01 Pierrot LunaireSchoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire; Max Kowalsky – Pierrot Lunaire
Ingrid Schmithüsen
ATMA ACD2 2734

Review

Arnold Schoenberg’s celebrated 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire is justly regarded as a masterpiece of his mid-period atonal works. Don’t let the bogeyman of atonalism scare you away; this is an extremely compelling work that exudes an atmosphere of exuberance and playfulness. Originally conceived to be performed by an actress and an ensemble of five instruments, the vocal quality that Schoenberg calls for in this multifaceted jewel of a work is unique: not quite sung, not quite spoken, but somewhere in between. The texts consist of 21 poems by the Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud in the German transliteration by Otto Erich Hartleben published in 1892. Many others have set these texts to music, including the persecuted composer and lawyer Max Kowalski (1882-1956), whose cycle of 12 of these poems included here were conceived and published in the same year as Schoenberg’s. Kowalski’s charming and supple settings are cast in a neo-romantic style and are conventionally sung.

Having presented the work some 70 times during her career, it’s fair to say that soprano Ingrid Schmithüsen has become the very embodiment of Pierrot and delivers an admirably nuanced account of Schoenberg’s opus. In most cases this complex work involves a conductor; here however, it is clear that the soloist is calling the shots (and incidentally owns the recording copyright). This emphasis on the voice no doubt explains the frustratingly recessed sound of the ensemble, which left me pining for the vivid instrumental presence in just about every other recording I’m familiar with, notably the outstanding 1971 LP by Jan DeGaetani. By contrast, the Kowalski song cycle with pianist Brigitte Poulin is perfectly balanced.


02 ShoujounianNoravank: Petros Shoujounian – String Quartets 3-6
Quatuor Molinari
ATMA ACD2 2737

Composed to mark the centenary of the Armenian genocide, Noravank’s title is derived from a homeland monastery that was Petros Shoujounian’s inspiration. Its 14 sections, divided into string quartets of three, three, three and five movements, are symbolically named after rivers and are based on liturgical chants.

Quartet No.3 was the most affecting for me, through its tiny echoes of melodies and treatments heard in Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe and Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel; it concludes with the provocative Dzoraget. The contradictions of Quartet No.4’s depressive second movement, the energetic third and Quartet No.5’s lamentoso first movement brought to mind the power of nature and the current plight of evacuated Fort McMurray folks – if that’s not the musical equivalent of theological proof-texting. The balance of Quartet No.5 and all of No.6 more overtly reflect the influence of eastern folk songs, both in the keys and the lilts they comprise. Another memory of song, from Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in D-Flat Major No.15 Op.28, is heard in the onomatopoeic burbling waters of the Vedi.

This CD was suggested to me, a Pärt fanatic, as a possibly similarly contemplative recording. While these aren’t tracks for mindful meditation, there is an introspective quality to all the movements. Maybe the invoked theme of migration is apt, after all: fires, oppression, the liturgical life – these all involve movement and change. But this introvert was soothed rather than discomfited via the talent of the Quatuor Molinari, who commissioned this work that is ultimately about renewal. Fine liner-note editing and the eponymous cover photograph round out a very marketable product.

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03 Finding a VoiceFinding a Voice: The Evolution of the American Sound
Walden Chamber Players
Independent (waldenchamberplayers.org)

Review

This new disc from the Walden Chamber Players features compositions which might be described as the linking species of the American music family tree. Ably performed here are works by little-known composers (Marion Bauer 1882-1955), lesser-known works by composers well known (Aaron Copland’s Threnodies), and works by modern composers who write close enough in time to us that they might remain in our blind spot (Ned Rorem).

Rorem is best-represented here, and rightfully so – after all, he is a still-living and underappreciated American composer whose healthy sense of deference to American musical heritage is best exemplified by his Ives-tinged The Unquestioned Answer (2002). But it is actually Virgil Thomson’s ghost that looms largest over this recording. In the middle of the 20th century, Thomson achieved more infamy as cantankerous critic than fame as a composer. As far back as 1944, he took aim at the cult of the warhorse, noting that “the enjoyment and understanding of music are dominated in a most curious way by the prestige of the masterpiece.” In that same essay, he wrote, “this snobbish definition of excellence is opposed to the classical concept of a Republic of Letters.”

These words could serve as this disc’s manifesto; it demands that we re-evaluate these works which might have otherwise been lost to the murk of history. They may not be capital-M masterpieces (whatever that actually means), but they are nonetheless worth hearing.


