06 Giya KancheliGiya Kancheli – Sunny Night
Frédéric Bednarz; Jonathan Goldman; Natsuki Hiratsuka
Metis Islands 2019 MI-0009 (metis-islands.com)

I get particular satisfaction from listening to an album rendered stylishly by gifted Canadian musicians. A good example is Sunny Night, a collection of 17 miniatures originally scored for the cinema and theatre by Giya Kancheli (b.1935) recorded at McGill University in Montreal by the duo of Frédéric Bednarz (violin) and Natsuki Hiratsuka (piano).

The well-known Georgian composer Kancheli, currently living in Belgium, is an unabashed romantic when it comes to composing music. “Music, like life itself, is inconceivable without romanticism. Romanticism is a high dream of the past, present, and future – a force of invincible beauty which towers above, and conquers the forces of ignorance, bigotry, violence and evil,” states Kancheli in the liner notes.

The highlights on Sunny Night are the two works for violin, piano and bandoneon (Jonathan Goldman), an instrument closely associated with the tango. Earth, This Is Your Son for the trio is episodic and dramatic, dominated by minor key tonalities. At just over five minutes it is also the most substantial work on the album. It’s more a concert piece than incidental music.

Not only unapologetically melody-driven, romantic and tonal – often gently drawing on early 20th-century vernacular genres such as the tango – the musical language on Sunny Night also seeks to capture a single mood befitting the music’s original theatrical function. In that it succeeds admirably, though sometimes the effect verges on overt sentiment. There are times however when that is just what’s needed.

Listen to 'Giya Kancheli: Sunny Night' Now in the Listening Room

07 Reiko FutingReiko Füting – Distant Song
Ensemble Vocal & Instrumental
New Focus Recordings FCR216 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Composer Reiko Füting (Germany b.1970), a faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music, offers an intriguing study of a juxtaposition of ancient and modern practice. The first two pieces on Distant Song, performed by AuditiVokal Dresden and Art D’Echo are als ein licht/extensio and in allem Fremden/wie der Tag/wie das Licht, based on works by Heinrich Schütz. The motet Verleih Uns Frieden Gnädiglich is framed by dynamic percussion, spoken word and lush, dissonant vocalizations meant to illustrate, in the composer’s own words, a “continuing compositional interest in time and space.” Meant as an epilogue to the first two pieces, eternal return (Passacaglia) features the Byrne:Kozar:Duo, in an alarmingly engaging duet for soprano and trumpet using text from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Next is mo(nu)ment for C, on the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo in which the ensemble loadbang reiterates “Je suis,” “Ich bin” and “I Am.” Dutch ensemble Oerknal performs Weg, Lied der Schwäne, a “swan song” on the subject of euthanasia based on Arcadelt’s renaissance madrigal, Il bianco e dolce cigno. The same ensemble backs vocal quartet Damask in versinkend, versingend, verklingend which recalls Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie and quotes the 15th-century German folk song Gesegn dich Laub.

In listening to Füting’s compositions, it becomes clear that while focusing on contemporary issues, he brilliantly incorporates musical fragments of memory which bridge present and past.

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08 Cage Empty WordsEmpty Words by John Cage
Varispeed
Gold Bolus GBR035 (goldbolus.com/empty)

Long before John Cage created Empty Words, he was already encouraging the performer of his music to “let go of his feelings, his taste, his automatism, his sense of universal, not attaching himself to this or that, leaving by his performance no traces, providing by his actions no interruption to the fluency of nature.” In their recording of this epic vocal piece the quintet Varispeed, together with ten supporting musicians, seem to have absorbed Cage’s radiant words as they plough through the shard-like composition completely absorbing its incandescence into their hearts and minds – as Cage would have it – to create a deeply committed and meticulously prepared performance, produced with magical results.

Cage’s monumentally challenging work calls for invention over and above that precise quality that the composer built into his work. On Empty Words – literally words stripped of meaning – the ensemble uses male and female human voices propelled on a collision course with acoustic (woodwinds, strings, percussion and piano), electronic boards and prepared (glass) instruments. The result turns Cage’s effect of splintering and pointillist sound into an exploitation of a wide range of sonorities, some bright, some bell-like, others more delicate and subdued. Rhythmic motifs and patterns recur, producing an incantory and hypnotic quality.

Varispeed’s experience as improvisers makes their presence felt in this tactile articulation of Cage’s driving rhythms and percussive “ungrooves” with uncommon perfection ranging from the lyrical to the difficult and disturbing.

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.

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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!

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