New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: choral music

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Virtually all this material, a vast range of choral, orchestral and chamber works, is either out of print or previously unpublished; none of it had been recorded until ACRONYM started releasing it.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?

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 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?

A Subtly Harrowing, Incredibly Timely Musical Parable From David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford

In the west, extrasensory perception has typically been associated with women. Those believed to be clairvoyant were typically shunned or banished….or worse. Among women in Europe in the Middle Ages who weren’t gruesomely murdered for ostensibly possessing a well-developed sixth sense, one option was to be walled up inside a church. Townspeople could come and consult the mystic through a small window, her only connection with the outside world. In their new cantata The Anchoress – streaming at youtube – composer David Serkin Ludwig and poet Katie Ford relate an incredibly timely and understatedly disturbing narrative about one woman so confined.

In the title role, soprano Hyunah Yu demonstrates as much remarkable clarity as range: she’s not one to let the challenges of hitting the notes get in the way of telling a story. Behind her, the looming resonance and mysterious microtones of saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet contrast with the lively flurries of Renaissance ensemble Piffaro. Informed by minimalism and spectral music as much as the baroque works he frequently quotes here, Ludwig’s themes are dynamic and dramatic if usually on the quiet side.

Priscilla Herreid‘s dancing, leaping, occasionally shrieking recorder is a persistent contrast with the sustained clouds of massed saxes. Terror is more of an omnipresent threat than actually front and center, for the most part, although when it is Yu and the ensembles make that ineluctably clear. Ford’s tale begins as Yu’s stricken narrator starts to come to grips with the prospect of never again being part of the outside world. It ends as you would expect, considering the circumstances. Some details are left to the listener to fil in, because Ford has built ommissions into the text, as if it had been censored, in “A time of great mortality.”

A theft, an injury while making an escape, and an angry mob are involved, or at least alluded to, through sudden swoops and dives over a more-or-less persistent calm. Ludwig and Ford wrote this before the lockdown, so this isn’t specifically a parable of the perils of being unmasked in a world of psycho maskers. But it’s hardly a stretch to read it that way.

After the story has run its course, the ensembles conclude with an instrumental triptych: puffing winds in contrast with stillness, a cantabile Debussy-esque interlude and an increasingly ghostly conclusion. As accessible and profoundly relevant as this is, it should reach an audience far beyond the avant garde.

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.

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.

Twin Peaks Chorales and a Mysterious Ritual From Mary Prescott at Roulette

A jubilant howl emanated from the dressing room last night at Roulette seconds before the nine members of Mary Prescott’s ensemble took the stage for her hauntingly immersive performance piece Loup Lunaire. It began rather coyly but quickly took a much darker turn. Part choral suite, part dance performance, the choreography was every bit as compelling yet as enigmatic as the music, to the point where it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the plot. Inspired by the wolf mother archetype – depicted here as responsible yet more or less alone – along with behavioral cycles in nature, the piece is a precursor to another work, Mother Me, which Prescott and Cara Search will perform on May 6 as part of a semi-monthly Roulette residency.

Luisa Muhr was the first to let loose a howl onstage, but it wasn’t long before the responding round of wolven voices from the rest of the group – Prescott herself stage left, joined by Search, Noa Fort, Ariadne Greif, Joy Havens, Nina Dante and the lone man in the cast, Chanan Ben Simon – had reached a peak and then scattered downward.

Prescott’s strikingly translucent, distamtly disquieting themes gave the singers plenty of room to join in increasingly intricate webs of counterpoint, and sometimes back from there. The compositions evoked styles as diverse as rapturous Hildegard hymns, wistful Appalachian folk, Caroline Shaw’s maze-like work with Roomful of Teeth, Angelo Badelamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtracks, and Indian canatic music. What was consistent was a pervasive unease, amplified by how surealistically one segment would overlap into another.

Meanwhile, onstage behind the dancers, guitarist David Torn added extra levels of angst, or menace, or outright dread, with airy washes of sound as well as several long, majestically mournful Pink Floyd interludes. Nobody does David Gilmour in lingering cumulo-nimbus mode better than this guy.

The series of narratives among the dancers were similarly somber, much of the action in elegant slo-mo. Their buoyantly simple, flowing costumes were sometimes augmented by a little onstage dressup – Prescott’s expression as she was tidied and prepared for the next stage was priceless, and too good to give away. Purification, or at least forgiveness for some unnamed (or unnamable) sin seems to be part of the picture – no spoilers. It’s impossible to find fault with this piece. The dancers are all strong singers, individual role-playing was sharp, choreography briskly executed, lighting a thoughtful enhancement, and the guitar was as vivid as the vocals. Roulette hit a bullseye in commissioning this.