Saturday, January 11, 2020

Best Of 2019: Classical

As far as music that I covered throughout 2019, this is the second largest category. At the top you will find links to previous posts to remind you of the best in composed music about which I’ve already written. Following that are a number of special items that I either missed along the way or that came out late in the year. Press play on the playlist so you can hear what I’m talking about!

First Quarter Report: The Albums
Melia Watras - Schumann Resonances
Sæunn Thorsteindottir - Vernacular
Unheard-Of Ensemble - Dialogues
Nicholas Phillips - Shift
Louis Karchin - Dark Mountains/Distant Lights
Greg Chudzik - Solo Works, Vol. 2

Record Review: Beauty... And Darkness
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė - In Search Of Lost Beauty...

Record Roundup: Electro-Humanism
Rand Steiger/International Contemporary Ensemble - Coalescence Cycle Volume 1: Music for Soloists and Electronics

Record Roundup: Contemporary Classical In Brief
Seattle Symphony Orchestra - John Luther Adams: Become Desert
Caleb Burhans - Past Lives
Alex Weiser - And All The Days Were Purple
Matt Frey - One-Eleven Heavy
Caroline Shaw - Orange
Siggi String Quartet - South Of The Circle
Duo Zuber - Blackbird Redux
Rupert Boyd - The Guitar
New Thread Quartet - Plastic Facts
Splinter Reeds - Hypothetical Islands

Record Roundup: Past Is Present
JACK Quartet - Filigree: The Music of Hannah Lash
Wild Up - Christopher Cerrone: The Pieces That Fall to Earth
Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - in manus tuas

Record Roundup: String Theories
Ben Melsky/Ensemble Dal Niente
Ashley Bathgate - Sleeping Giant: Ash
andPlay - playlist
David Bowlin - Bird as Prophet
Kronos Quartet - Terry Riley: Sun Rings

Record Roundup: Contemporary Kaleidoscope 
Tak Ensemble - Oor
Jessica Meyer - Ring Out
Ted Hearne - Hazy Heart Pump
Daniel Lippel - Mirrored Spaces
Dither - Potential Differences

It’s almost embarrassing how much more familiar I am with Hennies’s Twitter presence than her music, but she is truly a virtuoso on the platform. That doesn’t explain why I wasn’t even aware of this album until December, when it showed up on someone else’s “Best of” list. But I’m glad I caught up with it as it a striking work, nearly an hour long, scored for percussion trio and piano. The piano, played by Phillip Bush, cycles through a meditative series of suspended chords that anchor the piece and provide equilibrium amongst the chatter, clatter, and general disruption of the percussion. Perhaps due to the inclusion of improvisation, which is a feature often included in performances by Meridian (Hennies, Tim Feeney, and Greg Stuart), there’s a sense of never stepping in the same river twice when listening to Preservation. Or that could simply be the interaction of my emotional state with the music, and the fact that sometimes time pressure dictates I start where I last left off and return to the beginning. This is one of those recordings that becomes a companion, defining a personal era, and I plan to keep it close. I’m also glad that I learned about Black Truffle, which released it, as they are definitely on the right track, including the packaging, which features an excellent photo by Abby Grace Drake, another artist whose work I plan to investigate further. P.S. This album is not on Spotify, but you can listen easily on Bandcamp. I have also included an excellent piece by Hennies from a compilation called Infinite Futures and highly recommend you clear 30 minutes of time to watch her performance of Falsetto, three years in the making. 

Hildur Guõnadóttir - Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) The Golden Globes already got hip to this Icelandic cellist and composer’s achievement. But I didn’t need an awards show to be certain that her piercing, claustrophobic, and doom-laden sounds are at least as responsible for the film’s success as Joaquin Phoenix’s blistering performance in the title role. Also true is that if you just want some pitch-black modern music for cello, orchestra, and electronics, look no further whether or not you’ve seen the movie. 

