05 Illumination oboeIllumination
Nancy Ambrose King; Ann Arbor Camerata; Oriol Sans; Victor Minke Huls
Equilibrium Recordings EQ144 (nancyambroseking.com)

Illumination is an intriguing collection of contemporary repertoire for oboe and chamber orchestra. As played by American virtuoso Nancy Ambrose King with the Ann Arbor Camerata, Michael Daugherty’s Firecracker (1991) is brillant in its economy of means, extending semitone “sparks“ into exciting events over its 13 minutes. The title refers to a matchbook popular in 1940s and 1950s Las Vegas, a locale evoked by eerie Spanish-style piano and percussion with wailing oboe glissandi. But there is frenzy in Vegas as well: use of extreme registers, rapid runs and extensive double-tonguing, all handled confidently by King. Following a sensitively-played lyrical section the bass percussion explodes, leading to a dramatic ending.

Alyssa Morris’ Dreamscape (2012) takes the form of a four-movement overnight sequence suggesting childhood drama. King’s tone is evocative in the Falling Asleep and Chase opener; eyes seem to close as a harp enters. But the chase feels underdeveloped musically, as do succeeding movements. The final Nightmare and Awakening is best, building a well-orchestrated sense of menace leading to a brilliant oboe cadenza before emerging into morning.

Both Gone (2016) and Grunge Concerto (2014) were written for Ambrose King by much-commissioned Scott McAllister. The former work is meditative and pastoral, evoking memories of loss. The soloist shows amazing breath control in long tones over a ground bass. The latter work imaginatively recasts a pop genre in three movements ending with Headbanging, a tour-de-force of virtuosity by soloist and orchestra.

Robin de Raaff – Entangled Tales
Various Orchestras
Challenge Records Int. CC72747 (challengerrecords.com)

Robin de Raaff - Stolen back from Time
Various Orchestras and Ensembles
Attacca ATT 2017152 (attaccaproductions.com)

06b de Raaff Stolen back from TimeThis past December, Dutch composer du jour Robin de Raaff (b.1968) was present for Toronto’s New Music Concerts’ performance of his Percussion Concerto. The following week, the Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble performed his Ennea’s Domein. (I attended both concerts.) Both works are included in the 2CD set Stolen back from Time, along with his Violin Concerto No.1 “Angelic Echoes,” Double Concerto for clarinet, bass clarinet and orchestra, Unisono for large orchestra, Clarinet Concerto and In Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich.

There’s a lot to listen to in de Raaff’s complex music, filled with intense energy, bright and unusual sonorities including lots of percussion, and irregular rhythms derived using mathematical constructivist techniques. But it all sounds rather more expressionistic than mathematical, especially in Unisono, 18 minutes of snarling sonic blasts performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Ed Spanjaard. Think of the battle segment of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben but fought with 21st-century weapons.

For me, the other standouts in this album are the feverish Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto. Violinist Joe Puglia evokes references to Berg’s Violin Concerto amid orchestral hints of Mahler. The Double Concerto, with soloists Harmen de Boer and Harry Sparnaay, offers touches of humour, impressionistic colours and sustained passages of quasi-tonal lyricism.

06a de Raaff Entangled TalesThere’s more to admire on The Entangled Tales CD, containing de Raaff’s Cello Concerto, Entangled Tales and Symphony No.3 “Illumination…Eclipse.” The Cello Concerto reveals a very different side of de Raaff, as brooding, songful emotionality replaces brash busy-ness. Here, the dynamics are subdued, the orchestral textures leaner but darker. In five connected movements lasting half an hour, the inward-looking, penumbral concerto receives a haunting performance by Marien van Stallen, the cellist for whom it was written, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Entangled Tales, an eight-minute synopsis of de Raaff’s penchant for assertive declamations and vivid sonorities (similar to Unisono) was commissioned by the Boston Symphony, premiered at Tanglewood and subsequently incorporated into his Symphony No.1 “Tanglewood Tales.” It’s performed with suitable high energy by Neeme Järvi and The Hague’s Residentie Orkest.

De Raaff’s 30-minute, three-movement Symphony No.3 is performed by Het Gelders Orkest under Antonello Manacorda. As its subtitle suggests, it deals with contrasts of light and dark, beginning with two piccolos and tinkly percussion creating eerie, electronics-like sounds, followed by a sudden descent into the orchestra’s dark timbres of brass and percussion. The struggle continues throughout, with quiet, plaintive solos and duos alternating with powerful tutti outbursts. The symphony ends with gentle chords played in mid-range instrumental registers, suggesting a final resolution of synthesis and reconciliation.

I recommend the Entangled Tales CD for anyone wanting an introduction to this significant 21st -century compositional voice.

07 JeneyZoltán Jeney – Wohin?
Various Artists
BMC BMC CD 240 (bmcrecords.hu)

Wohin? gives international listeners a valuable insight into the postmodernist Hungarian concert music composer Zoltán Jeney (b.1943), featuring recent works for solo piano, voice, cello and piano, string quartet and orchestra. Jeney has been a major voice in Hungarian concert music circles since the 1960s. In 1970, in collaboration with five other leading Hungarian composers, he cofounded the influential group Budapest New Music Studio, which introduced the aesthetics and music of John Cage and Minimalism at its public concerts.

The most provocative work on this album is the title track, Wohin? (German for “Where?”) A five-minute orchestral score featuring a truncated chorus in its last 30 seconds, it’s his response to the Allied invasion of Iraq. Jeney offers a withering parody in his postmodern mashup of recognizable bits of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. As the anthem of the European Union proclaiming that “All people will be brothers,” Jeney couldn’t have chosen a better subject with which to convey his deeply ironic view of the war.

