Sunday, July 17, 2016

Record Roundup: Classical Composure

While I'm not sure that the paradigm of sitting motionless and silent while teams of black-clad virtuosi play music makes sense any more, I still believe that classical and orchestral music are among humanity's great achievements. As much as I might like to blow up the performance paradigm, I am equally heartened by the vitality of the scene when it comes to exciting composers and performers who are doing exactly what they want to do. Here are a few of them. 

Errollyn Wallen - Photography This Belize-born Briton is an uncommon hybrid of composer, singer, pianist and songwriter. On this, the second album featuring her classical writing, she displays a remarkable facility with composing and arranging while - crucially - connecting to emotion and storytelling. The white-hot inevitability of her music has me sold even though I often inveigh against contemporary classical that uses essentially traditional forms. The opening Cello Concerto is a one-movement work for cello and string orchestra that is constructed with the proportionality of a master architect. The cello line is impassioned but controlled and there is evidence of a deep understanding of not only classical form, but even Baroque styles. This is history-mining of the highest order, played flawlessly by Matthew Sharp, and you will hang on every note. Hunger follows, a short piece for full orchestra that is not so much in debt to Shostakovich as channeling him. The title even implies a moral dimension, which would please him no end - but not as much as the sheer narrative excitement and clever orchestration. Photography features the string orchestra again for four movements of sheer, shimmering beauty. Wallen isn't pushing any envelopes here, just displaying fully engaged artistry, like a chef who renews a familiar dish by using the finest ingredients. 

The last piece, In Earth, may be the most original on the album, which is slightly ironic considering that it takes off on Purcell's 17th Century song When I Am Laid In Earth, sometimes known as Dido's Lament. So often has this piece been excerpted from Dido And Aeneas, Purcell's operatic masterpiece, that it is practically a second British national anthem. In a flight of fancy I had while listening to Wallen's reimagined version I even found a through-line in this sorrowful song straight to See That My Grave Is Kept Clean - and thus to the British fascination with American blues. But that's a think-piece for another day. All I'll say further is you gotta hear it - and it demands to be played on a decent sound system so you can hear every sepulchral note of Tim Harries' seismic electric bass. You won't soon forget this song, which is beautifully sung by Wallen herself, or the rest of Photography, which is certain bring more attention to this important new voice. 

Lisa Moore - The Stone People Here is someone who will delve without fear into the furthest reaches of piano music (seek out her Frederick Rzewski interpretations) and come up smiling. Her relentless curiosity and absolute commitment have served her well in assembling this album, which contains John Luther Adams' complete music for the instrument. Two of his pieces are quite demanding, but not in the way you might think, as there are no furious runs here. It's more about belief. And Moore believes. There's also Kate Moore's shamanistic Sleabh Bleagh and a memorable vignette, Orizzonte, by Missy Mazzoli, which is well worth the journey. Intriguing works by Julia Wolfe and Martin Bresnick complete a very substantial program. Maybe not for everyone, or for every mood, but you'll never hear these pieces played better. 

Michael Mizrahi - Currents If you're looking for a more meditative contemporary piano album, get up on Mizrahi's soulful collection, featuring short pieces by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke. It's lovely music that avoids New Age bathos. Let Satie rest next Sunday morning and give this a try.

Alarm Will Sound - Modernists This is a kind of "save the pieces" album for me, but what pieces! The orchestrations of Revolution #9 by The Beatles (I always knew there was music in there) and Edgard Varese's seminal Poeme Electronique are flat-out wonderful. While one might reasonably question the value of taking the electronics or tapes out of pieces famously built on them, I will only say trust me. This is fun, adventurous, and eye-opening music-making. The rest of the album, made of works by Wolfgang Rihm, Charles Wuorinen, Augusta Read Thomas, and John Orfe, is perfectly fine but not especially exciting or distinctive. Put Revolution #9 and Poeme Electronique on a playlist with Bang On A Can's dazzling interpretation of Eno's Music For Airports for a more satisfying mix.

Cypress String Quartet - Beethoven: The Early String Quartets Random records come over the transom and sometimes I'm like "Why? Why did they send this to me? Why did they even make this?" But I put it on and, while I didn't do a full investigation, I can say that this has to be the equal of, or better than, any other version of this sublime music. The recording is close, but not too close (no creaking chairs) and the playing is light and completely free of any stuffiness. I have to say that between this and Leif Ove Andsnes' recording of Piano Concerto #2, I'm starting to have a strong preference for Beethoven's early work. The members of the Cypress obviously love this music, too, and enjoy playing it together, so why not start here if you're looking for Beethoven string quartets? P.S. They also did the Late Quartets but I haven't heard them yet.

Let me know what you think of this "short takes" format - it's a good way to keep up with the deluge!

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Tunes
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas
The Inspired Viola of Melia Watras
Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor
Bach & Levit: Partita Animals

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