Best of 2018: Holiday CD and Opera Recording

Best of 2018: Holiday CD, Opera Recording

Best Holiday CD

Nine Lessons and Carols: 100 Years

King’s College Choir, Stephen Cleobury, Director

Choir of King’s College label

 

2018 is the hundredth anniversary of Lessons and Carols at King’s College (and ninetieth year of radio broadcasts of the event). In order to celebrate, the Choir of King’s College has released a two-CD set of some of their most famous offerings from broadcasts over the years, as well as new music commissioned for the occasion. The release also celebrates Director Stephen Cleobury, who will be stepping down after an illustrious tenure with the group. Through the years, King’s consistent, extraordinarily high level of singing is truly dazzling.

Best Opera

Dr. Atomic

John Adams

Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock; BBC Orchestra, BBC Singers, John Adams, conductor

Nonesuch

 

The Nonesuch recording of Dr. Atomic, an opera about the atomic bomb test at Los Alamos, is the first audio release of this 2005 collaboration between composer John Adams and director/librettist Peter Sellars. The text is assembled from letters, declassified documents, and poetry (the first test’s site was named Trinity by Robert Oppenheimer, after a John Donne poem). An integral component of the love scene between the Oppenheimers (played by Gerald Finley and Julia Bullock)  is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. An island of respite in the midst of the intensity of the test countdown, it is some of the most affecting music written by Adams. Elsewhere, the orchestra and singers are given plenty of opportunities for fiery declamation. The large ensembles work on many levels, expounding the famously divergent historical viewpoints surrounding the test, ratcheting up the intensity until the inevitable big boom. Adams conducts a powerful performance of his most visceral work.

 

Tallis Scholars Premiere Nico Muhly in Midtown

Tallis Scholars: A Renaissance Christmas

Tallis Scholars. Photo: Nick Rutter.

Miller Theatre Early Music Series

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

December 1, 2018

Published on Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, made their annual appearance in New York as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown. The program was billed as a dual celebration — the 45th anniversary of the Tallis Scholars and Miller Theatre’s 30th anniversary season.

In honor of the occasion, Miller Theatre commissioned a new piece for the Tallis Scholars by composer Nico Muhly. Muhly has, of late, garnered a great deal of attention for two Metropolitan Opera commissions  — Two Boys and Marnie — but he often talks about his first love being choral music (he began his musical career as a chorister). Muhly’s choral works are exquisitely crafted and texturally luminous. Rough Notes (2018), his new piece for the concert at St. Mary’s, took its texts from two diary entries by Robert Falcon Scott, written near the end of his ill-fated voyage to Antarctica. The first excerpt describes the aurora australis, providing words such as “arches, bands, and curtains”  that are ripe for colorful musical setting. The second was Scott’s stoic expression of confidence in his team’s ability to accept their impending deaths with dignity. Muhly’s use of lush cluster chords in the first section gave way to more sharply etched, but still glinting, harmonies in the second, as well as poignantly arcing melodies. The divided choir of ten voices was skilfully overlapped to sound like many times that number. It is always fascinating to hear the Tallis Scholars switch centuries, and thus style, to perform contemporary repertoire; for instance, their CD of Arvo Pärt’s music is a treasure. One hopes that they might collaborate on a recording with Muhly in the future.

The rest of the program was of considerably earlier music, but ranged widely in chronology. The earliest piece was an elegant and under-heralded Magnificat setting by John Nesbett from the late Fifteenth century that is found in the Eton Choirbook. Chant passages give way to various fragments of the ensemble that pit low register vs. high for much of the piece. It culminates by finally bringing all the voices together in a rousing climax. The Tallis Scholars has, of yet, not recorded Nesbett, but Peter Phillips has committed the Magnificat to disc in an inspired performance with the Choir of Merton College, Oxford (The Marian Collection, Delphian, 2014).  

