Barbara Hannigan – La Passione (CD Review)

La Passione

Barbara Hannigan, soprano and conductor; Ludwig Orchestra

Alpha Classics

La Passione is soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan’s second CD with Ludwig Orchestra. Their first collaboration, Girl Crazy, won a 2018 Grammy Award. Like Girl Crazy, the selections on La Passione are disparate, but they cohere into a convincing program. Whether she is performing a solo vocal piece by Luigi Nono, conducting a Haydn symphony, or conducting and singing a spectral work by Grisey, Hannigan is a compelling performer. This is also true of Ludwig Orchestra, who thrive in this setting. 

Luigi Nono’s solo vocal work Cjamila Boupacha eulogizes a dissident who, during the lead up to the French-Algerian war, was raped and murdered. Her story galvanized anti-colonial resistance in the country. The piece is a vocalize that often accesses the extreme upper register of the soprano’s range. Hannigan navigates its wide range and visceral expressive qualities with eloquence and impeccable technique.

It might seem strange to pair a Haydn symphony with a Nono piece, but Symphony No. 49, “La Passione,” explores grief with depth of feeling and dramatic flair. Composed in 1768, it is one of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” pieces. Its formal design is that of a church sonata, with an extensive slow movement preceding the sonata allegro second movement. In terms of both form and demeanor, it may have been played at Esterhazy during Holy Week. The first movement extends a mournful demeanor over a quarter-hour, and it is followed by a combative allegro. Hannigan provides a supple reading of the minuet and trio, with the latter finally allowing the listener let-up from f-minor’s pathos, which has thus far dominated the proceedings, with a glimpse, albeit brief, of F-major. The emotional finale truly embodies the “Sturm und Drang” aesthetic, ending the piece in powerful, albeit tragic, fashion.

French composer Gérard Grisey passed away in 1998 at age 52 from an aneurysm, leaving behind a compact but compelling body of work that helped to define the spectral approach to composition. His last completed piece was Quatre Chants pour Franchir les Soueil (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold”), premiered posthumously in 1999. In recent years Hannigan has championed Quatre Chants, notably performing it with Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Susanna Mälkki and Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. On La Passione, she undertakes the daunting task of both singing and conducting the piece. Of the recorded performance with Ludwig Orchestra, Hannigan has remarked, “It took us to our limits.”

A variety of texts are used: Guez-Ricord’s The Hours of Night, Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, a fragment from sixth century Greek poetess Erinna, and an extract from the Babyloninan Epic of Gilgamesh (courtesy Tim Rutherford-Johnson).  Overtone chords and micro-tunings abound. The instrumentation is distinctive, particularly the percussion cohort that includes fifteen tuned gongs that are played in quick arpeggiations at a low dynamic level, an impressive feat and singular sound. The bass drum has an evocative role as well, serving to toll a memento mori that divides the piece’s several sections. In the first song, “Death of the Angel”, is one of the piece’s signatures, bracing unison lines between soprano and trumpet that shatter an otherwise merely ominous atmosphere. A variety of wind instruments are employed throughout, including saxophones. Hannigan’s singing seamlessly intermingles with the various instruments, moving from sinuous angular lines to altissimo shrieks with myriad gestures in between. After the four songs is a postlude, “Berceuse,” haunting in its comparative reserve with a number of duets between Hannigan and various instruments in floating vocal lines.

An ambitious program with a “can’t miss” piece (the Grisey) and all of it exquisitely executed: recommended.

-Composer Christian Carey is Associate Professor at Westminster Choir College, Editor at Sequenza 21, and regularly contributes to Tempo, Musical America, and other publications. He has created eighty some compositions for orchestra, choir, solo voices, and chamber musicians. His electronic score for Gilgamesh Variations was produced at Bushwick Starr Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.

