Saturday, January 29, 2022

Best Of 2021: Classical

I tried mightily to deliver to your ears the many excellent releases in this category as they came my way, but the deluge got the best of me pretty early on. As is usual in these genre-specific lists, I'll first give you links to what I've previously covered followed by pocket reviews of other albums that helped define my year. Selections from everything that's on Spotify* are included in this playlist or below. That said, I got a new CD player this year and have delighted in rediscovering the impact and expressiveness the format can have - many thanks to all the labels still providing physical promos!


Celebrating 2021: New Year, New Music
Tak Ensemble - Taylor Brook: Star Maker Fragments
Sid Richardson - Borne By A Wind
Susie Ibarra - Talking Gong
Patricia Brennan - Maquishti
Adam Morford & Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Yesterday Is Two Days Ago

Record Roundup: Sonic Environments
Mariel Roberts - Armament
Benjamin Louis Brody/Ian Chang - Floating Into Infinity
Angelica Olstad - Transmute

Record Roundup: Chiaroscuro
Akropolis Reed Quintet - Ghost Light
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė - Saudade
Christopher Cerrone - A Natural History of Vacant Lots and The Arching Path

Record Roundup: Song Forms
Will Liverman and Paul Sanchez - Dreams Of A New Day: Songs By Black Composers
Caroline Shaw - Narrow Sea

Record Roundup: Novelty Is Not Enough
Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It
Kenneth Kirschner & Joseph Branciforte - From The Machine, Vol. 1
Peter Gilbert - Burned Into The Orange
Chris Campbell - Orison

Record Roundup: Enigmas And Excitations
José Luis Hurtado - Parametrical Counterpoint
Rarescale + Scott L. Miller - 05 IX
Douglas Boyce - The Hunt By Night

Record Roundup: On An Island
Alarm Will Sound - Tyshawn Sorey: For George Lewis | Autoschediasms
Michael Compitello - Unsnared Drum
Molly Herron + Science Ficta - Through Lines
Van Stiefel - Spirits
Ning Yu & David Bird - Iron Orchid

Record Roundup: Solos, Duos, Ensembles
Berglind María Tómasdóttir - Ethereality
Wu Man and Kojiro Umezaki - 流芳Flow
The City Of Tomorrow - Blow
Recap - Count To Five 
Borderlands Ensemble - The Space In Which To See
Loadbang - Plays Well With Others
Tak Ensemble - Brandon Lopez: Empty And/Or Church of Plenty
Ensemble Interactivo de La Habana - Studio Session
Nate Wooley - Mutual Aid Music
JACK Quartet - Christopher Otto: rags'ma
Miki Sawada and Brendan Randall-Myers - A Kind Of Mirror
Julia Den Boer - Kermès

Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion - Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part As I noted in my review, their previous release, Narrow Sea, left me wanting more, and now I have it! Consider this proof of the concept behind that song cycle, which let the Sō percussionists run wild with expressive clicks, clatters, and rhythmic inventions. Except, instead of Dawn Upshaw, it is Shaw herself who sings these 10 art song arrangements of everything from hymns and Joyce to Anne Carson and Abba. Of the latter, I will say that if you're skeptical - as I am - of the Swedish pop star's genius, I can at least say that it does not offend in this context. In fact, the album flows beautifully, with Shaw's crystalline soprano connecting all the dots, and ends with a sublime take on Some Bright Morning (also known as I'll Fly Away) which sounds wonderfully ancient and modern all at once.

Adam Roberts - Bell Threads I may be a romantic at heart, but when I see artists like AndPlay, Hannah Lash, the JACK Quartet, and Bearthoven on a portrait album, I like to think of them clamoring to play the music of an exciting composer. For all I know, it's just another gig for them - "work is good," as we used to say in the freelance photo biz - but at least it also serves as a guarantee of quality in the performances! In any case, had I been paying closer attention, I might have remembered Roberts' playful piece for Transient Canvas on their 2017 album, Sift, but I'm not that cool. This is also his second portrait album, with the first coming out on Tzadik in 2014, so I'm even further behind than I thought. But maybe you are, too, so I can only urge you to get to know this colorful, inventive, and versatile composer ASAP - and you might as well start here. 

