08 Five ThoughtsFive Thoughts on Everything
Jobina Tinnemans
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-9134 (brightshiny.ninja/jobina)

Her self-confessed “analog obsession” has enabled the Dutch-born, Wales-based composer and performer Jobina Tinnemans to produce some of the most extraordinarily eloquent music you may have heard in a long time. Five Thoughts on Everything is a unique perspective on the ecosystem of planet Earth in which humanity plays a pivotal role. The title suggests that the raison d’être for our existence is quite simple. Tinnemans’ performance on Five Thoughts on Everything brings that existential simplicity to life by weaving the piano into a series of other field recordings so exquisitely made that the mechanical aspects of the recording melt seamlessly into a whole world of ephemeral sound. 

The extraterrestrial white noise of Midtone in G forms a kind of warp into which the chorale of Djúpalónsdóttir & Hellnarson is woven (by the South Iceland Chamber Choir). An interminable dance of marine life burbles in the intertwining of piano and jabbering grey seals from Pwll Deri, Wales in The Shape of Things Aquatic. Meanwhile the rhythmic arrival of roosting starlings is subsumed by deep aquatic life including the call of whales – all this in Microbioism. The sound palette of Varèsotto, Hinterland of Varèse, Tinnemans’ 2018 take on Edgard Varèse’s installation at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, returns us to a macro-view of the ecosystem that is planet Earth. It’s a disc to die for, in which Tinnemans’ universe – and ours – is described with ethereal beauty from end to end.

09 morris jeff close reedingJeff Morris – Close Reeding, A digital view from the inside out
Various Artists
Ravello Records RR8041 (ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8041)

The third track on this disc by sound artist Jeff Morris is Slurp, an unsettling collection of the very oral sounds made by reed players with the apparatus of their trade: mouthpiece, reed, tongue, lips, actuated by saliva and breath. As an exploration it is horrifying yet familiar. I stood the test of it by writing these thoughts while hearing it, but it was still a challenge. 

Compared to some of the other tracks, Slurp is at least comfortingly acoustic; others, like the title track, are laboratory products, where the hint of a recreated physical space is buried under synthetic effects occurring in the void of Cyberia. I visualize a blank soundstage, black or neutral white, no corners, no floor walls or ceiling. Within this space Morris explores the quasi-human voices of reed instruments, pairing them with, or pitting against, sounds from his own digital sound production mechanisms. 

Melody and harmony sit much of this disc out, back in the “real” world. Instead: dialogues of nattering, whining, dyspeptic, or louche voices, disembodied and reminiscent of the acoustic instruments where they were born. So, rhythm, timbre, certainly pitch, but pitch that is nearly arbitrary, the servant of an attempt to express through something very like speech, something very like meaning. In Voclarise, a brief melodic utterance by the bass clarinet turns into a gorgeous chorale that is soon usurped by a croaking (contra?) bass clarinet. What’s in a Whisper is a four-movement (Hush, Howl, Growl, Grit) trio for drum kit, alto sax and synthesizer. Here is almost conventional chamber music, at least compared with the other more singular and solitary expressions.

The lineup of contributors is impressive, their commitment to this extravagance is total. Not for everybody, but verifiably music.

10 Speak PercussionThomas Meadowcroft – Percussion Works
Speak Percussion
Mode Records mode 319 (speakpercussion.com)

The Australian composer, Thomas Meadowcroft (b.1972), delivers a CD featuring four of his works written for percussion and electronics performed by his compatriots, the renowned Speak Percussion ensemble. In the first piece, titled The Great Knot, piercing electronic drones and chirpings create a delightfully barren expanse. This piece is a meditation in an open field with rusty swings and passing melodies in the wind. Cradles is a psychedelic lullaby warping lounge music into a hallucinogenic dreamscape. In Plain Moving Landfill, the listener travels through industrial ambiences and synthetic punctures. For a piece that is inspired by the layers of rubbish found in a landfill, this piece is decidedly calm – albeit in a Tim Hecker sense of the word. Lastly, Home Organs takes its inspiration from the attempt at memory retrieval at the onset of Alzheimer’s illness. Our memories can create a sense of “home” or belonging for the individual. This piece certainly delivers a sense of frustration that undoubtedly accompanies a loss of this sense of home through the failure of one’s own organs. 

Meadowcroft has a particular knack for quirky electronic tinkering and applies these sonorities to obfuscate the difference between acoustic and electronic sources for the listener. When thinking about a CD of contemporary percussion music, the mind immediately expects to hear bombast and raucousness. This release is an extremely successful shift from the norm in its novel use of electronic auras that blend with acoustic instruments – a must listen for those seeking something unfamiliar in the world of percussion music.

Listen to 'Thomas Meadowcroft: Percussion Works' Now in the Listening Room

01 Shostakovich QuintetShostakovich – Piano Quintet; Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok
Trio Wanderer; Ekaterina Semenchuk
Harmonia Mundi HMM902289 (triowanderer.fr/discography)

The public, generally, does not leave a performance (or a deep listening session to a recording) of the work of the late Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich whistling tuneful melodies. But who made tuneful whistling the barometer for success in classical music anyway? Certainly not the legions of Shostakovich admirers, for whom this 2020 release – of his Piano Quintet in G Minor Op.57 (1940) and Seven Romances on Poems by Aleksander Blok Op.127 (1967) by Trio Wanderer (Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, violin; Raphaël Pidoux, cello; and Vincent Coq, piano) – will be most welcome. For the quintet, the trio is joined by violinist Catherine Montier and violist Christophe Gaugué and the Romances are sung by the commanding mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk.

