Best of 2018: Instrumental and Recital CDs

Best of 2018: Instrumental and Recital CDs

Best Recital

Hanging Gardens

Works by Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern

Jacob Greenberg, piano with Tony Arnold, soprano

Rather than the customary bifurcation, Impressionism and Expressionism are related to one another on Hanging Gardens, pianist Jacob Greenberg’s loving curated, beautifully performed double CD. He is joined by soprano Tony Arnold for Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens, a work that epitomizes the overlap that occurs between the aforementioned styles. Their performance rivals the other best one on record, by Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish.

Greenberg authoritatively performs a number of works by Debussy, including both books of Preludes. His renditions of the Berg Sonata and Webern Variations are also compelling. Once again, he finds subtle connections between the atmosphere of the Second Viennese School composers and their Parisian counterpart Debussy. It makes the works seem airier, more supple, and like one is listening afresh.

Best Solo CDs

Christopher Fox

Headlong

Heather Roche, clarinets

Métier

Composer Christopher Fox has crafted an imaginative output, employing diverse approaches and many different technical resources. His latest Métier CD, Headlong, is devoted to clarinet music, for instruments of varying sizes. Heather Roche is the stalwart interpreter of these pieces. Her own versatility and facility with myriad extended techniques make Roche an ideal performer of Fox’s music. Indeed, the clarinetist’s website serves as a compendious catalog of techniques used to play contemporary works. This recording serves as an ideal accompaniment to her web-based pedagogical forays.

Several works here are ten-minute essays that have time to build and, in places, to breathe (as, one hopes, Roche is afforded as well). Even slightly shorter works like the gentle, fragmentary seven minutes of …Or Just After are given time enough to display significant exploration of the materials used in their construction. Here, there is a contrast between plummy low register melodies and higher single, sustained notes. Gradually and after many iterations, the upper line gains a note or two. This subtle shift in texture feels seismic and changes the registral give and take of the work. Likewise, small shifts are meaningful moments in the six-minute long Escalation. Originally written for Bb clarinet and here played on contrabass clarinet, the piece explores a mid-tempo stream of short phrases of chromatically ascending notes. In this incarnation, the sepulchral register in which these occur accentuates a kind of “walking bass” character that imparts a hint of jazzy swagger.

Some of the pieces include overdubs, either of electronics or other clarinets, and a couple are transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments or else for unspecified woodwinds. Originally composed for oboist Christopher Redgate, Headlong includes an ostinato electronic accompaniment that the composer suggests could sound like video games from the 1980s. The real fun here is the morphing of tempos through three different ratios:  5:4, 9:8 and 5:3. It makes for intriguing interrelationships between the instrumental part and the accompanying motoric bleeptronica. Headlong is an engaging mix of tempo modulation and minimal pulsation that shows a different and appealing side of Fox’s creativity.

On stone.wind.rain.sun, Heather Roche overdubs a duet with herself. The two clarinets converge and diverge throughout, with sustained and repeating notes in one instrument serving as a sort of ground for the chromaticism of the other voice. Registral changes, such as a leap downward to the chalumeau register to add single bass notes to the proceedings, divide the counterpoint further still, at any given moment affording one the impression of three or four distinct voices in operation.

One of my favorite compositions on the CD is Straight Lines for Broken Times, another piece employing overdubs. One track samples bass clarinet playing polyrhythms while the other two explore the “harmonic riches of the instrument,” as Fox describes a plethora of upper partials. Extended techniques are abundantly on offer. Altissimo notes, multiphonics, microtones, and harmonics create a swath of textures. However, the polyrhythmic underpinning assures that the piece feels guided in its course, beautifully shaping what could be a melange of overtone clouds. Straight Lines for Broken Times encapsulates Fox’s proclivity for experimentation in multiple domains: that of the recording medium, a wide palette of pitches that encompasses microtonal harmonics, and fluidly morphing tempos with intricate layers of local rhythms. The result never ceases to be of interest.

Solo Bass Clarinet – Contrabass Clarinet

Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson

Works by Jesper Pedersen, Franco Donatoni, Alistair Zaldua, Jacob Deal, and Thrainn Hjalmarsson

Lúr

Ensemble Adapter’s bass clarinetist Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson strikes out on his own on his first solo CD. The disc contains two outstanding pieces by Franco Donatoni, Soft I and II  and Ombra I and II. Another standout is Tinted/Milieu for contrabass clarinet and electronics by Thrainn Hjalmarsson; it revels in some of the deepest tones one can elicit from the instrument. For the same forces, Jesper Pedersen’s Kesselschleicher allows the electronics to take on a more active role. Jacob Deal’s Suada exercises Vilhjálmsson’s flexible upper register on the bass clarinet, while Alistair Zaldua’s Something other than it is explores the many extended techniques available to the instrument. With a diverse selection of composers, Vilhjálmsson’s CD is an excellent complement to Roche’s Headlong.

