New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: classical music

Why a Symphony From 1935 Matters More Than Ever

The events of 2020 under the lockdown are eerily similar to 1935. By then, the Nazi campaign of genocide had begun, with the mass murder of disabled and cripped people, all of them euthanized by the German medical establishment. Here in the US, the President recently announced a deal with the huge pharmacy conglomerate Wallgreens to kill off residents of nursing homes with the Bill Gates needle of death. When are the general public going to wake up? Eighty-five years ago, Europe didn’t until it was too late to stop the Nazi war machine. If that historical precedent holds true, we are in trouble. As Pastor Martin Niemoller famously recalled, “Then they went after the Jews. Then they came for us.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was premiered in 1935, by an earlier version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins, lifelong champion of the Romantic tradition, conducts them in this latest recording, which hasn’t hit the web yet. If there was specific content or narrative in his music, the composer usually made that very clear, and he didn’t do that in this case. Still, this symphony is chillingly a reflection of its time, and in that sense, a cautionary tale.

As this storm gathers momentum, chromatics that stop thisshort of frantic cede to restlessly circling, gusty variations that rise with an increasing unease: hindsight may be 20/20, but it’s impossible not to read rumors of war into this. Brabbins immediately dims the lights for the comforting nocturne that morphs out of it: could this be a reflection on the momentary honeymoon between wars for the English people?

Likewise, a stalking pulse from the strings rises to enigmatic luste, persistent disquiet disappearing in favor of twilit serenity in the second movement; yet it ends broodingly. A darkly bristling, distinctly Russian-tinged dance opens the third and transforms into a march in the last movement, albeit with suspiciously sarcastic humor. Again, Brabbins pulls the orchestra for a comforting lull, which doesn’t last. The Beethovenesque series of false endings grow more and more foreboding, to the point where the impact remains long beyond the final, seemingly sardonic blast of low brass.

Where is the 2020 counterpart to this troubled masterpiece? Probably still being written. The operative question is whether we’ll ever be able to hear it. In the UK in 1935 it was legal for an orchestra to perform in front of an audience..

This album opens with Vaughan Williams’ radically different “Pastoral” Symphony No. 3. As inspired by World War I gravesites as by the English countryside of the composer’s youth, it’s one of the quietest pieces in the symphonic repertoire, at least before the explosion of spectral music in the early 1980s.

The first movement comes across as sleepy time for heroes –an update on the wave motion the composer explored in his Sea Symphony – along with vast Dvorakian vistas. Maybe that influence explains the minor blues riff that anchors one of the main themes. The gentle, steadily ratcheting counterpoint introduced in the first movement comes further to the forefront in the more stark, spare, folksy second one. Alan Thomas’ long, restrained, distantly troubled trumpet solo is the highlight here.

Heroes wake up vociferously as the third movement gets underway, larks quickly ascend to the trees and some bustling and strutting ensues – yet quietly. Soprano Elizabeth Watts animatedly brings back the blues riffs over an almost imperceptible stillness to introduce the conclusion, rising to disorienting, fragmentary exchanges before the serene intertwine of the first movement returns. From there Brabbins meticulously leads the slow rise to a momentary triumph and descent into nocturnal content and contemplation, Watts adding celestial lustre at the end.

The record is also noteworthy for including the world premiere of Vaughan Williams’ previously unpublished cantata Saraband “Helen,” a setting of a Christopher Marlowe text about Helen of Troy. Brabbins’ arrangement is sober and understated; tenor David Butt Philip sings expressively over the increasingly bittersweet sweep of the orchestra and choir.

A Chilling Live Recording of a Poignantly Resonant Michael Hersch Suite

With recording studios officially off limits to large ensembles, and musicians for all intents and purposes unable to earn a living playing concerts with large groups, many classical artists have been sifting through the archives for live recordings made before the lockdown. One harrowing gem among them is composer Michael Hersch’s I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon, streaming at Bandcamp. The centerpiece is a fifteen-part suite recorded live at the Aldeburgh Music Festival in 2018.

The concert begins with a new version of an earlier piece for voice, violin, and cello, …das Rückgrat berstend (German for “bent back”), a setting of a Christopher Middleton poem. The concert’s two sopranos, Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy alternate German and English phrases over keening overtones from strings and winds which slowly rise to sudden, sharp peaks and then subside, or burst and then vanish. it’s a vivid portrait of madness.

