New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: choral music

Jacob Mühlrad’s Somber Choral Works Explore Ancient Jewish Themes

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad‘s new choral album Time – streaming at Spotify – weaves ancient Jewish melodies and rapturous original themes into a hauntingly intricate web of sound. Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin conduct the Swedish Radio Choir with an aptly meticulous touch throughout this serious, brooding, often gloomy and potently relevant music. Mühlrad seems determined to become the Jewish Arvo Part, and so far he’s off to a good start.

The album opens with Anim Zemirot, a five-part suite of miniatures inspired by the concluding hymm from the Jewish liturgy. Slow, somber waves rise and subside, often with a bracing contrast between men’s and women’s voices. As celebratory music goes, this is pretty dark.

The album’s central, title suite draws on the Tower of Babel myth and the increasingly arduous challenge to find global unity across borders. The composer bases it on the word “time” in 104 different languages. Like the album’s first track, its gravitas pulses slowly in waves, spaciously drifting or suddenly looming into the sonic picture. As he does throughout the album, Mühlrad employs pretty much the totality of the available spectrum, ominous lows balanced by similarly uneasy highs. Subtle echo effects are a deftly executed touch. Repetitive, rising figures which fall just short of imploring are very striking, as the ending, which is unexpected and too good to give away. Slow and methodical as this is, it’s also very challenging to sing, and the group rise to the occasion.

The simply titled Nigun is more nebulously immersive, with its long, sustained, enigmatically close-harmonied motives, a sort of liturgical paraphrase with a terse tenor solo at the center. The concluding suite, Kaddish, is a Holocaust remembrance utilizing texts by Elie Wiesel and the composer’s late grandfather – a survivor – along with the traditional prayer for the dead. The sheer stillness of the introduction packs a wallop, in contrast with the incantatory yet similarly otherworldly pace the ensemble reach as Mühlrad builds momentum.

Much as this is compelling music, the decision to separate each suite into its parts – many of them cut off suddenly after less than two minutes – becomes frustrating, and jars the listener out of a reverie. If that’s intended to boost Spotify nanopayments, someday somebody at the record label might have enough pocket change for a bus ride home.

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, long before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos and hysterical flu-apocalypse memes bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. All-female choir Quince Ensemble  sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable work from the past decade.

An Old World Premiere and an Ambitious New Choral Work From New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony are pretty much unique in the world of choral music in that they sing world premieres from five hundred years ago as well as from the here and now. The quartet – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – are as expertly protean as protean gets. One reason why they’re able to find so much fascinating, previously unreleased early music – beyond simply being experts at sleuthing it out – is that they’re smaller than most choirs and focus on the most intimate side of medieval masses and motets. The other is that they have sufficiently formidable chops to tackle this material – some of which was sung by boys at the time it was written – and Herbert’s steely upper register has a lot to do with that.

Their latest album And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide is streaming at Spotify. The group open with fifteenth century Flemish composer Loyset Compère’s stately, utterly otherworldly Crux Triumphans. The group’s resolute command of the pairing of highs against lows leaves the impression that they are a much larger ensemble: it’s a device that’s worked for everyone from Mozart to Gil Evans.

From there, the group shift seamlessly from a spaciously soaring, brief Josquin piece, to the hypnotic, swaying, terse echo effects and persistently unsettled ancient/modern harmonic juxtapositions of contemporary composer Andrew Smith‘s Salme 55.

A diptych by a slightly later fifteenth century Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert, features more dramatic upper register work. From there the group move on to alternately desolate and delicately rhythmic 20th century Estonian terrain for a psalm setting by Cyrillus Kreek.

Their latest old world premiere is Compère’s nine-part suite Officium de Cruce. It’s a Book of Hours meditation, its brief segments ranging from proto-operatic counterpoint to a mystical sway and back. The rather brooding sixth segment, where those rhythms intertwine, is the highlight. The quartet close the album with a thoughtful, spacious, benedictory work by a Compère contemporary, Pierre de la Rue [editor’s note – no relation :)].

