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.

An Evening with Simone Dinnerstein (Concert review)

Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Simone Dinnerstein in Recital

Miller Theatre – Columbia University

December 8, 2018

Published on Sequenza21.com

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – On Saturday, December 8th, pianist Simone Dinnerstein made a return appearance to Miller Theatre to perform an intriguing and eclectic solo recital. The stage was set with subdued lighting, with electric “candles” placed throughout and, over the course of the evening, small shifts of color. Ms. Dinnerstein, dressed in elegant, flowing attire, created an atmosphere through her performance demeanor as well. The recital was announced with no intermission and the pianist paused from playing only once, midway through, to acknowledge applause and take a brief break. However, by otherwise starting each piece immediately after the final notes of the one it preceded, she communicated clearly that this was not to be an event in which musical continuity would be broken by applause between numbers. Thankfully the audience complied, mutually agreeing to allow the atmosphere to envelop them too.

Dinnerstein played two pieces by the Eighteenth century harpsichord composer Francois Couperin, one at the beginning and another right before the break. This is the first time she has programmed the composer. Her approach to Les Barriades mystérieueses was sonorous, eschewing ornamentation in favor of unadorned, shapely melodies. Like the Goldberg Variations, the second piece required interlacing the hands to play everything on the piano keyboard that would have required two manuals on the harpsichord. Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Mallotins featured motoric clockwork and brisk filigrees that were an excellent foil for the Philip Glass work that immediately preceded it.

Mad Rush (1979), one of Glass’s best known piano pieces, was first composed for the organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the composer performed it for an appearance by the Dalai Lama. Arranged for piano, the piece is forceful and filled with contrasts. Its delicate passages were played with a spacious sense of breath by Dinnerstein, while the more emphatic central section in piece’s the repeating loop was performed powerfully with fleet-fingered accuracy. Last year, Dinnerstein’s account of Glass’s Third Piano Concerto was impressive; here, she made a further case for a place in the pantheon of Glass pianists. Contrast played a large role in Dinnerstein’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s Arabesque. Once again, she emphasized the breath between phrases, allowing the audience a sense of deft transition between the various emotive sections as they unspun.

Erik Satie’s Gnossiene No. 3 received the mysterious performance its ambiguous markings and lack of bar-lines evokes. One part cafe music and another modal Impressionist excursion, the piece was rendered with an evasive, lilting quality.

The pianist, in general, avoids overt and flashy displays of hyper-virtuosity, preferring instead to pick distinct places in which she allows her playing to be unrestrained. Dinnerstein’s performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana provided several excellent opportunities for effusive virtuosity, and they seemed all the more special for the way that the pianist set them in relief against the more contemplative portions of the work. Fleet arpeggiations flew and the fugal passage in the final movement was a brisk cannonade.

Dinnerstein’s aforementioned penchant for allowing the music to breathe, as well as the atmosphere she created for her performance, encouraged a normally bustling New York audience to truly slow down and breathe themselves: a welcome respite during the busy holiday season. When the encore she favored them with was not some barnstormer but instead a reprise of Les Barriades, allowing the program to come full circle, it seemed entirely appropriate.

Low – “Rome (Always in the Dark)” (Video)

 

This week, Low released a video for “Rome, Always in the Dark,” one of the tracks off of their new Sub Pop recording Double Negative (released yesterday).

On Double Negative, Low, probably best known for its work as one of the premier slowcore bands, moves their music closer to an aesthetic involving deconstruction and electroacoustic elements. One saw glimmers of this approach on their previous album, Ones and Sixes (2015), but now the band approaches distressing and reconstituting recorded material, including warped cassette tapes, full on and with aplomb. It is a fascinating new layer that complements, rather than replaces, the duet vocals of group founders Alan and Mimi Sparhawk and the group as a whole’s knack for finding fetching melodies and fashioning memorable instrumental arrangements. Double Negative is one of the freshest-sound and best executed recordings to see release this Fall. For a band in its third decade together, this vitality is all the more remarkable.