Palestrina’s motet Hodie Christus natus est, and the eponymous parody mass which uses this as its source material, were the centerpiece of the concert. The motet was performed jubilantly and with abundant clarity. The mass is one of Palestrina’s finest. He took the natural zest of its source material, added plenty of contrapuntal elaborations, and made subtle shifts to supply a thoughtful rendition of the text. Although we are, in terms of the liturgical calendar, in the midst of the reflective period of Advent, being propelled forward to the midst of some of the most ebullient yet substantial Christmas music of the Renaissance was a welcome inauguration of the season.

The two works that concluded the concert dealt with different aspects of the Christmas story. William Byrd’s Lullaby is actually quite an unsettling piece; its text deals with the Slaughter of the Innocents as ordered by Herod. One is left to imagine the infant Jesus being consoled by Mary and Joseph in the midst of their flight from persecution. Byrd composed it in the Sixteenth century (it was published in 1588), but Lullaby was the piece on the concert most tailored to this moment, evoking concerns of our time: the plight of refugees, the slaughter of innocent bystanders by acts of senseless aggression: particularly the vulnerability of children to indiscriminate bombing abroad and the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.

The last piece returned to a festive spirit and brought the Tallis Scholars to the cusp of the Baroque with Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat V with interpolations of two carols: Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo. During the Christmas season, interspersing carols and sections of the Magnificat was a standard practice in Baroque-era Lutheran churches; J.S. Bach might even have done so in the services he led at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Praetorius plus two carols gave the Tallis Scholars an opportunity to share three of their most-performed Christmas pieces. From seemingly effortless floating high notes to sonorous bass singing, with tons of deftly rendered imitative passages in the inner voices, the group made a glorious sound. One eagerly awaits their return to New York during their 46th season.

Best of 2018: Best Violin Concerto

Best of 2018 – Best Violin Concerto

Michael Hersch

end stages, Violin Concerto

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin,

International Contemporary Ensemble, Tito Muñoz, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

New Focus Recordings fcr208

Composer Michael Hersch consistently writes music with emotional immediacy that explores aching vulnerability with consummate eloquence. His Violin Concerto is like a wound still raw. Soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja ramps up the intensity, as does ICE, conducted here by Tino Muñoz, rendering the work’s first and third movements with bracing strength and its second with fragile uneasiness. This emotion returns, amplified by high-lying solos and echoing attacks from the ensemble, to provide a tensely wrought close to the piece.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is renown for their conductor-less approach to chamber orchestra works. Still, the coordination and balance they exhibit on Hersch’s end stages deserves particular praise. Glacial slabs of dissonant harmonies give way to howling French horn and a buildup of contrapuntal intensity. This is succeeded by a tragically mournful tune accompanied by a bee’s nest of clusters and sliced string-led attacks. Taut wind dissonances then punctuate an angular, rambling string melody, succeeded once again by nervous pile-ups of angular crescendos. The seventh movement is buoyed by heraldic trumpet and vigorous repeated string chords, while the finale returns to a colorful, harmonically ambiguous ambience. The piece is Hersch at his most Bergian, bringing together artful organization and visceral emotion. Recommended.

Michael Hersch – end stages and Violin Concerto

George Perle Orchestral Music (CD Review)

George Perle

Orchestral Music 1965-1987

Jay Campbell, cello

Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

George Perle Vol. 4, Bridge Records 9499

 

A recording of five previously unrecorded pieces, Orchestral Music 1965-1987 supplies excellent renditions of an underserved segment of composer George Perle’s output. Best known for his chamber music – he received a Pulitzer for his Wind Quintet No. 4 – Perle (1915-2009) also had significant orchestra commissions, including a residency with San Francisco Symphony and a 150th anniversary commission from the New York Philharmonic. Those who know his work as a music theorist will also be aware of his significant contribution to the field of 12-tone theory, as well as publications on his own idiosyncratic compositional method, “12-tone tonality.” The latter practice, with its use of carefully cultivated chromatic collections that obliquely refer to pitch centers, is fully on display in lithe and elegantly proportioned works such as Dance Fantasy (1986) and Sinfonietta 1 (1987). A bit more astringent in harmonic language are Six Bagatelles (1965), which seem indebted to Alban Berg, a touchstone figure for Perle, in their use of forceful angularity.

