06 Lachenmann clarinetAesthetic Apparatus – Clarinet Chamber Music of Helmut Lachenmann
Gregory Oakes; Matthew Coley; Jonathan Sturm; Mei-suang Huang; George Work
New Focus Recordings FCR196 (gregoryoakes.com)

Utter the name Helmut Lachenmann in a loud stage whisper, being sure to accentuate fully the consonants, exaggerating the different vowel colours, and you’ll have an idea what it is like to perform his music. He asks performers to make varying sounds which require a complete rethinking of one’s technical approach. Lachenmann, Maurizio Kagel and Heinz Holliger have led the way to innovative notations depicting the strange breath effects, kisses, clicks, squeaks and honks they demand from performers.

In Aesthetic Apparatus, clarinetist Gregory Oakes has compiled three substantial chamber works by Lachenmann. The first, Dal Niente, for solo clarinet, is an extension of silence into a variety of soundscapes. Oakes conveys conviction that all the sounds he generates belong in a congruent whole, and with more hearings I’m certain I’d agree. What is unusual in this recording is the extended periods of nearly empty time, where the effects produced might be more easily perceived if one could see them produced. It takes chutzpah to publish this performance on a sound-only recording.

Trio Fluido, for clarinet, viola and percussion, provides a richer soundscape, although the writing is still full of attenuated pauses. Early exchanges between the instruments seem full of repressed violence, which occasionally breaks out into outright hostility. Beyond this, there are delightful moments of simply elegant trialogue, as if three species of creature are employing their various intelligences to match one another’s language.

Allegro Sostenuto, for clarinet, cello and piano, completes this wonderful exploration. I use the term “tonal” modified by “somewhat more” to indicate that in contrast to the first two tracks, this work exploits more interplay between pitches than raw sounds, making it perhaps the most immediately listenable.

07 Daniel CrozierEast of the Sun & West of the Moon – Orchestral Music of Daniel Crozier
Seattle Symphony; Gerard Schwarz; Moravian PO; Stanislav Vavřínek
Navona Records NV6137 (danielcrozier.com)

“These are fairy tale pieces,” writes American composer Daniel Crozier (b.1965), professor of theory and composition at Florida’s Rollins College. Crozier names only one of the stories, saying it’s more entertaining for listeners to use their own imaginations.

The 34-minute Symphony No.1: Triptych for Orchestra begins with Ceremonies, a movement whose sombre sonorities and unstable tonal centres suggest portentous, menacing situations. The second movement, Capriccio, with its sprightly winds, dancing strings and outbursts of brass and percussion, conjures (for me) images of malicious elves cavorting in a dark forest. The final movement, Fairy Tale: East of the Sun and West of the Moon, draws its title from a Norwegian folk tale containing many familiar fairy tale elements. This, the symphony’s slow movement, features a long-lined, otherworldly melody for the violins followed by a solo flute floating over hushed strings. I was quite taken with this music – rather than hearing episodes of a story, I “saw” a beautiful, secluded mountain lake, shimmering under the stars. The symphony ends by recalling its ominous opening before quietly fading away. No happily-ever-after here. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwarz provide an energetic, virtuosic performance.

The 11-minute Ballade: A Tale after the Brothers Grimm resembles the symphony’s second movement – animated playfulness bracketing a sinister-sounding, slow middle section. It’s performed by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavřínek.

Both of these very colourful works are well worth a listen.

08 Wind BandAlchemize – Music for Wind Band
U of Southern Mississippi Wind Ensemble; Catherine A. Rand
Naxos 8.573587 (naxos.com)

This album from the Naxos Wind Band Series features performances from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Wind Ensemble of two substantial works from a pair of eminent American composers, both born in 1943. Joseph Schwantner’s Luminosity is subtitled “Concerto for Wind Orchestra.” The opening movement, marked spiritoso e energico, pretty well sums up the essence of this composer’s upbeat style. The work brings the percussion section up front (literally) from the get-go, though the introspective middle movement is in effect a clarinet concerto featuring USM clarinet professor Jackie McIlwain. The finale turns the spotlight back on the drum line to mercilessly aggressive effect – are you ready for some football? Not I!

By contrast, the seven movements of David Maslanka’s Hosannas strike an elegiac tone. Writing in an unabashedly tonal language, Maslanka composed over 50 works for wind ensembles before his unexpected demise last year; the album is dedicated to his memory. Chorale tunes and similar simple melodies abound in this kaleidoscopic work. The disc concludes with a tantalizing fragment of a work by Steven Bryant (born 1972), the first movement of his Alchemy in Silent Spaces, which unfolds from an extended introduction for piano and pitched percussion instruments to eventually reveal the full ensemble. It’s a pity we don’t get to hear the full potential of it; at a miserly 54 minutes the disc certainly has room to spare. Marching bands and their more refined cousins, wind ensembles, number in the thousands in the USA. Judging from the evidence of this disc the USM ensemble belongs among the elite of the order.

