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.

 

Charlotte Bray: “At the Speed of Stillness”

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.