The kinds of venues these guys would typically serenade a year ago are dragging their feet reopening, which only means that crowds are going to stick with the vastly less expensive speakeasy circuit when they do. A radical shift in how live music is presented in New York City is underway. The old venue-centric model is being replaced by a community and artist-based scene…and some would say that change is long overdue.

New York Polyphony Deliver a Timely World Premiere From 500 Years Ago

Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!
Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium
Princeps provinciarum facta est sub tributo

Those are the opening lines of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, set to music by Spanish composer Francisco de Peñalosa in the early 1500s. New York Polyphony sing the world premiere recording with radiance and gravitas on their most recent album Lamentationes, streaming at Spotify. Here’s a decent translation from the liner notes:

How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she who was great among nations
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave

Sound familiar?

But all hope is not lost! The recent push in the New York State legislature to strip Andrew Cuomo of his authority and restore democracy could have game-changing implications for the state of the arts here, and ultimately, around the world. If all goes well we might actually be able to see this once-ubiquitous quartet sing their irrepressible mix of the ancient and the cutting-edge somewhere in this city this year.

The ensemble – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – bookend their Peñalosa premiere around a brief, rather somber stabat mater by his contemporary, Pedro de Escobar. They open the album’s centerpiece slowly and stately, rising to the daunting demands of the composer’s range throughout this requiem for Jerusalem in the wake of the attack by Babylonian forces in 568 BC. Their unswerving resonance builds a hypnotic ambience as the music and the exchanges of phrases between voices grow slower, rising with considerably greater angst as the first part winds out. The second half, referencing divine retribution, is slower. more tersely focused, and also more immersively haunting as it goes on. It is a shock this music hasn’t been recorded before.

There are a handful of other, shorter Peñalosa compositions and excerpts from masses here as well. Texts from his Missa L’homme armé, based on a folk melody popular at the time, offer warner, hypnotically circling harmonies, stirring plainchant-inflected cadences, and benedictory resolution.

The album also includes a pair of works by a somewhat later Spanish composer, Francisco Guerrero: a wavelike 1555 setting from the Song of Songs and a brief, rousing vernacular work from 1598.

The Newberry Consort Unearth an Ultra-Rare, Thrilling Medieval Choral Suite

It never ceases to amaze how much interesting music has been gathering dust in archives for centuries and is only now reaching a mass audience. A prime example is the Newberry Consort’s joyous, often exhilarating new album Vespers – streaming at Spotify – a recording of early 17th century Mexican composer Juan de Lienas’ only known mass for treble choir. It has a very lively quality and a recurrent sense of triumph that prefigures Corelli. Christian liturgical music from that era seldom reaches the kind of peaks that the choir gather forces and then hit here. And with de Lienas’ demanding dynamics and range, this is not easy music to sing.

The composer’s use of uneven meters makes it all the more challenging: this is far more rhythmically sophisticated than the simple, swaying call-and-response of so much Renaissance choral music. It follows the order of a typical Catholic mass, in twelve parts. Meant to be sung in convents, an elegantly energetic ensemble with Frances Conover Fitch on organ, Katherine Shuldiner on viola da gamba and Rachel Begley on bajón handle the bass parts.

The choir begin with contrastingly upbeat and then solemn themes before launching into a series of long, intricately interwoven upward trajectories. Waltz time appears and then disappears just as unexpectedly. There’s a stunning proto-Mozartean crescendo of echo effects in the fourth movement. The eighth is a lilting organ prelude, utilizing mostly the flute stops: it wouldn’t be out of place in Sweelinck’s work.

The Magnificat is where everything comes together, with the mass’ most bracing harmonies and momentary introductions from solo organ. Interestingly, the choir wind it up with remarkable restraint: it’s as if de Lienas realized that this was a religious service, after all, and after all the fireworks he felt to conclude on a dignified note.