09 Marcus BluntMarcus Blunt – Orchestral Works
Murray McLachlan; Lesley Wilson; Manchester Camerata; Stephen Threlfall
metier msv 28570 (divineartrecords.com)

This CD presents four works by British composer Marcus Blunt (b.1947), the longest of which is the 27-minute Piano Concerto, ably performed by English pianist Murray McLachlan. Blunt describes the second movement Largo as “tense, mysterious, subdued,” words I’d apply as well to the first and third movements, up until the concerto’s surprisingly upbeat, triumphal final two minutes. Another word I’d use for this work is “ambiguous” – both in tonality and emotion – creating not-unpleasant sensations of disquiet and suspended disequilibrium.

At just under seven minutes, Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra continues the ambiguity, as Blunt observes that in astrology, the planet Saturn somehow represents the contradictory qualities of “self-discipline” and “ambition,” “limitation” and “aspiration.” The music is similarly both disciplined and assertive. The 11-minute, five-movement Concertino for Bassoon and String Orchestra, reshaping material from two of Blunt’s earlier works, was written for and performed here by Lesley Wilson. Here again, constant major-minor shifts and indefinite tonality create emotional ambivalence in what would otherwise have been an innocently playful work. Blunt’s Symphony No.2 lasts nearly 17 minutes, comprising an elegiac Andante, the most emotionally overt music on the disc, plus three gently melodious Allegretto movements.

The pervading elusiveness of Blunt’s music makes for an unusually intriguing listening experience. The Manchester Camerata under Stephen Threlfall provides solid support throughout. 

01 Sound of Silent VoicesThe Sound of Silent Voices – Children’s Poetry from the Holocaust Reflected in Musical Compositions by Young Composers
Ton Beau String Quartet; Gershon Willinger; Zachary Ebin
Independent (silentvoicesproject.zacharyebin.com)

A few years ago, violinist, music educator and founder/artistic director of the Silent Voices Project, Zachary Ebin, was doing some research at York University and happened upon I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of Jewish children’s drawings and poems, created from 1942 to 1944, during their imprisonment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

With the knowledge that only about 100 of the 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt survived, combined with being deeply affected by the children’s heart-wrenching poetry, Ebin was inspired to find a way to keep their voices alive. His idea of having contemporary, young composers create musical works based on that poetry was the genesis of the Silent Voices Project and this ensuing CD.

Fourteen composers, from Toronto, Waterloo, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago, aged 10 to 20 (not unlike the young poets in Theresienstadt) participated. With their astonishing and profoundly moving works, each of them has demonstrated remarkable skill, dignity and maturity beyond their years. Performing their stirring trios and quartets on The Sound of Silent Voices is Toronto’s outstanding Ton Beau String Quartet. Gershon Willinger, who at age two was among the youngest children liberated from Theresienstadt, provides another layer of gravitas, reciting each poem prior to its musical reading.

This is an exceptional project, a heartfelt labour of love and respect. These evocative young voices – both the poets and the composers – deserve our attention. Set aside some quiet time to listen to The Sound of Silent Voices.

02 Jeff ReillyTo Dream of Silence
Jeff Reilly
Sanctuary Concerts SCCD005 (jeffreilly.ca)

To Dream of Silence, featuring Jeff Reilly both as composer and bass clarinetist, and including one new work by Christos Hatzis, defies easy categorization. The music was inspired by a series of dreams, described in brief prose poems that are narrated as part of the tracks. There is no obvious rhythmic/melodic reference between the words and Reilly’s music, which is often gauzy background harmony supporting rhythmic melodic fragments played by Reilly and punctuated by bells and other percussion. The notes mention accompanying “sound sculptures,” the work of blacksmith John Little. It isn’t clear where Reilly’s music leaves off and the sound sculptures pick up, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.

The work on this disc is highly listenable, and the narrative of the dreams is cryptic enough to grab my interest. I’m unsure whether I’d prefer to simply read the narration, though I am sincerely put off by the announcements of the dream titles, which distract from rather than enhance the music. Your Dark Beauty is rife with Freudian overtones. Eighty Steps, Endless Chambers, and Food for a Soul are dreams that seem to conjure a child’s memories of his home, from a variety of perspectives. Taken together, the series verges on nightmare, with a particular fixation with death. That’s not to say there is only terror; there is some serenity, but unease overrides. What does one imagine Fishing to mean, when what one hooks is an angel?

Reilly, as performer of his own works, creates curious and beautiful effects within a mist of studio-produced sounds. In Hatzis’ Extreme Unction the production is cleaner and the narrative element is entirely musical. This remarkably beautiful elegy for the composer Gustav Ciamaga fits in well with the sombre tone of the disc.

Listen to 'To Dream of Silence' Now in the Listening Room

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