Whether you drink deeply from the dark and tangled duos for violin and viola (Shift Differential (2011) and Diptych (2019), masterfully played by AndPlay (Maya Bennardo, violin; Hannah Levinson, viola), or get lost in the sparkling web of Lash's harp in Rounds (2017), you will find yourself drawn into Roberts' world as if by a brilliant storyteller. There's also an Oboe Quartet (2016-17), played by the JACK with Erik Behr, that toys with classical form like a cat with twine, and the title piece (2009), a fine solo work for Levinson's viola. The deal-sealer for me, however, was Happy/Angry Music (2017), an angular, ruminative, and ultimately explosive suite of composed almost-jazz - not dissimilar from Sylvie Courvoisier's recent stuff - played with total immersion by Bearthoven (Karl Larson, piano; Matt Evans, percussion; Pat Swoboda, bass). Bell Threads was a wonderful, if belated, introduction to Roberts, now someone for whom my radar is firmly set.

David Fulmer - Sky's Acetylene This piece for flute (Mindy Kaufman), harp (Nancy Allen), percussion (Dan Druckman), piano (Eric Huebner), and double bass (Max Zeugner) has been sitting in the can since 2017, when the New York Philharmonic premiered it as part of their now-defunct Contact! series. The music remains well in advance of its sell-by date, however, a fresh and fascinating exploration of interplay and solo sonorities of the imaginatively assembled forces for 13 dazzling minutes. A chamber work with orchestral sweep. I should pay closer attention to Fulmer, whose Speak Of The Spring was one of the works gracing Michael Nicholas' remarkable Transitions back in 2016.

Michael Pisaro-Liu - Stem Flower Root "Holy shit, that's the most romantic-sounding thing I've ever heard you play!" So said composer Ingrid Laubrock when hearing trumpeter Nate Wooley playing a dress rehearsal of this piece. Commissioned by Wooley as part of his For/With Festival, and composed for b-flat trumpet with a variety of mutes and sine waves, the 30-minute piece has three distinct parts. Laubrock was probably talking about Flower, the middle section, which has a languor one might associate with Chet Baker. In the dense but beautiful essay included in the chapbook that accompanies the project, Pisaro-Liu notes that it is a "symmetrical collection of five arcs or five petals on a flower, with each petal picking up where the previous had left off." The opening and closing sections are meditations on tone, single notes blown through different mutes. The chapbook also has a series of "Anatomies" by Wooley (from whence the Laubrock quote comes), where he writes: "Every time a trumpet is muted, a pathway to a new sonic universe is laid." So true, whether it's Miles Davis playing Someday My Prince Will Come or the incantations Wooley lays down here. This sublime project is the first of the For/With pieces to be recorded - more to come in 2022. While the $7 digital download comes with a PDF of the chapbook, for just another $5 I recommend splurging on the physical book to treat yourself to a more immersive experience. There's something to be said for looking away from a screen from time to time!

Dustin White - Ri Ra Boasting seven world-premiere recordings of 21st century works for C, alto, and bass flute - all inspired by middle eastern traditions - this debut highlights an engaged and adventurous musician. His generosity extends to his website, with ample bios for each composer (Parisa Sabet, Erfan Attarchi, Sami Seif, Imam Habibi, Ata Ghavidel, Wajdi Abou Diab, Katia Makdissi-Warren) and links to their socials. This was especially helpful as all were unfamiliar to me. The album flows nicely, rising to a head on the penultimate track, Diab's The Awiss Dance (2020), based on an ancient rhythm used by Arabian tribesmen to make horses and camels dance. It's a wonderful piece that may have you get up from your seat to match its percussive flair. How often can you say that about a flute album?