The album’s central suite interchanges texts from correspondence written by Hersh’s friend Mary Harris O’Reilly alongside poetry by Rebecca Elson, each author a woman who died young from cancer. Hersch, a cancer survivor himself, has explored this theme before, notably in his macabre End Stages suite. In a sense, this is a sequel, although the texts add poignancy as the narrative traces O’Reilly’s inevitable decline.

A toubled, microtonal haze punctuated by gloomy piano sets the stage for a quick diagnosis and a good prognosis which soon evaporates. High harmonics linger ominously while bustle and turbulence emerges below, only to disappear. Arioso hope against hope breaks down into calm, but only fleetingly, and then sheer horror ensues with the singers at the top of their range. The sweep of the orchestration grows to a pained, often wistful grandeur as the suite nears the end. As a portrait of uncertainty and terror – not to mention a chronicle of ineffective new drugs failing to help the critically ill – it matches anything the lockdowners have thrown at us this year.

A brave and important work for the inspired ensemble of clarinetist Raphael Schenkel, bassoonist Cody Dean, alto saxophonist Gary Louie, pianist Amy Yang, violinists Meesun Hong Coleman and Anna Matz, violist Joel Hunter, cellist Benjamin Santora and bassist Piotr Zimnik, conducted by Tito Munoz.

A Cure For Wellness – More Apropos Than Ever

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate title for any work of art in the year 2020 than A Cure For Wellness. Gore Verbinski’s dark psychological thriller film was actually released in 2016. Benjamin Wallfisch’s orchestral score was also released as a stand-alone album and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a masterpiece of immersive, creepily and artfully arranged neoromanticism, comparable to Saint-Saens or Schubert. This somber theme and variations works just as well as a soundtrack for the year of the lockdown, where a system which was imperfect to begin with was engineered to divide, conquer and murder through a campaign of relentless terror.

The opening theme begins with disturbingly childlike vocalese joined by slow, somberly waltzing, piano and strings, which grow more oppressively creepy in the brief first variation. A circling, macabre, Philip Glass-like interlude and a brief, quasi-Renaissance chorale keening with overtones enhance the mystery.

Feuerwalzer, a twistedly Shostakovian parody of a genial Viennese waltz, is next. As the score moves along, Wallfisch employs bells for extra menacing ambience, brings back the orchestral bluster and then a still, moody suspense. Cynical, pseudo-motorik strings recede for gamelanesque phantasmagoria and then return after a gloomy lull.

Stygian atmospherics, cruelly warped chase scenes and sheer desolation follow in turn, with the waltz theme making a predictably melancholy return. Mirel Wagner and the composer himself end the album with a sarcastically opiated guitar-and-vocal version of I Wanna Be Sedated.

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

A Hauntingly Reflective New Recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concertos

Halloween month wouldn’t be complete around here without at least one album of music by the king of subversive Soviet Russian protest-classical sounds, Dmitri Shostakovich. One especially vivid and timely new record is cellist Alban Gerhardt’s performance of the composer’s two cello concertos with the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Peka Saraste, streaming at Spotify.

There’s equal parts sadness and venom in the first one, which the composer wrote in a particularly imperiled moment in 1959. The cynical dance of death that follows the first movement’s Bartokian intro is briskly and efficiently executed, both soloist and orchestra resisting any possible urges to take it into grand guignol territory – a effective strategy for consistency’s sake, as the music grows more allusive.

By comparison to the iconic Mstislav Rostopovich’s original interpretation, the second movement here seems on the slow side – Gerhardt first goes for lingering, elegaic sustain, with liberal vibrato, in the somber waltz and variations at the beginning, then exercises considerable restraint as Saraste gets the orchestra to really dig in with a fierce, aching angst. Shostakovich wrote a lot of wrenchingly sad music and this is among his finest moments in that vein.

Gerhardt’s approach is the same in the spare, ghostly solo passages of the third movement, at least until the fanged flurries of the coda. The savage, macabre parody of the folk song in the final movement gives everybody a chance to cut loose even more, whether twirling fiendishly or marching perversely toward the sudden and unexpected ending.

