Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs

Best of 2018 – Orchestral CDs

 

In ictu oculi

Kenneth Hesketh

BBC Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Christoph Mathias Mueller

Paladino

 

Three large orchestra works by British composer Kenneth Hesketh are attractively scored in multifaceted, often muscular, fashion. Hesketh’s unabashed exploration of emotionality, imbued with strongly etched motives and intricate formal designs, provides a cathartic journey for listeners.

 

Sur Incises

Pierre Boulez

The Boulez Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

There is a previous, much vaunted, studio recording of Pierre Boulez’s composition  Sur Incises (1998), one of the composer’s most highly regarded late works (in the year of its premiere, Sur Incises won the Grawemeyer Prize). This 2018 rendition of the work was performed live at a new space dedicated to Boulez, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. Acoustically marvelous, it is perhaps the ideal location in which to hear the composer’s music. Barenboim is one of Boulez’s great champions, and the ensemble gathered here play it with supple rhythms (slightly less ‘incisive’ than the studio version, but warmer in affect). They also deftly shape Sur Incises’ labyrinthine form to provide musical “bread crumbs” along its myriad pathways.

 

Berio: Sinfonia – Boulez: Notations I-IV – Ravel: La Valse

Roomful of Teeth, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Seattle Symphony Media

 

Composed in 1968-’69 for the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia helped to herald postmodernism in music. Roomful of Teeth has now done the piece with the Philharmonic, providing a new generation of performance history for Berio. It is excellent to have Roomful of Teeth’s performance of Sinfonia documented in a superlative outing with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The orchestra is equally scintillating in Pierre Boulez’s long gestated modernist masterpieces Notations I-IV. The disc is capped off with a rollicking rendition of Ravel’s La Valse.

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies 4 and 11 (“The Year 1905”) Live

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, conductor

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

Even with an ensemble as fine as the Boston Symphony, it is hard to believe that this is a live recording. Seamless transitions, admirable dynamic shading,  gorgeous sounding strings, and exceptional playing by the brass section. Nelsons has a great feel for Shostakovich’s music.

 

Harbison, Ruggles, Stucky: Orchestral Works

National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic, David Alan Miller, conductor

Naxos

 

David Alan Miller has long been a staunch advocate of contemporary music, recording a number of discs of new works with the Albany Symphony. The National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic’s young players, aged 15-21, are a fantastic ensemble in their own right. Their rendition of Carl Ruggles’ Sun Treader is up there with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas on the complete works recording; and that’s saying something.

 

Recently departed composer Steven Stucky created a fluently retrospective piece when composing Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (2003); the piece won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It includes quotations from a host of great composers as well as ample amounts of music in Stucky’s masterful contemporary voice.

 

Composed for the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz in 2003, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 is one of his most compelling pieces in the genre. In the debut recording, the Boston Symphony’s rendition of the symphony took a fairly edgy approach. Miller elicits something more lissome from the NOI players. Both versions make an eloquent case for Harbison’s piece.

 

Topophony

Christopher Fox

John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Alex Dörner, Paul Lovens, soloists

WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, Ivan Volkov, conductor

HatHut

 

Christopher Fox’s orchestral work Tophophony accommodates both renditions for orchestra alone and with improvising soloists. The WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, led by Ivan Volkov, record three different versions of the piece. By itself, Topophony has a Feldman-like, slow-moving, and dynamically restrained surface. It provides fertile terrain for both the duos of trumpeter Alex Dörner and drummer Paul Lovens and saxophonist John Butcher with synthesizer performer Thomas Lehn. All three versions are absorbing: it’s fortunate one doesn’t have to choose between them.

Symphony No. 6, Rounds for String Orchestra, and Music for Romeo and Juliet

David Diamond

Indiana University Chamber Orchestra, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, Arthur Fagen, conductor

Naxos

 

This is the best recording of David Diamond’s music since the iconic CDs by the Seattle Symphony under the baton of Gerard Schwarz. Indiana University has long had one of the best music departments in the country, but they outdo themselves here, with a brilliant version of Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra and nimble phrasing in his Music for Romeo and Juliet. But it is Symphony No. 6 (1951) that is the star of this CD.

Those who relegate all of Diamond’s music to American romanticism (which, admittedly, is a fair assessment of some of his work) are in for a surprise from this bold, Copland-esque work. Indeed, when I was a student at Juilliard, Diamond proudly told me that his ballet Tom predated Copland’s adoption of an Americana style. With Symphony No. 6, Diamond made a strong case to have his work set alongside the “usual suspects” in the genre.

 

Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs with Voices

Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs with Voices

 

Requiem

John Harbison

Nashville Symphony Chorus and Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Naxos Records

 

John Harbison’s Requiem Mass had a long and fragmented gestation, but it certainly sounds of a piece. This debut recording by Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, led by Giancarlo Guerrero, emphasizes the contrasts between hushed reverence and explosive drama that make the work an exciting and vital addition to this well-populated genre. Harbison’s fluid orchestration and deft vocal writing are fully in evidence here. Despite his deep catalog, Requiem is one of his most compelling compositions to date.

