonstrates Spektral’s comfort in the standard repertoire. They give an energetic reading of the quartet with clear delineation of its thematic transformations, a Brahms hallmark. 

Schoenberg is represented by his Third String Quartet (1927). His first quartet to use 12-tone procedures, it gets less love in the literature than the oft-analyzed combinatorics of the composer’s Fourth String Quartet, but its expressive bite still retains vitality over ninety years later. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931), an under-heralded masterpiece of the 20th century, receives one of the best recordings yet on disc, its expressive dissonant counterpoint rendered with biting vividness.

Sam Pluta’s Flow State/Joy State is filled with flurries of glissandos, microtones, and harmonics to create a thoroughly contemporary sound world punctuated by dissonant verticals. One of Pluta’s most memorable gestures employs multiple glissandos to gradually make a chord cohere, only to have subsequent music skitter away. Charmaine Lee’s Spinals incorporates her own voice, replete with lip trills and sprechstimme that are imitated by string pizzicato and, again, glissandos. 

Spektral is joined by flutist Claire Chase on Anthony Cheung’s “Real Book of Fake Tunes,” which combines all manner of effects for Chase with jazzy snips of melody and writing for quartet that is somewhat reminiscent of the techniques found in the Schoenberg, but with a less pervasively dissonant palette. Cheung’s writing for instruments is always elegantly wrought, and Chase and Spektral undertake an excellent collaboration. One could imagine an entire album for this quintet being an engaging listen.  

The recording’s title track is George Lewis’s String Quartet 1.5; he wrote a prior piece utilizing quartet but considers this his first large-scale work in the genre. Many of the techniques on display in Pluta’s piece play a role here as well. Lewis adds to these skittering gestures, glissandos, and microtones the frequent use of various levels of bow pressure, including extreme bow pressure in which noise is more present than pitch. The latter crunchy sounds provide rhythmic weight and accentuation that offsets the sliding tones. Dovetailing glissandos create a blurring effect in which harmonic fields morph seamlessly. The formal design of the piece is intricate yet well-balanced. More string quartets, labeled 2.5 and 3.5, are further contributions by Lewis to the genre. One hopes that Spektral will take them up as well – their playing of 1.5 is most persuasive.

-Christian Carey

Ashlee Mack – Bagatelle for Piano (Video)

Ashlee Mack has just posted a performance video of my Bagatelle for Solo Piano. It is one in a set of three, the others being for alto flute and then a duo for alto flute and piano. You can stream or purchase a studio recording of the whole set via the Bandcamp embed below.

Three Bagatelles by Christian Carey – composer

Liza Lim on Kairos

Liza Lim

Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus

Sophie Schatleitner, violin; Lorelei Dowling, bassoon;

Klangform Wien, Stefan Asbury and Peter Rundel, conductors

Kairos CD 00140220KAI

Composer Liza Lim’s creative projects have long embraced a variety of ecomusicology. The environment in her home country Australia and the treatment of indigenous peoples there have featured in several works. 2018’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus casts an even broader net, addressing concerns of climate change worldwide. Scientific studies assessing projected extinction of flora and fauna due to the impact of the climate change disaster suggest that, unless humanity changes its ways quickly, a vast number of creatures vital to the ecosystem will no longer remain. 

Narrative in instrumental music is an elusive business. However, like John Luther Adams and R. Murray Schafer, Lim is adroit at creating aural imagery that is evocative of environmental subject matter. Rain sticks, air-filled noises, and terse, insectile solos provide a sense of place and population to the piece. Baying brass announce movement breaks with poignant glissandos. The third movement, Autocorrect, features fluid solos by violinist Sophie Schatleitner offset by microtonal bends in the brass and flourishes from winds and percussion. During Dawn Chorus, the last movement, extended woodwind drones and terse sepulchral lines provide a slow-moving, harmonics filled background. 

Especially impressive is the 2013 solo bassoon piece Axis Mundi, which is performed by Lorelei Dowling. Angular lines and glissandos that frequently fade are set against boisterous trills and blatting bass notes. It parses the piece into clear registral areas to create post-tonal and timbrally enhanced counterpoint that allows the disparate parts of the piece to cohere.