Beyond the composer’s small surviving output, we know next to nothing about him. Considering his command of the European choral traditions of his time, it would be astonishing if he hadn’t been born in Spain and trained somewhere on the continent. What he was doing in Mexico with the conquistadors is anybody’s guess. There has also been speculation that he was an Aztec determined to beat the invaders at their own game. He may have been a colorful and combative personality: the original manuscript for this piece is littered with invective scrawled in the margins. Whoever was responsible may have simply been jealous, given the originality and innovations of the music.

Devious, Innuendo-Packed, Gorgeously Sung Italian Court Music From 1592

Concerto Italiano’s dynamic, lush, elegantly impassioned new album of Claudio Monteverdi madrigals – streaming at Spotify – celebrates the profane side of a composer best known for his sacred works. That’s not to imply that this music is obscene – though some of it is as devilishly suggestive as a court choir could realistically perform in 1592, when Monteverdi’s third book of madrigals was published. And as anyone who’s ever been swept away by his Vespers of 1610 knows, his religious works were no less radiantly melodic.

This album attests to the longstanding theory that people from a composer’s home turf are its best interpreters. Concerto Italiano sing this lavish collection in medieval Italian rather than the church Latin of Monteverdi’s masses. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducts.

Some of the juiciest texts are from the world of folk music, others by the composer’s contemporaries Torquato Tasso and Gian Battista Guarini. Young maidens who seem perfectly demure turn out to be hotties once you get to know them. Unrequited love is a persistent if not ubiquitous theme – there’s plenty of innuendo in the happy endings. Monteverdi also includes a couple of somber, understatedly grisly, vengeful kiss-off anthems.

Several of these relatively short songs are rounds, some rambunctious, others woven in more expansive, concentric circles. The choir pass the baton from crescendo to crescendo innumerable times: the waves of harmony are no less lively for their precision.

A brooding song addressed to a nightingale and a salamander – the latter thought to be able to reincarnate through fire – is one of the album’s most haunting moments, as is the second track, a lost-love lament. Flames leap from the sopranos’ evocation of the fire of love, high above the men of the ensemble in the seventh madrigal. And the women’s imploring echo effects in the eighteenth track are breathtaking as well.

An Unintentionally Prophetic Choral Reflection on a Genuine Health Crisis From a Century Ago

The irony in renowned new-music choir the Crossing’s recording of David Lang’s Protect Yourself From Infection – streaming at Bandcamp – is crushing. In September 2019, about a month before the lockdowners got together for their first rehearsal for their planned global takeover the following year, Philadelphia’s legendary Mutter Museum sponsored a parade in memory of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. This calmly pulsing, subtly funny, roughly six-minute chorale was commissioned for the event. It’s safe to say that at the time, neither the composer, choir or museum staff had the slightest idea that a cabal springboarded by the World Economic Forum would succeed in rebranding the 2019-20 seasonal flu as a terrifying plague, and a pretext for turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare.

The choir steadily punch in and out, harmonizing on a single chord, voicing a series of commonsense ways to stay healthy which are just as useful today as they would have been in 1918, had the general public been aware of how disease spreads. Meanwhile, individual voices from the ensemble sing a litany of names, presumably people who perished in the outbreak just over a hundred years ago. With choral performances on ice in most parts of the world, the Crossing have been releasing a series of videos over the past year, and this is the most compelling of the bunch.

Archive Raiders Release World Premieres of Ultra-Rare Baroque Music From Sweden

Baroque band ACRONYM’s name stands for Archive Crawlers; Researchers Of Niche Yellowed Manuscripts. They share a mission with this blog: to shed light on undeservedly obscure music. Lately the group have been sifting through the Duben Collection, a 18th century archive founded and maintained by a multi-generational family who served as directors of music for the royal court of Sweden. Virtually all this material, a vast range of choral, orchestral and chamber works, is either out of print or previously unpublished; none of it had been recorded until ACRONYM started releasing it. Their third album of these incredibly rare works, Cantica Obsoleta, is streaming at New Focus Recordings. It’s a mix of instrumental and vocal pieces featuring contemporary and period instruments including viols, violone, theorbo, harpsichord, organ and guitar. This isn’t mere esoterica. Everything here deserves a life beyond the confines of this album, and that may well happen once we get rid of the lockdown and early music groups outside of where this music originated begin to discover what’s here.

