Rebekah Heller – Metafagote (Recording review)

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Metafagote

Rebekah Heller, bassoon and electronics

Tundra, 2017 (digital release)

 

Bassoonist Rebekah Heller, a member of ICE, released Metafagote, her second solo album, in 2017 on Tundra. Featuring premiere recordings of four works written for Heller by Rand Steiger (Concatenation), Dai Fujikura (Following), Jason Eckardt (Wild Ginger), and the title composition by Felipe Lara, Megafagote supplies Heller with ample opportunities to demonstrate the bassoon’s entire bag of extended techniques, from multiphonics to microtonality, as well as various live electronic manipulations. That said, one never feels that the plethora of effects on display are mere showpieces; all four composers are working on extending the bounds of the instrument. There also is a significant interest demonstrated in spatiality which features in different ways in each of the pieces.

 

Steiger’s live electronics supply echoing canons and additional resonance to Heller’s bassoon. Following is a follow-up piece to the hard-driving Calling, written by Fujikura for Heller in 2011. This time around, angular melodies that span the compass of the instrument, beginning gently but picking up speed and energy over time, are hauntingly evocative. Eckhardt’s Wild Ginger employs many of the aforementioned extensions, but does so in a seamless way, using them to inflect asymmetrical groupings of melodic cells that variously congregate and concatenate i. Partway through, the interruption of rests and sustained pitches add other elements of tension, leading way to a low-register eruption that Heller unleashes with fulsome power. The closing section contrasts this with pitch bends and multiphonics in the bassoon’s upper register. It is a most persuasive piece.

 

Lara’s work is for live bassoon alongside a half-dozen pre-recorded bassoons. The chords and shrieking glissandos emitted from the tape part create an uneasy shadowing of a solo part that often departs from its prefabricated brethren on extended flights of fancy, but occasionally touches down to intone alongside them. Percussive articulation, wide pitch bends, trills, and a brusque gestural palette combine to make this a dramatic showpiece with which to end a compelling recording.

 

Heller’s advocacy for the bassoon, and her staunch commitment to expanding its repertoire, are laudable. Her playing is both detailed and thrilling throughout. Metafagote is one of my “Best-of” solo recordings of 2017.

 

 

 

Cuckson and McMillen play Carter and More

Carter – Sessions – Eckardt

Miranda Cuckson, violin; Blair McMillen, piano

Urlicht Audiovisual CD

 

Violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen have already proven themselves an estimable duo for works by American Modernists such as Shapey and Martino. Their latest outing features Elliott Carter’s Duo for Violin and Piano (1973), a formidable piece written in the midst of Carter’s most compositionally rigorous period. And while the twosome emphasize the brittle, cutoff phrases that frequently appear in the work, they also do a deft job of pointing up the places in which violin lines melt into the resonance of piano chords (and vice versa). Thus, theirs is a rendition that juxtaposes rigor and grace, violence and gentleness; this versatility makes it one of my favorite outings with this piece I’ve thus far heard.

 

Composed in 1953, Sonata for solo violin is one of Roger Sessions’ first large-scale attempts at 12-tone composition. Clocking in at over thirty minutes, it is a bear of a piece, demanding both virtuosity and considerable thoughtfulness from the violinist to bring it off: Cuckson has both in spades. I particularly enjoy her traversal of the work’s last movement, a brisk “Alla Marcia” with incendiary passagework and double stops aplenty. Cuckson brings laser beam accuracy to the numerous tricky to tune passages.

 

Jason Eckardt wrote Strömkarl to complement the other pieces on this recording. It is based upon a Northern European legend of violin playing sprites who took up residence near waterfalls; depending on the rendering of the story, either charming passersby with music or leading them to drown. Eckardt captures this mischievous ambiguity with pixellated altissimo violin writing and brittle pizzicati; the piano is also given an angularly terse role to play. My money is on Eckardt’s image of the sprite being a wicked little beastie, but either way the piece is vividly characterful and a real workout for the performances; one they assay handily.