Pavane (2007) for orchestra, the last and most substantial work here, employs a 128-note melody derived from a fractal series. Its first section recalls Ligeti’s Atmosphères with amorphous, shifting orchestral textures and tight heterophony. The second section, characterized by jagged polyphonic lines is brief, succeeded by a much longer final movement featuring a continuous, harmonized melody. The music builds into a kind of halting secular chorale – punctuated by irregular percussive accents – fading out on a quiet yet ultimately unsettled unison.

08 EotvosPeter Eötvös – String Quartets: The Sirens Cycle; Korrespondenz
Audrey Luna; Calder Quartet
BMC BMC CD 249 (bmcrecords.hu)

Péter Eötvös (b.1944) is a highly respected Hungarian composer of operas and large ensemble works. Musical director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain from 1979 to 1991, he has guest-conducted top European orchestras. The sirens of Homer’s Odyssey have inspired works of writers and composers, including Jörg Widmann, whose excellent Island of the Sirens for solo violin and strings was reviewed here in March 2014. Eötvös joins their company with The Sirens Cycle (2015/16), a complex work operating in a number of dimensions including pre-compositional spectral analysis of the spoken text. Even in this engaged recording by coloratura soprano Audrey Luna and the Calder Quartet, the work is overwhelming and only reveals its secrets gradually! The soprano has an attractive timbre and a three-and-a-half-octave range, here applied, using both conventional and extended vocal techniques, to singing and declaiming texts by Joyce (from Ulysses), Homer and Kafka. By turn they are startling, humorous, erotic and finally dispiriting, as the sirens mysteriously disappear.

In both the above composition and Correspondence: Scenes for String Quartet (1992), the American Calder Quartet displays mastery of extensively used instrumental techniques including harmonics, by-the-bridge (sul ponticello) bowing, and pizzicato; glissandi become almost speech-like at times. The latter bring us to the unspoken text of the work, which is from correspondence between W. A. Mozart and his father Leopold in 1778. Derived in part from a method of assigning vowels to intervals, the uncanny effect is that instruments strive for but don't attain speech.

Listen to 'Peter Eötvös – String Quartets: The Sirens Cycle; Korrespondenz' Now in the Listening Room

01 ConNotationsConNotations
Mei Yi Foo; Philipp Hutter; Bartosz Woroch; Ashley Wass; Britten Sinfonia
Orchid Classics ORCH100065 (orchidclassics.com)

ConNotations is a very impressive disc. It features pianist Mei Yi Foo with a trumpeter (Philipp Hutter), a violinist (Bartosz Woroch) and another pianist (Ashley Wass) together with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clement Power. The superlative recording owes much, first, to the choice of repertoire. The Shostakovich Piano Concerto in C Minor Op. 35 for strings, piano and solo trumpet is a combination as unusual as the concerto’s form, which consists of four through-flowing movements which sound like just one. Foo’s playing makes the music rise up like a ferocious beast and both Foo and Hutter are brilliant throughout.

On Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto for piano and violin with 13 wind instruments there’s a fruitful tension between the soloist’s expansive Romanticism and the no-nonsense rigour of Power, a tension that matches the composer’s ideals. Berg restricts the concerto’s accompaniment to 13 wind instruments, yet he ingeniously produced some marvellously unusual colourings. Foo’s piano is given the solo duties in the first movement, Woroch’s violin in the second and then they finally combine together in a show of rousing, immediate expressiveness in the finale.

While Camille Saint-Saëns may have written The Carnival of the Animals mainly for the amusement of his friends in 1886, its serious beauty should never be underestimated. In the hands of Foo and Wass there are moments of great magic, with the most beautiful and spectacular of all heard during the rippling arpeggios of the mysterious Aquarium (VII).

01 Shostakovich Golden AgeShostakovich – The Golden Age
Bolshoi Ballet
BelAir BAC443

A friend and I watched this video of, as we used to call it, The Age of Gold, with neither of us knowing the story nor what they were dancing about. Nevertheless, it was so brilliant that we watched it with delight for quite some time, simply revelling in the joyous and boisterous music while captivated by the goings-on onstage.

Shostakovich had a gift for musical satire, as his opera The Nose exemplifies. This story plays out on the floor of the Golden Age, a restaurant in the south of Russia and a favorite haunt of petty criminals in the 1920s. Interlaced with a floor show in progress at the restaurant, a young girl, Rita, now known as Mademoiselle Margot, is desired both by Boris, a young fisherman and aspiring actor and Jacques, Rita’s dance partner, in reality Yashka, the leader of a local gang of bandits. Inevitably, as in any good melodrama, eventually someone is stabbed to death. The librettist and choreographer is the legendary Yuri Grigorovich, well known and adored in ballet circles. Thanks to Shostakovich and Grigorovich the action is vibrant and non-stop. There are a few familiar tunes, including the Polka and Tea for Two. For those in the know, the principal dancers are Nina Kaptsova (Rita), Ruslan Skvortsov (Boris), Mikhail Lobukhin (Yashka), Ekaterina Krysanova (Lyuska, Yashka’s accomplice) and Vyacheslav Lopatin (variety show compere at the Golden Age). The high-definition video is, as expected, breathtakingly real, as is the usual astonishing virtuosity of the Bolshoi orchestra as heard in earlier releases.  For fans of Shostakovich and/or Grigorovich this is a self-recommending must-have.

As we are getting to that time of year, here are two apropos serious gift suggestions: The Great Bolshoi Ballets: four Blu-ray discs in one package – Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and The Flames of Paris (BelAir BAC610), breathtaking in every respect; and Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies & Concertos with Valery Gergiev and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre & six soloists (Arthaus Musik 107552, four Blu-ray discs plus hardbound book). These are definitive live performances recorded over the span of a year in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Unique.

Back to top