Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Of 15: Classical & Composed

The preceding 12 months brought the all the usual thinkpieces about the death of classical music, the decline of CD sales, the struggle to fill concert halls, etc. But for us listeners, there was plenty of sounds to surprise and delight. I'm probably only scratching the surface but here goes...

New (Mostly) Music, New Recordings

After the triumph of Become Ocean in 2014, no one would have looked askance if John Luther Adams had decided to take a year off. But the man has a work ethic so there were actually not one but two fascinating new releases in 2015. The Wind In High Places is an exquisite collection featuring three works for strings. The title work, played to perfection by the JACK Quartet, is an ethereal work which asks the players to keep their hands off the fretboards and play only open strings and harmonics. But knowing those technical details is not necessary to enjoy the airy tangles of harmonies woven together by Adams. The second piece, Canticles Of The Sky, was composed for 48 cellos and sounds like a ribbon of pure sound. You might find yourself breathing differently as you listen. The album closes with Dream of the Canyon Wren, also played by the JACK, a series of descending glissandos with some of the puckish wit of Harry Partch. The album is Adams in his prime, which means essential listening.

Ilimaq: Under the Ice, an electro-acoustic collaboration with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, is a little bit more of a specialty item. Five movements of spacy sounds, pounding tom toms and subtle clatters and clangs, without much structure that I can find, makes for a piece I don't listen to often. But if the mood is right, there's nothing else like it. As with The Wind In High Places, the recording is a masterpiece in its own right, finely detailed, sonically rich and involving.

Like Adams' music, the pieces on Clockworking by the Icelandic chamber ensemble Nordic Affect also seem in touch with the natural and physical world. From Beacon To Beacon, by Hafdís Bjarnadóttir, even features the sound of pounding surf or blowing winds among its spiky eplorations. Special notice should be taken, here and elsewhere, of the sparkling harpsichord of Guðrún Óskarsdóttir. The six works were commissioned from five local composers (all women, I might add), including superstar Anna Thorvaldsdottir. But while Thorvaldsdottir is the most well known, I will now be keeping an ear out for the others, especially Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, who wrote the instantly likeable opening and closing tracks. If there was ever a new music song of the summer, 2015 would belong to Sigfúsdóttir's Clockworking. Another beautiful recording from Sono Luminus, too.

On the darker end of the spectrum, we have The Soul is the Arena, three stunning works by Mario Diaz de Leon, including Luciform for flute and electronics performed by the great Claire Chase and the title track for bass clarinet and electronics, brilliantly played by Joshua Rubin. Both those works were previously released, however, the former on Chase's Density and the latter on Rubin's There Never Is No Light. So the only new work is the brooding and suspenseful Portals Before Dawn, played here by the International Contemporary Ensemble. It is a gorgeous and sophisticated work, signifying new levels of dynamic flexibility on the part of Diaz de Leon, so get to it whether or not you've already heard those other pieces. 

Speaking of dark, it gets none more black than Jóhann Jóhannsson's soundtrack to the fatalistic thriller Sicario. This is literally the sound of dread and it has to be heard to be believed. For such a small country, Iceland sure knows how to crank out great composers. Hint: it probably starts in the schools.

If you're feeling tense after Sicario, get some rest with Max Richter's Sleep, eight hours of music precision-tooled to lull you to sleep and keep you there. However, I've listened to the shorter version, From Sleep, and you might want to stay awake. It's quite beautiful, Eno ambiance crossed with hushed minimalism. 

When violinist Sarah Plum couldn't find a piece to pair with Sidney Corbett's beautiful, exploratory Yael from 2011 she simply commissioned another violin concerto by Christopher Adler and released them under the name Music For A New Century. There's a lot of variety of mood between Corbett's Yael and Adler's spiky and mysterious Violin Concerto, and Plum's committed and engaging playing makes a more than convincing case for both pieces.

Time Travelers

There were three excellent collections that compiled music across centuries, some of it newly composed for the occasion. Viola virtuoso Melia Watras assembled Ispirare around the music of George Rochberg and Luciano Berio, putting them in dialog with more recent work by Atar Arad and Shulamit Ran. The Rochberg was a bit stodgy but her performances of the Berio and Ran works were revelatory - get to them so they can get to you.

Orli Shaham explored the songlike piano music of Brahms through some of the music (Schubert, Schumann, Chopin) that he was listening to and newly-commissioned works influenced by him. Shaham's stylish and assured playing wove a very satisfying tapestry on Brahms Inspired and it's a great entrée into his keyboard music 

If there is a choir around that's better than the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart conducted by Marcus Creed, I will personally sing hallelujah in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Their album Italia was an ear-opening traversal through about 100 years of Italian choral music, including works by Verdi, Pizzetti, Scelsi, Nono and Petrassi. Their recording of Scelsi's TKRDG is likely definitive, hopefully bringing this extraordinary music to a wider audience. 

Old Music, New Recordings

Marcus Creed also shone leading Denmark's DR VokalEnsemblet on L'amour et la foi, a stunning collection of Messiaen's choral music. The perfect introduction to this corner of the master's music.

Also on the choral tip is Salvatore Mundi: The Purcell Legacy, a dreamy compilation of English church music composed by Purcell's and in his wake (by Blow, Boyce, Jackson, Handel, etc.) and performed with utmost naturalism by St. Salvator's Chapel Choir with the expert assistance of the Fitzwilliam Quartet. 

I have found, more often than not, that a composer's recording is not the definitive one. This is proved once again by Sir Simon Rattle's new live recording of Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto For Piano And Orchestra with the Berliner Philharmoniker. While the soloist, Krystian Zimerman, is the same as Lutoslawski's own performance from the eighties, this is an altogether more crisp and coherent version of a landmark work of 20th Century modernism. Essential.

Returning from the improvisatory adventures of Silfra, and the ambition of commissioning 27 new pieces, Hilary Hahn came home to Mozart in a new recording of his Violin Concerto No. 5Paavo Järvi and The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen are the perfect partners in this lyrical and unsentimental performance. It wasn't a warhorse when Mozart wrote it, after all, so there's no reason to play it like one. Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps was born about 30 years after Mozart died and is in no way his equal. Hahn takes his stormy Violin Concerto No. 4 at face value, playing it as well as it can be played, but it is filler nonetheless.

Speaking of a return, soprano Renee Fleming has been in the "crossover classical" trenches for a while now so it's nice to see her tackle something meatier: Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, performed here with the Emerson Quartet. The Emerson is really the star in the Berg, as Fleming only appears in an alternate version of the last of six movements. But what a glorious sound they make together! Fleming's lush voice blends perfectly with the strings, fitting Berg's conception of a mini-opera to a T. Fortunately, we get more of this divine combination in a set of five songs by Egon Wellesz, a Berg contemporary who is much less well known. His settings of Sonnets From The Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning are intimate and romantic while still feeling modern. I will be investigating his work further based on this. From the well-designed cover featuring a Klimt painting to the starry participants, this is a release that acknowledges no twilight of the record industry - and why should it?

New Music, Old Recording

Kudos to Wergo for reissuing the out of print Nonesuch recording of Morton Subotnick's The Wild Beasts (1978). This work is wild indeed, with Subotnick exploring the more comical side of the trombone alongside his signature electronics. Also included is After The Butterfly (1979), with Mario Guarneri as the adventurous trumpet soloist playing Subotnick's witty score with aplomb. If there is a butterfly being described it is a rather bumptious and quirky creature. As the cover says, these are "Landmark Recordings" and it is good to have them readily available again.

Sample the works mentioned with this handy playlist - then follow through with the complete recordings of anything that catches your ear.

You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Reggae

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