Iceland Symphony Orchestra - Concurrence Of course, if we’re talking Icelandic music, the name Anna Thorvaldsdottir should not be far from your mind. Happily enough, this immaculately performed collection has a commanding new piece from her, Metacosmos, which has a cinematic sweep of its own. Also included is Haukur Tómasson’s Piano Concerto No. 2, alternately busy and pensive, with some of Shostakovich’s bite, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Oceans, a glistening tone poem with surpassing mystery, and the same recording of Páll Ragnar Pálsson's Quake that appears on Sæunn Thorsteindottir’s wonderful Vernacular. Altogether, a wonderful follow up to Recurrence, the first entry in the ISO’s series under conductor Daniel Bjarnason. Volume 3 coming in 2021? I’ll be there!

Echo Collective - Jóhann Jóhansson: 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann Released on what should have been Jóhannsson’s 50th birthday, you might think this 40-minute, 12-movement string quartet is appropriately elegiac for a final posthumous release. But elegy was basically Jóhannson’s metier - and who knows what else is in the vault? But whether or not you know who Heinzmann is (I didn’t), this an immersive and involving work, with a welcome austerity in place of the sentimentality Jóhannsson could sometimes fall into outside of his film scores. The recording is beautiful and the playing by Echo Collective essentially perfect. If this is indeed the final recording of Jóhannsson’s music, it is a more than fitting capstone to a remarkable career which ended far too soon. 

Kaija Saariaho - True Fire, Etc. and Circle Map, Etc. Moving on to Finland, here are two spine-tingling albums from a composer who manages to carry a through-line straight from Sibelius, Shostakovich, and Britten, while still remaining thoroughly herself and contemporary. Perhaps it’s her seeming belief in the ritual power of orchestral music and its ability to create a whole world where seconds before stood only silence. The performances, by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic, are crisp and committed, with special note given to baritone Gerald Finley’s commanding take on True Fire. Saariaho’s operas usually get the most attention, often via complaints that they aren’t often performed here. Between these two albums we have a half-dozen excellent opportunities to get her music in American concert halls - who will pick up the slack?

Meara O’Reilly - Hockets For Two Voices Like the mighty aglet, which ensures laces pass smoothly through the holes in your sneakers, hocketing, which is a technique of alternating notes, pitches, or chords between two instruments, is so familiar that you might not even know it has a special name. You’ll recognize its centuries-old provenance in O’Reilly’s work, which occasionally sounds Baroque or even Medieval. But neither Monteverdi or Bach was ever this drily witty - and it’s hard to imagine anyone in their day executing something with the perfection O’Reilly demonstrates here, singing both parts of her own piece. Can’t wait to see what she comes up with next! 

Wendy Richman - Vox/Viola While I have heard string players vocalize along with their instruments, Richman’s debut solo album is the most sustained investigation of the practice I can recall. Richman, the founding violist for the International Contemporary Ensemble, commissioned all nine pieces, demonstrating not only superb taste in composers but an adventurous spirit that has her going all-in on whatever they dish out. It’s no surprise that her viola technique is beyond a compare, but her voice is equally controlled and flexible, whether as a honeyed mezzo on the British Isles folk of Christian Carey’s He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven (based on lines from Yeats), or gasping and ululating on demanding pieces by Lou Bunk and Everette Minchew. At some of the darker moments, the late work of Nico may come to mind, or even Diamanda Galas. The sequencing of the album is quite brilliant, too, giving you the feeling of being led through an experience, rather than being manhandled by the stylistic twists and turns. This is true right to the end, as the last track is Ken Ueno’s stately Song For Sendai, almost coming full circle to the mood of the Carey piece. On the whole, a triumph. Listen and hear a genre being born.