 

An intriguing entry on the disc is Short Symphony, 1980, which seems to be something of a response to Copland’s own, early and modernist in design, work by that name. The contrapuntal nature of its woodwind components recall some of Perle’s best chamber music. Elsewhere the orchestration is more muscular, with heraldic brass and rich passages for strings. Short Symphony display the composer’s consummate craftsmanship.

 

The standout piece on the disc is the Cello Concerto (1966), played with suppleness and impressive virtuosity by soloist Jay Campbell (also of JACK Quartet). The Seattle Symphony, under the estimable leadership of Ludovic Morlot, plays with both verve and precision. The finale is particularly varied in its demeanor, contrasting fluid cello solos with complex chords and supple wind duos, and forceful brass punctuations. It neatly resolves the well-known issue of balance in a cello concerto by bridging solos, small sections in counterpoint, and full orchestral interruptions to create a form where cello and ensemble eloquently coexist. One could readily see this piece having a substantial rebirth, particularly if Campbell continues to serve as its persuasive champion.

Best Recording 2017 – Tyshawn Sorey’s Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey, drums, percussion, composer; Cory Smythe, piano, toy piano, electronics; Chris Tordini, bass

Pi Records PI70

Tyshawn Sorey has had quite a year of musical accomplishments. After recently finishing up his doctorate at Columbia, he succeeded Anthony Braxton on the faculty at Wesleyan University, won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and received several other major awards and commissions. He has remained active in a number of ensembles, playing a pivotal role on another of this year’s best CDs, Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over (ECM). Verisimilitude, for Pi Recordings, is his sixth recorded outing as leader. Sorey is joined by pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini in five adventurous and stimulating compositions.

 

A suitable overture, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” is buoyed by interlocking arpeggios from pizzicato bass and piano and punctuated by supply drummed polyrhythms. Clocking in at four and a half minutes, it is the only relative miniature here. Thereafter, Sorey and his colleagues explore long form music-making. An arco bass solo leads off “Flowers for Prashant,” which then turns into a dovetailing duet. A gradual intensification led by this duet texture takes place, only to hew back to drone-based passages of repeated notes.

 

Smythe uses electronics and Tordini high-pitched arco lines to begin “Obsidian.” After an extended introduction exploring these timbres, Tordini plays lower pitched glissandos and Smythe sepulcral bass note stabs. Sorey enters with textural percussion: a gong, a host of woody fills, and shimmering cymbals. A fulsome groove is established; Tordini returns to pizzicato bass, Smythe repeats bass register chords, and Sorey deploys a cannonade at the kit. Eventually, pointillism is reasserted with upper register piano chords and throbbing bass notes; Sorey moves back to cymbals and auxiliary percussion instruments. Smythe’s basso reiterations lead to a coda based on the second section. Then there is a gradual denouement, punctuated by long gong strokes and slithering bass register glissandos.

 

“Algid November” is the half-hour long centerpiece of Verisimilitude and is Sorey’s most ambitious piece for trio yet. Once again, the emphasis is on gradually morphing from one set of textures and playing demeanors to the next. The musical fabric consists at first of a prevailingly soft dynamic and slow tempo, one undergirded with big beats (never amorphous) that contains numerous angular feints and jabs from all three players. Sorey is a master at contrasting the resounding of instruments such as gongs and cymbals with the faster decay of drums and small percussion instruments; all interactions and decays are timed with precision. After a long period in which these juxtapositions are the focal point, Sorey performs at the drum kit with zeal, while Smythe and Tordini operate in a dissonant language of jagged filigrees.

