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.

 

George Perle Orchestral Music (CD Review)

George Perle

Orchestral Music 1965-1987

Jay Campbell, cello

Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

George Perle Vol. 4, Bridge Records 9499

 

A recording of five previously unrecorded pieces, Orchestral Music 1965-1987 supplies excellent renditions of an underserved segment of composer George Perle’s output. Best known for his chamber music – he received a Pulitzer for his Wind Quintet No. 4 – Perle (1915-2009) also had significant orchestra commissions, including a residency with San Francisco Symphony and a 150th anniversary commission from the New York Philharmonic. Those who know his work as a music theorist will also be aware of his significant contribution to the field of 12-tone theory, as well as publications on his own idiosyncratic compositional method, “12-tone tonality.” The latter practice, with its use of carefully cultivated chromatic collections that obliquely refer to pitch centers, is fully on display in lithe and elegantly proportioned works such as Dance Fantasy (1986) and Sinfonietta 1 (1987). A bit more astringent in harmonic language are Six Bagatelles (1965), which seem indebted to Alban Berg, a touchstone figure for Perle, in their use of forceful angularity.

 

An intriguing entry on the disc is Short Symphony, 1980, which seems to be something of a response to Copland’s own, early and modernist in design, work by that name. The contrapuntal nature of its woodwind components recall some of Perle’s best chamber music. Elsewhere the orchestration is more muscular, with heraldic brass and rich passages for strings. Short Symphony display the composer’s consummate craftsmanship.

 

The standout piece on the disc is the Cello Concerto (1966), played with suppleness and impressive virtuosity by soloist Jay Campbell (also of JACK Quartet). The Seattle Symphony, under the estimable leadership of Ludovic Morlot, plays with both verve and precision. The finale is particularly varied in its demeanor, contrasting fluid cello solos with complex chords and supple wind duos, and forceful brass punctuations. It neatly resolves the well-known issue of balance in a cello concerto by bridging solos, small sections in counterpoint, and full orchestral interruptions to create a form where cello and ensemble eloquently coexist. One could readily see this piece having a substantial rebirth, particularly if Campbell continues to serve as its persuasive champion.

Seattle SO Spotlights Americans

 

Ives, Symphony No. 2, Carter, Instances, Gershwin, An American in Paris

Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Seattle Symphony Media SSM 1003

 

On Seattle Symphony’s latest CD, live recordings of American music that might at first seem like strange bedfellows end up being supplied with interesting connections. Part of this is the approach to interpretation of these pieces by Ludovic Morlot; he plays up the Romanticism in Ives’s Second Symphony and the modernist bite in the rhythms of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, allowing them to meet in the middle. The Seattle musicians make glorious music out of both pieces, digging into the sumptuous Brahmsian moments in the Ives as well as his collages of then-popular melodies; their Gershwin is suave and ebullient.

 

A most interesting inclusion is the CD’s centerpiece, Elliott Carter’s last work for orchestra, Instances. Written in 2012, just months before the 103 year-old’s passing, it is a whirlwind of gestures that those familiar with Carter’s late style are likely to recognize. In just under eight minutes, a large amount of material is aphoristically compressed into a taut structure that encompasses both the strenuous outbursts and rhythmic interplay for which Carter was so well known. There is also a long lyrical string line, punctuated by single piano notes, that serves as the piece’s summation. An affecting valediction.