New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: classical music

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.

Playful Baroque Jazz, Among Other Styles, From the Endangered Quartet

If you’ve felt endangered this year, the Endangered Quartet can relate. But their debut album, Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t harrowing or particularly troubled music. It’s actually a lot of fun, and blends a wide variety of styles, as you would expect from a group whose individual members move seamlessly between the worlds of jazz, old and new classical music, and bluegrass. Multi-saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes are part of the core of the legendary, noir-tinged Jazz Passengers. Jesse Mills is a highly sought-after classical violinist, and bassist Tim Kiah is not only a brilliant composer of serious concert music, but also an accomplished bluegrass musician.

The opening track is the strangest version of Bach’s Chorale, BWV 244-44 that you’ll ever hear. Mills and Fowlkes provide statey harmonies as Nathanson adds droll microtones and Kiah sings a warmly homespun lyric.

The Home-Makers is genuinely acid jazz: a loopy, insistent violin riff and surreal vocals interrupt a tiptoeing swing tune. The individual members shift elegantly from a pavane of sorts to very individualistic paths in Same, Same, with the same combination of drollery and utter seriousness as Ron Hay’s work with the Erik Satie Quartet. The Beatles’ Blackbird works surprisingly well in that context here as well.

The quartet pulse gracefully through the second part of Ornette Coleman’s The Circle With a Hole in the Middle, with a rapidfire ascent from Mills. They follow it with the wryly conversational, minimalist Marbles, by Mills and Hugo Dwyer. Con Anima, also by Mills, comes as quite a change afterward, a moody baroque piece with much more somber exchanges of voices and a big shivery coda. Returning to the A-section of the Coleman piece, they diverge but without deviating from a swing beat.

The four go back to baroque jazz with the comfortable pulsing miniature Sweet Intentions and the more acerbic Cry of the Wild, a Dwyer/Kiah co-write with animated solos from Nathanson and Fowlkes. The trombonist’s vocals add a knowing gravitas to Kiah’s eco-disaster cautionary tale Endangered Hearts, a souful 6/8 soul ballad with a spiraling Mills solo.

Edges, a Mills tune, has baroque bursts and trills over a trip-hop bassline; then the rhythm drops out and a rather solemn exchange ensues. Bombardment Reconsidered, by Nathanson and Dwyer, features light-footed exchanges over loopy riffs, Fowlkes in the role of troll, Mills signaling a rise in agitation. Kiah takes over the mic on the album’s closing cut, a spare, nocturnal chamber pop take of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene.

Intuitive, Fearlessly Fun Reinventions of Iconic Classical Pieces from Eliane Rodrigues

One of the funniest videos on youtube is a 2016 audience recording of the beginning of pianist Eliane Rodriguesperformance of Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasie, Op. 61 at a concert in her hometown of Antwerp. It’s obvious in the first few seconds that something is wrong with the piano. How she deals with it is priceless. Youtube pageview counts are notoriously inflated, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if all six million hits on this video were real: it’s that good.

After watching her in that situation, her solo piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, on her new album Aeternum – streaming at Spotify – comes as no surprise. It’s the kind of thing you play at a party after everybody’s had a few drinks. Don’t even start with the famous first movement: put the second on and see how many people get the joke. And it doesn’t even start with a joke: Rodrigues reinvents it as a High Romantic tour de force, drenched in as much angst as devious humor.

And it sounds nothing like the comparatively tame, stolidly marching Liszt transcription: this is pure fun. Rodrigues uses a ton of space to ramp up the suspense, holds onto pivotal moments for dear life, employs rubato constantly to underscore as much gothic grimness as sheer buffoonery. This isn’t just punk classical: there’s immense depth and feeling when she’s not going for broke with the jokes. One suspects the composer, a recidivist bon vivant, would have played it much the same way.

Rodrigues also tackles a half-dozen Bach pieces here. Her approach to the Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541 is practically breathless, with a stunningly light touch in places, even more so as the famous fugue theme begins. But she doesn’t stay there long, raising the volume with a crushing precision. Her take of the equally iconic Fantaisie and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 is completely the opposite, riding the pedal for an approximation of organ resonance before backing away wistfully, syncopating while walking the bass hard, and conjuring up as much nocturnal glimmer as she can.