As you would expect, most of the composers on the album are reaching a global audience for the first time ever; interestingly, very few included on this album are Swedish by ancestry. The ensemble open with an emphatically pulsing take of Sonata a5 in D Minor, by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, a highly regarded Viennese violinist of the mid-1600s. This piece for string orchestra begins as a quasi-canon and eventually morphs into a lushly lilting country dance.

The singers – soprano Hélène Brunet, alto Reginald Mobley, tenor Brian Giebler and bass Jonathan Woody – romp through the ratcheting counterpoint of a Handel-like cantata by Johann Philipp Krieger, a German organist active in the 17th and early 18th century. One of the better-known figures here, Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi, is represented by a lustrous, rather starry, fascinatingly shifting lament.

Another 17th century German organist, Christian Geist is immortalized via a pensively waltzing number built around a stately descending progression. It is plausible that Johann Jacob Löwe might have been one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s first organ teachers: his Sonata a6 in E-flat Major comes across as a dance suite packed with dynamic and rhythmic shifts.

According to the album liner notes, Czech-born organist Samuel Capricornus was a colorful and combative personality; his hymn here gives Woody a real workout. Christian Flor, one of the few Swedish composers on this playlist, has a shapeshifting mini-suite for violas, organ and vocals, sung lyrically by Mobley. Brunet premieres the album’s sparest piece, by one of the archive’s few woman composers, Venetian-born singer Caterina Giani.

The final four works here are especially strong. Anchored by spare bass viol, the album’s arguably most compelling and plaintive piece is a diptych by yet another German organist, Johann Martin Radeck. Very little is known about Andreas Kirchhoff, whose gracefully contrapuntal Sonata a6 in G Minor is also very dynamic and colorful.

The most lushly majestic of the vocal works here is by a final German organist, Christian Ritter. The ensemble close with a moody but very lively cantata by one of the archive’s most obscure composers, vioinist Daniel Eberlin, who supported himself with a variety of dayjobs and possibly a life of crime on the side.

This is obviously a labor of love, and a passionate contribution to our collective musical knowledge from a crew including violinists and violists Beth Wenstrom, Edwin Huizinga, Adriane Post, Johanna Novom and Chloe Fedor; violist Kyle Miller; viol players Loren Ludwig, Zoe Weiss and Kivie Cahn-Lipman; violone player Doug Balliett; organist/harpsichordist Elliot Figg and theorbo player/guitarist John Lenti.

An Epic, Hauntingly Resonant Achievement by One of the World’s Great Choirs

Last year, the Tallis Scholars released the thrilling final chapter in their epic recording of the complete masses of Josquin des Pres. It took the world’s most highly acclaimed Renaissance choral ensemble thirty-four years to complete the cycle. The sense of triumph in group founder Peter Phillips’ liner notes to the final album – streaming at Spotify – is visceral:

“When we started recording Josquin in 1986 there was no intention to launch a series; but slowly I began to understand that with his eighteen Masses – a just about manageable number for a single recording project – my principle would still be respected, simply because Josquin refused to do the same thing twice. Like Beethoven in his symphonies, Josquin used basically the same line-up of performers to create dramatically individual sound-worlds every time he wrote for them. I realised that every album could indeed be an event, and that the complete set – if we ever managed to finish it – would be a major event. Like exploring Beethoven’s symphonies, the differing sound-worlds inherent in Josquin’s handling of his chosen medium were there for the taking: it was our task to find them. It has been a search which at times has proved extremely taxing, not least because of Josquin’s crazily wide voice-ranges. But it has defined the career of The Tallis Scholars.”

