13 Magnus LindbergMagnus Lindberg – Accused; Two Episodes
Anu Komsi; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 13452 (naxosdirect.com/items/magnus-lindberg-accused-two-episodes-534964) 

Nothing much happens in Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s song cycle Accused. During the French Revolution a protester fighting for freedom and equality is asked by her jailer how she is doing. In the midst of the Cold War an East German citizen is grilled by the secret police about reading the popular West German news magazine Der Spiegel. More recently, in the trial of WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a prosecution witness is cross-examined about Manning’s idealism. 

The texts, in French, German and English, are taken from transcripts of actual interrogations. At odds with their matter-of-fact banality, the music packs a real punch. All six roles are sung with relentless theatricality by the virtuosic soprano Anu Komsi. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan gave the world premiere in London in 2015, and Komsi sang the North American debut in Toronto two years later in a memorable concert with the Toronto Symphony, one of six co-commissioners.

The versatile Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Hannu Lintu, gives a dynamic account of the dangers lurking beneath the ominous orchestral textures. But there is hope – in the resilient pizzicato strings, the defiant brass fanfares, and, at the end, the sublime vocalise with the soprano abandoning words altogether. It’s a brilliant coup de théâtre.

Lindberg wrote Accused in 2014, but its timeliness is uncanny. Here it has been effectively paired with Lindberg’s inventive Two Episodes, written two years later. Fortunately, texts and translations are included.

14 John AylwardJohn Aylward – Angelus
Ecce Ensemble; Jean-Phiippe Wurtz
New Focus Recordings FCR261 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/john-aylward-angelus) 

The title of John Aylward’s recording Angelus is derived from its Christian incipit – those first few words of the text: Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ (The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary). Perhaps the angels called upon by these ten musical prayers are in fact more ancient mystical creatures of the Abrahamic Universe; or an even older one. No matter which you choose to believe – and even if you do not “believe” – otherworldly visions of your own are bound to ensue upon listening to this exquisitely ethereal music.

Aylward’s Angelus is a series of reflective supplications and declaratives. They are prayers and inner meditations on, or with, spirit beings, albeit in the material world. They are also dialogues and existential arguments with the spiritual self. The composer makes no effort at all to disguise this in these works. In being drawn to this kind of contemplation, Aylward – like Luciano Berio – explores complex interactions of music and text; of recitation, singing with unusual and often complex instrumentation. 

Vocalist Nina Guo’s performance is wonderfully sprite; at times even marvellously deranged. Her declamatory cries in Angelus Novus and metaphorical conjuring in Dream Images is absolutely breathtaking. Meanwhile, the performance of the Ecce Ensemble is an inspired one. Their musicians intertwine their individual sensuous utterances playing winds, reeds, strings and percussion to make Aylward’s ghostly compositions shimmer with something resembling an extraordinary awakening of real and imagined beings in the flesh and in the spirit.

Listen to 'John Aylward – Angelus' Now in the Listening Room

15 Sharon Isbin AffinityAffinity
Sharon Isbin; Elizabeth Schulze; Isabel Leonard; Colin Davin; Maryland Symphony Orchestra
Zoho ZM 202005 (zohomusic.com/cds/isbin_affinity.html) 

Musical greats, in any genre, tend to possess a studious knowledge of musical tradition, channeled into a unique personal voice. It is this distinctive, mature, yet vivacious sound we hear when listening to guitarist Sharon Isbin, and it only takes a cursory glimpse at her discography or biography to confirm a thorough education in classical guitar lineage. Her 2020 release Affinity is an impressive undertaking that offers a modern take on recurring themes from her prolific career. Most notably, her virtuosity and commitment to broadening the repertoire of the instrument through commissioned works. 

The recording takes its name from Affinity: Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra, by Chris Brubeck. Brubeck’s writing showcases Isbin in both technique and grace, providing an opening to the disc that is exciting, while not devoid of tender moments. At first I expected to hear more guitar, but after continued listening, Brubeck’s orchestral writing balances perfectly with its soloist. A mature rendition of El Decameron Negro, written for Isbin by Leo Brouwer, is heard here a quarter century after Isbin’s first recording the piece. The second unaccompanied guitar number we hear is by Grammy Award-winning Chinese composer Tan Dun, and has a more abstract sound, providing a welcome contrast to the aforementioned pieces and Antonio Lauro’s Waltz No.3. The album’s well-programmed closer, Richard Danielpour’s Of Love and Longing, is a succinct yet compelling song cycle that truly keeps a listener on their toes until the last note.

