Sunday, January 04, 2015

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Classical & Composed

I found time to write about only a few of the things I listened to in this realm throughout the course of the year. This wrap up includes those recordings and some of the many others of note.

Glenn Kotche took his compositions to new heights on Adventureland, really finding his voice outside of Wilco. It's a delightful and mysterious collection, more than living up to its title. 

Brooklyn Rider introduced me to the music of shakuhachi virtuoso Kojiro Umezaki a few years ago and I was grateful when (Cycles) came out earlier this year, collecting his emotionally charged and formally adventurous compositions.

The dog days of summer were enlivened by another wide-ranging installment of the American Composers Orchestra's Orchestra Underground series, Tech & Techno, which featured polished new compositions by a number of young composers. That album led me to Stereo Is King, a great collection of witty and fascinating work by Mason Bates, and I was glad for the pointer. 

Talea Ensemble is one of the finest new music groups in the country, if not the world. A new album by them should be a cause for celebration, and it is, for me at least. I just wish a few more people would come to the party - you don't know what you're missing. Their latest release, A Menacing Plume, focuses on the spellbinding music of Rand Steiger, an American composer and teacher who is probably more forward-thinking than some of the younger writers on the Tech & Techno Album. His use of electronics is seamless and completely assured. Like Varese, he's done his experimenting before composing his music. Talea Ensemble has chosen five of his chamber works and they're often sleek and purposeful constructions, with some of the sense of wonder Boulez inspires in his later pieces. 

Thanks to a terrific and dimensional recording and the utter conviction of Talea's players along with conductor James Baker, these are likely to be definitive recordings of these colorful works. I'll not soon forget the nimble woodwind playing or the physicality of Elizabeth Weisser's viola - you can feel the gut of the strings and the air in the resonating chamber when she plays. Marvelous. Special mention has to made of Ben Reimer's dazzling percussion on Elusive Peace which finds him playing the highly structured parts with ease and lightness of touch. Like the album as a whole, everything feels very naturalistic. Talea has no doubts about the worth of Steiger's music and neither will you after hearing this album.

I've had an ear out for Anna Thorvaldsdottir's music since Rhizoma came out a few years ago. The music on that collection was so intriguing yet also so reserved as to almost vanish as you listened. This year Deutsche Grammophon released Aerial, featuring six recent (2011-2013) works which hang together more like a concept album than a recital. This is bold music, equal parts beauty and terror, and it has a strong theatrical bent. Unusually, Thorvaldsdottir is credited with mixing, editing and production on several tracks - she obviously knows how to make things sound the way she wants. And it pays off - you'll be pulled through the album almost in a state of suspense.

Speaking of bold music, any composition by Mario Diaz de Leon is bound to make a strong first impression. His work in the drone-metal arena has left him unafraid of volume and power, but it's the finesse with which he deploys them in his concert music that makes it resonate beyond the first hearing. His piece, The Soul Is The Arena, is a highlight of There Never Is No Light, the extraordinary debut album by Joshua Rubin, a clarinetist and a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble. I doubt very highly that there is a better clarinet player in the new music world today and the ease with which he navigates Diaz de Leon's demanding work, and that of Mario Davidovsky and the other composers featured, is astounding. This is a signature release and one that will serve as an excellent introduction, should you need one, to both Rubin and some important composers.

The quantity of both stages and performance time for large-scale contemporary stage works is shrinking in the U.S. However, that doesn't stop composers from thinking big. A new release from Nonesuch featuring Louis Andriessen's La Commedia addresses this issue head on by allowing you to bring the performance, in the form of a film, into your home. That the film is directed by Hal Hartley in sumptuous black and white only sweetens the deal. While the music is often beautiful and creatively sets the words of the Bible, Dante, and others to make up a new narrative, there is a certain lack of dynamics overall, which I don't recall from Andriessen's other music. This makes La Commedia somewhat less than involving when just listened to. It really is ideally enjoyed as a visual experience - but how many people will take the time to get the most out it? All I can say is that it's worth it and kudos to all who made this realization possible.

Christopher Tignor's Core Memory Unwound is one of my favorite albums of our short century. While none of his subsequent releases have connected at that level, he can still surprise and intrigue with his singular style. Thunder Lay Down In The Heart has the feel of a theatrical piece, starting as it does with a scene-setting spoken word piece and moving through themes and variations featuring chamber instruments, electronics, and rock drums. I'm not to sure what it adds up to, but I can hear the sound of one of our more interesting musical minds at work.

Hauschka is the wizard of the prepared piano and also possesses a usually witty and warm compositional voice. Abandoned City features him at his chilliest, however, with tense rhythms and dense chord stabs. The album is as atmospheric as its title, and almost as urban. Thames Town suggests that a hip hop collaboration may be in Hauschka's future - I couldn't help but imagine how Pusha T would sound rapping over its spare instrumentation and dance beats.

