New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: 20th century music

A Massive, Exhilarating Double Album From the Spektral Quartet

One unexpectedly entertaining feature of the Spektral Quartet’s lavish double album Experiments in Living is an “online card deck emulator” that facilitates very strange, quirky yet also insightful ways to create playlists from its vast range of material. Modeled after a tarot deck, it’s meant to defamiliarize the listener and, one suspects, lure them into hearing something they might not otherwise choose. Plenty of diehards will see the Ruth Crawford Seeger quartet here and immediately dial up all four movements, in order. But the card deck is a cool idea: it never hurts to listen outside the box. And if you just want to listen to the album inside the box, literally, it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The material ranges from the well-worn to the once-and-still-radical to the more recent, adventurous sounds the group are best known for. How do they approach the Brahms String Quartet No. 1? The first movement seems fast, a little skittish, very acerbically rhythmic: they’re keeping their ears wide open. Even if you find the music impossibly dated, this version definitely isn’t boring. Those echo effects really come into sharp focus!

By contrast, the nocturnal second and third movements come across as careful, pastoral tableaux, the changes very proto-ELO. The group – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – cut loose on the intertwining finale. The close-miked clarity of the individual instruments in the mix is superior: Rolen’s quasi-basslines have a welcome presence.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 is right up their alley, from the first movement’s icepick exchanges to its hypnotic yet restlessly acidic counterpoint and a paint-peeling ending. Dynamic contrasts are subtle but striking, particularly in the more muted second movement. Balletesque precision alternates with sullen sustain and soaring highs in the third; the quartet’s unexpectedly slinky groove in the fourth is a revelation. Defiance has seldom been more resolute than this.

It’s a hard act to follow, but the Seeger quartet is every bit as gripping and a brilliantly contemporaneous segue (1931 for her, 1927 for him). In a word, wow. The ensemble attack it with a light-fingered, sometimes almost fleeting pointillism, an endess thicket of echo effects and sudden tradeoffs in the first couple of movements. The griptite resonance of the third seems almost backward-masked as phrases or single notes pass around the sonic frame; the group, particularly Rolen, really dig in vigorously up to a sudden end that’s just as coy as Schoenberg’s.

The first of the 21st century pieces is a Sam Pluta diptych, a shivery, punchy round-robin punctuated with droll, often cartoonish extended technique: harmonics, white noise, things that go bump in general, all of it amusing to hear and brutally hard to play.

Flutist Claire Chase joins the quartet for Anthony Cheung‘s 2015 suite The Real Book of Fake Tunes. Her assertive, rhythmic swells balance with the strings’ pizzicato bounce, then a microtonal haze sets in, punctuated by wry echoes and leaps. The third segment, with its stark microtonal chords and flute scurrying amid them, is edgy fun, as is the alternatingly whirling and grittily suspenseful fourth part. The conclusion bristles with good jokes and peek-a-boo riffage: it stands up amidst some very formidable material here.

Singer Charmaine Lee, who writes and improvises in phonetic language, teams up with the group for her surrealistically playful 2018 piece Spinals. This is what the word “sillypants” on the tarot card generator will get you, complete with what sounds like turntable scratching, whether acoustic or electronically generated.

The quartet close with George Lewis’ String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, from two years earlier. Keening glissandos and flickers dance and swing over chugging, sputtering, often ridiculous riffage, with circular, microtonal clusters punctuated by droll flicks and punches. Definitely sillypants – with daunting extended technique and a little horror movie ambience to keep you (and the band) on your toes.

Eye-Opening, Compelling Music For Viola and Piano by Chilean Composers

The quality of music for obscure instrumentation tends to land at one extreme or another. On the positive side, it takes real dedication for a composer to go outside the box for an ensemble such as a viola-and-piano duo. For anyone wondering what if any repertoire for viola and piano by Chilean composers exists, Mobili, the new album by violist Georgina Isabel Rossi and pianist Silvie Cheng answers that question with a vigorous yes!

Rossi opens the record – streaming at Bandcamp – with Rafael Diaz’s 2009 solo piece ¿Habrá alguien que en sus manos sostenga este caer? (Will There Be Someone Whose Hands Can Sustain This Falling?), which begins with a plaintive glissando followed by shivery, sirening figures, a fascinating blend of the catchy and the severe, bluesiness alternating with minimalist echoes, steady flutters against anxious sustain.