Shostakovich wrote his second Cello Concerto in 1966 as a requiem for poet Anna Akhmatova: Rostopovich is cited in the liner notes as as calling this piece his alltime favorite among the many works composers had written for him. Reflective lushness gives way to momentary, utterly surreal brassiness from the low strings, then a return to wistfulness in the opening movement as the composer quotes deviously from his back catalog (and Tschaikovsky too). It’s only at this point where Gerhardt really gets to take centerstage, again with a brooding understatement.

Goofiness in Shostakovich is usually witheringly sarcastic; orchestra and soloist keep their cards close to the vest in the second movement’s initial cartoonish exchanges without a hint at the bluster and intensity they bring to the Black Sea dance that introduces the finale. That’s where Gerhardt gets to call bullshit on a phony fanfare, and relishes it. The starry interlude with the twin harps and cello is sublime, as are Gerhardt’s jagged quasi-chromatics over punchy basses a little afterward. Both the phantasmagoria and ache of the cello grow to harrowingly lofty proportions from there. What a treat to see this iconic material played with such a high level of attention and craft.

Revisiting a Dark Moment in New York History with Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet

“Sandy was a huge swirl that looked like a galaxy whose name I didn’t know,” Laurie Anderson muses in one of the broodingly atmospheric early numbers on her album Landfall, an epic collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. As Halloweenish music goes, the record – streaming at Spotify – strikes awfully close to home for any New Yorker.

The October 2012 hurricane was a defining moment for Anderson. She lived just off the Hudson River, and lost innumerable, priceless scores, archival material and instruments when her basement was flooded. The irrepressible violinist/composer/agitator has never shied away from dark topics, beginning with O Superman, the cynical Iran hostage crisis-themed single that put her on the map. This is arguably her most personal and most music-centric album: she’s more terse instrumentalist than narrator here.

Most of the thirty tracks here are on the short side, three minutes or less. What’s most intriguing about the album is that each member of the quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt, along with guest cellist Jeffrey Ziegler – get to contribute to the compositions, beginning with an ominous, searching, often Indian-tinged opening theme. As the storm looms on the horizon, there’s heavy, portentous ambience, loopy horror-film trip-hop and leaping agitation.

An allusive danse macabre above murky atmospherics signals Anderson and husband Lou Reed’s move to temporary digs in a hotel after they lose electric power. Evidence of cataclysms more commonplace in warmer climates seem shocking here: boats blown from their docks onto the West Side Highway, street signs twisted in the wind.

Anderson devotes as much if not more time to the aftermath. The music is sometimes austere and melancholy, punctuated by frenetic activity as well as coldly surreal variations on the initial trip-hop theme: Anderson’s long relationship with digital technology has always been conflicted.

To her immense credit, she doesn’t lose her signature sense of humor: her observations on people telling their friends about their dreams is priceless. The epic centerpiece, Nothing Left But Their Names, is considerably more disturbing, reflecting on how 99% of all species that ever existed on earth are now extinct. But the most chilling moment of all is when she finally takes us down to the basement.

Unmasking Mirna Lekic’s Lithe, Energetic, Brilliantly Thematic Solo Album

In 2017, when pianist Mirna Lekic released her solo debut album Masks – streaming at Spotify – who knew how much cultural baggage that title would take on! Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the themes she explores here have nothing to do with fascist regimentation or pseudoscientific propaganda. Au contraire: this is a playful, entertaining, extremely smartly programmed and insightfully dynamic collection of music. The connecting threads are childhood and phantasmagoria, typically the jaunty rather than sinister kind.

She begins with Debussy’s six-part La Boite a Joujoux (The Toybox), the last of his ballet scores. The contrast between blithely leaping passages and murky, resonant lows is striking, and Lekic cuts loose with abandon when the opportunity arises: this isn’t a cautious album. The opening prelude, for example, is slower, with more emphatic bursts – which give it character – than other pianists typically focus on.

Later, the toy soldiers on the battlefield have a light-footed strut that borders on satire (an approach that could also, without any subtext, simply illustrate a kid’s carefree imaginary world).

The Sheepfold for Sale is on the spare side, practically an etude in how to play Asian pentatonics with icepick precision. Lekic finds plenty of goofy humor in Tableau IV (A Fortune Made) and closes the suite on a high note.