There are two other Bach pieces on the album. The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 is another staple of the organ repertoire: her dusky introduction and angst-fueled insistence are spot-on, as is her steady but slashing, proto-Rachmaninovian interpretation of the fugue. And she teases out every bit of puckish humor, scampering phantasmagoria and grand guignol as anybody could want from the iconic Toccata and Fugue in D.

It’s obvious that Rodrigues really went under the lid with all of this. You may disagree with her dynamics but you can’t fault her for technical flaws or lack of chutzpah. Anyone who might think this music is stuffy (it’s actually anything but) has never heard Rodrigues play it.

An Unexpectedly Vigorous Yet Characteristically Dark Album of Arvo Part Music

Violinist Viktoria Mullova’s album of Arvo Part works with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Parvo Jaarvi – streaming at Spotify – reads like a single contiguous piece of music. While not all of it is brooding and mystical, in keeping with most of the composer’s work, the overall atmosphere is characteristically somber. It may be a cliche to say that musicians from a composer’s home turf play that repertoire best, but with this album it’s hard to argue with that contention.

In the brief, austerely sober Song of Songs, which opens the album, spare, tolling bell accents linger through the ominous upward drive to Mullova’s first shivery cadenza; then silence. Airy highs draw a brooding response from the orchestra.

Her energetically circling, folk-inspired solo arpeggios, introducing the second piece, Fratres, offer not the slightest hint of the still, vast expanses that will unfold. This time it’s a woodblock and bass drum which signal Mullova’s elegant varations on the opening dance, over a crepuscular drone.. The rest of the strings follow with a much more somber, rhythmically disorienting development of the jaunty opening sequence. Meanwhile, the basses are unrelenting, holding a quietly sustained, enigmatic fifth interval.

Short, elegantly stabbing violin phrases lead to a momentary, strikingly dancing passage (for Part, anyway) in his rather rousingly crescendoing, vividly Bach-tinged Passacaglia. Mullova returns to insistent minimalism over an airy calm and fleeting, Arabic-tinged pizzicato to close it out.

The album’s centerpiece is the triptych Tabula Rasa. Ludus, the opening movement, follows a similar trajectory; this time it’s the piano which punches in as a stern anchor while the bells add sparse, enigmatic close harmonies. Essentially, this is Part’s Symphonic Dances, bristling with increasingly emphatic echo phrases punctuated by morose, reflectively quiet passages. That long, sustained chord at the end of the movement really packs a wallop!

A steady baroque-tinged cavatina theme takes shape in Silentum, the second movement: its seemingly endless wave motion looks back to Gorecki’s iconic Symphony No. 3. Where this ends with a steady descent to the depths, the Song of Songs reprise is delicate and hopeful, Mullova’s solemn resonance over loopy, steady upper-register piano. Slowly and methodically, the music grows more plaintive and more evocative of Pachelbel than any of the 20th century figures Part is associated with. For anyone reflecting on those we’ve lost during the lockdown, this makes an apt soundtrack.

Colorful, Purposeful, Entertaining New String Music From the Zephyr Quartet

One of this year’s most enjoyable and defiantly uncategorizable albums is the Zephyr Quartet‘s latest release, Epilogue, streaming at Spotify. The Australian group distinguish themselves as one of an increasing number of string ensembles who write their own music. They like basslines: whether in the lows or the highs, someone’s always plucking out a groove. The pieces here are relatively short, drawing on minimalism as well as Celtic and Nordic folk traditions.

The opening number is Great White Bird, by cellist and leader Hilary Kleinig, a picturesque, swirling, triumphantly soaring folk-tinged piece anchored by catchy pizzicato cello. Those swoops and dives from violinists Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch and violist Jason Thomas are irresistibly fun.

Gehlert’s ominously colorful triptych Femme Fatale begins with Anne Boleyn, shifting from distantly baroque-tinged resonance to a couple of lithe, dancing themes: there is no execution scene or for that matter any real sense of imminent doom. The second movement, Hedda Gabler rises from a steady, moody, synccopated web of counterpoint to a rich, organ-like resonance: when the higher and lower strings shift roles the effect is breathtaking. The dancing, bustling, anthemic conclusion, Huldra is a portrait of a Nordic goddess who devours the men she preys on if they don’t behave.

