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.
Recording of the Year: Terry Riley, Sun Rings, Kronos Quartet, Volti (Nonesuch)
2002 work Sun Rings simultaneously celebrates the 25th
anniversary of the Voyager exploration and soberly reflects on September 11,
2001. Kronos Quartet, longtime collaborators with Riley, the ethereal voices of
Volti, and a collection of space sounds are combined to create a fascinating and
engaging amalgam. An exhilarating ride through the various styles that Riley
has at his disposal.
Best Recordings of 2019 (in no particular order)
Terry Riley, Sun Rings, Kronos Quartet, Volti (Nonesuch)
Jaimie Branch, FLY or DIE II: Bird Dogs of Paradise (International Anthem)
FKA Twigs, Magdalene (Young Turks)
Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic)
Angel Olsen, All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
Guided by Voices, Sweating the Plague (GBV)
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Páll Ragnar Pálsson, Concurrence, Víkingur Ólafsson, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Daniel Bjarnason (Sono Luminus)
Michael Finnissy, Vocal Works 1974-2015, EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, James Weeks (Winter and Winter)
Emmanuel Nunes, Eivend Buene, Andreas Dohmen, Márton Illés, Chaya Czernowin, Donaueschinger Musiktage 2017 (Neos)
Minor Pieces, The Heavy Steps of Dreaming (Fat Cat)
Zosha di Castri, Tachitipo (New Focus)
Morton Feldman, Piano, Philip Thomas (Another Timbre)
Aaron Copland, Billy the Kid and Grohg, Detroit Symphony – Leonard Slatkin (Naxos)
Ivo Perelman, Matt Maneri, Nate Wooley, Matthew Shipp, Strings 4 (Leo)
Liza Lim, Rebecca Saunders, Chaya Czernowin, Mirela Ivičević, and Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Speak Be Silent, Riot Ensemble – Aaron Holloway-Nahum (Huddersfield-NMC)
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.
NEW YORK – On Sunday, the Vienna Boys Choir performed a Christmas program at Carnegie Hall. It included much standard Christmas fare, both carols and pops selections. However, there were also a number of more substantial pieces, both Renaissance polyphony and 20/21st century music. The superlative musicianship of both the choir and its director/pianist Manuel Huber were impressive throughout, and the flexibility in navigating the various styles of the programmed music seamlessly was noteworthy.
Although the membership rotates through some hundred members at a given time, with various touring groups and educational activities, the sound of the choir remains distinctive. Unlike English boys choirs, the sound up top is narrower yet retains a bell-like consistency. Several members of the group are in the midst of their voices changing, which allowed for tenor and baritone registers to be accessed in select places. The retention of adolescents not only allows for the group’s larger compass, it is also a compassionate way to treat young people, flouting the long tradition of dismissing choristers whose voices have “broken.”
The choir entered from offstage singing plainchant. This was followed by a selection of Latin church music by Palestrina, Duruflé, Salazar, and Verdi. The latter piece was the most taxing on the program and the singers navigated it with aplomb. Gerald Wirth has long been the music director for Vienna Boys Choir, arranging and composing pieces for the group. The Sanctus-Benedictus from his Missa-apostolica showed the choir’s voices to best advantage. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s pentatonic vocalization of Gamelan sounds was another winning selection. A nod to America included “I Bought Me a Cat” from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, “Somewhere” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”On the pops selections, choirmaster Manuel Huber provided jaunty accompaniments at the piano with cocktail jazz embellishments.
The second half of the program was divided between carols and pops selections. Es ist ein Rose entsprungen, Adeste Fideles, O Holy Night, and otherswere performed with gossamer tone and considerable musicianship, putting paid the many stolid renditions one must endure during the holiday shopping season. A new carol to me, Es Wird sho glei dumpa, from Upper Austria, will certainly feature in my own Christmas performances in the future.
The closing set of pops numbers included “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – it was once again impressive to hear the change in tone the choir was able to adopt between stylistic margins of the program. The inclusion of “Let it Snow,” which is more suggestive than the other pops tunes, marked a questionable choice. Ending with “Stille Nacht” made far more sense for this fine group of young singers.
Now in their forty-sixth year of singing, the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, have long made an annual December concert at Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown Manhattan a stop on their winter tour. Part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series, these concerts have focused on Renaissance polyphony, but there have also been some noteworthy new works on the programs. They frequently program the music of Arvo Pärt. Last year’s concert featured the premiere of a piece for the Tallis Scholars written by Nico Muhly.
However, this year an imaginative program, titled “Reflections” is on offer that interweaves selections based on different liturgical sections, bringing together composers from England and on the Continent active throughout the Renaissance as well as twentieth century French composers Francis Poulenc and Olivier Messiaen.
The group is nearing the completion of its edition of Josquin’s Masses. Their latest recording of Missa Mater Patris and Missa Da Pacem (Gimell CD, 2019), presents pieces whose attribution has been the matter of some controversy. The former mass is based on music by Brumel, which would be the only such borrowing by Josquin, contains some uncharacteristic blocks of homophony at strategic places and fewer of the composer’s signature imitative duos. So, is it a misattribution? Without stating anything categorically, in his characteristically erudite liner notes Phillips suggests the Brumel connection might place the mass in 1512 or 1513, shortly after Brumel’s death as an homage to a composer friend; this would make it one of the last two mass settings we have by Josquin. The source material might help to account for the different approach.