 

A little less than halfway through, the piece moves from post-tonality to post-bop, with cascading arpeggiations from Smythe and walking lines from Tordini locked in a tight groove that Sorey simultaneously supports and overlays with contrasting elements. Just when one feels their toes tapping, the trio moves sideways in lockstep, back to the big beats of the opener but with a fuller overall texture. Rearticulated verticals, first low and then high, signal yet another change in direction. Smythe’s repeated notes pile up in an ostinato haze and Tordini grooves in still another timeframe while Sorey engages in lithe ornamentation. Two thirds of the way through the piece, a visceral build up leads to a huge crash of cymbals.

 

Afterwards, the musicians resume the slow tempo and fragile soundscape that began “Algid November.” Pitched percussion, quickly plucked bass melodies, and chiming piano lines give way to rattling reiterations from Sorey and Smythe. It is as if the big crash that signalled the piece’s climax is being allowed successive echos. Interpolations of the swing section, in tiny slices that last merely a breath or two, are juxtaposed with barbed jabs and intricately constructed rhythmic passages. Another gale storm threatens, then is subdued, devolving into muted piano notes and quietly reverberant gong rolls.

 

The final work on the CD, “Contemplating Tranquility,” opens with the same muted material that closed “Algid November.” Gongs and temple bells gradually coalesce into  a new, still slow, pulse stream of pitched percussion, toy piano ,and then grand piano. Glassy piano harmonies are pitted against reiterated soundings of the gong. Smythe gradually adds arpeggios in the low register to replicate the lowest sounding frequencies of the gong. Filling in the registers, Sorey suddenly switches roles, adding trebly unpitched percussion to the proceedings where there had been piano. Toy piano and pitched percussion engage in a duet that is joined by a low rumbling and then sustained upper register arco lines and a generous dose of harmonics from Tordini. Smythe begins to build verticals in a more harmonically conceived direction, buoyed by more consonance — even an octave here and there — from the bass player. As things converge around the low E string of the bass, Tordini then has some fun of his own, throwing in notes that rend the heretofore harmonically grounded passage asunder. While Sorey weaves sustained cymbal passages, pianist and bassist create a duet that ebbs and flows in an ever narrowing dynamic spectrum. Temple bells suggests a possible return to the more contemplative demeanor of the opening. Instead, it is a signal that the meditation is over. Thus ends Sorey’s Verisimilitude, Sequenza 21’s Best Recording of 2017.

 

Best Orchestra Portrait CD: BMOP Plays Peterson

 

Wayne Peterson

Transformations

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor; PRISM Quartet

BMOP/sound 1053

 

Composer Wayne Peterson (b. 1927) served as one of his generation’s fixtures on the West Coast music scene where, in addition to several other academic appointments, he elevated the composition program at San Francisco State to prominence. Despite fine recordings of his chamber music, this is his first portrait disc of orchestral music. 2017 has been a year where Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under the inspired direction of Gil Rose, has released a number of fine recordings, including CDs of works by Paul Moravec, David Del Tredici, Stephen Hartke, and Jeremy Gill (more about these in a forthcoming article). All are worthy of recommendation, but it is the Peterson disc that sticks out for me, both in terms of filling in a gap in late Twentieth century repertoire, and in the considerable durability of the works it contains.

 

Transformations (1985), which resembles a concerto for orchestra, is a marvelous display of timbre, with recurring fanfare-like gestures of repeated notes and chords, punctuated by interjections from percussion, juxtaposed against solo passages and richly overlaid ensembles for each of the orchestra’s sections. Frequent changes in demeanor create an almost kaleidoscopic effect. While the playing is excellent all around, pianist Linda Osborn deserves kudos for tackling a formidable part.

