Tarik O’Regan on NMC (CD Review)

Tarik O’Regan

A Celestial Map of the Sky

Hallé

Hallé Youth Choir

The Manchester Grammar School Choir

Jamie Phillips conductor

Sir Mark Elder conductor

NMC Recordings CD

 

Tarik O’Regan’s music has appeared upon some thirty recordings, but NMC’s CD, A Celestial Map of the Sky, is the first entirely devoted to his orchestra music. The disc supplies an excellent overview of the British composer’s work. The title piece is persuasively performed. The Hallé Youth Choir and The Manchester Grammar School Choir make music worthy of cherubim and the Hallé Orchestra accompanies them with clustered harmonies that glow. The piece has a fascinating back story: it was inspired by two woodcuts of the celestial hemispheres engraved by Albrecht Dürer in 1515. These are among the oldest “star charts” that have been found in Europe. Latent Manifest takes its inspiration from a few centuries later, in a single gesture from a Bach violin sonata which then undergoes procedures of expansion until it positively flourishes. Premiered at the BBC Proms, Latent Manifest is a muscularly orchestrated work that features Hallé’s formidable brass section to stirring effect.

 

O’Regan is of Moroccan descent on his mother’s side. When he was growing up, he lived for a time in Africa. Raï and Chaâbi present elements of African folk music through a Western lens.

Components from that tradition – African instruments, choices of timbre, and, particularly, rhythmic patterns – enliven both pieces. It is here that O’Regan’s music takes on its most “post-minimal guise,” exploring percussive ostinatos punctuated by strings. Here and elsewhere, the orchestral forces are martialed with incisive command by Jamie Phillips and Sir Mark Elder. The disc is capped off with Fragments from Heart of Darkness, a suite of instrumental music from O’Regan’s chamber opera based on the Joseph Conrad book. It begins suitably mysteriously with sinuous chromaticism but gradually moves toward another bevy of ostinatos, first folk-tinged and then martially stentorian.

 

Those who would like to hear a bit of the composer’s famed vocal music aren’t left wanting by this project. A bonus download-only track, “Now Fatal Change,” features countertenor Ryland Angel and violinist Lara St. John. A reworking of material found in Chaâbi, with a text originally set by Henry Purcell, it is an attractive piece fetchingly performed by the duo. Angel has a rich, resonant voice that handles both registral edges of the vocal part with ease. St. John draws similarly plummy tone from her instrument, finely tuning the many passages of multiple stops and performing ostinato sections with verve.

 

He may be as prolific as all get out, but A Celestial Map of the Sky marks itself as a special project in O’Regan’s catalog. Recommended.

Errollyn Wallen – Photography (CD Review)

Errollyn Wallen

Photography

Matthew Sharp cello
Orchestra X / Nicholas Kok conductor
The Continuum Ensemble, Ensemble X / Philip Headlam conductor
Quartet X
Tim Harries
bass guitar
Errollyn Wallen voice

NMC Recordings NMC D221

A composer, vocalist, and pianist, Errollyn Wallen wears many hats and works in a plethora of styles. Photography, a disc devoted to her orchestra music, demonstrates that polystylism in exuberant abundance. References to Bach, Britten, and Vaughan Williams appear alongside moments that remind one of Duke Ellington. Wallen’s Cello Concerto alone mixes Impressionist harmonies, modernist angularity, touches of modal jazz, and ebullient virtuosity. The solo part’s challenges are handled with assuredness by Matthew Sharp, an artist who plays the cello with particular sweetness in its upper register and fleet trills (technical demands incorporated by Wallen). Conductor Nicolas Kok shapes the sometimes intricate counterpoint found in the orchestral writing with crystalline clarity.

Philip Headlam leads the Continuum Ensemble in The Hunger, a muscular piece with brawny brass fanfares, explosive interjections from percussion, and darkly hued interludes for the whole ensemble. It is some of Wallen’s weightiest and most portentous writing for instruments to date.

The title work, on the other hand, beams with vivacity. The first movement’s burbling ostinatos give way to the second movement’s stately fugato texture. The third movement, at first lyrically reflective, fills with ominous pile-ups of dissonance. Wallen has said that the final movement revolves around the type of modality in favor with the English pastoral school. So it does, but she puts her own stamp on it with a bustling dance over a drone that closes out the piece in exuberant fashion.

