01 RihmWolfgang Rihm – Music for Violin and Orchestra Volume 1
Tianwa Yang; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Christoph-Mathias Mueller
Naxos 8.573812 (naxosdirect.com)

Impressively prolific by any measure, the celebrated German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b.1952 ) has amassed an immense catalogue of over 400 substantial works. Rihm’s early 1970s compositions employ elements of Schoenberg’s and Berg’s expressionist compositional language while also incorporating techniques of the subsequent composer generations. Despite being associated with the 1980s concert music movement dubbed New Simplicity and New Romanticism, Rihm’s musical aesthetic never seems to have strayed far from late Austro-German Romanticism and its expressionist love child. The three works on this CD for violin and orchestra – in essence violin concerti – spread over almost four decades, clearly reflect all those influences. Nevertheless, Rihm’s idiosyncratic voice emerges collectively from these works with introspective intensity.

Rihm was in his mid-20s when he made a splash in 1977 with the premiere of his brilliantly orchestrated first violin concerto Lichtzwang (Light-duress), titled and perhaps also thematically modelled after a book of poetry by the 20th-century German author Paul Celan. It’s Rihm’s latest and most lyrical violin concerto, Gedicht des Malers (Poem of the Painter 2012–14), however, that speaks most directly to me. Rihm explains the intended narrative: “the soloist virtually embodies the painter’s brush as it moves over the canvas sometimes faster and sometimes in more deliberate ways.” In all three works, violinist Tianwa Yang brilliantly imbues her virtuoso passages with passion and intimations of inner angst and emotion, effectively supported by the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic under Christoph-Mathias Mueller.

03 The Privacy of Domestic Life Cover ArtThe Privacy of Domestic Life
Architek Percussion
Centrediscs (LP) CMCV 10418 (musiccentre.ca)

Founded in 2012, the “quirky, virtuosic and thoroughly engaging” (Bachtrack.com) Montreal-based quartet Architek Percussion has performed across Canada specializing in percussive experimental, multi-disciplinary, minimalist music, sometimes embellished with electroacoustic elements. It has commissioned over 40 works by Canadian and international composers, and appears on five albums.

On the LP The Privacy of Domestic Life Architek performs scores of three Canadian concert music composers in their 30s who are well on the way to establishing international careers: Adam Basanta, Taylor Brook and Beavan Flanagan. All three of their works were commissioned by the group.

Brook’s Incantation transforms the metallic sounds of cymbals and bells and what sounds like clay pots into finely tuned microtonal textures and sonorities, drawing on both his Western composition and Hindustani classical music performance studies and practice.

The title cut is the most substantial work here at 19 minutes. It “is a reflection on the domestic life, delivered in three interconnected movements,” writes Montreal-based Basanta. “I imagined a daily universe in expansion, with unique sounds that come to life: discreet noises amplified, amalgamated rhythms, and unwanted sounds,” such as repeated cellphone interruptions. Furthermore, Basanta effectively exploits the interaction between human musicians, on percussion instruments, and enigmatic electronic sounds.

On one hand the music on this album sets out to explore thresholds between temporal stability – in terms of regular pulse, rhythmic continuity, metre and groove – and instability. For the listener, the sonic journey here is equally full of the thrill of discovery and the mystery of the unknown.

Listen to 'The Privacy of Domestic Life' Now in the Listening Room

02 Stas NaminStas Namin – Centuria S-Quark Symphony
London Symphony Orchestra; Lee Reynolds
Navona Records nv6200 (navonarecords.com) 

In his liner notes, Stas Namin refers to “clashes between individuals, societies, countries, ethnic groups – and ultimately the crash of civilization… the concept of my symphony came to me… as a kind of prophecy… reflecting the discord present in each person and consequently in each society.”

Namin (b. Anastas Mikoyan, 1951) is a Russian arts icon, a superstar rock band leader, songwriter, film and theatre producer-director, photographer, painter (including the CD’s cover image) and classical composer.

Despite Namin’s comments, there’s hardly any conflict or dissonance in his 47-minute, one-movement Symphony (2016). Instead, I counted more than a dozen brief episodes expressing ever-changing moods including nostalgia, playfulness, celebration, uncertainty and brash assertiveness, each colourfully scored, highlighting different instrumental combinations. One episode suggested to me a rustic square dance, another a comical circus procession. In fact, the entire symphony, highly theatrical and rhythmically energized, is essentially a brilliant ballet score begging to be choreographed, with episodes appropriate for solos, duos and ensembles.

Rather than illustrating current or futuristic discord, Namin’s engaging melodic mix of late-Romanticism and neo-classicism recalls music of the 1920s and 30s. Namin never sounds like anyone else, though – not until the final three minutes, the first truly dissonant section, a crescendo of pounding percussion reminiscent of Mosolov’s Iron Foundry and the finale of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps. The apocalyptic climax is followed by a plaintive solo violin, described by Namin as “a new thread of life.”