Cockatoos, by Kleinig follows an anxiously rustling upward trajectory, to a long, crescendoing, gracefully pulsing interweave: deep inside, there’s a brooding Scottish folk song lurking somewhere. By contrast, her Exquisite Peace is both more atmospheric and more complex, an enveloping calm grappliing against echo effects and glissandos

Tulloch’s Blindfold Gift, a prancing pizzicato song without words, reaches a peak with a Celtic-tinged theme. Another Tulloch composition, Our Lovely Star has a soaring beauty over shifting, circling pizzicato.

Thomas is represented by two works here. The first, Mulysa comes across as organic trip-hop, rising and falling with an increasingly anthemic drive. And the lushly enveloping Time’s Timeless, peppered with graceful accents from throughout the ensemble, has more of those organ-like long-tone phrases this group indulge in so memorably.

The album concludes with the title track, a slow, steady, Philip Glass-ine canon by Gehlert. Whether you call this chamber pop, classical or folk music – and it’s all of the above – it’s a lot of fun.

Remembering Lee Konitz With One of His More Memorable Adventures

Live long enough and everybody wants to work with you. We lost Lee Konitz last month. His collaboration with pianist Dan Tepfer, and their final duo album were well received, but among recent releases the saxophonist appeared on, one of the most vivid and fascinating is the concert recording of Guenter Buhles‘ Prisma, a concerto for alto sax and orchestra, streaming at Bandcamp.

Nobody ever meant to release this 2000 live performance with the Brandenburg State Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Campestrini. But there was a high-quality digital field recording available, which has been tweaked and sounds fantastic. Buhles had humbly offered to arrange some standards for Konitz for orchestra and soloist, but Konitz insisted on an original work. That was a no-brainer!

There are many moments where sax and orchestra respond to each other, particularly in the spirited third movement, ostensibly a scherzo, although that movement’s much more pensive than such things tends to be. The concerto’s opening allegro begins with catchy, incisive upward phrases from the orchestra, quickly ceding the way to Konitz’s measured, steady phrasing: it’s uncanny how much he sounds like Paul Desmond here. There’s clever echoing between sax and orchestra, some luscious organ-like sustained swells and a purposeful, low-key solo over pillowy strings They end with a couple of ominous clangs from the bells.

The second movement is a pensive neoromantic theme, Konitz entering on a surprise note. Fluttery strings contrast with Frank Wunsch’s minimalist piano, the saxophonist remaining in low-key, lyrical mode through a shift toward a moody pulse and a momentary exchange between sax and violin.

Stillness and animation contrast in the scherzo, yet Konitz is at his balmiest here. A wary, brisk sax-and-piano duet opens the concluding allegro movement, a neat way to tie up the suspensefully insistent melody. The ensemble wind it out with an uneasy haze.

There were three other numbers on the bill. Konitz introduces Thingin, solo, with a steady series of blues allusions that Wunsch follows more uneasily: that dialectic permeates their duet afterward. Konitz goes to his low register  for the duo’s more relaxed take of Joana’s Waltz. There’s also a relatively slow version of Body and Soul where Konitz finally throws caution to the wind – and Wunsch is right on it. A typical adventure for this rugged individualist.

A Bartok Concerto For the End of Time

Imagine you’re in Budapest in the dead of winter, 1944.

Nazis are everywhere. All the indigenous Nazi types have been empowered to act as murderously as they wish. You’re probably in hiding, or at least trying to keep as low a profile as possible. Many of your friends may be dead, and you probably suspect the worst about everyone you haven’t heard from in awhile. You might be out of work, all alone and running out of food.

Sound familiar?

Such were the circumstances for many of the city’s residents who tuned in the evening of January 5 that year to catch the broadcast of the Szekesfovarosi (Metropolitan) Orchestra playing Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Péter Szervánszky.