Along with Joey Baron, Bobby Previte has been the go-to drummer at the intersection of the avant garde and jazz for at least a couple of decades. Terminals finds him stepping out as composer, interacting with other leading lights like Zeena Parkins (harp) and Nels Cline (busy man!) on a series of long, involving "concertos" for percussion and soloist. Y Percussion is the common denominator on this recording and, even if there is some meandering, each track is filled with drama and color.

Leif Ove Andsnes completed his Beethoven Journey this year and it would be hard to beat his recordings of these cornerstones of Romantic music. Not all Beethoven is equal to my ears, however, so if you buy aonly one disc in the series make sure it's the one containing Piano Concertos 2 and 4. This is old Ludwig at his most sparkling, especially in the 2nd Concerto, and the performances and recording are basically perfect. You can say that about the the final disc, which contained the 5th Concerto and the Choral Fantasy, except for the sparkling part. This is a side of Beethoven that doesn't move me, where his work sounds almost pro forma. But if you want to make up your own mind about this music, the Andsnes cycle is a great place to start.

Igor Stravinsky is of course known for his game-changing ballet scores and kaleidoscopic orchestrations. He also composed piano music throughout his career and now Jenny Lin has applied her masterful technique to a complete collection of those pieces - and I'm glad she did

Stravinsky knew his way around the piano, but Bach was the master of the keyboard and Igor Levit's new recording of the Partitas got a lot of people excited about this music again, including me. As part of my process of reviewing the album, I discovered Christiane Jaccottet's brilliant performance (on harpsichord instead of the modern piano employed by Levit) and that excited me even more.

Lou Harrison was an American composer who embraced exoticism and joy in equal measure. La Koro Sutro is one of his signature works and I was happy to see a new recording of it, although it maybe slightly more reserved than I'd like. If you can't find this one then by all means give it a listen. 

I'm not sure why Richard Reed Parry's Music For Heart & Breath excited me more in concert than in the fine recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Perhaps it was the stethoscopes or the fact that being on stage made the performers' hearts beat faster. In any case, approach it with fresh ears - you may like what you hear. There's definitely more here than just catnip for fans of Parry's band, Arcade Fire.

Bryce Dessner, guitarist for The National appears on Parry's album (indie rock mafia, anyone?) and also had his own work released under the imprimatur of DG. Unfortunately, St. Carolyn By The Sea, the piece in question, is a great argument against handing prestige recording contracts to any old rocker with some composing skills. Despite the expert husbandry of Andre de Ridder conducting the Copenhagen Philharmonic, nothing could make this music interesting. The recording is not a total waste as it includes a beautifully done concert arrangement of Jonny Greenwood's score from There Will Be Blood.

Dessner's dabblings stand in stark contrast to the rigorous work of Morton Feldman, whose String Quartet 1 was the subject of a definitive recording by the Flux Quartet, along with some of his other string music. I'm not sure this music as been played with more assurance, making this one of the most important string quartet albums in some time. If you like what you hear, check out their recording of Feldman's String Quartet 2, which goes on for over six hours.

On the lighter side, but perhaps no less important, the Nightingale String Quartet continued their traversal of the string quartets of Danish composer Rued Langgaard, who died in 1952 and whose music has been struggling for recognition ever since. Danes themselves, the members of Nightingale have a real sympathy for this music, but don't oversell it. Langgaard's writing has a lovely transparency, like looking through layers of water, and an easy melodicism that may come from some of Denmark's folk traditions. Kudos to the Nightingale for their three volume cycle, now complete, of these sweet sounds.

Soprano Anna Prohaska had a good idea, to create a recital of soldier's songs from composers as varied as Beethoven, Poulanc, Eisler and Ives, among others, and pulls it off beautifully. Eric Schneider's piano underpins her performance, which is emotionally open but never overwrought. Behind The Lines is an exemplar of the kind of intelligent programming we need more of in an age when so many works have been recorded over and over. '

When it comes to Richard Strauss, I tend to dislike the more popular works (all those big 19th century tone poems) but become extremely attached to his other music - the 20th century operas and his smaller works. Christiane Karg, a German soprano, did not have to work very hard to make me fall for Heimliche Aufforderung, her well-selected album of Strauss lieder. Her ease and warmth in these songs is matched by Malcolm Martineau's piano and, even without the rarer numbers, their performance more than justifies yet another Strauss release.

While 75% of baritone Gerald Finley's Shostakovich album is taken up with the Suite On Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, already beautifully sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (among others), the real news is in his presentation of Six Romances on Verses by English Poets. I was not familiar with this song cycle, but it is prime Shostakovich and Finley inhabits these songs, more than ably accompanied by Thomas Sanderling and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

Whew. How is a discerning listener to keep up with all this stuff? I Care If You Listen magazine was one way I found out about some of these releases, along with the NYT Classical Playlist. Let me know if you have any suggestions along those lines.

Still upcoming: Great EP's of 2014 and Out Of The Past.

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