04 FinnissyWAM
Michael Finnissy; Michael Norsworthy
New Focus Recordings FCR157 (newfocusrecordings.com)

While it may not move you to tears or laughter, the music of Michael Finnissy should hold you in a kind of rapt fascination, like an elaborate mechanism with multi-coloured parts moving according to mysterious laws. This new release features American clarinetist Michael Norsworthy. The composer provides the piano accompaniment; also performing are violinist William Fedkenheuer and the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble.

Brief liner notes by the composer offer some helpful information: his substantial Clarinet Sonata unfolds calmly, the piano part presenting a cantus firmus derived from a late Beethoven piano sonata (Op.110). There is no obvious link, but each bar of the original is presented in retrograde (but presumably in the original order) while the clarinet line swans about lazily above. The second track, for E-flat clarinet, two pianos and two bass drums, uses a chance element: though the material is defined, its synchronicity is not. The E-flat colour is shocking; one at first wonders if Norsworthy has forgotten his better reeds at home.

Track three introduces cat screeches (yes, literally) and still more chance elements. I do believe my allergies were acting up so I found it hard to concentrate. I kept waiting to sneeze at the next feline interjection. As cute as the kitties are, I preferred the jazzy final track with wind ensemble: Giant Abstract Samba is fun.

Just as Finnissy recomposes  Beethoven earlier, on the title track his musical source is Mozart. He obviously has no fear of vengeful ghosts seeking him out. WAM moves the performers on- and offstage, a theatrical effect somewhat diluted on record. You’ll hear the violin and later the clarinet at a distance at different moments. I have no idea what it all means, but it’s…fascinating.


05 Sirius QuartetPaths Become Lines
Sirius Quartet
Autentico Music AMCDA00004 (autenticomusic.com)

Far from being a spin-off or a clone of the Kronos Quartet, the Sirius Quartet is a fiercely – individually and collectively – creative ensemble that explores an aural landscape with no definable borders. Violinists Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman are composers who worship at the altar of creativity. These are musicians who enter the very grain of the wood of their instruments, emerging after being subsumed in the mysterious vibrations of the air within. Wave after wave of sound forms rippling tonal colours that come alive swathed in the timbres of their instruments. Each time their music is heard one can’t help being impressed by their devilishly good virtuosity.

The present recording offers ten classic selections – including a four-part suite – from recent, original repertoire and also furnishes further evidence of the development of the ensemble as they mine an impossibly deep world where jazz meets the classics. Alongside the high spirits of Huebner’s Racing Mind, for instance, a profound contemplative tone is struck in Huebner’s composition, The Wollheim Quartet, a remarkable piece of visceral drama as well as sweetness of tone, with superbly poised rhythm in its Presto movement. Harman’s Paths Become Lines bursts out in expansive chords and heaving with thick-textured agitation before the music builds into a heated climax. And that is just the beginning of a disc full of excitement and drama.


06 Tower MusicTower Music – Bertolozzi Plays the Eiffel Tower
Joseph Bertolozzi
Innova 933 (innova.mu)

American composer/percussionist Joseph Bertolozzi’s Tower Music is the culmination of a ten-year project to “play” Paris’ Eiffel Tower using various percussion mallets, etc. The over 10,000 samples recorded live by contact microphones were then reduced to 2,800 descriptively named sounds which he then used to compose the nine exciting tracks. Bertolozzi stresses that only tones made by playing the actual surfaces of Eiffel Tower are heard, and that no added effects were utilized.

The to-be-expected rhythmic percussive sounds are heard on A Thousand Feet of Sound and the jump-up-and-boogie grooves of Tower Music. A big surprise is the range of pitches and dynamics comprising the ear-worm melodies of the lilting waltz Elephant on the Tower. Especially intriguing is Evening Harmonies, in which the composer abandons rhythmic and melodic compositional traditions and lets the Tower play for its own sound sake. The rich sonorities and soundscapes of this composed yet free-improvisational-feel-piece turn the Eiffel Tower into a musical instrument of inherent deep tone, abrasive power and wide dynamic range. An informative bonus track has Bertolozzi explaining the ins and outs of the recording, production and details of this project.

This is more than just a raised eyebrow joie de vivre sound installation. Bertolozzi is a sensitive musician attuned to quality sound production and dynamic rhythmical nuances. His compositions are concise, clear and accessible. There are plans for a future live performance. For now, listen and enjoy!

Author: Tiina Kiik
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