06 Butterfield BozziniChristopher Butterfield – Trip
Quatuor Bozzini
Editions QB CQB 1719 (actuellecd.com)

For its 23rd CD, Quatour Bozzini has produced a monograph recording with an almost-chronological retrospective of music by Christopher Butterfield. Spanning more than 20 years, it contains three pieces for solo strings and two string quartets. Clinamen (the Latin name Lucretius gave to the unpredictable swerve of atoms), for solo violin (1999), is made up of 80 cards, each containing a short musical phrase, combined according to the free will of the performer. Intentionally inchoate, the piece is bound together most prominently by the honey tone of Clemens Merkel’s playing, and yet, there are whispers of its compositional technique, as though related materials were sketched, bent through historical filters from classical music to modern, and then splayed by means of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique.

Fall (2013), written for the full quartet, is the perfect vehicle for the Bozzinis’ signature non-vibrato playing. At times haunting and tense, their sound is also unadorned, unaffected and exquisite. Engaged in material processes of rotation and accumulation, the ensuing tone of the piece is plaintive and distantly evocative of Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts. The eponymous Trip (meaning possibly all of: excursion, to dance or run lightly, to stumble or fall, to release and raise an anchor, and to hallucinate) is an outlandish journey from a short Scorrevole movement augmented by a random talk radio broadcast, through a moto perpetuo, to a swaying, recapitulatory Scherzo. The last movement, marked Adagio molto, is longer than the preceding movements combined, and sounds not simply slow but like a time-stretched recording, where the smallest, usually ordinary timbral deviation is magnified and burnished, while notes, lines and harmonies are expanded into tranquillizing beauty. 

07 Veronique MathieuArgot
Véronique Mathieu; Jasmin Arakawa
Navona Records NV6105 (navonarecords.com)

Canadian violinist Véronique Mathieu has positive mojo in spades: chops to burn, rock solid musicianship, solo and concerto gigs around the world and a doctorate in music. Not taking the typical path, Mathieu has chosen to play, commission and record primarily contemporary music, mostly by American and Canadian composers.

In Argot Mathieu – and Jasmin Arakawa, her pianist in the Lutosławski repertoire – has chosen a demanding program of late-20th-century classical music. She tackles substantial scores of three European heavyweights, Franco Donatoni (1927-2000), Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) and Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994).

The two-movement Argot by Donatoni definitely makes a virtuoso, dramatic statement. Brimming with a huge variety of keening timbral shifts, swift overtone-rich melodic fragments and expressive bowing and fingering, it’s an impressive work and performance. Composed for Yehudi Menuhin in 1992, Boulez’s Anthèmes employs extended techniques and virtuoso passagework galore. To these ears, Mathieu nails this 8’56” solo.

The album is capped by the three works by Lutosławski for violin and piano. Recitativo e Arioso (1951) is early Lutosławski, imbued sometimes with an almost folk-like lyricism. Subito (1992), on the other hand, is among the composer’s last works, though in no way is it resigned. Rather, it is full of melodic playfulness with perhaps a musical tip of the hat to the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

Mathieu’s recital closes satisfyingly with the largest work here, Lutosławski’s five-movement Partita (1984). I understand it’s the work on the album most often included in contemporary violin recitals. In the virtuoso hands of Mathieu and Arakawa you can clearly hear why.

08 Cage Speaking PercussionJohn Cage – The Works for Percussion 4: Works for Speaking Percussion
Bonnie Whiting
mode records mode 296 (CD and Blu-ray disc; moderecords.com)

American new music and improvising percussionist Bonnie Whiting is carving out a career as a “speaking percussionist.” And what better repertoire to collect on her new album than the iconoclastic, prolific and influential American composer John Cage’s groundbreaking scores that require speaking or singing and percussion?

The main program falls into three Cagean periods. Two early career songs bookend a combination of two mid-1950s works for speaker and percussionist. Music for Two (By One), and a realization of Cage’s late period Music for ________ (1984-1987) for solo voice and percussion, follows. The album closes with a 2011 Allen Otte composition which incorporates several Cage works.

On the face of it, the two songs – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) and A Flower (1950) – seem the most conventional fare here: melody with piano accompaniment. While they are usually performed by a separate singer and pianist, Whiting performs the two parts together with ease and grace. It’s a performance ethos she traces to Cage’s openness to having some of his works combined and performed simultaneously. The songs, however, are more non-conformist than they first appear. The instrumental parts are tapped and struck with fingers and hands on a closed piano. The voice is also severely restricted. While Cage’s 1930s composition teacher Arnold Schoenberg famously employed all 12 conventional semitones as a structural feature of his later compositions, Cage, on the other hand in The Wonderful Widow, uses three tones. A Flower’s vocal melody is constructed of four pitches with a fifth added only near the end. Were these songs at least partly a result of Cage rejecting a dominant, demanding father figure?

In Whiting’s relaxed, naturalistic yet precise performances the songs feel almost lullaby-like, equally timeless and emblematic of the 20th-century avant-garde.

By the way, I recommend the Blu-ray version that comes with this release. The visual cues and energy in Whiting’s assured performances bring the Cage works, particularly the two long percussion text scores, alive in full colour.