Brabant Sings Hellinck and Lupi (CD Review)

Lupus Hellinck – Missa Surrexit pastor bonus

Johannes Lupi – Motets

The Brabant Ensemble; Stephen Rice, conductor

Hyperion CD A68304

Lupus Hellinck (1493-1541)  isn’t a household name among mid-Renaissance composers. Based on a new recording of his Missa Surrexit pastor bonus, Hellinck’s work deserves wider currency. Despite having several pieces attributed to him that were actually by more prominent composers (Gombert and Verdelot among them), Johannes Lupi (1506?-1539) has also flown under the radar of many listeners. This excellent compact disc recording by the Brabant Ensemble should do good service in restoring both of them to rightful places of greater prominence. 

Hellinck’s mass juxtaposes imitative lines within tautly constructed movements  – the Agnus Dei, for instance, only has two rather than three sections. The Brabant Ensemble has a well-blended sound, its intonation precise. The counterpoint is well-delineated, especially in the Agnus Dei, where canonic entries proliferate until a luminous cadential close. Particularly lovely are the “Domine Deus,” “Et Resurrexit,” and  “Benedictus” sections, in which duets and trios are employed to good effect. 

Lupi uses a number of motives in each section of a piece that accumulate into large-scale motets.  The ensemble also displays a more daring approach to musica ficta (chromatic accidentals) in the Lupi motets, creating some delightful crunch chords as a result. Several prolonged cadences give the opportunity to play with tempo and dynamics, the Brabant ensemble alternating nimble and expansive approaches, usually to better express the text. The most extensive and impressive of the Lupi pieces is a polyphonic setting of the Te Deum, one of only about sixteen extant examples from the sixteenth century (several of which were alternatim settings). By comparison, there are over a hundred extant Magnificat settings from this time period. Lupi’s penchant for “black notes” often presents quicksilver passages of corruscating counterpoint. Part of the plainchant appears at various points in the piece, including transposed and inverted statements that accumulate into swaths of imitation. Duple and triple meter are also used to delineate sections of the work, with a fast triple meter section concluding the proceedings with a rousing cadential elaboration. 

The Brabant Ensemble sings this music persuasively enough that it stands up besides better known counterparts in the era of its composition, such as Clemens and Gombert. One hopes a second disc of the composers’ works might be in the offing. 

Adés Conducts Adés (CD Review)

Adés Conducts Adés

Kirill Gerstein, piano; Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano; Mark Stone, baritone; 

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adés, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon CD/DL 4837998

Thomas Adés is in his third year as Artistic Partner of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It has been an extraordinarily fruitful pairing. Adés has performed with the ensemble as a conductor and pianist, contributed new pieces to its repertory, and curated events such as the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. In the midst of this plethora of activities, the March 2019 premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was a highlight. Both the performance of the BSO under Adés’s direction and the brilliant playing of the work’s soloist, Kirill Gerstein, were widely acclaimed. The DG recording of its premiere confirms the buzz — the concerto is indeed a formidable work and the performance is radiant.

Cast in the traditional three movement structure (fast-slow-fast), the concerto demonstrates Adés’s encyclopedic familiarity with composers of the past, including hat-tips to Prokofiev, Ravel, Liszt, and Stravinsky. Despite revelling in touchstones of eras past, Adés ultimately distills them into a glinting, sharply contoured language with a distinctive character all its own. The first movement contrasts extensive glissandos with clock-like ostinatos. Sustained chorales create an aura of poignancy in the middle movement. The finale juxtaposes upward and downward scalar passages that provide a tilt-a-whirl of intensifying momentum that ends the piece aloft – and on a brilliantly orchestrated major triad to boot. 

In these times of pandemic and social distancing, Adés Totentanz (2013) is a particularly sobering piece. It is based upon the text of a fifteenth century frieze, which depicts all walks of life, from the Pope to an infant, being invited to dance with the Grim Reaper. Baritone Mark Stone embodies Death with a muscular and menacing delivery. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sings the parts of the various people attempting to elude his grasp as heartfelt laments. Adés creates a searing score that allows space for declamation while interpolating ominous interludes, often supplying aggressively syncopated ostinatos that suggest the inexorable dance. Bracing listening, but engaging throughout. Recommended.

Michael Harley – Come Closer (CD Review)

Come Closer

Michael Harley, bassoon

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.