Beyond its innately harrowing sound and a briliant performance by the violinist, this recently released archival recording – streaming at Spotify – is noteworthy for being both the concerto’s debut on the composer’s home turf….and also the only record that Szervánszky, highly acclaimed at the time, would ever appear on, posthumously at that. He would continue to perform for another half a dozen years before giving up his concert career and moving to Peru. He returned to Hungary late in life and died there in 1985.

It’s clear from the first few seconds of the recording that this is a digitized version of a worn mono original. Because raw materials were so hard to find under the Nazis, the orchestra took to recording the occasional concert on x-ray plates borrowed from city hospitals. Here, they’re far back in the mix, only reaching front and center when the soloist isn’t playing, and half the time that’s pretty muddy. What is clear is that conductor Janos Ferencsik is having success evincing a lush, dynamic sweep from the ensemble – when the music isn’t either receding, or distorting during one of many big swells.

Szervánszky throws off lively flourishes as its surprisingly warm, wistful opening theme gathers steam. He leaps and bounds, effortlessly, with the occasional gossamer trill, through the increasingly acidic phrasing that follows, the orchestra looming behind him. The first sudden, horrified pulse from the whole group comes as a real shock; the second, about five minutes later, is only slighly less harrowing in context. His microtonal approach as the music calms and he hits a cadenza is mesmerizing.

Wistfulness quickly gives way to a relentless wariness in the second movement. Szervánszky’s enigmatic chromatics and chords have a searing edge, contrasting with the lightness of his ornamentation. Shivery, perfectly balanced sixteenth notes over a stately, stalking pizzicato pulse from the rest of the strings provide a menacing contrast.

In the concluding movement, fragments of a country dance flit from Szervánszky’s fingers, then the music descends to an aching, portentous calm. A horror-stricken insistence follows. As with pretty much all of Bartok’s big showstoppers, ideas shift constantly, and so does Szervánszky’s attack, pristine in the calmer sections, raw and savage when the music grows more diabolical. Yet the coda takes a final, unexpected turn to a visceral sense of triumph.

It’s a wonder the Nazis allowed this to be staged, considering both the piece itself and Bartok’s well-known antifascist politics. What an inspiring performance by a group who under the circumstances may have been little more than a pickup orchestra – and how lucky we are to be able to hear this. May there be such artifacts from our time that future historians and listeners can hear and wonder how we managed to survive as well.

Poignant French Late Romantic Music and a Brilliant Obscurity From Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien

Today’s album is about poignancy and brooding contemplation – and is also a rare recording of a great obscurity from the French Late Romantic era. The violin-piano duo of Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien released their record of music by Eugene Ysaye, Cesar Franck, Louis Vierne and Lili Boulanger last year; it’s streaming at Spotify. There’s considerable emotional depth here.

The first piece is Ysaye’s relatively well-known, Romeo and Juliet themed Poeme Elegiaque. The two play it with straightforward restraint: they don’t languish in its lulls. Ibragimova quickly finds a clenched-teeth focus in its gritty upward climbs; likewise, Tiberghien lets the chilly desolation in his chords speak for itself, matched by the violin’s stark, midrange resonance. As the narrative hits an anguished, allusively chromatic peak midway through, the contrast is nonchalantly breathtaking.

Franck’s Violin Sonata in A was a wedding present for Ysaye, one of his era’s great violinists. For whatever reason, there seems to be more wistfulness and longing than romantic joy in the swaying, spare first movement. The two approach the delicate second movement with a vivid tenderness that also seems wounded, but then the piano signals a charge upwards toward redemption. There’s considerable contrast between quiet, tense hesitancy and several “yes!”crescendos throughout the third movement, Ibragimova using a lot of shivery vibrato. Likewise, there’s unexpectedly uneasy glitter intermingled with the warmly triumphant phrasing of the conclusion.

Beyond to his virtuosity at the organ, Vierne was also an awardwinning violinist. He may be best known as a writer of turbulent, ferocious organ symphonies, but his rarely performed music for strings is sublime. Case in point: his Violin Sonata in G Minor, which the duo here leap into with a Romany-tinged, brittle, wintry attack that quickly warms and grows more expansively anthemic. So when the two return to this biting quasi-tarantella, the effect packs a punch.