Polish National Radio Orchestra with Beth Gibbons - Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 I’m going to be honest here. I am a huge Dawn Upshaw fan but I sold my copy of her recording of this piece - and I had gotten the disc for free! But the idea of Gibbons pushing herself into this territory was too compelling to ignore. Mostly known as the vocalist for Portishead (although her album with Rustin Man is a lost classic), Gibbons is known for a wracked vulnerability married to an intonation and relation to pitch that is completely wonderful in that context - but how would her voice fare here? The good news starts before she enters, with Krystof Penderecki (himself!) conducting with a drier approach than David Zinman took in that earlier recording, which veered towards bathos. Gibbons follows Penderecki’s lead for her brief statement in the first movement, letting the music carry the emotion. She has more to do in the second movement and you start to feel her lose herself in the music, drawing the listener deeper in as well. No vibrato, either, which makes a huge difference. While I still have my quibbles with Górecki’s simplistic architecture, this version gives me new respect for his achievement and is the one I will return to when in need of “sorrowful songs.” Gibbons can write her own ticket now and I can’t wait to see where it takes her. 

Lise Davidsen - Strauss: Four Last Songs/Richard Wagner: Arias from Tannhaüser, etc. I have brilliant recordings of most of these pieces on my shelf (Gundula Janowitz, for one), not to mention what Spotify holds, I listened to this in spite of myself. I’m glad I did, however, as Davidsen is the real deal, a soprano who seems to immerse herself in the emotions and narratives of the songs and arias. The support from the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Esa-Pekka Salonen is sensitive fully engaged. It’s mind-blowing when you consider she heard her first full opera a mere five years ago. She was born to sing this music and apparently she can act, too. A friend’s father her saw her at the Met in The Queen Of Spades had this one-line review, “They should keep her.” I hope they do, and if we can hear her in some contemporary music that would be a nice bonus!

Michael Hersch - Carrion-Miles To Purgatory On this collection of three duos, Hersch is as unafraid as ever to look in the face of darkness. The first piece, ...das Rückgrat berstend, has violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Jay Campbell emerge from silence, intertwined like a vine on a leafless branch. Then Kopatchinskaja intones a text by Christopher Middleton, translated into German, and a sense of ceremony takes over. The blandly titled Music for Violin and Piano is an excerpt from an evening length medley of earlier works played at National Sawdust by violinist Miranda Cuckson with Hersch himself on piano. The section we get here is a highly dynamic, seamless piece that works entirely well on its own. Cuckson and Campbell join forces for the title work, an alternately anguished and solemn 13 movements based on poems from Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. It's not until the last, and longest, movement, that we feel some compassion start to creep in. Hersch is not an easy listen, but I am always fulfilled - and even cleansed - by time spent in his sound-world.

New York Philharmonic with The Crossing and the Young People's Chorus of New York City - Julia Wolfe: Fire In My Mouth A sense of righteous if controlled fury fuels this epic oratorio for chorus and orchestra based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This piece of history is ever-enraging, and even more unfortunately, ever-relevant. I can only imagine the impact of seeing this in the concert hall, with the huge forces amassed and the chorus snipping garment shears in the the second movement's coup de theatre. But the superbly recorded album will pin you back in your seat well enough! Kudos to Jaap Van Zweeden for conducting and the NY Phil for commissioning, and Donald Nally's leadership of The Crossing is as crisp and nuanced as we have come to expect from their long discography. This album bodes well for the Van Zweeden era, especially among us who were concerned about his commitment to the music of living composers. 

William Brittelle - Spiritual America I can't quite put my finger on my initial discomfort with this album. Was it the ultra-slick prog-rock guitar that laces through the massive composition? Was it the involvement of Wye Oak, a band I have always consigned to the ranks of the NPR-beloved and overrated? Or was it simply the discomfort Brittelle himself was struggling to interrogate as an "agnostic Buddhist" still living with the aftermath of a conservative Christian upbringing? Further listening has allowed me to sit within all the  varieties of discomfort engendered by the piece - and notice the influence of the similarly ambitious Scott Johnson (including his processed guitar tone) - and come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion: Spiritual America is a knockout. This is the kind of big, bold, sometimes even crazy symphonic work of which we could use a lot more, with orchestral brass and strings competing with fat synthesizers, rock drums, choral singing, and more. Even Wye Oak impress, with Jenn Wasner's gorgeous vocals soaring throughout. Ryan Streber, an engineer par excellence, deserves a pat on the back, a hug even, for blending all these disparate sounds in a way that sounds richly integrated and massively powerful. While a division in Brittelle's mind was the impetus for Spiritual America, this is the kind of music that could bring together people of many musical stripes, perhaps within sight of some amber waves of grain. Massive respect to all involved, not least to the leadership of both Nonesuch and New Amsterdam, who joined forces to bring this behemoth to life.