Still

James Romig

Ashlee Mack, piano

New World Records

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.

Garlands for Steven Stucky

Various Composers

Gloria Cheng, piano

Bridge

Steven Stucky passed away from cancer in 2016. For Garlands for Steven Stucky, Pianist Gloria Cheng commissioned thirty-two pieces in the composer’s memory from Stucky’s friends and colleagues. There are many stirring tributes here, ranging from those who use their offerings as expressions of grief, such as Fratello by Magnus Lindberg, Donald Crockett’s stirring Nella Luce, and Elegy by Joseph Phibbs, to fond remembrances: And Maura Brought Me Cookies by Andrew Waggoner and A Few Things (In Memory of Steve) by Steven Mackey. Other composers, such as Brett Dean in Hommage à Lutoslawski and Michael Small in Debussy Window, commemorate Stucky’s engagement with other composers’ music. Finally, there are pieces that celebrate craft in memory of a master craftsman: Waltz by John Harbison, Capriccio by Julian Anderson, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Iscrizione. Soprano Peabody Southwell and oboist Carolyn Hove join Cheng in Stucky’s Two Holy Sonnets of Donne (1982), a moving valediction.

Dreams Grow Like Slow Ice

Works by Michael Kallstrom, Alan Theisen, Andrew M. Rodriguez, Jay Batzner, and David Mitchell

Tammy Evans Yonce, flutes

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In addition to working with a conventional instrument, flutist Tammy Evans Yonce has made a specialty out of playing with a glissando headjoint. For her debut CD, Dreams Grow Like Slow Ice, she commissioned several pieces from active composers, some for glissando flute, and some with electronics to boot. While she is careful to delineate the various bends, microtones, and portamento phrasings afforded to her by this setup, the change of timbre that the headjoint affords is also an appealing element at play. Fire Walk by Jay Batzner could be a masterclass for the various techniques one can employ. On the title piece, Batzner adds drone-based electronics to the microtonally festooned proceedings. Highways by Andrew M. Rodriguez marries flutter-tonguing to glissando effects. Angularities by David Mitchell uses small pitch cells to construct an elaborate multi-tiered work that delivers as advertised. Solo pieces on the CD without the glissando headjoint are equally diverting. Michael Kallstrom’s Behind the Day supplies lyrical lines with Shakuhachi-liked inflections while his The Falling Cinders of Time is filled with soaring melodies. Commendo Spiritum Meum, by Alan Theisen, is an exquisitely constructed post-tonal miniature.  

Engage

J.S. Bach, Anthony Braxton, Taylor Brook, Josh Modney, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper, Eric Wubbels

Josh Modney

New Focus

Highly regarded for his work with Wet Ink, violinist Josh Modney’s recital recording Engage is a stirring two-hours of music. There are a number of Modney’s own improvisations/compositions, pieces by colleagues in Wet Ink, a searing version of Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 222, and the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita played in just intonation. Jem Altieri, by Sam Pluta, features distressed playing alongside avant electronics. A duo with composer/vocalist Kate Soper pits the soprano playing with the timbre of vowel dislocations alongside similar sounds via bowings on repeated notes by Modney. Vocalise by Taylor Brook features a detuned G string and an “offstage” drone to hypnotic effect. The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire by Eric Wubbels is an unflinching behemoth for violin and prepared piano. Modney’s solos are at turns meditative and fiery creations, blazing with intensity.

Inconnaissance

Séverine Ballon, cello

All That Dust

Many composers have been fortunate beneficiaries of the advocacy of cellist Séverine Ballon. In a CD for new contemporary music imprint All That Dust, Ballon, for the first time, records her own compositions and improvisations. Informed by the works she has championed, such as those of Liza Lim, Rebecca Saunders, and James Dillon, the cellist displays an acute awareness of the various techniques – many extended – and stylistic approaches of composers at the European vanguard. She deploys them with skill, taste, virtuosity where it counts, and an impressive patience in shaping formal structures.