Cheng joins Rossi for his 2013 work, Al fondo de mi lejanía se asoma tu casa (In the Depths of My Distance Your House Emerges), a moody neoromantic waltz, pointillistic piano contrasting with soaring viola. Carlos Botto’s 1962 Fantasía, op.15 for viola and piano gets a dynamic, emphatic workout that’s both assertively plaintive and starrily mysterious.

Federico Heinlein’s 1985 Dúo “Do not go gentle” is his only work for viola, Rossi parsing the cello-like lower registers with aching vibrato over Cheng’s steady, enigmatic, acidic phrasing. Then the two tackle Miguel Farías’ arrangement of David Cortés’ 2011 Tololo for viola and string orchestra, Rossi with a regal, fanged, cello-like attack and Cheng fleeting and more quietly eerie. It grows more plaintive, and more of a viola concerto as it goes on.

The album’s title track is a four-part suite by Juan Orrego-Salas, who died last year at the age of one hundred. The first part, Flessibile follows a steady, acidically strolling upward trajectory and then starts over. The brief second movement, Discontinuo, is very Alban Berg: classical gestures, modernist tonalities. The duo bring back the broodingly elegant stroll in movement three, Ricorrente and close on an enigmatic, rather doctrinare twelve-tone note.

Carlos Guastavino’s melancholy 1968 pavane El Sampedrino gives the duo a terse platform for aching lyricism and nocturnal atmosphere. Kudos to them for helping to grow the audience for this material.

Randall Harlow Puts Out a Wild, Epic Triple Album of Spine-Tingling Recent Concert Organ Music

With his epic new triple album Organon Novus – streaming at SpotifyRandall Harlow seeks to restore the king of the instruments to its rightful place in concert music. Current generations may not realize how prominent a role the organ has played in American history. A hundred years ago, pretty much every major concert hall – not to mention city hall, baseball stadium, movie theatre, skating rink, funeral parlor, wedding venue, even the occasional department store – had its own organ. Harlow’s criteria in selecting the material here is to focus on American composers who are not organists themselves.

He explains that rationale in the liner notes: “As a performer I am particularly attracted to works by non-organist composers, as they tend to refreshingly avoid the well-worn gestures and techniques oft overused by incorrigible organists. This is not to say there aren’t compelling and original works composed by organists, particularly by those whose professional compositional activities extend beyond the organ and choral worlds, but works by non-organists such as these here often present novel and challenging figurations and elicit compelling new sounds from the instrument.” That’s something of an understatement. Harlow plays them on the titanically colorful E.M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the the University of Chicago.

The music here runs the gamut as eclectically as any other instrumental album released over the last several years. If you want an in-depth survey of some of the most interestingly diverse works for organ since 1990, you can’t do any better than this. The majority of them are on the short side as organ works go, generally under ten minutes, many of them under five. The dynamic and timbral ranges are as vast as any fan of the demimonde could want, from whispery nebulosity to all-stops-out pandemonium. The quietest pieces are the most minimalist.

Harlow opens with an alternately showy and calmly enveloping Libby Larsen study in bell-like tones which he calls an “all-limbs-on-deck work for the performer.” He closes with Aaron Travers‘ Exodus, an oceanic partita once considered unplayable for its complexity, wildly churning menace, leaps and whirling vortices. It will take your breath away.

In between we get Matt Darriau‘s crescendoing, anthemically circling Diapason Fall, which sounds nothing like his adventures in klezmer or Balkan music. Harlow follows Michael Daugherty‘s stormy, pulsing An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance with Roberto Sierra‘s Fantasia Cromática and its dervish dance of an outro.

He turns a Christian Wolff piece for either organ or celesta into a coy dialogue betweeen that relatively rare organ stop and the high flutes. Then he improvises against the rattle of dried beans and macaroni atop percussionist Matt Andreini’s snare and tom-tom in a droning, hypnotic Alvin Lucier soundscape. A “hair-raising study in how not to play the organ” by John Zorn, contrastingly careening and quietly macabre, concludes the second disc.