Amanda Gookin - Forward Music Project 2.0: In This Skin When I reviewed the first volume in this series focusing on women composers, I remarked I would be on high alert for the next one. Now, that anticipation has been repaid by this new collection, featuring seven pieces commissioned by Gookin to spotlight female empowerment and strength. Many of the pieces use visceral techniques to reflect their rootedness in the body, whether the "everyday erotics" of Alex Temple's Tactile, the three ages of woman reflected in Kamala Sankaram's Belly, or the embodied anger of Shelley Washington's Seething. In addition to Gookin's stunning cello playing, the tracks may feature spoken word, singing, electronics, or bass drum, creating a variety of compelling textures. While Tactile highlights Gookin's own bell-like vocals, Veiled by Niloufar Nourbakhsh uses the voices of Chelsea Loew and Solmaz Badri to pay tribute to the resilience of women who have stood up to Islamic extremism. As on volume one, the inspirations and background stories (Paola Prestini cites the Kavanaugh hearings as fuel for her piece, To Tell A Story) certainly enrich the experience of listening but are not required reading to know that the composers and Gookin are being given free reign of expression and are exploring areas of true passion. All of that comes through in the music, loud and clear. Bring on 3.0!

Gyda Valtÿsdöttir - Ox (also on Limited edition vinyl) On her last album, the Icelandic cellist, composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist traversed 2,000 years of musical history. On Ox, she focuses on erasing genre, creating a transporting song cycle that touches on ambient, electronic, art-pop, and chamber music. Based on its title alone, Cute Kittens Lick Cream may be the archetypal piece here, embracing an up-to-the-minute languor that should decorate whatever place in which you shelter with gentle colors and gauzy textures. Let it envelop you.

Berglind Maria Tómasdóttir - The Lokkur Project: Music For Lokkur | Lokkur Reworks | Duet When I reviewed Ethereality, Tómasdóttir's "spellbinding" album of flute music earlier in 2021, little did know that I had just been granted a key to a marvelous world of invention and surprise. But I did not hesitate to respond with an enthusiastic "YES" when she offered to send me her next album, which was accompanied by a cassette and a book related to the project. Based on a pair of supposedly ancient Icelandic instruments - which she invented and built - Tómasdóttir has created a lighthearted investigation into national and cultural identity that has also led to some very real and very captivating music. The Lokkur, and its earlier incarnation, the Hrokkur, uses a foot-powered wheel to create a spidery drone on a stringed instruments, which can also be plucked or knocked to create other sounds and manipulate the pitch. Music For Lokkur opens and closes with solos that give an idea of the beguiling possibilities of the instrument.  The four tracks in the middle are compositions by others that also include vocals, making for impressionistic folk songs that could point Björk in some new directions. All are profoundly odd and yet somehow comforting, except for Langlínusamtal viõ fúskara, which has some distorted vocals that I found off-putting. 

The cassette, which includes "reworks" by friends and collaborators including Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, Clint McCallum, Elín Gunnlaugsdóttir, and Erik DeLuca is a gem throughout, however. Each composer was sent a bank of sounds from the Lokkur and Hrokkur and encouraged to let their imaginations run free, creating atmospheric soundscapes that could create an alternate history of minimalism, not to mention electronic and ambient music. An early favorite is Kurt Uenala's Weltraum Rework, which accrues more synthesized details as a Lokkur loop repeats hypnotically, eventually arriving at an abstract groove not far from something by Autechre. 

Finally, there is the book, a beautiful hardcover with an embossed cover and many illustrations, containing a dialogue between Tómasdóttir and her alter ego, Rock River Mary (derived from Berg (rock), Lind (river), Maria (Mary)), in which they spar amusingly about the origins of the Lokkur Project, the challenges of being a woman in academia and the music world, differences between Iceland and America, and many other subjects. The sense of going through the looking glass while reading this delightful book is not unlike how I felt reading Pale Fire by Nabokov. All together, the Lokkur Project reveals Tómasdóttir as an utter original. I will endeavor to be less surprised when she blows my mind again.