Best Chamber CDs (Part Two)

Bozzini+

Bozzini Quartet; Sarah Jane Summers, fiddle; Philip Thomas, piano

Works by Bryn Harrison, Mary Bellamy, and Monty Adkins

Huddersfield Contemporary

A project begun in 2016, under the auspices of the Centre for Research in New Music at Huddersfield University, brought together the Montreal-based Bozzini Quartet, the Scottish hardanger fiddler Sarah-Jane Summers, and Huddersfield artists pianist Philip Thomas, and composers Bryn Harrison, Mary Bellamy, and Monty Adkins. Some of the resulting music is heard on Bozzini+, a double-CD featuring an extended work by each of the participating composers. Bryn Harrison’s Piano Quintet revels in juxtaposing irregularly repeating piano filigrees with with whorls of glissandos from the quartet. Bellamy’s beneath an ocean of air crafts high-lying, tenuous sounds interrupted by occasional submersive thrusts. Still Juniper Snow, by Adkins, emphasizes sustain, with long drones held against folk-inspired melodies, creating a slow paced, sumptuous surface.

Blueprinting

Aizuri Quartet

Works by Gabriella Smith, Caroline Shaw, Yevgeniy Sharlat, Lembit Beecher, and Paul Wiancko

New Amsterdam

Bluprinting is a thrilling debut recording from the Aizuri Quartet, consisting entirely of new works by active American composers. The pieces vary in impetus but are all compelling. Gabriella Smith’s Carrot Revolution deconstructs everything from chant to fiddle tunes, Caroline Shaw’s Blueprint harvests harmonic material from an early Beethoven quartet, Lembit Beecher uses sonic sculptures made out of bicycle wheels and wine glasses, Yevgeniy Sharlat incorporates mournful melodica into a piece written in remembrance of a composition student, and Paul Wiancko’s Lift traverses extended techniques, “maniacal” swing, and post-minimal exuberance. The Aizuri Quartet negotiates each successive challenge with brilliance. Their advocacy for new music is exemplary.

Duo Stephanie & Saar: “The Art of Fugue”

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I spent a year analyzing Bach’s Art of Fugue as an undergraduate, so it is fair to say that I’m passionate about the work and a bit picky about its performance. For their third New Focus CD, DUO Stephanie & Saar present the work in its entirety on piano instead of harpsichord, leaving the last fugue where Bach did (unfinished), but including “Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu,” a gentle yet substantial epilogue by Stephanie Ho. This solution works at least as well as what is done on other recordings, which is to leave the final fugue unfinished but include Bach’s final chorale prelude, “Before Your Throne I Come,” as a postlude.

The duo’s playing is detailed and deliberate rather than showy, with the pianists taking pains to make all of the counterpoint clear. Since this is what the piece principally is about, it is a smart tactic to employ.

Sometimes folks grouse about the amount of recordings of standard repertoire, asking,”Do we really NEED more Bach CDs?” When it comes to a pliable and fascinating work such as this, especially when it is so well played by its performers, my answer is a resounding yes.

Mariel Roberts: “Cartography” (CD Review)

Mariel Roberts

Cartography

New Focus Recordings CD/DL

Mariel Roberts

Cartography

New Focus Recordings CD/DL

Cellist Mariel Roberts’ second solo album, Cartography, provides a stylistically diverse set of pieces that are all played compellingly and with earnest commitment. Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade’ has little to do with Schubert apart from taking the spinning wheel as its motivation. Indeed, spinning gestures abound, but they are hyperkinetic in terms of speed and demeanor (Wubbels plays the piano with almost daemonic fury). Roberts is required to retune her cello, employ microtones, and scratch strings with her fingernails. The propulsive sections are on the edge of assaultive, and when the piece takes a breather and moves into more atmospheric territory, the listener may well realize that their shoulders are around their ears. That said, it is a most impressive work, from the standpoint of virtuosity and extended techniques and in the dynamic interplay between the performers.

Cenk Ergun’s Aman is quite different. It relies first on percussive effects, with clocklike pizzicatos moving from higher register to low open strings. Grating string sounds are set against electronics, some of which take on an old-school analog cast while others play off the percussive sounds in the cello. Again, pacing is key. Where Wubbels seemed eager to take listeners to the edge, Ergun places his sounds carefully and purposefully, allowing each one to settle before the next follows, creating a fascinating blend of acoustic and electric sounds. The long denouement, where Roberts finally gets to play some bowed sounds, replete with microtonal haze and delicious slides, is a welcome surprise.

Spinner, by George Lewis, begins emphatically, with double stop glissandos, tremolandos, and slashing gestures. Despite its modernist demeanor, it is actually the most conventionally scored piece on Cartography. While the elements are ones that appear in plenty of contemporary repertoire, without electronics or fingernail scratches to adorn them, Lewis incorporates this vocabulary into a spiraling form (hence the title) that allows for discontinuous development; it is a fascinating compositional design. Indeed, ‘spinner’ is my favorite work thus far of his in the concert tradition. 