 

The band is touring in support of Double Negative (see dates below)

2018 Tour Dates
Sep. 19 – New York, NY – National Sawdust
Sep. 20 – New York, NY – National Sawdust
Sep. 21 – New York, NY – National Sawdust
Sep. 29 – Lisbon, PT – Lisboa ao Vivo
Oct. 01 – De Compostela Santiago, ES – Sala Capitol
Oct. 02 – Madrid, ES – Sala But
Oct. 03 – Barcelona, ES – Fabra i Coats
Oct. 05 – Milan, IT – Teatro Dal Verme
Oct. 06 – Zurich, CH – Bogen F
Oct. 08 – Leipzig, DE – UT Connewitz
Oct. 09 – Berlin, DE – Festsaal Kreuzberg
Oct. 10- Bochum, DE – Christuskirche Bochum
Oct. 11 –  Brussels, BE –  Orangerie (at Botanique)
Oct. 12 – Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso
Oct. 13 – Paris, FR – La Gaîté Lyrique
Oct. 15 – Bristol, UK – Trinity
Oct. 16 – Manchester, UK – Manchester Cathedral
Oct. 17 – Dublin, IE – Vicar Street
Nov. 02 – St. Paul, MN – The Fitz
Nov. 05 – Detroit, MI – El Club
Nov. 06 – Toronto, ON – Great Hall
Nov. 08 – Montreal, QC – La Sala Rosa
Nov. 09 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
Nov. 10 – Philadelphia, PA – Underground Arts
Nov. 12 – Washington, DC U Street Music Hall
Nov. 13 – Pittsburgh, PA – The Funhouse
Nov. 14 – Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop
Nov. 15 – Grand Rapids, MI – Pyramid Scheme
Nov. 16 – Chicago, IL – Rockefeller Chapel
Nov. 17 – Madison, WI – High Noon Saloon

2019 Tour Dates
Jan. 29 – Glasgow, UK – Tramway
Jan. 30 – Birmingham, UK – Birmingham Town Hall
Jan. 31 – Brighton, UK – St. George’s Church Brighton
Feb. 01 – London, UK – Barbican
Feb. 02 – Kortrijk, BE – De Kreun
Feb. 04 – Groningen, NL – Vera
Feb. 05 – Erlangen, DE – E-Werk (Erlangen)
Feb. 06 – Cologne, DE – Kulturkirche Köln
Feb. 07 – Frankfurt, DE – Sankt Peter
Feb. 08 – Hamburg, DE – Uebel & Gefährlich
Feb. 09 – Aarhus, DK – Voxhall
Feb. 11 – København, DK – The Koncerthuset – Studie 2
Feb. 12 – Gothenburg, SE – Pustervik
Feb. 13 – Oslo – Norway – Parkteatret
Feb. 14 – Stockholm, SE – Kagelbanan (Small Room)
Mar. 08 – Denver, CO – Globe Hall
Mar. 09 – Santa Fe, NM – Meow Wolf
Mar. 11 –  Phoenix, AZ – Valley Bar
Mar. 12 – Tustin, CA – Marty’s On Newport
Mar. 13 – Tijuana, MX – Moustache
Mar. 15 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room
Mar. 16 – San Francisco, CA – Great American Music Hall
Mar. 18 – Portland, OR – Star Theater
Mar. 19 – Vancouver, BC – Imperial
Mar. 20 – Seattle, WA – Neumos
Mar. 23 – Provo, UT –  Velour Live Music Gallery

James Romig – Still (CD Review)

James Romig

Still

Ashlee Mack, piano

New World Records 80802

Composer James Romig has spent the past twenty years cultivating a body of work that embodies both rigorous structuring and a wide-ranging gestural palette. As is explained in Bruce Quaglia’s excellent liner notes for Romig’s first New World CD, Still, there is good reason for these two aspects to be so important to Romig. His training as a composer was with American modernists Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, while his background as a performer – a percussionist – included a number of works by minimalists such as Steve Reich.

