09 Playing on the EdgePlaying on the Edge
Sirius Quartet
Navona Records nv6249 (navonarecords.com) 

The brightest star in the visible night sky has been given the name Sirius – a word of Greek etymology meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” The Sirius Quartet certainly lives up to such a depiction in their masterful performances on this release, comprised of five genre-bending composers, each providing a confident array of compelling sonic landscapes. Jennifer Castellano, Ian Erickson, Brian Field, Marga Richter and Mari Tamaki all bring a level of creative excellence that elevates this disc to a compulsory level along with the brilliant performances by the musicians.

The need to push boundaries and push limits is an ever-present theme in contemporary genres; however, as one listens throughout, such pushing is seemingly met with no force as it feels natural and pure as the music is refreshingly contemporary while avoiding any tired clichés. We do get the standard contemporary tricks as are heard in many pieces of recent times, but unexpected innovation takes over if any doubt arises concerning overused performance techniques. For those who ask if there are still new sounds and new contexts to be accomplished in contemporary classical music – this release is a must-listen.

10 PEN TrioFound Objects – New Music for Reed Trio
PEN Trio
Summit Records DCD 754 (summitrecords.com)

I’m seeking synonyms for “wholesome.” I do so because I so enjoy what seems to me the very salubrious effect of listening to the timbre of three distinct reed voices. I am ready to accept that this is not everybody’s cup of tonic, but it seems to cure what ails me to listen to the very excellent PEN Trio. The tuning between the instruments is uniformly excellent, whether in consonant or dissonant voicings. Whether they’re swatting staccato flies or swinging languorous legato lines, they match character to one another. They play their respective windpipes with vigour, elan and grace. All three are fine practitioners, although I am personally less partial to Nora Lewis’ oboe sound. Phillip Paglialonga, clarinet, and Eric Van der Veer Varner, bassoon, form a more sympathetic blend. It might be a question of the close mic being less kind to the oboe, although it allows one to hear the players inhale, very inspiring and invigorating.

The disc is named for one of the pieces presented: Found Objects, by Jenni Brandon, turns out to be pleasant tuneful tonal evocations of flotsam on Long Beach CA. No plastic included in the collection – artistic licence I guess. Two colours of sea glass are the only semi-synthetic items, which I think is in keeping with my overall impression of the disc being salutary. The opening work 5-4-3 (except after C) by relative old-timer William Bradbury (he’s now 64 – the other composers are all 40-something), is similarly pleasant, if a bit more lively.

As much as the happily tonal first two works are like gentle massages for the ears, the final two are good stiff workouts designed to keep one’s ears in proper shape for hearing new sounds. Oblique Strategies by Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn and In Threes by M. Shawn Hundley round out this terrific collection.

15 Xenia Pestova Atomic LegaciesAtomic Legacies
Xenia Pestova Bennett
Diatribe Records (shop.diatribe.ie) 

Before sitting down and listening to this new release by UK-based, Canadian artist Xenia Pestova Bennett, one is immediately struck by the vibrant, compelling images on the cover design. This is one of those exceptional instances where the sonic expression found therein sounds just as its extramusical inspirational sources look: stunning chemical elements that glow and pulsate. From Pestova Bennett’s liner notes: “Radium is an element which glows pale blue, Plutonium glows deep red, Tritium is green and the gas Radon is yellow at its freezing point, and orange-red below. I added the fifth, obsessively-repetitive loop… this element is silvery-white, glowing blue.”

Glowing Radioactive Elements, the five tracks that correspond to the colours depicted, unfold in a well-curated and scintillating arc. The beauty of sound that emerges from Pestova Bennett recording this music on a piano with magnetic resonator – designed and trademarked by Andrew McPherson – enhances the sound world and draws the listener in, through dips and heights of pianistic gesture. The effect is akin to watching slow-moving landscapes in isolated, unfamiliar parts of our globe. The range of expression and musical material here is impressive: spontaneous at times and focused, personal and singularly driven at others.

This disc rolls on to its significant final track, featuring the Ligeti Quartet in a companion work to the first, Atomic Legacies. Pestova Bennett directs the action in a florid series of closely connected gestures, deconstructing Haydn’s music and her own.