Wallen herself joins Quartet X and bass guitarist Tim Harries for In Earth, a gloss on Purcell’s famous aria from Dido and Aeneas. The piece features a long introduction populated by extended techniques and glissandos. Gradually, the famous ground bass and melody emerge from these textures, followed by Wallen, singing sotto voce, in a supple and poignant rendition of the aria. Certain melodic passages are fragmented and extended, making for a fascinating kaleidoscope of materials. Photography often deals with music of the past, but Wallen brings it vividly into communication with music of the present.

 

 

James Wood: Cloud-Polyphonies (CD Review)

James Wood

Cloud-Polyphonies; Tongues of Fire

MDR Leipzig Radio Choir; Ear Massage Percussion Quartet, James Wood, conductor; Yale Percussion Group, Robert Van Slice, Director

NMC Recordings CD/DL

Composer/conductor James Wood has long been one of the “go-to” British musicians when it comes to percussion writing. For a number of years, he led Darmstadt’s percussion courses. He’s also organized and led vocal ensembles, notably Schola Cantorum of Oxford and New London Chamber Choir. Thus, his latest CD on NMC, combining voices and percussion ensembles, is a near-ideal way to appreciate his work.

Tongues of Fire is based on the story of Pentecost. Originally composed for Yale’s Glee Club, the piece brings out a Pan-American sensibility in Wood’s writing. The voice parts, impressively performed here by the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, are in South American Spanish dialect. Correspondingly, the percussion parts feature salsa and other Latin rhythms. While the trip from Connecticut to South America seems a long one, the overall effect achieved here is stirring.

The second work, Cloud-Polyphonies, written for the Yale Percussion Group, is based upon various cloud-like formations. In the first movement, wooden instruments replicated the cries and flight of starlings. The second movement features metallophones creating mysteriously floating cloud-like formations. The finale, for over sixty drums, builds a thunderous buffalo stampede.

Tongues of Fire is led by Wood; Cloud-Polyphonies by Yale’s Director of Percussion Studies Robert Van Slice. Both do an admirable job with challenging pieces. As a composer, Wood not only has chops to spare. His aesthetic is an imaginative and purposeful one, which helps the listener to find compelling through-lines in each of his works.

 

Charlotte Bray: “At the Speed of Stillness”

https://vimeo.com/49369754

At the Speed of Stillness

Charlotte Bray

NMC Recordings CD NMC D202

Claire Booth, soprano; Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano; Alexandra Wood, violin; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano; Huw Watkins, piano; Aldeburgh World Symphony, Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen, conductor

 

Charlotte Bray’s music displays steely determination and an expansively colorful textural palette. Her NMC portrait CD supplies an abundant view of these characteristics. The title work is particularly impressive; it is filled with piquant yet often spacious harmonies, frequent juxtapositions of orchestral groupings, and lithe pacing.

Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer approaches Fire Burning in Snow, settings of poems by Nicki Jackowska, with clear diction and an emotive presence. Likewise the players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group give detailed precision to the work’s angular intervals and supply intensity to the nuanced dynamic shadings found in the accompaniment. Soprano Claire Booth, ably accompanied by Andrew Matthews-Owen, brings expressiveness and considerable beauty of tone to Songs from Yellow Leaves, settings of Caroline Thomas’s poetry. 

Pianist Huw Watkins pulls double duty on the CD, deftly inhabiting the alternately shimmering, sprightly, and strenuous atmospheres of the solo work Oneroi. There are far more episodes possessing the latter demeanor in the piano concertino Replay. However, the variety of timbres found in the chamber ensemble’s accompaniment keeps the work from becoming overwrought. Explained in part by its title, the piece also contains considerable motivic repetition and development: an attractive addition to Bray’s arsenal of resources.

The two-part chamber concerto Caught in Treetops is similarly endowed with an enriched template of motives, ranging from repeated note flurries to widely spaced arcing lines. The work begins with a cadenza, introducing sterling soloist Alexandra Wood, a versatile and formidable violinist. Only gradually is the chamber ensemble invited in, filling the gaps with contrapuntal lines and forceful tutti. While Bray’s language remains primarily a chromatic one, Part Two of Caught in Treetops contains the addition of some beautiful, delicately announced harmonic verticals. The gentle close of the piece provides a perfectly enigmatic twist to the CD’s program, leaving one eager for more from this talented composer.