Ensemble Dal Niente - confined. speak. The idea that the pandemic has brought with it both challenges and opportunities is by now a near cliché. However, there's no doubt that this flexible Chicago group has met the former and grasped the latter in exemplary fashion. After working up six pieces by composers including Hilda Paredes and George Lewis for livestream performances, they realized they had an album in the making. Featuring works for anywhere from two to 14 performers, the ensemble's versatility is on full display here, along with their brilliance in a variety of modes. From the mysteries of Andile Khulamalo's Beyond Her Mask (2021), which also features soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw, to the sardonic wit of Lewis's Merce And Baby (2012), composed for a John Cage tribute, they run the full gamut. Executive Director and harp genius Ben Melsky gets a starring role in Paredes' Demente Cuerda (2004), while ensemble members Igor Santos and Tomás Gueglio both have new works performed. All is full of color and detail, making for a rich listening experience. Somewhere along the way, Dal Niente also found the time to contribute to New Works From The Virginia Center For Computer Music, which includes more great harp music and throws electronics into the mix. It highlights a robust academic program of which I was previously unaware, yet there's nothing studious about the music, which is consistently absorbing. Their name literally means "from nothing," and it seems nothing can hold them down!

Richard Carr - Over The Ridge Carr is also someone who has used the pandemic fruitfully, taking a break from his usual metier of improvised and electronic music to put pen to paper and write material for string quartet. His rolodex is also impressive as he reached out to violist and composer Caleb Burhans, who assembled an ad hoc group - including cello maven Clarice Jensen - to play it. With violinists Laura Lutzke and Ravenna Lipchik filling out the group, and Carr himself adding violin on five tracks, the sound is full and involving. The result is this gorgeous album, which somehow manages to combine a Medieval stateliness with an earthy naturalism, even drawing in strains of Americana. Four of the pieces have all players improvising based on structures created by Carr. It's testament to their taste and creativity that all the music here, whether scored or improvised, displays the same taste, musicianship, and creativity. A quiet wonder.

Now Ensemble - Sean Friar: Before And After Completed after a three year process of improvisation and collaboration between composer and ensemble, this often has a burnished, pensive quality, with occasional bite from Mark Danciger's electric guitar. There's also a swirling business to some sections, that seems to have a psychological impetus, like a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack for a Hitchcock film. There is, in fact, a programmatic element to the eight-movement work, with Friar calling it "a rumination on the lifespan of civilizations, on our own small place in the larger rhythm of the world." But you will be excused for thinking your own thoughts while listening, or just for admiring the beauty of the sounds and the adventurousness of the artists involved, who also include Logan Coale (bass), Alicia Lee (clarinet), Michael Mizrahi (piano) and Alex Sopp (flute).

John Luther Adams - Arctic Dreams Since it is unlikely that a mere mortal such as I will ever experience listening to "wind harps on the tundra," as Adams did while conceiving of this glorious shimmer of a piece, this album will have to do. Composed for four singers (the superb Synergy Voices) and a string quartet, and enhanced by three-layers of digital delay, the seven movements, each with titles like "Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around," seem to suspend time itself as they assemble in your ears. While individual words rarely register, the texts describe natural Arctic features in the languages of the Iñupiat and Gwich’in peoples of Alaska, adding additional depth to the music. Adams brings a technical rigor and a humbleness before nature to bear here, not unlike the work of his namesake, Ansel Adams, who did the same in his photography. Though the forces are far smaller, Adams' achievement here is equal to epic orchestral works like Become Ocean - massive!

These are far from the only albums in this realm that provided delight and fascination throughout 2021. For more, I urge you to check out my Of Note In 2021: Classical (Archive). To hear what the Recording Academy deemed "of note," give a listen to my handy Classical Grammy Nominations 2022 playlist. And to see what develops this year, please follow Of Note In 2022 (Classical)

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*I am fully aware of the multitude of issues around Spotify, whether their payment structures or their lax approach to content mediation, and am actively researching alternatives.

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