There are relatively few notes in Daneil Brynjar Franzen’s The Cartography of Time, a sprawling amplified work more than twenty minutes in duration. But each note is wrung of every bit of resonance, making it seem to truly matter. Against the pitches is an exaggerated whoosh of unpitched string sound, providing a rustling and airy background. Partway through, the piece abandons lower notes for high harmonics, which reverberate intensely. Then the two are combined to great a ghostly duet. Then still another, yet higher, set of harmonics enter, making a registral trio. The slow fade that ensues is one to savor.

Roberts thus treats us to a program in which there are works that use material sparingly and those that exude abundance. Cartography is an engaging listen from start to finish. One might ask how she can top it, but then her first album, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds, engendered similar questions, so watch out for what Roberts has yet in store for us!

Wendy Richman’s vox*viola project

Singing violist Wendy Richman

My dear friend and collaborator, singing violist Wendy Richman has undertaken a campaign to fund her first solo album, vox*viola. Consisting of pieces for singing violist by Lou Bunk, Christian Carey, Jason Eckardt, Stephen Gorbos, Jose-Luis Hurtado, Everette Minchew, Arlene Sierra, David Smooke, and Ken Uenothe recording will be released via ICE’s TUNDRA imprint on New Focus Recordings

Wendy first premiered my piece, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, a Yeats setting, in 2010 at a show that Kay and I presented at Bushwick Starr Theatre in Brooklyn. I selected the text because it was one of the readings at Kay’s and my wedding. In fact, the composition was a first anniversary present to Kay. It is inscribed:

Dearest Kay,

They say that the proper gift for a first wedding anniversary is paper. I hope you don’t mind that mine includes notes. 

All my love,

C

Wendy has been a true champion of the piece, and has since performed it in Ohio and Alabama. Other champions need mentioning: Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and violist John Yuan have performed Cloths of Heaven as a duo and Megan and mezzo-soprano Ellen Broen have also performed a voice-piano version with pianists Graeme Burgan and Jonathan Palmer Lakeland. Megan has even switched roles and performed it in a higher key with a violinist.

 

All of this to say that Wendy’s commission sparked my inspiration, and gave impetus to a piece of mine that has had a larger life than many, and that makes me all the more grateful to her. I am thrilled that she will be recording the piece and am excited by the works that are alongside it on the program; many are by close friends which makes this project feel particularly close-knit. She has made an IndieGoGo page for her funding campaign for the recording. You can check it out here.

 

Upcoming Performances by McMurtery and Mack

Flutist John McMurtery and pianist Ashlee Mack have been two of my most dedicated advocates. They have played many of my pieces in recital, and made the first recording of “For Milton” for Perspectives of New Music/Open Space (Righteous Girls made the second for New Focus).

This Fall, McMurtery and Mack will be presenting several duo recitals in Illinois and Wisconsin (dates below). Among the pieces on the program will be my “For Milton.”

 

Sunday 9/25 at 3 PM at Knox College

Wednesday 9/28 at 7:30 PM at Western Illinois University

Saturday 10/8 TBD at U. of Wisconsin – Oshkosh

Sunday 19/9 6 PM Lawrence University

Big in Japan

Righteous Girls in Japan 2016

I am very proud of flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi. Their duo, known as Righteous Girlsperforms twice in Japan this week. They are presenting their Gathering Blue project, recorded on New Focus Records, at Horie Arte1-18-17 Kita-Horie, Osaka, Japan, on June 3rd and 5th at 7:30 PM.

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Gathering Blue features composers Ambrose Akinmusire, Andy Akiho, Dave Molk, Jonathan Ragonese, Pascal Le Bouef, Randy Woolf, and Vijay Iyer. Gina and Erika have also included my duo “For Milton:” an homage to Milton Babbitt that mixes serial outer sections with a slice of swing in the middle.

I’m excited to have my music visit Japan: I hope to get there myself someday!




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Reiko Fueting: Names, Erased (CD Preview)

My friend and former Manhattan School of Music colleague Reiko Fueting has had a portrait CD released on New Focus Recordings.

The program is very thoughtfully constructed, with chamber pieces for varying forces interspersed with solo vocal pieces from the song cycle ” …gesammeltes Schweigen.” The latter are performed with affecting poise by Nani Fueting. The CD also includes performances by Mivos Quartet, clarinetist Joshua Rubin,  flutists Eric Lamb and Luna Kang, violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist John Popham and pianists David Broome, Yegor Shevstov, and Jing Yang