Where was this major event celebrated? It wasn’t. The Tallis Scholars completed their first US tour in eons a couple of years ago…but that was before the lockdowners rebranded a seasonal flu as the apocalypse, and used it as a pretext for criminalizing live music in most parts of the world. For now, as more and more of the world breaks free of the lockdown, we have this album to inspire us while we look forward to returning to normal.

The blend of voices here is characteristically celestial. There’s been plenty of turnover in the choir since they first took the stage almost fifty years ago; the current lineup features a cast as strong as ever. There are three pieces here, each of them dating from around 1500. There’s one written for the Duke of Ferrara in Italy, as well as the Missa D’ung aultre amer, and the Missa Faysant Regretz. That latter title may remind you of a Cole Porter song; it’s actually a requiem of sorts. This music is state-of-the-art for its time, foreshadowing the counterpoint and the devious mathematics of Bach.

Each is a radically different setting of a liturgical theme. Few if any of the robber barons of the Middle Ages were religious, but they paid lip service to it since it helped keep the peasants in line…and provided a convenient excuse to throw a party. In the first mass, Josquin cleverly uses musical code to weave a local dictator’s name into the music, a European counterpart to what the praise singers of sub-Saharan Africa were doing for the tyrants in their part of the world.

There’s well over an hour’s worth of music here. Baritones resound, sopranos soar and intertwine, often ranging from stark to lush and back in the course of less than a couple of minutes. This is most noticeable in the second mass, composed of very brief segments. The Amen section of the Missa Faysant Regretz will give you chills, and the effect lingers through successive interludes. The way the composer uses the simplest riffs to build increasingly complex webs will entrance you…literally.  And the echo effects, and dynamic shifts will lift you out of your reverie in appreciation of how talented musicians and composers managed to transcend the restrictions of an earlier era, one which more and more eerily has come to resemble our own.

A Gorgeous Live Recording of an Iconic Renaissance Choral Epic

Taken out of historical context, the Green Mountain Project’s final January 2020 concert performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 – streaming at Bandcamp – is epically electrifying. Considering the hideous events of the past nine months, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow and a few (slowly growing) parts of the world, it is illegal to either perform, or invite audiences to attend. How fortuitous it was that the ensemble decided to go out when they did – with a bang. This is a particularly high-voltage performance.

Choir directors Jolle Greenleaf and Scott Metcalfe first staged the iconic Renaissance choral work at St. Mary’s Church in midtown Manhattan in January of 2010. It became an annual tradition, finally winding up a year ago, the impassioned voices joined by strings, the period brass of the Dark Horse Consort, and organist Jeffrey Grossman. This massive double live album isn’t quite the complete show: brief, more mundane moments of call-and-response have been omitted. The group sing it at a slightly elevated Venetian pitch, as choirs where the composer was employed four centuries ago would have. Another fascinating accession to tradition is that most of the mass is sung one voice to a particular part, and every one of the soloists rises to the occasion.

Maybe because this is a concert recording, there are places where the instruments are as loud as the voices, occasionally even more so, everyone benefiting from the space’s immense amounts of natural reverb. The choir and instrumentalists handle Monteverdi’s intertwining counterpoint effortlessly and seem to relish hitting the big swells. Angels duel in strong, elegant, melismatic vocalese. Women soar over the men’s steady river of lows and the lustrously balanced orchestration: the wordless sonata that opens the second disc is a lush, majestic highlight.

Another welcome feature that older listeners typically take for granted is that this recording is divided up into a mere 24 tracks, a handful of which go on for almost ten minutes at a time. It’s not quite the equivalent of a vinyl record, but happily this album eschews the recent and incredibly annoying tendency for record labels to slice classical pieces up into dozens of fragments, presumably to maximize Spotify nanopayments.