Extra-musical touchstones also play a significant role as inspirations for the composer. A series of National Park residencies has provided him with natural beauty to contemplate while composing. Abstract Expressionist painters such as Clyfford Still, who is the titular reference point for Romig’s piece on this CD, also enliven his imagination.

Nowhere in Romig’s output to date is this confluence of influences more apparent than in Still, a nearly hour-long piece for solo piano. One can see the pitch material’s progression in a chart in the liner notes and note the comprehensiveness of its organization. Unlike Romig’s portrait disc Leaves from Modern Trees, where the pieces tend towards tautly incisive utterance, here the progression of pitch material evolves slowly in a prevailingly soft dynamic spectrum. Ashlee Mack, a frequent performer of Romig’s music, provides a sterling interpretation. Slow tempi are maintained no matter what local rhythms (some complex) ripple the surface texture. In addition, Mack voices the harmony skilfully, allowing the piece-long progression to be presented with abundant clarity.

One more composerly ghost lurks in the room: that of Morton Feldman. Also an appreciator of Abstract Expressionism, who created long single movement pieces that transformed slowly and remained primarily soft, Feldman could seem to be Still’s natural progenitor. While surface details and scale of composition are similar, there is a significant musical difference between Feldman’s paean to a painter like Philip Guston and Romig’s reference to Clyfford Still. As pointed out by theorists such as Thomas DeLio, the undergirding of a Feldman piece is indeed subject to an organizational structure. That said, his work seems more intuitive than Romig’s, which is methodical in the unfurling of its linear components and their constituent harmonies. Whether Feldman’s surface in any way inspires the depths of Still, I am not sure; it would be an interesting question to pose to Romig. Either way, Still is his most engaging and beguiling piece to date. One looks forward to hearing more works that accumulate Romig’s proclivity for parks, painters, maximalists, and minimalists; these many ingredients make for intriguing results.

Tangents – New Bodies (CD Review)

Tangents - New Bodies - cover scan

Tangents
New Bodies
Temporary Residence Ltd.

Australian instrumental quintet Tangents return with their fourth album via Temporary Residence. It is their finest work in some time, with an even broader palette of materials and stylistic reference points that are adroitly incorporated. The combination of cello, especially favoring pizzicato, and synth melodies remains, but along for the ride are prepared piano sounds, angular bass interjections, and skittering beats. Electric guitar textures and and undulating patterning are propelled by muscular acoustic drums.

Indebted to post-rock, jazz, alt-electronica, and a dose of contemporary classical sounds, it transcends these various categorizations and their carbon dating to create music that is entirely fresh and of the moment. Recommended.

Da Capo Players at Merkin (Concert Review)

Da Capo Chamber Players Perform a Potpourri of American Works

 

Da Capo Chamber Players

Da Capo Chamber Players

Merkin Concert Hall

June 4, 2018

 

NEW YORK – Themed programs and portrait concerts are all the rage these days. As such, it is refreshing when an ensemble goes eclectic, presenting a diverse array of music. Such was the case on Monday, June 4th, when Da Capo Chamber Players performed eight pieces by living American composers who write in a plethora of styles. Consisting of violinist Curtis Macomber, cellist Chris Gross, flutist Patricia Spencer, pianist Steven Beck and joined by guest artists soprano Lucy Shelton, clarinetists Marianne Glythfeldt and Carlos Cordeiro, and percussionist Michael Lipsey, the musicians are a formidable cadre of some of New York’s best new music performers. This was handily demonstrated in all of the works on offer at Merkin — how often can you depend on that level of consistency?