Other standouts from among the total of 25 composers represented here include John Anthony Lennon‘s allusively Doors-influenced, cascading Misericordia; a towering, picturesque Rocky Mountain tableau by George Walker; Samuel Adler‘s purposeful, tightly coiling Schoenberg homage From Generation to Generation; and Joan Tower’s delightfully blustery, aptly titled Ascent. The portents of the penultimate number, Lukas Foss’ Hiroshima-themed triptych War and Peace are among the album’s most riveting moments. Harlow attacks each of these pieces with equal parts meticulousness and passion. Even better, there’s a sequel in the works.

Given Unlimited Time, Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren Wrapped It Up in Under an Hour

What if the time available to musicians was unlimited? Not only in terms of how long a venue might be open, or willing to put up with musical self-indulgence, but in terms of eternity? What would music sound like if a beat didn’t have to land, or a there was no limit to how long a tone could resonate…or if the guy behind the sound board was never going to pass out no matter how long the show went on?  That’s what Karlheinz Stockhausen sought to explore with Unbegrenzt, his 1968 score that relies on poetic cues rather than notation.

Fifty years after he proposed it, the idea is just as radical, realized even more radically by percussion duo Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren in 1974. What’s just as extraordinary as their performance – a cleverly terse, generally calm, metallic experience – is that they had the presence of mind to record it. And that there would be an organization as far-reaching as Blank Forms to track down the original analog recording, and digitize it, and release it this year. That kind of dedication transcends accolades. You can hear the whole sometimes ghostly, fitfully turbulent 52-minute concert as a single track at Bandcamp.

Ironically, Hennix came out of a jazz background: a teenage phenom in her native Stockholm, she’d drummed with some pretty big names before she turned twenty. By contrast to the animated rhythms of postbop jazz, this is vast, magically immersive music.

Computer-generated bubbles filter in and out of the mix as Isgren weaves reverberating quilts of sound while Hennix colors the space with steady, sharply echoey temple block riffs that echo through the electronics, sometimes seemingly despite them. The recitations from a Buddhist text are mercifully spare, leaving plenty of room – that was the point, right? – for Hennix’s electric stalactite drips and allusions to craggy drama mingled within Isgren’s creepy metallic ambience.

Listen closely and you’ll hear points where a seemingly organic thicket of mutedly echoing hits recedes for more mechanical atmosphere, then the humans quietly and defiantly regain control, and gently push into deep space. Much as machines can be useful, ultimately it’s up to us to claim our territory, not the other way around. A delightfully enveloping yet equally chilling sonic metaphor for these times.

Back at Bryant Park For an Even More Revealing, Entertaining Concert of String Quartets

The American Symphony Orchestra deserve immense credit for their courage in taking a frontline role in bringing live music back to New York at such a perilous historical moment. Likewise, the programmers at Bryant Park deserve just as much of a shout for giving musicians a space to perform when indoor spots have been ruled off-limits by Il Duce up in Albany. Concert-starved audiences whose daytime hours are free can catch an ongoing series of solo performances on the park’s electric piano at half past noon on frequent weekdays.

Monday night’s performance featured a string quartet of violinists Cyrus Beroukhim andRichard Rood, violist William Frampton and cellist Alberto Parrini playing a fascinating and entertaining mix of obscure and standard repertoire. Crowds have become immune to rote homilies like “You’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us.” But when Frampton unselfconsciously gushed about how much of a pleasure it was to finally be able to play concerts again, there was no doubting his sincerity.

With full-on vibrato, they opened with an unabashedly Romantic rendition of Nino Rota’s Love Theme from the film Romeo and Juliet, and brought the concert full circle with the encore, Gabriel’s Oboe, by Ennio Morricone. In between, they confidently and vividly tackled three completely different but equally engaging pieces.

The first was Nino Rota’s lone string quartet, in three movements – considering the demands on his creativity as a film composer, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a fourth. From the initial movement’s soaring, lively, anthemic opening-credits energy,  the quartet turned in a robust, dynamic interpretation – more than a little cabin fever may have been exorcised at this show. The contrasts between the meticulously calm, baroque-tinged rondo and rise to a bracingly insistent minor-key coda in the second movement were striking, as the visceral triumph of the conclusion.

The group worked a spring-loaded, dynamically-charged intensity in the opening and closing movements of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, its centerpiece being an even more dynamic, gossamer interpretation of the iconic Appassionate For Strings. Hearing that often whispery, achingly crescendoing movement – often played as a stand-alone piece – in the context of a greater whole was revelatory, especially when the quartet threw caution to the wind and reveled in the rise to the payoff at the end.