09 Elision EnsembleThe Wreck of Former Boundaries
Elision Ensemble at 30
HCR/NMC HRC13CD (elision.org.au)

Celebrating 30 years of engagement with complex and challenging aesthetics, Australia’s Elision ensemble has released The Wreck of Former Boundaries, a live recording featuring their 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival performances of the eponymous work by Aaron Cassidy, and How Forests Think, by Liza Lim.

In his bountiful 33-minute work, Cassidy writes remarkable musical situations for Elision’s consummately nimble cast. His diagonal consideration of instrumental colour facilitates their concentration on not just the notes, but continuous timbral flux expressed through idiomatically applied glissandi, pressure variance, embouchure tension and dynamic changes. In the liner notes, perhaps with benefit of hindsight, Cassidy describes the work as a double trumpet concerto, although elsewhere he calls it six stand-alone pieces that can be performed independently. It projects, however, as a fluid stream of restless, stratified solos and duos with infrequent, disjunct episodic interjections from the ensemble. Crispy, familiar electronics pursue contours of similar profile to the instrumental writing, prodigiously applied in the potent latter third of the work.

Lim’s How Forests Think reflects on anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s nuanced idea of forest ecologies as intersecting communities and social networks (human and non-human). Musical identities share succulent attributes, supporting, absorbing and transferring them across the Chinese sheng and ensemble parts. Whereas Cassidy revels in anxiously winding materials through self-referential guides, Lim’s understory focuses on a different manner of complexity, nourished by outward-pointing substrata that creep and trail across the work. The result is polyreferential and broad, in vocabulary and scope, with deftly probed textures propagating a vital, bifurcating soundscape.

10 PendereckiPenderecki – Double Concerto; Piano Concerto; Trumpet Concerto
Jakub Haufa; Marcel Markowski; Szymon Nehring; Aleksander Kobus; Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra; Krzysztof Penderecki
Dux Recording Producers DUX 1345

What becomes of revolutionaries when, inevitably, with the passage of time, they become members of the establishment? Well, if you were Krzysztof Penderecki, you would be paying a tribute to the past. Now 84, the once-iconoclastic Polish composer, who stunned the musical world with his 1969 opera The Devils of Loudun and charmed it with the 1961, UNESCO-prize winning Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Penderecki today is more reflective and less innovative, but certainly not any less masterful.

Though the Double Concerto references Brahms in its form, the music is firmly in the Bartók corner. Powerful and sinewy melodic lines, especially those of the cello (originally scored for a viola) emanate freshness and the unmistakable delight of a newness of style. This is full-on, shivers-down-the-spine stuff, exciting, dangerous and hypnotic. The Piano Concerto and the Concertino for Trumpet are more standard expressions of this musical lion-in-winter, yet still bears his clear signature. All of the performers are very young, including this recently formed orchestra of Polish musicians under the age of 30. Their enthusiasm in performance is contagious, adding yet another dimension to this fine CD. A must for Penderecki fans and a not-at-all-bad introduction to his works for those ten people in the world who do not know him yet.

01 Hommaga a BoulezHommage à Boulez
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7160

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is named after an anthology of poems by Goethe, inspired by a translation of the Persian poet Hafez. Goethe’s late work was a symbol of reciprocity between Occident and Orient, between Latin and Persian, Christian and Muslim, and German and Middle Eastern cultures. Co-founder Daniel Barenboim approached the 1999 formation of the Seville-based youth orchestra with similar intentions, bringing together musicians from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, to promote principles of coexistence and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2006, filmmaker Paul Smaczny made a documentary about the group entitled Knowledge Is the Beginning.

Having performed with Boulez since their 1964 concert of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.1, (when Barenboim was 21) he chose to honour their working relationship with the 2-CD Hommage à Boulez, released in March 2017, a year after the composer’s death. The release of the recording coincided with the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, a Frank Gehry-designed chamber music hall in the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which included the first concert of the newly formed Boulez Ensemble. The first CD contains live performances of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing at the 2012 Proms in London, and the second includes their performances of pieces from Boulez’ 85th birthday celebration at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 2010.

Although Boulez conducts the live recording of Le marteau sans maître (at least his fifth recording of the piece, and second with contralto Hilary Summers (check out her website!)), I was most interested to hear a recent recording of Boulez’ music that wasn’t conducted by him, since the composer controlled the majority of recordings of his music. Considering the performances alone, this is a fantastic recording. Add to it that this is an orchestra made up of young musicians in an ensemble with admirable intent, and the recording is that much more impressive.

Barenboim conducts an energetically perambulant performance of the 49-minute Dérive 2, for 11 instruments. Jussef Eisa’s virtuosity is immediately evident in his live recording of Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinet, live electronics and pre-recorded tape, with off-stage piano providing resonance of the live clarinet sound projected from a speaker into the soundboard of the piano and redirected to the loudspeakers in the hall. The IRCAM live electronics team handles the computational side of this performance, as well as Anthèmes 2, demonstrating the most sophisticated instrument/computer interactions produced at IRCAM’s Paris research and creation facility. Hassan Moataz El Molla contributes a clear and elegant reading of Messagesquisse, for cello solo and six cellos. In their entirety, the flexible and colourful interpretations presented on this hommage support Stravinsky’s anecdote that Boulez is “Webern’s music sounding like Debussy.”

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