06 Beneath the TidesBeneath the Tide – A Collection of Concertos
Soloists; Croatian Chamber Orchestra; Miran Vaupotic
Navona Records nv6216 (navonarecords.com) 

Don’t be misled by the CD’s title or the accompanying notes that liken its contents to “ocean currents… uncovering what was previously hidden.” Rather than exposing murky, below-the-surface secrets, all five pieces, by four Americans and one Taiwanese composer, display immediately accessible clarity of expression. Nor is this disc “a collection of concertos,” as stated on its cover. Although all the works are scored for instrumental soloists and chamber orchestra, only three are genuine concertos and are so titled.

Restless dissonances in the outer movements of Michael G. Cunningham’s 15-minute Clarinet Concerto Op.186 bracket the middle movement’s brooding lyricism. Virtuoso runs from bottom to top of the clarinet’s range help make this a brilliant showpiece for the instrument.

Rain Worthington’s ten-minute In Passages for violin and string orchestra is a sustained, moody beauty, imbued with Middle Eastern melodic melismas and glissandi. It would make a superb slow movement for a full-length violin concerto.

In her 15-minute Guitar Concerto No.1, subtitled Remembrance of Hometown, Ssu-Yu Huang draws upon musical traditions of her Chinese forebears to create an impressionistic series of atmospheric brush paintings in sound.

At just under six minutes, Bruce Reiprich’s Lullaby features a long-lined violin solo, more intense than gently calming. Perhaps it just needs another title.

The CD concludes with Beth Mehocic’s cheerful 18-minute Piano Concerto, music that suggested, to me at least, playful leprechauns, the final Allegretto a rousing Irish jig. An entertaining end to an entertaining disc.

07 Carl VollrathCarl Vollrath – Souls in Transitions
Summa Trio
Navona Records nv6212 (navonarecords.com) 

“When I first wrote these pieces,” says Carl Vollrath (b. New York City, 1931), “I had no set concept of what they ‘meant.’” Vollrath’s titles for the three trios and their umbrella title Souls in Transitions were added only after a colleague at Alabama’s Troy University, where Vollrath taught for 40 years, said that the first trio reminded him of prehistoric cave paintings. Vollrath’s colleague was undoubtedly responding to the sense of primitive mystery created by Vollrath’s use pf pentatonic and modal scales, ostinato piano bass-note “drum-beats” and repeated melodic and rhythmic motifs typical of religious rituals.

Vollrath’s title for the first trio, The Secrets of the Magdalenian Caves, references those prehistoric paintings. Tombs of Ancient Times, writes Vollrath, evokes “traditions surrounding passing in ancient Egypt,” in which “community members would bring food to the tomb” for use by the departed in the afterlife. Finally, Buddha of the Future reflects “how the image of Buddha has changed over time.” While all three trios share many stylistic characteristics, there is a subtle increase in lyrical warmth over the cycle, their titles perhaps suggesting the growing sophistication of their metaphysical world views.

Vollrath’s sure-handed scoring for violin, cello and piano creates effects almost orchestral in nature, ably performed by the Summa Trio, Los Angeles-based contemporary music specialists. The entire disc could easily serve as the soundtrack for a TV documentary about archaeological sacred sites; CD listeners will have to rely on their own imaginations.

08 Phil SalathePhil Salathé – Imaginary Birds
Ling-Fei Kang; Charles Huang
Ravello Records rr8006 (ravellorecords.com) 

To join Phil Salathé on Imaginary Birds, his magical adventure, the listener must allow oneself to be led by the clear and penetrating soprano voice of the oboe and the more covered, tenor timbre of the pear-shaped bell of the cor anglais, into the wonderful imaginary sound world of the composer. Here we are quite easily seduced by the oboe of Ling-Fei Kang and the cor anglais of Charles Huang as we traverse the interior landscape of Salathé’s vivid imagination. Along the way we are also joined by cello, piano, celesta, harp and guitar to explore the mysterious depths and wondrous heights of birds in their wondrous habitat.

We find ourselves coming under the spell of a composer who is a master of mood and atmosphere and who has the ability to coordinate colour and structure to a rare degree. The bird repertoire – Mandarin Ducks and Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North – swirls amid equally atmospheric pieces such as The Heart that Loves But Once and The Wood Between the Worlds as well as Expecting the Spring Breeze (composed by Teng Yu-Hsien and arranged by Salathé).

The sometimes diabolical difficulty of this music is expertly navigated by Kang and Huang as well as by the other musicians. Each piece is given a lively reading and is played with buoyant, aristocratic grace and almost insolent virtuosity. Equally important is the fact that a delightfully spare atmosphere is maintained throughout.