George Walker’s 1946 String Quartet No. 1 was the most technically challenging, thorniest work on the bill, but also the most fascinating. Much more rhythmic, bustling with constantly changing counterpoint, it’s  a crazy quilt of short, incisive, pervasively restless phrases, like a Bartok Jr. Never having heard the piece before, the simmering, nocturnal second movement came as a surprise – as did the shivery intensity of the reprise of the opening theme in the movement afterward. The dichotomy between bristling energy and plaintiveness was evoked even more strongly in the rather brief coda.

You can go on youtube anytime you want and look up every composer who ever wrote a note, but nothing compares to new discoveries brought to life before your eyes by a group who seem to be enjoying that every bit as much.

The next live performance at Bryant Park is a solo piano gig tomorrow, Sept 25 at half past noon by Yuko Aikawa.

Gail Archer Brings Concert Organ Music Back to New York with a Rare, Fascinating Ukrainian Program

Gail Archer is not only a trailblazing organist and rescuer of undeservedly obscure repertoire. She’s also been responsible for some of the most entertaining and often rewardingly unorthodox organ music programming in this city in recent years. So it was no surprise to see her back at the console Saturday afternoon, playing what has to be one of the first, quite possibly the very first organ concert for a public audience in this city since Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator. While the turnout at St. John Nepomucene Church just west of Tudor City was very sparse, this being Rosh Hashanah, Archer and the church’s very personable staff deserve immense credit for their commitment to bringing back the arts.

What was most immediately striking about the program – essentially a reprise of Archer’s new album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – was how loud it was. She took full advantage of the 1956 Kilgen organ and the space’s impressive amount of natural reverb throughout a robustly seamless performance of mostly rather midrangey material.

Ukraine has a deep tradition of choral music, but less so with the organ, and as a result most of the works on the bill were 20th century vintage. Much as it was glorious to simply be able to see an organ concert in Manhattan again, this was a pensive glory. There was no Lisztian ostentatiousness, nor much reliance on the many more colors that composers from where the organ has more of a history might have brought into the music. Rather, the similarity of the timbres and registrations made for plenty of strong segues. And it’s a fair bet that Archer was premiering much of this material, whether simply for New York, or for all of North America.

What stood out from hearing Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare live rather than on the album? The echo effects – a favorite concert device for Archer – and the prominence of the lows. His Benedictus: Song of Zachariah seemed much more distinctly Romantic, by comparison. The initial, blustery foreshadowing of Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements brought to mind Charles Widor; its stormy bursts over lingering resonance later on evoked the work of contemporary composer Naji Hakim.

Archer surpassed her already colorful album version of Viktor Goncharenko’s Fantasia with a steady dynamism, and later brought out more of a lilt in the cadences of Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona. The remaining two pieces on the bill were the most rapturous, beginning with the dark, slowly expanding majesty of Mykola Kolessa’s Passacaglia. Iwan Kryschanowskij’s arguably even more mysterious, symphonic Fantasie was an enveloping yet relentlessly restless choice of coda, Archer building starry ambience and broodingly stairstepping intensity amidst the swirl and pedalpoint, to a deliciously articulated series of chromatic themes right before the end.

The monthly series of organ concerts at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. continues on Oct 17 at 3 PM with a performance by Austin Philemon.

A Rare, Fascinating Program of String Quartet Music by African-American Composers at Bryant Park

Every year, this blog (and its predecessor) has chosen both a Brooklyn and Manhattan space as best venue of the year for each borough. In 2018, not wanting to settle for the obvious (i.e. Carnegie Hall and the Village Vanguard) and frustrated by the closure of so many small clubs, the pick for best Manhattan venue went to Bryant Park. Home to an annual, multi-night accordion festival as well as plenty of jazz festivals, chamber music and global sounds over the years, the space had earned it. In a long-awaited and highly auspicious return to live classical music there last night, a quartet featuring members of the American Symphony Orchestra played a rich, rare mix of music by African-American composers.

They opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Spirituals For String Quartet, which quickly took on a gently benedictory ambience as the four musicians joined in unison in a lullaby theme. Cellist Alberto Parrini gave it a delicate pizzicato pulse, the group rising to distantly blues-tinged variations over an increasingly vibrant, dancing drive.