16 Is This NoisIs This ~Nois
Independent (noissaxophone.com) 

Is this ~Nois (pronounced “noise”) opens with an intense performance of a riveting work: Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt II. The sounds are both discordant and beautiful with half the quartet playing long vibrato-less tones alongside the others who play extremely drawn out multiphonics. The contrast and volume builds for most of the piece’s four and a half minutes. It is a no-holds-barred introduction to this young quartet from Chicago. Craig Davis Pinson’s Dismantle has all four players on alto saxophone and combines effective use of pad slapping, multiphonics and altissimo register in a very percussive and rhythmic piece. Niki Harlafti’s Vaisseau Fantôme has the quartet playing seven saxophones over its length and is inspired by Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz.

The quartet is “dedicated to the creation and performance of contemporary music” and has commissioned several of the pieces on the album. Most works utilize extended ranges, multiphonics and use of different saxophone configurations outside the standard soprano, alto, tenor and baritone quartet. This album is fresh and intense and I have to compliment the quartet on their bold and unique commitment to saxophone repertoire. Let’s have more ~Nois!

Listen to 'Is This ~Nois' Now in the Listening Room

17 Dawn ChorusDawn Chorus
Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble
Innova Recordings 044 (innova.mu/albums/grand-valley-state-university-gvsu-new-music-ensemble/dawn-chorus)

Since 2014, the New Music Ensemble at Grand Valley State University (Allendale, MI) under director Bill Ryan has commissioned 20 American composers to respond musically to U.S. national parks, with the ensemble subsequently touring to perform at these sites. In their fifth release, the eight astoundingly talented student musicians perform 11 of these commissioned works. 

The musical styles travel across many musical paths. Title track Dawn Chorus by Phil Kline features birdsong-like flute, clarinet and flamboyant glockenspiel parts in slightly atonal counterpoint, emulating springtime early morning birdsong in Badlands National Park. More Badlands inspiration as Bite the Dust composer Molly Joyce uses faster, slightly dissonant piano pulsing, loud, full-orchestration held notes and descending intervals to describe its disappointing land erosion. 

Repeated low dark atonal pitches and circular minimalist fluttering flute star patterns recreate Arches National Park’s night sky drama in former GVSU ensemble member Ashley Stanley’s Night Sketches. Patrick Harlin’s more traditional Wind Cave, inspired by Wind Cave National Park, features wind sounds painted by rapid violin swirls, tonal orchestral melodies and closing ripples. Big fun sound surprise in closing track Canvas the Bear, as composer Niko Schroeder sonically recreates a childhood sighting of a Yellowstone Park bear while riding in his granddad’s jeep, using jazz/pop melody overtones, toe-tapping bear-walking rhythms, and unexpected ensemble one-two-three-four mid-piece vocal count.  

Works by Biedenbender, Deemer, Herriott, Gardner, Matthusen and Biggs complete this nature-inspired sound painting release.

01 Jacques HetuJacques Hétu – Concertos
Jean-Philippe Sylvestre; Orchestre symphonique de Laval; Alain Trudel
ATMA ACD2 2793 (atmaclassique.com/en)

A treasure trove of musical Canadiana awaits the steadfast listener who seeks a (Western) classical contemporary canon from true north shores. Despite the few generations of composers who could claim such affiliations, an impressive array of works exist from the last 50 years, especially those written in Quebec. Among French Canada’s most distinguished 20th-century composers, the late Jacques Hétu is revered for his prowess as orchestral colourist. Formidably, he penned no less than 15 concertos for a variety of instruments. Hétu once remarked: “My taste for the concerto is directly linked to the genre of drama; the soloist is a singer, and the concerto his or her stage.”

A recent all-Hétu recording spotlights the indomitable dream team of pianist Jean-Philippe Sylvestre and trombonist/conductor, Alain Trudel. Trudel brings his irrepressible artistry to the collaboration, setting the stage for a creative synergy. He wields a keen, razor-sharp sense of pacing, as he ferries the Orchestre symphonique de Laval from one striking Hétu work to another, brimful with devotion and panache. (The tone poem, Sur les rives du Saint-Maurice, Op.78, is also included, again proving Hétu’s mastery of orchestration, arguably his finest gift.) 

The stalwart Sylvestre rollicks in a commanding realization of the second piano concerto. The keyboard writing that inspired Hétu seems a near-blood relation to music by Prokofiev. For the final work, Trudel conjoins baton and trombone, dazzling our ears with a golden, luscious reading of Hétu’s concerto for that instrument.

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