Whether Josquin wrote it or someone else, Missa Mater Patris contains some much fine music that is superlatively sung on the Gimmell CD. The Hosanna sections of the Sanctus and Benedictus, borrowing cascades in thirds from the Brumel motet, is both fleet and exuberant. The Agnus Dei III is another section where the contributions of Brumel are expertly integrated.
Phillips relates that, from the nineteenth century to relatively recently, Missa Da Pacem was held up as an example of the Josquinian style. Recent discoveries have suggested another author, Noel Bauldeweyn (Beauty Farm recently released a fine disc of this lesser known composer’s masses). Phillips is not entirely willing to concede that Da Pacem isn’t Josquin’s, he instead mentions passages that seem to point to one and then the other author and leaves the listener a chance to judge – and savor – for themselves.
Composer George Perle passed away a decade ago, but his
music has remained part of the repertory. This is noteworthy in that, upon
their deaths, many composers are eclipsed for a time. An excellent example of
the resilience of Perle’s work is a new recording on BMOP Sound. The Boston
Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, presents a disc of
Perle’s Serenades: one featuring viola soloist Wenting Kang, another
featuring piano soloist Donald Berman, and another for a chamber
orchestra of eleven players.
Serenade No. 1, which features Kang, is
deftly scored to accommodate the tenor/alto register of the viola, allowing the
other members of the ensemble to move astride the soloist in the soprano and
bass registers. The violist is supplied a fair amount of virtuosity to
navigate, as well as the lyricism to which the instrument frequently adheres.
The piece is cast in five movements, beginning with a Rondo and traversing through
Ostinato, Recitative, Scherzo, and Coda. As is customary in Perle’s “12-tone
tonality approach,” Bergian row-types, that allow for triads to appear in the
midst of post-tonal harmony, make for varied and attractive pitch structures. Kang
plays with considerable fluidity and appealing tone.
Serenade for Eleven Players is like a
concerto for orchestra in miniature, also configured in five movements. The
first movement begins with stentorian brass pitted against staccato piano
shuffles and string solos. The timpani thwacks tritones instead of fifths, and
wind chords provide a piquant underpinning. Later, sinuous saxophone lines are
offset by angular piano arpeggiations and countered by string solos and trills
from the remaining winds. The third movement has a mournful cello solo set
against pensive lines in the winds. Bustling counterpoint fills the fourth
movement with a number of jump cuts between textural blocks. The finale begins
stealthily with chordal stabs juxtaposed against melodies in multiple tempi that
build in intensity. There is a pullback before the finish that telegraphs a gentle
coda. The piece as a whole is reminiscent of Schoenberg’s early post-tonal
Donald Berman is the piano soloist in Serenade No. 3, again
a five-movement work consisting of pithy sections. Here, however, instead of
Schoenberg or Berg, Perle explores a sound world akin to that of Stravinsky’s 12-tone
concerto Movements. Twelve-tone tonality can be deployed in a manner
similar to Stravinsky’s own idiosyncratic approach to serialism, rotational
arrays. Both these details of pitch and the general muscularity of the gestural
palette, again made up of blocks of material, allow us to hear Perle through a
different lens of influence. Berman does a marvelous job with the solo part,
playing incisively with rhythmic precision and precise coordination with the
Rose leads BMOP through all three serenades with
characteristic attention to detail and balance. The players prepared well for
this challenging program. Better advocates would not have been the wish of the
composer. Kudos to BMOP for keeping Perle’s memory and music alive. This disc handily
makes my Best of 2019 list.
“Become Desert is both a celebration of the deserts we are given, and a lamentation of the deserts we create.” – John Luther Adams
Born in Mississippi, John Luther Adams first came to the attention of listeners as a composer and author based in Alaska, where he lived and worked for some forty years. Pieces such as Inuksuit, The Place Where You Go to Listen, and Dream in White on White are eloquent expressions of Adams’ time there and how it impacted him both as a creator and as a person. His book, Winter Music, is a required text for composers, as well as an accessible read of significant appeal to non-musicians. In a remarkable change of pace, Adams has recently moved to the desert, staying in Mexico and Chile.
In 2013, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean, a work for the Seattle Symphony that mourned the rising seas caused by climate change, posing a timely questions: would land-roaming creatures, humans among them, be subsumed and return to the waters from whence they came. Since then, the piece has become a trilogy, followed by Become River and now Become Desert. The latest piece deals with climate change’s impact on water supply and the effects of warming in dry climates.
Like its performance and recording of Become Ocean, the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, creates beguiling sounds eloquently shaped in their rendition of Become Desert. Whereas the former piece had an apocalyptic cast, moving from low to high and then cascading,the latter is filled with bells and chimes and sustained chords, creating the aura of aridity and hazy lights so appropriate to its subject matter. Partway through, rolling drums give us the only hit of respite from dryness, thundering against reiterated brass chords. Harps and plenty of sixth chords recall Impressionism, while the insistent repetition of overtone chords provides a spectral cast. Its end is a deliciously long denouement leaving us with faint chimes that evoke the piece’s opening.
Become Desert is one of the best recordings of contemporary music of 2019. Recommended.