 

Jazz played an important role in Peterson’s development as a composer. There are jazz influences in all three of the pieces presented here, none more so than And the Winds Shall Blow (1994), a saxophone quartet concerto. PRISM Quartet are the estimable soloists here, often playing ensemble passages with such precision and fluidity that they sound like a single mega-instrument. The saxophone solo passages are where the flavor of jazz most keenly persists, and all of the PRISM members play them displaying a strong sense of jazz history, appropriately inflecting each successive homage to swing, bebop, and modern styles. In other places, quartet and orchestra alike are filled with contrapuntal intensity. Rose balances the many competing elements, artfully complex, and assures that each line receives due clarity.

 

Peterson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the last of the selections on the BMOP disc, The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark, but this honor was not bestowed without controversy. Ralph Shapey had been tipped off early that his piece was the music jury’s recommendation, and raised hell when Peterson was selected over him by the board. After many years with only Shapey’s score to consult, I was grateful to finally acquaint myself with the Peterson piece and judge for myself (The Face of the Night… was played only once and a commercial recording wasn’t released at the time – nor has Shapey’s been recorded commercially. In fact, it would be wonderful if BMOP turned its attentions to Shapey on a future portrait CD – they would play his work just as eloquently as they present Peterson’s). As a Shapey scholar, and based on some of the press I had read about the debacle, I’ll cop to a bit of bias: I had presumed that his Concerto Fantastique would win handily: I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. Both are excellent compositions. The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark is expressive and labyrinthine in form where Concerto Fantastique is taut and sectional, but both display a compelling, complex harmonic language and masterful use of the orchestra.

 

Face of the Night… is cast in two movements. The nocturne form is given a modern treatment not unlike the insomniac reveries of Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies. Rapid shifts in demeanor betray the stray thoughts that sometimes keep us from sleep or inhabit our dreams. Peterson’s Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark has passages that underscore the portentous quality suggested by its title. However, all is not nightmarish: there are beautiful moments of repose and reflection that suggest the coming darkness is not entirely enveloping: dawn awaits. The work’s climax is stirring and resolute – one imagines bolting upright from bed.

 

Transformations is Sequenza 21’s Best Orchestra Portrait CD of 2017.

Vijay Iyer: “Far From Over” (CD Review)

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
ECM CD

Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over
ECM 2581

Steve Lehman, Alto Saxophone;  Graham Haynes, Cornet, Flugelhorn, Electronics; Stephen Crump, Double Bass; Tyshawn Sorey, Drums;  Vijay Iyer, Piano, Electric Piano; Mark Shim, Tenor Saxophone

After successful outings for ECM in groupings ranging from duets (with Wadada Leo Smith) to a string quartet plus piano/electronics quintet, Vijay Iyer returns for his fifth recording for the label with a jazz sextet date, Far From Over. This time out, he dispenses with synthetic manipulations in favor of an old school resource: an electric piano. This plus concert grand are prominently featured, but by no means dominate the proceedings. Iyer affords his collaborators considerable latitude. Given the level of artists with whom he is partnering, this is a wise choice indeed.

Graham Haynes, in particular, is new to me and makes a forceful impression. His clarion parts on unison tutti, derby calls on the title track, and crackling electronics on “End of the Tunnel” impress both melodically and texturally. Altoist Steven Lehman supplies a formidably funky solo on album opener “Poles.” Recent MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Tyshawn Sorey gives a forceful master class in polyrhythmic drumming on the title track (and elsewhere). He and bassist Stephen Crump make an admirable rhythm section duo, in frequent dialogue yet also able to sustain simultaneous alternative pathways. The sextet may be the only jazz ensemble with two MacArthur grant holders – Iyer was previously awarded one as well. “Down to the Wire” features energetic soloing both from the pianist and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, whose round tone and extensive range are put to good use.

The group as a whole tackles unison sections with enviably well-coordinated yet energetic performances. Far From Over is one of the most impressive jazz outings this year, from the standpoint of solos, collective offerings, and engaging compositions. Recommended.