Songs Found in a Dream uses a similar palette as Extinction Events, feeling something like a more boisterous sketch for the larger work. However, Songs’ quicker pacing and frequently saturated textures distinguish it from the latter piece.  On both works, Klangforum Wien creates supple, nuanced, and, where necessary, powerful performances. The Kairos CD sounds excellent, with a strong feeling of dimensionality among the various parts of the ensemble. Highly recommended. 

-Christian Carey

Two composer portrait CDs on Sono Luminus (CD Review)

Páll Ragnar Pálsson

Atonement

CAPUT Ensemble, conducted by Guðni Franzson, Tui Hirv, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

Halldór Smárason

Stara

Siggi String Quartet, Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir, Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir, Helga Björg Arnardóttir, Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir, Gulli Björnsson

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

In recent years, the prominence of Icelandic composers on the international stage has grown considerably, many of them championed by the Sono Luminus label. New discs on the imprint are portraits of two more composers whose careers are in ascent: Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b. 1977) and Halldór Smárason (b. 1989). They are abetted by some of Iceland’s finest chamber musicians, the Siggi String Quartet and CAPUT Ensemble.

This is Pálsson’s second solo CD, consisting of works written from 2011 to 2018. He has a varied background. In his twenties he was a rock musician and then took an extended sojourn for studies in Estonia. Atonement encompasses those experiences and is also about the composer’s return to Iceland after his time abroad. Pálsson says that the importance of place is a significant touchstone for his approach to composing.

Relationships also play a pivotal role in his work. The abundantly talented soprano Tui Hirv is Pálsson’s spouse. She features prominently in several pieces, singing minute shadings and sustained high passages with tremendous dynamic control and expressivity in the title work. On Stalker’s Monologue, singing a text adapted from the Tarkovsky film, Hirv demonstrates more vocal steel and the accompaniment takes on a bleary-eyed cast. Midsummer’s Night features recited text instead of singing, with a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

The CAPUT Ensemble acquits themselves admirably as well. Lucidity features the ensemble crafting microtonal shadings and exaggerated trills, the latter sometimes doubled in strings and winds to kaleidoscopic effect and punctuated by swells of percussion. The extended ensemble passages on Wheel Crosses Under Moss are an excellent response to the keening part sung by Hirv. 

Smárason’s debut solo CD features the Siggi String Quartet. The title work is a good example of the composer’s aesthetic. Spacious use of silence is complemented by long sustained notes that generally have an “edge to them,” in terms of dissonance or playing technique. The quartet are dispatched on a similar errand on the piece Draw and Play, but the gestures between the rests are more animated. Blakta, also for strings, features gentle pizzicato against harmonics and upper register pileups of verticals. 

A guitar and electronics piece, Skúlptúr 1, requires the performer, Gulli Björnsson, to make his way through a challenging hop scotch of techniques in a specified time frame in order to avoid an alarm from the electronics part. Happily he makes it on the recording. 

The best piece on Stara is also the one for the largest ensemble, Stop Breathing. The Siggi Quartet is augmented with bass flute, clarinet, and piano. Breathy whorls and wind glissandos are set against harmonic ostinato passages as well as aggressive squalls of sound. 

A number of current composers are concerned with silence and pianissimo stretches. On Stara, Smárason distinguishes himself by filling in the silence with music of an uneasy demeanor from which one receives little respite or release. His work is unerringly paced and delicately unnerving. Both Atonement and Stara contain excellent performances of provoking works: recommended. 

-Christian Carey 

Kate NV – Marafon 15 (Audio)

 

Kate NV’s next recording, Room for the Moon, will be out on RVNG Intl. on June 12th. The Moscow based artist’s use of minimal grooves has become more fluid, with an assured hand at layering different textures. We have included two teaser tracks via Soundcloud here.

On behalf of Kate NV, a portion of proceeds from this release will benefit Mama Cash, an international fund that supports female-identifying, trans and intersex people’s movements around the world, as a part of our Come! Mend! initiative.