06 Christopher RouseChristopher Rouse – Odna Zhizn; Symphonies 3 & 4; Prospero’s Rooms
New York Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert
Dacapo 8.22611 (dacapo-records.dk)

Rouse is the most recent to hold the composer-in-residence position at the New York Philharmonic, and this new disc is his capstone project. It is actually the latest chapter in a decades-long relationship between composer and orchestra; the Phil premiered, along with many other of his works, Rouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trombone concerto in 1993. Owing to these years of collaboration, this disc achieves an all-too-uncommon thing: music born from an understanding shared equally by conductor, orchestra and living composer.

Just as these three have found common ground, so has Rouse found common ground between the conceptual and the visceral. The harmonic language of Odna Zhizn, for instance, is tightly controlled and generated using a “code.” If these words conjure up frightening images of angular serialist lines, however, fear not: “code” here refers not to forbidding pre-compositional matrices, but to the age-old tradition of encoding a loved one’s name into the score by way of note names.

“Odna Zhizn” means “life” in Russian and Russian influences loom large here. Symphony No.3 is heavily indebted to Prokofiev’s Symphony No.2, his symphony of “iron and steel.” If Prokofiev’s was the churning foundry, then Rouse’s is its smoldering remains, brooding and charred. As for his Symphony No.4’s “code,” Rouse cites Tchaikovsky: “Asked whether listeners would devise the…meaning of his Pathétique Symphony, Tchaikovsky famously replied, ‘Let them guess.’”

This disc’s grand and unified vision is not to be missed.

07 Kurtag MolinariGyörgy Kurtág – String Quartets
Quatuor Molinari
ATMA ACD2 2706

Review

Founded 19 years ago, Montreal’s Quatuor Molinari has become one of Canada’s pre-eminent interpreters of 20th- and 21st-century classical compositions, including those by Canadians. In this album however, they venture deep into the string quartet’s European-home geographic and aesthetic landscape.

Like his composer friend and colleague György Ligeti, the multiple-award-winning Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b. 1926) fled his home country following the October 1956 Hungarian uprising. Part of an exodus of a wave of some 200,000 Hungarians, Kurtág used his exile productively as an opportunity to study composition in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. There he also discovered the modernist compositions of Anton Webern and plays of Samuel Beckett. These influences proved decisive in his chosen career.

On returning to Budapest, Kurtág composed his first String Quartet (1959). Dedicated to his psychotherapist Marianne Stein, the work is strongly redolent of the music of the Second Viennese School, while still expressing a personal compositional voice. Webern and Schoenberg can be heard throughout its disjunct dodecaphonic tonal language, its expressive extremes. The work’s tense, dramatic yet aphoristic six movements are riddled with enigmatic, destabilizing silences. It remains a very satisfying – emotional even – listen today. The composer dubbed it his Opus 1, its success launching his career internationally. Quatuor Molinari gives it a precise, clear rendering filled with a light-handed virtuosity, evident commitment and soul.

Kurtág followed his String Quartet with a number of works for these forces. Like his first opus, almost all reference composers, musicians and friends he admired. All are represented here. We hear an aesthetic continuity, certainly, but also one of technique and tone, though in later works hints of tonality peak through the skittering introspection. Kurtág’s music is superbly represented on this CD by Quatuor Molinari.

08 Traffic QuintetTraffic Quintet plays Alexandre Desplat
Traffic Quintet
Deutsche Grammophon 4812172

Shutting one’s eyes while listening to the music of Traffic Quintet plays Alexandre Desplat might actually be the best way to approach a collection of Desplat’s celebrated film scores. The act most certainly provides one with the opportunity to enter the dreamscapes for which they were intended. The profound air of these works triggers special journeys to the world of the cameo images from the films for which they were intended. The music is superb with its performers combining Desplat’s unique pictorial-dramatic and reflective approach that always leads to an intensity that has become the hallmark of the composer’s musical signature. Reducing the music’s essence into the quintet format has taken a special ingenuity; one that distills their aural content into the equivalent of a small frame.

For me, the real ace in the hands of Dominique “Solrey” Lemonnier’s Traffic Quintet is the haunting voice of Alexandre Desplat. It is heard most effectively on the more familiar themes: The King’s Speech, Girl With A Pearl Earring and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Most human in their resonance and directness, folk-like in timbre and gesture, classical in lyrical construction, Desplat’s voice and his music defy categorization. Production values – and this is all due to the unique genius of Lemonnier and her Traffic Quintet – are excellent because of her animated, filmic orchestrations. The yearning brooding music of this disc may be somewhat desolate for some, but nevertheless yields rich and seductive soundscapes.