01 AntheilGeorge Antheil – Symphony No.1; Suite from Capital of the World etc.
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 20080 (chandos.net)

This is the third in a series of invaluable volumes devoted to the orchestral works of the notorious “Bad Boy of Music,” the pistol-packing composer, pianist, inventor, author and occasional glandular advice columnist, George Antheil (1900-1959). A protégé of Ernest Bloch, he left America in 1920 in hot pursuit of his then girlfriend whose mother had banished to Paris, in an attempt to discourage their relationship. It proved a lucky break for him, for upon his arrival his piano recitals were soon lionized by the intellectual elite of the capital. He cemented his European reputation in 1926 with the literally riotous premiere of what will always remain his best known work, the sensational Ballet Mécanique for multiple pianos and percussion. Alas, the clouds of war gradually intervened and he returned to a less-than-impressed America, ending up in Hollywood scoring obscure movies. 

Of the shorter pieces on this disc the opening McKonkey’s Ferry Overture of 1948 is a boisterous depiction of George Washington’s celebrated crossing of the Delaware River at a site not far from Antheil’s birthplace of Trenton, New Jersey. The Golden Bird is a delicately scored fragment of chinoiserie, derived from a 1922 piano piece. The waltzing Nocturne in Skyrockets dates from 1951, while the Capital of the World suite is a vividly coloured, Latin-tinged anthology from Antheil’s 1952 ballet score. 

The most ambitious work on offer is Antheil’s First Symphony from 1922, an impressive declaration of patriotic American nostalgia which received only a partial premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic but was not heard again until the beginning of this century. It’s quite a winning work, polystylistic in the extreme with a little something for everyone to enjoy. Antheil was an expert and innovative orchestrator whose timbral flair is vividly brought to life by the enthusiastic ministrations of John Storgårds and his expert BBC ensemble.

02 MessiaenMessiaen – L’Ascension; Le Tombeau Resplendissant; Les Offrandes Oubliees; Un Sourire
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; Paavo Järvi
Alpha-Classics.com ALPHA 548 (naxosdirect.com)

To celebrate Paavo Järvi’s appointment as their new music director, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich has released this admirable collection of early orchestral works by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a composer demonstrably dear to Järvi’s heart. The disc begins with Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931), a lesser-known work that reflects a crucial time in Messiaen’s life; it bears an unsettling autobiographical program note that begins, “My youth is dead: it was I who killed it.” Perhaps feeling it was too personally revealing, he withdrew the work from his catalogue for decades. It was eventually published in 1997. This is followed by the transcendent “symphonic meditation” Les Offrandes oubliées (1930), one of his most successful works in this genre. 

Notably absent in the works of the 1930s, Messiaen’s preoccupation with birdsong is front and centre, alternating with retrospective hymnal passages reminiscent of his earlier style, in the late Un sourire (1989), which premiered  December 5, 1991, as Messiaen’s exquisite contribution to the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. The recording concludes with the original orchestral version of the lengthy, supremely Catholic devotional tone poem L’Ascension – Quatre méditations symphoniques (1932/33); the later 1934 version, with a different third movement, is a well-known crown jewel of the organ repertoire. 

Järvi maintains an excellent command of the orchestra throughout. The dense harmonies projected by the Zürich strings are sublime and expertly balanced, the percussion section is impressively resonant and solo passages are outstanding. A very fine job indeed by the recording team, sourced from live performances from January and April 2019.

03 Ginastera HarpGinastera – Harp Concerto Op.25
Sidsel Walstad; Norwegian Radio Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya
LAWO LWC1182 (naxosdirect.com/)

Astor Piazzolla may be more celebrated a musical figure in contemporary Argentina, but Alberto Ginastera is perhaps its most exalted composer. His career spanned almost 50 years (1934-1983). Through all three phases – objective nationalism, subjective nationalism and neo-expressionism – Ginastera remained the greatest exponent of the Argentinean gauchesco tradition which holds that the gaucho – a native, landless horseman – is the icon of Argentina. In the last decade or so of his life, the composer’s appeal was so great, his influence stretched into many musical styles including jazz and so-called progressive rock.

The selections on this disc, featuring harpist Sidsel Walstad and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, are emblematic of Ginastera’s great gift for creating epic compositions that evoke Argentinean music and dance traditions. These he skillfully integrated into classical forms contemporaneous with the 20th century. Romanticism is never very far away, of course, and this is clear from both Harp Concerto, Opus 25 and the 12 Variaciones concertantes, Op.23. 

Both Walstad and the orchestra deliver fine performances of two of Ginastera’s eminently paradigmatic works. Walstad’s playing is eloquently dreamy and distinctively ripe in tone. Her performance, based on the 1968 revision (also performed by Nicanor Zabaleta), is scintillating. The orchestra, under Harth-Bedoya’s baton is stunning. What musicians across the board deliver is startlingly fresh and alive.

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