Recordings of the Year

Recording of the Year: Terry Riley, Sun Rings, Kronos Quartet, Volti (Nonesuch)

            Terry Riley’s 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)
  • Matana Roberts, COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)
  • Heinz Holliger and György Kurtág, Zwiegespräche (ECM)
  • Andrew Norman, Sustain, Los Angeles Philharmonic – Gustavo Dudamel (Deutsche Grammophon)
  • Bonnie Prince Billy, I Made a Place (Drag City)
  • Igor Levit, Beethoven Piano Sonatas (Sony Classical)
  • Thomas Zehetmair, Sei Solo – The Sonatas and Partitas (ECM)
  • John Luther Adams, Become Desert, Seattle Symphony – Ludovic Morlot (Cantaloupe)
  • Philip Glass, Symphony 5, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Downtown Voices, Trinity Youth Chorus, Novus NY – Julian Wachner (Orange Mountain)
  • Cipriano de Rore, I madrigali a cinque voci, Blue Heron – Scott Metcalfe (Blue Heron)
  • Johannes Ockeghem, Complete Songs, Volume 1, Blue Heron – Scott Metcalfe (Blue Heron)
  • Six Organs of Admittance, Companion Rises (Drag City)
  • Dominique Schafer, Vers une présence réelle (Kairos)
  • Leo Svirsky, River Without Banks (Unseen Worlds)
  • Christian Wolff, Preludes, Studies, Variations, and Incidental Music, Philip Thomas (Sub Rosa)
  • Caroline Shaw, Orange (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch)
  • andPlay, Playlist (New Focus)
  • Jan Garbarek and Hilliard Ensemble, Remember Me, My Dear (ECM)
  • Lucas Debargue, Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Classical)
  • Cassandra Miller, Songs About Singing, Plus-Minus Ensemble (All That Dust)
  • Sarah Hennies, Reservoir 1 (Black Truffle)
  • Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones)
  • Sergei Rachmaninov, Arrival, Daniil Trifonov, Philadelphia Orchestra – Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Deutsche Grammophon)
  • Kali Malone, The Sacrificial Code (iDeal)
  • Stile Antico, A Spanish Nativity (Harmonia Mundi)
  • David Torn, Tim Berne, Ches Smith, Sun of Goldfinger (ECM)
  • Ka Baird, Respires (RVNG)
  • David Byrne, American Utopia (Nonesuch)
  • Þuríður Jónsdóttir, Halldór Smárason, Páll Ragnar Pálsson, and Hafliði Hallgrímsson, Vernacular, Sæun Thorsteinsdóttir (Sono Luminus)
  • Matt Mitchell, Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi)
  • Julian Anderson, Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)
  • 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)
  • Saariaho, Schleirmacher, Werthmüller, Sturm, Ensemble Musikfabrik (Wergo)
  • Josquin and Bauldeweyn, Missa Mater Patris, Missa Da Pacem, Tallis Scholars (Gimell)
  • Antoine Beuger, Traces of Eternity: Of What is Yet to Be (Editions Wandelweiser)
  • Richard Barrett, Timothy McCormack, Liza Lim, World-line, ELISION (Huddersfield NMC)
  • George Perle, Serenades (BMOP)
  • György Kurtág, The Edge of Silence, Susan Narucki (Avie)
  • American Football, American Football LP3 (Polyvinyl)
  • Julia Kent, Temporal (Leaf)
  • The Comet is Coming, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse)
  • Pan American, A Son (Kranky)
  • William Basinski, On Time Out of Time (Temporary Residence)
  • Shasta Cults, S/T (Important)
  • Harry Partch, Sonata Dementia, PARTCH (Bridge)
  • Robert Erikson, Duos, Fives, Quintet, Trio, Camera Lucida (New World)
  • James Tenney, Changes 64 Studies for 6 Harps (New World)

Stile Antico’s Spanish Nativity (CD Review)

A Spanish Nativity

Stile Antico

Harmonia Mundi 902312

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.

-Christian Carey

Vienna Boys Choir at Carnegie Hall

Photo: Lukas Beck.

Vienna Boys Choir

Carnegie Hall

December 8, 2019

By Christian Carey

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 others were 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.

-Christian Carey