 

Few groups perform the rhythmic patternings of minimalism more assuredly than the Da Capo Players. Here they clearly delineated the differences between various types of ostinatos. Sweet air (1999) by David Lang juxtaposed its repetitions with distressed dissonances, In the sole premiere on the program, Dylan Mattingly’s Ecstasy #3 (2018) presented passages filled with an alt-folk-inflected melody. An arrangement by Robert Moran of Philip Glass’s Modern Love Waltz (1980) may have explored repetition in the most straightforward way of the pieces here, but its fluid playfulness made it a fetching addition to the proceedings.

 

The modernist wing of composition was represented too. Elliott Carter’s Canon for Four (1984) received an incisive rendition, with the contrapuntal details of the work vividly underscored. Tanoa León’s One Mo’ Time (2016) mixed a varied palette of chromaticism with inflections of gospel and jazz. She is one of the best at allowing these two traditions to coexist in her music in organic fashion. Christopher Cerrone supplied one of the evening’s most imaginative works. Hoyt=Schermerhorn for keyboard mixed a gradual build-up of soft textures that was somewhat indebted to the works of Feldman but through quicker changes of harmony. Over time, effects such as reverb and treble register loops brought the piece from its eighties origins into the twenty-first century. Amalgam (2015) by Taylor Brook, was the concert’s most experimental piece, with the players (and soprano Lucy Shelton) moving from disparate roles to unison playing, then heterophonic treatment of the piece’s melody. Amalgam is a fascinating composition that certainly proved to be a successful experiment for Da Capo.

 

The concert’s standout was Romancero (1983), for soprano and ensemble, settings of four medieval poems thought to be from the Sephardic Jewish tradition by Mario Davidovsky. Shelton was as expressive as ever and well-matched for the angular challenges posed by Romancero’s post-tonal pitch vocabulary. Her voice ranged from delicately floating pianissimo passages to forceful forte declamations. The instrumental parts are quite demanding as well, reminiscent of the complexly articulate language of Davidovsky’s electroacoustic Synchronisms. Shelton is a frequent collaborator with Da Capo (see a recent video of their rendition of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire below), and their association showed in the intricate interplay between voice and instruments: a gem of a performance.

 

As if to remind us of the celebratory catholicity of taste that bound together the disparate strands of this program, its finale was the brief, yet brilliantly multi-faceted, Encore (1991) by Bruce Adolphe. Composed to celebrate the Da Capo Players’ twentieth anniversary, it has remained a staple of their repertoire. It is hard to believe that the group has now been going for 48 years. Based on the vigor with which they performed at Merkin Hall, the sky’s the limit for their upcoming golden anniversary season.



 

 

Danish String Quartet – Last Leaf

Danish String Quartet - Last Leaf

Last Leaf

Danish String Quartet

ECM Records CD

 

The Danish String Quartet is best known for their insightful interpretations of classical and contemporary repertoire. For instance, a 2016 CD for ECM Records presented early works by Ades, Norgard, and Abrahamsen to widespread acclaim. However, back in 2014, the quartet had a best seller on Da Capo, Wood Works, that consisted of arrangements by its members of Scandinavian folk tunes. In 2017 they released Last Leaf, another album of these arrangements and original compositions for ECM.

 

Last Leaf is in many ways even more successful than Wood Works. The arrangements by the Danish String Quartet’s various members are more sure-footed and varied in ensemble deployments. ECM’s sonics are, as usual, top notch, and the space chosen for the recording, a Danish museum, provides exemplary chamber acoustics. In addition, the group has combined classical and folk dances in adroit ways in several places. One of the most fetching and memorable of these is “Nadja’s Waltz” by cellist  Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin. Another is “Shine No More,” a reel-like tune by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. “Polska from Dorotea,” an arrangement by the full quartet is a wonderful blend of contrapuntal writing and boisterous dance music. Sumptuous sonorities populate the ballad-like “Now Found is the Forest of Roses,” a poignant album closer.

 

Often, string quartets rely on their creativity to provide impetus for interpretation. It is gratifying hear a group that is as interested in the acts of creating arrangements and compositions as it is in providing stalwart renditions of preexisting music. Recommended.

 

-Christian Carey