01 Stravinsky BartokStravinsky – The Rite of Spring; Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra
Park Avenue Chamber Symphony; David Bernard
Recursive Records RC2057001

Did Bugs Bunny ruin The Barber of Seville for you? How about Merrie Melodies’ The Three Little Pigs with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5? I have a particular eye/earworm of The Rite of Spring: I can never unsee the gorgeous choreography of Pina Bausch when I hear this piece. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s recording is bright and clear and complements the rather dark storyline of the ballet. The First Part is a vital description of nature and leads with some urgency to the undeniable corporeality of the Second Part. The backbone of the piece, however, is Track 2, although I prefer my Augurs of Spring to be a little more heavy-handed than David Bernard’s version, such as the Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez take on it; I think this reflects Bernard’s interpretation, though, and does not make Stravinsky an inappropriate choice for this orchestra. (The Augurs of Spring always strikes me as a misplaced climax, though.)

The Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, known as a soloistic piece, also has a pure sound, which emanates from the musicians themselves and is perhaps also enhanced by the fine recording engineering. Again, the chamber symphony easily handles the piece’s gravitas with aplomb. Apparently, the movements’ tempi listed on the back cover differ from their historical provenance and this made me curious to hear it live under another baton: fortuitously, this will be possible when the TSO performs it on May 4, 2017, in a matinee led by Peter Oundjian.

This CD offers two excellent examples of early-20th-century Eastern-European composers who still captivate us technophiles with these elemental pieces that were based on European folk song.

02 LindbergMagnus Lindberg – Al Largo; Cello Concerto No.2; Era
Anssi Karttunen; Finnish RSO; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 12815

Magnus Lindberg’s recently released disc makes it clear why he is among the elite of current composers. Qualities in the music on this CD evoke huge structures or panoramic landscapes. One is drawn along past remarkable and startling shapes. He underpins contained bursts of lightning virtuosity (electric, never frantic) with tectonic brass chorale movement. As an orchestrator, it is fair to compare him with Strauss, Ravel and his compatriot Sibelius. He quotes or references each of them.

An Italian term meaning “out of sight of land,” Al Largo subverts expectations. Lindberg (as paraphrased in the liner notes) contends this is the fastest music he has ever written, but I was more impressed with the sheer speed in some of the writing elsewhere, especially in Era. Both pieces are wonderful workouts for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu. Everything seems so sensibly written, I’m willing to bet the musicians love to play it no matter the difficulty. The writing is starkly sectional with bracing shifts of tempo and character. Cloudy swatches of spectral writing are blown clear by woodwind flourishes and massive brass chords.

The other work, the Cello Concerto No.2, follows a three-movement format with no breaks between. Gorgeously played by Anssi Karttunen, the serious and substantial first movement imperceptibly slides into a serious, substantial-but-shorter second movement with cadenza followed by the obligatory tutti response and coda, into a Presto to begin and a Romanza to conclude the Finale.

03 RCO Horizon 7Horizon 7 – George Benjamin; Magnus Lindberg; Richard Rijnvos; Tan Dun
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Mariss Jansons
RCO Live RCO 16003 (rcolive.com)

Horizon 7 features significant, contrasting works by established composers. With texts by two 11th-century Hebrew poets and Federico García Lorca, set for countertenor, women’s choir, and orchestra, George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song evokes reflections on voice and mood. A sultry Andalusian atmosphere is created not by lush harmony, but by an advanced idiom with hints of ancient and modern scales, delicate orchestration and astonishing vocal sound and imagery. Bejun Mehta’s singing is outstanding and the Concertgebouw strings and winds are especially notable. The burning down of Venetian opera house La Fenice in 1996 inspired fuoco e fuma (fire and smoke) by Richard Rijnvos. The sonic representation of licking flames and the relentlessness and unpredictability of the fire’s progression are extraordinary.

In Magnus Lindberg’s Era, the Finnish composer builds on a compositional process from Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony and other developments in 20th-century music. The Concertgebouw brass and percussion shine in Lindberg’s masterful orchestration. Era opens brilliantly; later, I feel a lack of original, memorable ideas that would make the sense equal to the marvellous sound. Concertgebouw principal double bassist Dominic Seldis has a rare solo opportunity in Tan Dun’s The Wolf. Open strings, harmonics and pentatonic melodies create resonance and colour in the instrument, while diverse bowing effects generate excitement in the fast sections. A Mongolian two-stringed fiddle becomes the source of a folk song and a sliding expressive style for the double bass in this unique work. Highly recommended.

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