 

Cymbeline

Charles Fussell

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor

BMOP/Sound

 

Charles Fussell was a professor at Boston University and UMass Amherst before moving to New York. His works were long a vital part of the musical fabric of New England. With BMOP’s new recording of his 1980s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, It is pleasing to see that they still are. This is one of the first pieces in which Fussell incorporated the Neo-romantic style for which he is best known today. In addition to winsome soloists soprano Aliana de la Guardia and tenor Matthew Battista – both taking on multiple roles –  Cymbeline also prominently features bagpipes, adding an element of Celtic exoticism.

 

Arche

Jörg Widmann

Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg, Kent Nagano, conductor

ECM Records

 

Composer Jörg Widmann’s most ambitious score to date, this live performance of Arche, a secular oratorio spanning two CDs, is an affecting paean to peace. It was composed to celebrate the opening of the new Elbphilharmonie Hall. With texts ranging from Nietzsche to Francis of Assisi, it is both thoughtful in its connection of disparate ideas and stylistically diverse yet musically compelling throughout. Under Nagano’s leadership, the musicians give a compelling rendition of this challenging piece – indeed, it is hard to believe it is an unedited live performance.  Arche’s climax, in which a children’s choir rebukes their parents’ generation for its destructive ways, is the most moving use of children’s voices I have heard since Terry Riley’s pieces for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

 

Messiaen – Poemes pour Mi (CD Review)

Olivier Messiaen

Poèmes pour Mi

Bruun Hyldig Duo (Hetna Regitze Bruun, soprano; Kristoffer Hyldig, piano)

Naxos CD 8.573247

Hetna Bruun is billed as a soprano here, but she routinely sings as a mezzo. Given that Olivier Messiaen’s song cycle Poèmes pour Mi was composed for a Wagnerian soprano, Marcelle Bunlet, to sing, Bruun’s voice has the perfect combination of requirements to do it justice: a warm vocal color and a mezzo’s timbre with fine control of an extended upper register. Similarly, Kristoffer Hyldig combines traits at the piano, playing with power where needed and acting elsewhere as a reserved colorist. The 1936 composition is a love letter to Messiaen’s first wife Claire Delbos (nicknamed “Mi” because she played the violin and its top string is tuned to “E”). The CD includes another song cycle dedicated to Delbos, Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938), one that celebrates the birth of their son Pascal in 1937. It is astonishing to be reminded that, even though both of these cycles are from relatively early in Messiaen’s career, they demonstrate most of the signatures of his mature musical language, harmonically and rhythmically. Vocalise-Étude is also included here. Of the three it is the least successfully performed, as it sits a bit higher than Bruun’s comfort zone. Still, all told, this is an impressive disc of Messiaen’s vocal music that reminds us of the prodigious feats he was capable of even early on in his career.

The Song of the Stars (Naxos CD)

The Song of the Stars

British Music for Upper Voice Choir

Naxos CD 8.573427

Wells Cathedral School Choralia, conducted by Christopher Finch; Eleanor Turner, harp; Elliot Launn, piano

Occupying as it does an important niche in choral literature, the CD Song of the Stars demonstrates the vitality and importance of Naxos Records’s “no stone left unturned” recording ethos. Apart from A Ceremony of Carols, A Survivor from Warsaw, and a few other well known works, many often think of SATB – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – groupings as the default vocal ensemble for which truly meaningful choral literature is created. Here we find a number of gems for upper voices – many of them in their debut recordings – that provide a strong case for inclusivity.

The program contains well known composers such as Gustav Holst, James MacMillan, and John Tavener, who rub elbows with some of the finest contemporary British composers: Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, and James Whitbourn. A find for me was the music of Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), represented on the disc by her Regina Caeli. The piece alternates lustrous polychords with sprightly counterpoint in an attractive blend of elements that makes me want to delve deeper into McDowall’s output. There are also works by composers familiar to me, such as O’Regan’s Alleluia, Iaus et gloria, that are impressive compositions made even more appealing by their authoritative performances.

This is the recording debut of the Wells Cathedral School Choralia. Conducted by Christopher Finch, this is a fine group that demonstrates strong technical skills, beautiful tone, and excellent musicality throughout Song of the Stars. Indeed, the title work, composed by former King’s Singers member Bob Chilcott, has a perilously demanding tessitura that conventional wisdom would suggest disqualifies some groups from attempting it. The Wells Choralia make it sound eminently attainable. One hopes that conductors and composers take a careful listen to this CD. It provides many ideas for possible programming and the creation of new works for upper voice ensembles. Recommended.

Video of Tarik O’Regan’s “Alleluia, Iaus et gloria”