New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: choral music

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.

Fascinating, Rare Choral Music From Georgia

In the Georgian language, zedashe means “jug.” The Republic of Georgia is home to one of the earliest wine-making civilizations, and also a deeply rooted tradition of choral music. So it’s no surprise that one of the country’s most celebrated choirs would call themselves Zedashe. Their latest album Silver Sanctuary is streaming at Bandcamp.

Traditional Georgian music sounds like nothing from the surrounding areas. Much of it is stark yet resonant. It follows neither traditional western, Arabic or other levantine scales or harmony. Zedashe are serious scholars, blending all sorts of large and small-scale songs from across the centuries with new arrangements, some based on musicological fragments they’ve unearthed over the years. Various configurations of the men and women of the ensemble join voices throughout this rather epic 22-track record, occasionally bolstered by drums, panduri and chonguri lute, accordion and bagpipes. Some of the songs feature lyrics in endangered regional languages including Chan and Megrelian.

Irony and hardship permeate this material. Unrequited love is a persistent theme, as are drinking and war. Couples bound for arranged marriages long for their true loves. Fables illustrate age-old human foibles. One of the songs salutes Queen Tamar, a 12th century strongwoman and patron of the arts. Others chronicle struggles against Russian invaders.

The longer, slower numbers tend to be more hypnotic and drony; the shorter, more kinetic ones often feature a lot of call-and-response. There are also a couple of impassioned solo performances.

And in keeping with this month’s theme here, this music is illegal to either perform or witness in most parts of the world. For anyone who missed this past year’s ACDA/NATS/ChorusAmerica webinar, most professional choirs don’t expect to be able to either rehearse or perform (outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow, or a small county in Idaho, anyway) for the next two years. Isn’t it about time we all raised our voices together against this madness?

A Matter-of-Factly Harrowing Eco-Disaster Cautionary Tale by Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered is not an appeal to a deity but to nature. Ultimately, it’s a cautionary tale, a plea for the survival of the environment rather than for the humans whose liturgies typically serve as text for such things. Backed by terse piano and a vivid chamber orchestra, Gabriel Crouch leads vocal ensemble Gallicantus in this intense, dynamic world premiere recording, streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the suite, Snider seamlessly interpolates the original latin with new text by first-class art-folk songwriter Nathaniel Bellows. The opening kyrie section, centered around variations on an eerie six-note riff, is a study in contrasts, somber ambience anchoring angst-fueled crescendos from the choir. Hypnotic yet acidic echo phrases rise to chilling heights: this is hardly an easy piece to sing, and the ensemble dig in mightily. 

The group negotiate the tricky counterpoint of the gloria over harp caught in limbo between icy belltone astringency and anthemic neoromanticism. A tritone menace appears as exchanges beetween the men and women of the choir rise and fall.

The alleluia is a mashup of Renaissance rhythmic grace and tensely pulsing minimalism. Snider’s gift for implied melody really comes to the forefront as the voices pick up with an uneasily dancing rhythm over steady harp, resonant winds and circling strings in the credo. A galloping low string figure stands out stunningly below the soaring, twinkling atmosphere above.

Snider combines the sanctus and benedictus sections with a minimalist bounce that brings to mind David Lang’s choral works. The voices reprise the suite’s initial angst, but also offer hope against hope, a bassoon swirling upward over the strings’ incisive, percussive phrases in the concluding agnus dei. Nothing like the apocalypse to inspire creativity, huh?

Meet Some People in a Legendary Brooklyn Graveyard This Month with Singer Gelsey Bell

Gelsey Bell devised her new album Cairns as a headphone-enhanced walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and much of it was recorded there. As fans of the space are aware, it is a working cemetery, and it’s open daily from 7 AM to 7 PM. In order to help get people off their screens and back into the outdoors this summer, she includes a map along with the album – a collaboration with composer Joseph White – streaming at Bandcamp.

Bell recommends that people who want to take the tour should download the album, since phone reception deep in the cemetery gets iffy. “It can also be experienced at home, letting the field recordings made at Green-Wood transport you there. Or you can get really weird with it and just listen walking in a totally different environment,” Bell explains. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, with helpful cues and some music too. “Let’s see if you can keep pace with me,” Bell says with a smile.

The music includes a soaring, Renaissance-influenced electroacoustic chorale, gentle accents that could be harp and bells, and lightly pulsing ambience. Bell is a friendly guide, full of historical insights and unselfconsciously poetic observations. You might not expect someone who can be such a force of nature onstage to speak as quietly as she does, with a break in her low register.

On this particular walk, she’s carrying a stone which she’s going to add to a cairn in the cemetery. There’s birdsong, sounds of wind, fragments of conversation and a vehicle or two. The first of a handful of permanent residents you will visit is an American Indian woman whose name, translated into English, means “Productive Pumpkin,” and who died while working while working for P.T. Barnum.

The others you will meet – in one way or another – include the guy who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium; the feminist scientist who in the 1850s discovered the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; a pair of women who lived beyond the century mark; and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bell also loves trees: you will encounter several, and learn a lot about them as well.

She also doesn’t shy away from the many grim political realities associated with those who reside along the way. This is definitely a People’s History of the cemetery. And in the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Bell suggests midway through the tour that everybody should take a five-minute break, without headphones, to listen to the musical quality of the surrounding nature.

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.