09 Julius EastmanJulius Eastman – Femenine
Apartment House
Another Timbre at137 (anothertimbre.com)

Julius Eastman (1940-1990) is as fascinating to read about as he is to listen to. This performance of his breathtaking, hour-long work, Femenine takes us to one of the most eloquent members of the 20th-century avant-garde. The performance of this austere work by the ensemble Apartment House is replete with all the virtues that Eastman embodied: unfailing clarity, innate elegance, an unerring sense of proportion, a finely honed mastery of style, melodic finesse and unobtrusive grasp of harmonic rhythm, not to mention a matchless sense of aural geometry.

The work is layered with subtle colours. Each layer – with each hypnotic and intensifying repeat – is daubed with minutely thickening textured music that seems to ebb and flow like a gentle tide that swells steadily from silence before gently building into a soft whoosh of the keyboard, vibraphone, violin, cello and two flutes. Throughout, the uniquely Eastman-like tension between harmonically loaded melody and the essentially neutral, often near-static nature of the metre, has its sense of symmetry quietly disturbed by minute figures played by each instrument as the players recreate the composer’s prevailing tonal palette through appropriately lean, but always beautifully focused, orchestration.

The result proves well worth seeking out. Eastman’s was a diverse style with firm roots in John Cage-like stasis; but there is more heart-on-sleeve Romantic post-avant-gardism than one would expect. Either way the music has an emotional power that Apartment House articulates ever so eloquently.

10 MoyzesAlexander Moyzes – Symphonies Nos.9 and 10
Slovak RSO; Ladislav Slovák
Naxos 8.573654 (naxos.com) 

One in a Naxos re-release series of Slovak composer Alexander Moyzes’ (1906-1984) complete symphonies, this Marco Polo recording was previously issued in the early 2000s. A master of 20th-century techniques and expression, Moyzes developed a style clear in texture, dramatic, and influenced by both his own nation’s and Shostakovich’s music. The three-movement Ninth Symphony (1971) is spare and dissonant; grotesque marches intrude and build to climaxes. In the third movement, solo violin cadenza-like passages cry out. Density, tempo and volume increase till the work ends with a now-subdued violin. Program notes mention the composer’s despair following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, yet I found the work a continuously involving artistic triumph. The Slovak RSO under conductor Ladislav Slovák plays with commitment; woodwinds, including a spectacular piccolo, excel in both lyrical and virtuosic passages.

The Tenth Symphony (1977-78) is more upbeat, though with pensive moments. The opening movement begins slowly and is like the Ninth Symphony in its powerful overture-like dotted rhythms. There are triads and added-note chords now, and fewer bare dyads. A scherzo-type movement is contrapuntal and lively, its trio section featuring realistic woodwind bird calls over hushed strings. Then the long Larghetto caps the work with idyllic, lyrical beauty, but an early slight smear in the strings foreshadows surprising rich and complex polychords. The radiant folk-like finale features colourful orchestration including tinkling percussion; it’s a lot of fun leading to a boisterous close.

11 University WindsThe Other Side
University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble; Matthew George
Innova innova 007 (innova.mu)

We hear string orchestras in concert halls, backing pop artists and even in the supermarket. Alternatively, we may only have heard concert bands at high school performances or marching in parades. The Minnesota-based University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble (Matthew George, conductor) is a highly skilled ensemble of brass, woodwind and percussion that presents a welcome change in timbre and material. They have a long history of commissioning works and this is their seventh album in that series.

One of the album’s highlights is the opening B-Side Concerto – For Rock Band and Wind Ensemble by Spanish composer Luis Serrano Alarcón. This 16-minute work showcases both the wind orchestra and the rock band and contains great rhythmic riffing sections, some odd metre segments and excellent wailing guitar solos. It is a tour de force which manages to incorporate the rock band within the wind ensemble so their distinctive sounds blend to achieve an edgy and exciting effect.

Another highlight, Mysteries of the Horizon (After Four René Magritte Surrealist Paintings) by Nigel Clarke features the virtuoso Belgium cornet player Harmen Vanhoorne. Part 1, The Menaced Assassin, begins with a solo cornet playing a short fanfare and then works into a back-and-forth duel with the wind ensemble containing several angular and sophisticated harmonies and rhythms.

Kit Turnbull’s three-movement Everything starts from a dot (based on a quote from Kandinsky) and a second piece by Alarcón, Symphony No. 2 for Wind Orchestra, are the additional works on this engaging CD.

Listen to 'The Other Side' Now in the Listening Room

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