 

Helen Grime Portrait CD on NMC

Helen_Grime_Night_Songs_NMCD199_cover

Helen Grime

Night Songs

Lynsey Marsh, clarinet; Hallé Orchestra and Hallé Soloists; Sir Mark Elder and Jamie Phillips, conductors

NMC Recordings NMCD 199

Helen Grime is Associate Composer of the Hallé Orchestra. The ensemble has given her a generous portrait CD on NMC with excellent performances of both chamber and orchestral works, all composed in the past seven years. It commences with her Virga (2007), which has enjoyed enormous success; it has been championed by luminary conductors Oliver Knussen, Stéphane Denève, and Pierre Boulez. Hearing the glistening coloristic orchestral palette and unerring sense of pacing – with strong gestures succeeded by passages of fragile delicacy and a coda that beguilingly vanishes into thin air – one can readily understand why it might have attracted such attention. Composed in the same year, her string sextet Into the Faded Air provides a similarly shimmering effect.

The first work I heard of Grime’s live was her Clarinet Concerto in a sterling performance by Fellows at Tanglewood’s 2010 Festival of Contemporary Music. The Hallé’s recording of the piece stands up to that fond memory, with soloist Lynsey Marsh providing fleet cadenzas and unerringly cutting through the forceful accompaniment (again a testament to Grime’s savvy and skilful orchestration).

Composed for the BBC Scottish Symphony, Everyone Sang (2010) is a set of variations on a melody that typifies the linear writing found in Grime’s work: angular yet vivacious. There is counterpoint aplenty here too, with competing passages from the upper and lower registers of the ensemble. Night Songs, a gift for Oliver Knussen’s sixtieth birthday, distills this distinctive language into a taut six minutes of abundant variety. One can certainly hear affectionate nods to some of Knussen’s works, but Grime never stoops to mimicry.

The beginning of Near Midnight (2012), a work composed for the Hallé, finds lower register instruments and the percussion section holding sway. Eventually clarion trumpet calls, flutes, and divided strings are inserted into the proceedings, creating a colloquy between registers and a bevy of traded gestures. The piece’s middle section calms things down, allowing the strings a long, arcing line against which occasional flurries from the other sections interject. Out of this builds a crescendo in which fragmented passages and terse melodic utterances are once again traded between sections of the ensemble. Fluid upward gestures are countered by more earthbound sustained passages. The gradual denouement that concludes the work contains glinting shimmers that vivify the overall fadeout.

Elliott Carter’s 103rd Birthday Concert (DVD Review)

 

Elliott Carter  – 103rd Birthday Concert

92nd Street Y

December 8, 2011, New York City

NMC Recordings DVD

Elliott Carter (1908-2012) knew how to throw a musical party. His 103rd birthday concert – held at the 92nd Street Y in New York City – featured twelve compositions, all but one written since his ninetieth birthday; four world premieres, two US premieres. Five of the pieces were written since Carter’s 102nd birthday – what an amazing valedictory event for the indefatigable centenarian.

Directed by cellist Fred Sherry, the concert featured several performers who have come to be associated with Carter’s work – in particular bass clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, violinist Rolf Schulte, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, clarinetists Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima, and pianist Stephen Gosling. Their intimate acquaintance with Carter’s work, and his with their capabilities, provide a personal cast to the pieces Carter wrote for the concert, as communications between old friends.

There were new interpreters among the performers as well – tenor Nicholas Phan gave an impassioned first performance of the formidable 2010 work A Sunbeam’s Architecture, Carter’s first E. E. Cummings settings. Of the latest works apart from the Cummings settings, the Double Trio (a rejoinder to Carter’s earlier Triple Duo) is the most extensive and substantial. Compositions such as Rigmarole for bass clarinet and cello and Figment V for solo marimba are finely crafted miniatures that, despite being aphoristic, sparkle with energy. Others, such as the String Trio, clocking in at nearly half the duration of the Double Trio, and Mnemosyné, a solo violin piece filled with slow-moving legato lines that are occasionally interrupted in angular fashion, are smallish pieces true, but ones filled with weighty ideas.

This thoughtfully produced DVD of the event also includes extras – footage of a post-tonal rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” with Carter, beaming, looking on; liner notes by John Link, Sherry, and Colin Matthews; and a segment “On Carter,” with filmed tributes by UK composers Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, and Colin Matthews.