The second movement follows the same trajectory as Franck’s piece: slow, with lots of expressive midrange from the violin and more of a steady nocturnal gleam. Vierne brings the tarantella back for movement three, but as more of a flamenco-tinged ballet theme.  Ibragimova and Tiberghien wind it up with serene contemplation rising in a long series of waves, and serious gravitas in the dance variations.

A rising star just over a hundred years ago among French composers, Lili Boulanger died tragically at 25; she wrote her Nocturne for Violin and Piano at 18 in 1911. It’s akin to a prelude, an inviting moonrise tableau with a wry Debussy quote at the end.

The Kronos Quartet Explore Spare, Haunting Iranian Themes with Singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat

Today’s album is Placeless, by the Kronos Quartet with singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a frequently austere, often haunting Farsi-language song cycle exploring themes of displacement and alienation. It’s an inventive blend of Iranian, Indian and western classical sounds utilizing texts by Rumi, Hafez and more contemporary poets.

On the album’s first few tracks, the vocals are front and center, strings a little further back in the mix, rising up in the later numbers. The title track has a dramatic, melismatic crescendo bookended by tense, shivering ambience. My Ruthless Companion has spare, dancing, catchy looped phrases over a jaunty, strolling groove. With its achingly gorgeous resonance, My Tresses in the Wind is a ghazal, more or less, and the high point of the record.

Spiky, marching pizzicato and unsettled, hazy washes of sound alternate in I Was Dead, up to a cold, mysterious ending. Cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt’s spare, plaintive lines rise and dip amid violinists David Harrington and John Sherba’s airy textures in the woundedly anthemic, Russian-tinged ballad Endless Embrace.

Misled Fate is a completely unexpected, steady, minimal theme with echoes of both Appalachian folk and new wave music. The Sun Rises has spare, ambient strings behind the two singers’ starkly brooding conversation, vocals panned left and right in the mix, their voices finally handing off to the quartet’s similarly plaintive, slightly baroque harmonies at the end.

Likewise, Vanishing Lines, a lush, striking waltz, comes across as a mix of elegantly medieval European and moody Iranian sounds. The Might of Love has a dancing pulse underneath one of the album’s sultriest vocals. The singers and strings return to uneasy, close-harmonied atmospherics in Far Away Glance and raise the unsettled intensity in the crescendos of Leyli’s Nightingale.

The ensemble alternate between occasional emphatic chords, shifting washes of sound and unexpected pauses in The Color of Moonlight. Angst-fueled, acidic swirls from the strings contrast with the often tenderly impassioned, anthemic vocals of Lover Go Mad. They close the album with Eternal Meadow, an allusively majestic, modal melody awash in disquieting echo effects. The Kronos Quartet have put out an awful lot of good albums, going back almost fifty years; this is one of the best.

Contemplating a Burnt-Out Shell of a World

What’s more desolate than an increasingly empty world slowly burning to a crisp? That’s the implication of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert, the follow-up to his vast, turbulent super-epic symphonic work Become Ocean. As you would expect, where that piece is awash in churning rhythms and a titanic, byzantine interweave of voices, Become Desert is more airy and expansive. The world after global warming takes its toll is one lonely place!

The Seattle Symphony‘s world premiere recording of the work, with Ludovic Morlot on the podium, is streaming at Spotify. Beyond a distant wariness and a deceptively soothing calm, this isn’t horrific music: the composer gives us a wide canvas to contemplate and fill in the grisly details ourselves.

It’s Adams’ most ambient, spectral work to date. Bells slowly rise over a whisper of winds and strings, an arid breeze across the sands. Slowly, a rhythm emerges, akin to the clock chimes that introduce Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, at a tenth the speed. Keening overtones filter through the expanse of sound, the bells offering a subtle elegy amid the swells, fades and relentless glare. Brass and muted timpani thunder offer ghostly evidence that there was once activity here – or is that simply a thunderstorm, a wake-up call in the here and now? The orchestra finally begin a long advance in waves, but there’s no water in them. Musical cautionary tales don’t get more allusive, yet more vivid, than this. After the coronavirus crisis is over, we’d better get busy.