A pair of very different works serve as the centerpiece here. Debussy’s Masques is somewhat more darkly phantasmagorical, and Lekic gives it a very saturnine ending. With its creepy single-note bassline, 20th century American composer Robert Muczynski’s Masks makes an unexpectedly good segue despite its thornier harmonies.

Martinu’s triptych Loutky (Puppets) bookends more traditional carnivalesque sounds around a famous, lighthearted Harlequin of a waltz: Lekic seems to draw what she can from what’s pretty insubstantial music.  She closes the record with another lesser-known trio of short works, Villa-Lobos’ Prole Do Bebe (Baby’s Family), which reveal a strong Debussy influence, both in terms of gestures and pentatonics. Dolls made of porcelain, papier-mache and wood, respectively, come across as remarkably agile, scintillating and finally, anything but wooden. Instead, Lekic leaves the listener with a smile and a romp.

Chopin From Beyond the Grave?

Rosemary Brown was a 20th century British pianist who claimed that dead composers dictated new compositions to her from beyond the grave. Then she played them.

If she was a fraud, she was incredibly skilled at imitating a wide variety of classical styles.

Watch pianist Melody Fader – one of New York’s foremost interpreters of Chopin – play a mazurka in G sharp minor which Brown credited to him. Clever fake, or the real thing?

Pianist Liza Stepanova’s New Album Champions Brooding New Music by Immigrant Composers

As we’ve been seeing more and more over the last couple of years, many artists most closely associated with traditional classical repertoire have a not-so-secret passion for new music. Pianist Liza Stepanova lays claim to that cred with her new solo album E Pluribus Unum – streaming at Spotify – a collection reflecting her background as as an American immigrant. It’s mix of strikingly purposeful, accessible and rather dark works by her fellow immigrants, including several world premieres. Musically the takeaway is that if you think she’s good at, say, Tschaikovsky, wait til you hear this. And in a year where the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been committing crimes against humanity by forcibly performing hysterectomies on refugee women,, the album takes on even greater relevance.

She opens with An Old Photograph from the Grandparents’ Childhood, a brooding, steadily Chopinesque, chromatically biting miniature by Lera Auerbach. Kamran Ince’s partita Symphony in Blue is a study in stabbing acerbity versus calm, spacious, often mysterious resonance, with a little inside-the-piano flitting. Stepanova’s carnivalesque music-box upper register work is enabled by what sounds like tacks on the hammers.

Chaya Czernowin‘s Fardance Close has the same dichotomy, flickering highs in contrast with low rumbles and even more suspense. Stepanova next tackles two selections from Reinaldo Moya’s South American refugee suite The Way North. The first, La Bestia, follows scrambling upward tangents which grow more allusively ominous. The second, Rain Outside the Church has artful contrast between high pointillisms and more enveloping, low-midrange variations: Debussy is the obvious reference.

The point of Anna Clyne‘s On Track, a surreally produced, propulsively chiming electroacoustic theme and subtle variations, is that change is constant, like it or not: the ending is completely unexpected. Mool, a Lake Michigan tableau by Eun Young Lee, has strikingly understated, spaciously nocturnal phrasing and a distant, austere glitter: it’s one of the album’s most memorable moments.

Badie Khaleghian‘s triptych Táhirih the Pure, dedicated to the tragic 19th century feminist mystic, begins with The Day of Alert, a dynamically-charged, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged prelude built around an uneasily circling lefthand riff. Part two, Unchained is assembled around the album’s most persistent trope, high/low contrasts, in this case magnified by dissociative rhythms. The conclusion, Badasht is a sort of mirror image of the introduction, Stepanova nimbly tackling the daunting, insistent pointillisms ringing out over moody resonance.

Piglia, by Pablo Ortiz is part pensive prelude, part a more subtle take on what Kachaturian did with his Sabre Dance. Stepanova closes the record with Gabriela Lena Frank‘s rather wryly phantasmagorical Karnavalito No. 1. All of this is as thoughtfully and intuitively played as it is programmed. Let’s look forward to the day we get the chance to see Stepanova continue in this very auspicious direction, onstage, in front of an audience!

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?