Riot Ensemble - Speak, Be Silent On their third album, this London-based new music group comes into sharp focus with four world premiere recordings, including the title track, which they also commissioned. Kicking off with Chaya Czernowin’s Ayre throws down the gauntlet and puts their virtues on display with a fearless performance of a work that traverses from barbed wire knottiness to glassy sighs and moans. Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy, by Mirela Ivičevič, is even more colorful, a crisp synthesis of percussion, piano, winds, and strings that keeps you alert and on the edge of your seat even through repeated plays. Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent is three movements of an almost theatrical bent, including a dialog for a muted trumpet and an anguished violin, with the bold and colorful suspense of a Lalo Schifrin score. The album ends with the tense quiescence of Rebecca Saunders’s Stirrings Still II, which has the effect of centering the listener after all that came before. Also included is Thorvaldsdottir’s Ró, first recorded by the Capital Ensemble on Aerial in 2014. The Riot’s version is a bit slower, making for an even more hypnotic experience. It’s always good to see new works get further established in the repertoire with additional recordings, but the full strength of this album is in the premieres, and they are very strong indeed, and meticulously performed. 

Piccola Accademia Degli Specchi - William Susman: Collision Point While the name of the title piece may imply drama or even violence, this album is instead an inviting collection that finds a middle-ground between the pure charm of those mid-70’s Claude Bolling albums and Reichian repetition. The culmination of a 10-year collaboration with “the little academy of mirrors,” the pieces reflect Susman’s deep engagement with their unusual instrumentation of flute, saxophone, violin, cello, and piano four-hands, and the players fulfill their briefs with an appropriately light touch. 

Colin Hinton - Simulacra The line between composed and improvised music blurs most wondrously on percussionist Hinton's latest dense slab of jazz-like chamber music. The players, all of whom are longtime collaborators, distinguish themselves by dispatching whatever Hinton tosses their way, with special note paid to Edward Gavitt's exquisite work on both electric and acoustic guitar. My beloved Jimmy Giuffre and Kenyon Hopkins records now have a new friend. 

Cassie Wieland/Erich Barganier - in a (once-) blossomed place This split EP is an exciting snapshot of two composers who may just be moving too fast to make an album right now. Each demonstrates loads of sonic personality in their two tracks, from the organic feel of Wieland's Weeds, performed by line upon line percussion ensemble, to the strangled stridulations of Barganier's The Veneer Melts for two violins and electronics.  Grab on now - next time you look they will be somewhere else. Plus, for ten bucks you can get a tote bag and the digital album!

yMusic - Marcos Balter: We Carry Our Homes Within Us, Which Enables Us To Fly Composed for a Bill T. Jones dance piece, Balter's 20-minute work is full of melody, rhythm, and life. You can watch a terrific documentary on the their process of working together here - or you can just listen and explore your own language of movement to these lively and lovely sounds.

Clarice Jensen - Drone Studies This two-track single doubles down on the mesmerism Jensen, a cellist, composer, and co-founder of ACME, put forth on her awesome solo debut in 2018. Which means you will be deeply fascinated and experience some sublime psycho-acoustical effects while listening. My sense is that calling these finely crafted soundscapes "studies" is doing them a disservice as they feel entirely complete within themselves. More please.

Believe it or not, this is not everything that caught my attention in the classical sphere in 2019. Dive in to this playlist to find additional listening.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: Classical
Best Of 2017: Classical
Best Of 2016: Classical
Best Of 2015: Classical & Composed

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