Highly enjoyable throughout!

04 Kuniko ReichSteve Reich – Drumming
Kuniko
Linn Records KD 582 (linnrecords.com) 

The celebrated mallet percussionist Kuniko is equally comfortable in sound worlds as diverse as Baroque, electronic and minimalist. Having performed Bach with as much ease as Xenakis she approached 2018 with a startling interpretation of Steve Reich’s Drumming, a work inspired by Ghanaian Ewe drummers. While Kuniko might have taken her mallets to vibraphone and marimba in the course of other musical challenges, this recording comes with particularly vexing challenges: how to overcome challenges of tone (relating to the metallic sound of the glockenspiels) and the fact that she overdubs the parts of up to nine percussionists that Reich had in mind?

The obvious answer was to use her hyper-virtuosity on anything that can be struck with a mallet. And thus we are treated to music that develops from the stuttering first notes to a veritable cascade of melodic sounds redolent of a kind of tintinnabulation that virtually transforms a typically Afro-centric drumming into an extraordinary world of melodicism. Reich’s composition, Drumming, is divided into four (unequal) Parts and Kuniko embellishes each with her percussive arsenal that also includes marimba, glockenspiels, piccolo and voices.

The result transforms what minimalist refuseniks might toss aside here as repetitive into a piece that Kuniko builds as if into a moving soundscape of broodingly percussive tumbling grooves that begin to ripple and glitter as she adds cascades of notes from the marimbas and piccolo, topped up by high-sprung pristine vocals towards the work’s conclusion.

05 BaobabPhill Niblock: Baobab
Quatuor Bozzini
QB CQB 1924 (actuellecd.com)

Montreal-based Quatuor Bozzini has released 28 CDs of contemporary music since their founding in 1999, covering disparate international composers from Aldo Clementi to John Cage along with a host of Canadians, and in the process becoming a preeminent string quartet in contemporary music circles. This recording of two works by American minimalist Phill Niblock testifies to their willingness to take on challenges to find new musical ground.

They play two similar pieces here, each recast from earlier orchestral versions, Disseminate (1998) and Baobab (2011). Niblock has reconceived them as works for five string quartets, the founding Bozzinis (cellist Isabelle and violist Stéphanie) along with violinists Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung overdubbing themselves to 20 instruments. They’re precisely notated, microtonal works, with long, even bow strokes themselves influencing the exact pitch. The result in each piece is a hive of sound, bow strokes determinedly disappearing until the massed quartets approach the constancy of a bank of oscillators.

It’s an orchestra constructed in the recording process, creating works that are literally our experience of them. Each piece is both constantly changing and never changing; each achieves timelessness in a remarkably brief time, 22:18 for Disseminate, 23:11 for Baobab. Here our experience of pitch confounds notions of unison and dissonance, as if the pieces are constantly between them, simultaneously moving towards and away. It’s like listening to long and failed orchestral tune-ups that are also a new kind of bliss, experiences to cherish.

06 Tim BradyTim Brady – Music for Large Ensemble
Bradyworks Large Ensemble; Tim Brady
Starkland ST-230 (starkland.com) 

With strident chords and single note triplets and arpeggios, Tim Brady’s guitar becomes a razor-edged ignition into the elegant rolling atmospherics of reeds, woodwinds, strings and rhythm section of his Bradyworks Large Ensemble. Somehow the loud and amplified intrusion is smoothed over and the respective instruments are no longer strange bedfellows, even as the music veers from the utterly thrilling turbulence of ideas – a glittering introduction, dark passagework, triumphant fanfares by guitar, piano and electric piano, all of whom trade gigantic-sounding chords in the dark and foreboding Désir, the first part of the Concerto for electric guitar and large chamber ensemble.

Darkness and foreboding are familiar tone colours and atmospheric soundscapes throughout Eight Songs about: Symphony #7, re-inking the palimpsests of Shostakovich’s work with all the glory and tension of the turbulent Soviet era, complete with principal players in the form of music sketched in the proverbial image and likeness of Josef Stalin (Bells), Shostakovich and his wife Nina Varzar (Exhaustion) the conductor Karl Eliasberg (August Ninth) and a number of incidental characters in the erstwhile Soviet landscape.

In his works Brady recasts intensely Sovietized themes of tension, fearfulness and bitterness, tempering these with the sound of soaring hope via heraldic, ascending motifs and bright harmonics. The result is a work of brilliant impetuosity. Played on the knife edge of the guitar, Brady combines a disturbing history with Douglas Smith’s poignant text through recitation and arias and instrumentation to great effect.

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