With the piano quintet, Shostakovich presents a test of technical prowess and historical understanding to the musicians, as they deftly negotiate the multiple lexicons that comprise the composer’s influences and, ultimately, his style. For example, contained within the quintet’s five-part structure (Prélude: Lento; Fugue: Adagio; Scherzo: Allegretto; Intermezzo: Lento; Finale: Allegretto) are motifs, broad musical themes and harmonic junctures revelatory of Shostakovich’s unabashed modernism (his so-called “ambivalent tonality” and deep admiration of Stravinsky), placed in compelling historical flux with Baroque gestures (counterpoint abounds, and there is even a G-major Tierce de Picardie that concludes the opening Prelude), along with the general, and lifelong, influence of Russian folk songs. This is the much-discussed polystylism of Shostakovich; the quintet handles such musical shapeshifting between genre and historical junctures with musicality, precision and seeming ease. 

Equally compelling is the Seven Romances song cycle, where the great and sought-after Semenchuk, singing in the composer’s (and poet  Blok’s) native Russian, shines. A recommended recording.

02 Shostakovich 11Shostakovich – Symphony No.11, Op.103 “The Year 1905”
BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds
Chandos CHSA 5278 CD/SACD (naxosdirect.com/search/095115527825)

Shostakovich wrote this symphony during 1956-1957 to commemorate a horrific event from the year before his birth. On January 9, 1905 between 10,000 and 20,000 workers and their families, suffering the miseries inflicted upon them by Russia’s rush to industrialize, converged upon Tsar Nicholas II’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg with a petition. The Tsar was not there and had left no one in the palace to receive any petition. On Bloody Sunday, the Tsar’s cavalry dutifully cut down 200 of their undefended countrymen. 

If you are not familiar with this symphony, it has a program. The first movement depicts the serenity and mood of the spacious palace square. The second movement, titled The Ninth of January, begins quietly and devolves to the determined brutality and slaughter of the workers. The Tsar wins the day. The third movement contains an adagio that depicts the growing resolve within the survivors. The fourth is enigmatic. There are unmistakable overtones of an impending final confrontation, then the triumphant jubilation of the closing pages of the finale moves the listener 13 years ahead to the day that Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar, and his family (minus one) were themselves slaughtered. This movement is titled The Tocsin, a warning bell. Was the composer intending the finale with its statement of victory really as a reference to a historical event, or a warning of another, yet-to-be victory? 

Finnish maestro John Storgårds is the principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and one of the busiest around. As the saying goes, he was born to conduct this symphony. He totally embraces the entire work from the tranquility and the real sense of open space in the opening adagio to the jubilant fourth movement. Not one note is wasted. The second movement is all the more powerful due to Storgårds’ appropriate, unhurried tempi and balances between strings, brass and percussion. He leans on the brass to powerful effect. The third movement, In Memoriam, allows Storgårds to broaden the tempo to meaningful declarations. The final movement concludes with a jubilant celebration reinforced with four sonorous church bells in the orchestra, an organ and high spirits. 

The sound from Chandos is extraordinary. I was listening to the SACD layer in stereo and there were the musicians and the orchestra. I could “see” the flute, the basses, the timpani, the cellos, in truth every instrument exactly where they were in real three dimensions. But they remain in the fabric of the ensemble. No fatigue. Perfect dynamics. 

Get a copy. See for yourself.

03 Fin du tempsFin du Temps
Estellés; Iturriagagoitia; Apellániz; Rosado
IBS Classical IBS72020 (naxosdirect.com/search/8436589069404)

Clarinetist José Luis Estellés is joined by violinist Aitzol Iturriagagoitia, cellist David Apellániz and pianist Alberto Rosado on this recording of the two best-known, thematically linked quartets for these instruments: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps by Olivier Messiaen, and Toru Takemitsu’s compositional response, Quatrain II

Recently, Messiaen, a Catholic mystic, has come under posthumous criticism for at least passively upholding a stance of anti-Semitism. These days it might be too controversial to even discuss the religiosity that fills his music. It’s safe to say both he and Takemitsu attempted the impossible: to demonstrate timelessness with the essentially time-bound art of musical performance. 

The more recent piece almost succeeds in simulating the “Fin du Temps” proposed by the earlier. With veiled and obvious references to Messiaen, Takemitsu’s piece seems to sit still and reflect. For contrast, turn to the sixth movement of the Messiaen, and listen to the Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes; it’s so rhythmically exacting to perform, and so exciting. The listener is bound by time, not released. But it’s fantastic, and fantastically presented here. Overall the recording rides on the high partials generated by the four different voices, by which I mean it is bright, but never strident. Well, except as the movement closes, where apocalyptic trumpets signal the end.

One is bound to assess the performance of the solo clarinet movement: Abîme des Oiseaux. No vanity mars this performance; if there are warts in the presentation of the crescendi and diminuendi over extreme sustains, the minute wavers that mark us as human, they do nothing to diminish the clarity of intent and finely wrought performance.

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