Violinist Phillip Payton, who’d put together this fascinating program, played first chair for that one and then switched positions with the ASO’s concertmaster, Cyrus Beroukhim for Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 piece Voodoo Dolls. Parrini and first-chair ASO violist William Frampton dug in with their bandmates for a recurrently grim, staccato pedalpoint, akin to Julia Wolfe at her bluesiest. Bracingly glissandoing chords set off a suspenseful lull, then the group bowed hard and swooped through the finale. Payton made no secret of how much he loved that piece: it was the big hit of the night with the audience, a relatively sparse but raptly attentive crowd of maybe sixty people scattered across the space behind the library.

Next on the bill were movements one, three and four of Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. The quartet matter-of-factly worked steady, Mozartean exchanges as the music shifted from a pensive, old-world minor-key theme to a more warmly enveloping atmosphere that seemed to draw as much on the French Romantics (Faure most noticeably) as the African-American gospel tradition.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as Payton explained, bridged a lot of genres. He played in Max Roach’s jazz group and later arranged for Marvin Gaye. His String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary, ” contained “A lot of notes we’re not expected to play,” Payton grinned, “Very jazzy harmonies!” He wasn’t kidding. Steady, rapidly strolling bluesiness quickly receded for more chromatic, brooding passages, like Bartok at his most unadorned. From there the ensemble followed a counterintuitive downward arc, from shivery counterpoint, a tease of a big swell and then crepuscular, flickering pianissimo textures that gently filtered away. The final movement, with its wickedly catchy cello lines, delivered a triumphant, anthemic payoff.

Trevor Weston’s Juba for String Quartet, the newest piece on the bill, seemed to be a study in how far from the blues a series of variations can go. In this group’s hands, that meant pretty far, and involving some extended technique, but also not so far that the center was lost. Terse, spare riffs were spun through a kaleidoscope and then back, through numerous dynamic shifts and ghostly harmonics.

William Grant Still’s first symphony, Payton explained, was in its time the most-played orchestral work by an American composer. His three-movement Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends), from 1960, was the final piece on the bill. The composer’s eclecticism was front and center here, more than alluding to Romany swing after a fondly Romantic song without words to open the triptych, later finding common ground between Indian carnatic music and the blues. Quasi-microtonal flickers added depth to the incisively minor-key, jubilantly emphatic conclusion and its coyly Beethoven-ish series of false endings.

The quartet encored with Price’s heartwarmingly familiar variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The organizers behind the music at Bryant Park seem to be determined to help this city get back to normal; their long-running series of solo shows on the park’s electric piano continues on several weekdays into next month. This string quartet return there on Sept 21 at 5:30 PM with a program including works by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota.

Organ Adventurer Gail Archer Rescues Rare Ukrainian Works From Obscurity

Organist Gail Archer is the first American woman to perform the complete Messiaen cycle. Witnessing her play some of the best of it on the mighty Kilgen organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral back in 2008 was a visceral thrill. But Archer’s passion seems to be rescuing the work of obscure composers. In the ensuing years, she turned her attention to American composers, then to little-known Russian works. Her latest album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – streaming at Spotify – celebrates an even lesser-known part of the repertoire.

While just about every Western European city is filled with pipe organs, the instrument is much harder to find in Russia and even more so in Ukraine. But Archer went to the well and came up with a fascinating playlist of mostly short works, the majority by contemporary composers. Interestingly, she had to go outside the Russian Orthodox tradition for the organ she performs on here, a Riegger-Kloss model in the Armenian Catholic Church in Chernivtsi with particularly strong, French midrange colors.

The first piece is Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare: Archer plays this decidedly ambiguous piece with steadiness but also restraint, rather than trying to make it a fullscale celebration, which it definitely is not. The second Kotyuk work here is Benedictus: Song of Zachariah. It’s an interesting piece of music, beginning as a similarly enigmatic fanfare and warming to a chuffing rondo requiring precision as pointillistic as it can possibly get on this instrument: Archer rises to the challenge.

Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements begins with a rhythmically dissociative introduction with prominent pedal work, grows steadier with a more airy, meditative midrange passage and then morphs into a pavane. Archer follows the brief, robust processional third part with more of a defiantly unresolved fugue, with some lusciously austere tremolo. She wraps it up with a brief, emphatic chorale and some well thought-out echo effects: this obviouly isn’t just a piano piece shifted to the organ, as one might expect coming from this part of the world.

The Fantasia, by Viktor Goncharenko echoes the off-kilter rhythms of the album’s opening piece, but with many more stops out, at least until a rather desolate passage and then a coolly insistent conclusion. Mykola Kolessa, who died in 2006 at age 103, is represented by an allusively chromatic, waltzing, artfully crescendoing and often outright suspenseful Passacaglia: what a discovery!

Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona makes a good segue, a blend of swirling old-world grace and modern austerity. Archer closes with Iwan Kryschanowskij’s hauntingly symphonic Fantasie, its variations on stairstepping riffage and a long build to macabre resonance. Although the music calms, the theme continues to circle around a foreboding center until an anthemic variation on the introduction. At last, Archer takes those steps all the way down into the abyss, only to rise to a guarded triumph.

Until the lockdown, Archer maintained a busy schedule not only as a performer but also as an impresario. And she’s taking the brave step of scheduling an album release concert for this record at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. at 1st Ave. on Sept 19 at 3 PM; admission is free.

A Fearlessly Kaleidoscopic, Diverse Album of Modern Harpsichord Music From Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani bristles at the idea that his instrument could possibly be archaic, or that its usefulness is limited to music from the Renaissance or before. In the liner notes to his paradigm-shifting new album Musique, he credits “One perhaps unlikely source of inspiration…the people who, over the years, booed, cat-called and/or walked out of halls worldwide in anger and confusion (in other words, fear) during the live performances of these and many other modern and contemporary works. Be assured, my friends, that much more of this is on its way.”

If fearlessness is your thing, this album – streaming at Bandcamp – is for you. Esfahani plays a custom-made 2018 model by Jukka Ollikka, with an additional soundboard which essentially turbocharges the sustain – and Esfahani uses all of it. The album’s first piece is Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming, Esfahani’s steady, precise, eerily twinkling close harmonies contrasting with spare, pensive phrases. The washes of overtones reverberating from inside are nothing short of otherworldly: this piece alone proves Esfahani’s point about the harpsichord’s enduring vitality.

Henry Cowell wrote his Set of Four in 1960, twenty-six years before Takemitsu’s piece. The first, a rondo, is a disquietingly flamenco-inflected number with big, splashy glissandos and crashing, reverberating chords intermingled within shifting, stairstepping phrases. The ostinato of a second movement is a darkly bristling twelve-tone baroque invention that gives Esfahani a chance to take some jubilant leaps out of its otherwise rigid, brisk counterpoint. The third movement, a chorale, comes across as both homage to and devious parody of Bach. The conclusion blends quasi-Chopin with more conventional twelve-tone exchanges and a fleetingly deliciously chugging low lefthand attack

Kajia Saariaho‘s Jardin Secret II, written in the same year as Takemitsu’s work, is a rapidfire, minimalist electroacoustic piece with electronics by the composer herself: the contrast between organic and robotic is striking. A swordfight ensues: it’s not clear who wins.

Gavin Bryars‘ 1995 partita, After Handel’s “Vespers” is a rhythmically shifting exploration of baroque gestures, alternating methodically between harmonic worlds old and new, minimalism and medieval loquaciousness.

Esfahani has his hands full with the pointilllistic needles and epic, organ-like crush of Anahita Abbasi‘s 2018 Intertwined Distances, but his attack is unrelenting, the cumulo-nimbus ambience amplified by light electronic enhancements. A distant carillon effect is a clever touch.

He closes the record with Luc Ferrari’s 1972 Programme Commun – Musique Socialiste?, which could be a sardonic commentary on Pompidou-era French politics, or a prescient attempt to replicate the staccato sound of a Fender Rhodes elecric piano via one of its most venerable predecessors. This is the album’s most overtly amusing and pulsingly accessible piece, Esfahani reveling in how it seemingly inevitably falls apart, held together only by a pulsing electornic drone.

It’s a good bet that even the most diehard devotees of new music have never heard timbres or textures anything like this, especially not over the length of a whole record. Let’s hope Esfahani lives up to his vindictive promise in the album booklet, many times over.

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.