04 Rouse Symphony 5Christopher Rouse – Symphony No.5
Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559852 (naxosdirect.com/search/636943985229) 

Few works carry such weighty baggage as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. If a composer chooses to tackle the symphonic form in their output, and further manages to compose so many as five, one can choose to ignore this baggage or attempt to meet it head on. 

In his Fifth Symphony, American composer Christopher Rouse, who died in September 2019, decidedly chose the latter. With a Grammy and a Pulitzer to his name, the celebrated composer shows that he was not intimidated by large forms as the work balances tradition and modernity with impressive prowess. The listener is clearly provided with classical reminiscences while also being transported through a contemporary sensibility of vast turbulence and serene calm. 

Also on the disc are two restless pieces titled Supplica and Concerto for Orchestra. The former is lyrical and tender while the latter is a true orchestral showpiece where all players of the orchestra have their chance to shine. Already being one of the most performed composers of his generation, this disc shows that Rouse’s legacy will no doubt continue on well into the future.

06 Wet InkSmoke, Airs
Wet Ink Ensemble
Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR24CD (nmcrec.co.uk/hcr) 

In the latest release by the renowned Wet Ink Ensemble – titled Smoke, Airs – the ensemble’s adventurousness and dedication to the music of our time is on brilliant display in four new works by three Americans and Canadian Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. 

In the title track, experimentalist vocalist Charmaine Lee creates a haunting landscape of whips and sonic shadow worlds. Interesting vocal utterances paint both uneasy and beautiful atmospheres. Bryn Harrison’s Dead Time contextualizes change within a static field in a context where the composer is clearly concerned with how our ears perceive the unfolding of variation through sameness. Kristina Wolfe’s A Mere Echo of Aristoxenus is inspired by the ancient concept of aural architecture – a piece in two movements that evokes vast Greek spaces lost in time, creating a truly unique listening environment. Lastly, Tremblay’s (un)weave is a study of our contemporary soundscape: the stop and go of the urban frantic reality and how one may find solace in such an environment. 

The Wet Ink Ensemble has received much critical praise in their successful history as a collective. This release will continue to heighten the group’s deserved reputation.

07 Ades GersteinThomas Adès – In Seven Days
Kirill Gerstein; Thomas Adès; Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Myrios Classics MYR027 (naxosdirect.com/search/4260183510277)

Composer, pianist and conductor Thomas Adès is, in truth, a child of the late 20th century. The acumen of his creativity and myriad of musical aptitude already scaled impressive heights back in the 1990s. Today, he continues to traverse the confused streams and nebulous annals of our 21st-century musical world. Neither fad nor trend nor fickleness of style can deter him; he is a teller of truths and a composer of our time. 

Now, inimitable pianist Kirill Gerstein has teamed up with Adès on a new record featuring keyboard works by the composer. So rarely will a collaborator embrace a composer’s catalogue with just as much dedication and enthusiasm as the composer himself. A notable consequence from such commitment is the swift advancement of performance practice, often a slow-moving process that takes decades, if not centuries, to appear. With this album, one immediately detects exquisitely formed conceptions of music, determined from various angles and experimentation of interpretation. (Adès is actively involved in two works on the album as pianist and as conductor.)

Why? Why are these complex, avant-garde, texturally challenging sound worlds so irresistible? Perhaps when the genius and fortitude of a composer like Adès meets the integrity and artistic prowess of an interpreter like Gerstein, our ears are lent and lent freely, with bedazzled curiosity. Urgent and honest, we quest after the supernatural.

05 EpicycleIIEpicycle II
Gyda Valtysdottir
Sono Luminus SLE-70012/SLE-70013 (sonoluminus.com/store/epicycleii) 

Referring to the geometric model of the solar system by the ancient Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, in which a smaller circle travels around the circumference of a larger circle, cellist Gyda Valtysdottir releases a sequel to her highly acclaimed first solo album from 2017,.

Haunting, melodic and yet dissonant at the same time, the album features eight of Valtysdottir’s closest co-conspirators and inspirers from her life; “This group of people is really a musical galaxy, where the connections are endless…”

Orbiting themes of Water, Air (breath) and Love, harmonies are often thick, layered and textured rather than melodic, a trademark of Icelandic composers, and offer travel without destinations, as in the gorgeously heavy Unfold. Each track takes the listener on what feels like motion through stopped time; moving, yet not moving; micro-journeys to sea, to the sky, love and to outer space. I was delighted to find Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Mikros on the journey, having had the fortune to attend her composition lecture last December at Banff. Equally enjoyable is the super dark and cool mix of voices and electronics on Evol Lamina, closing our orbital loop and returning our feet back to the dirt by the final, perhaps prophetically unsettling track, Octo.

A deeply cinematic score at times, this album is often transporting with great lift, giving the listener long opportunities to soar, bird-like, over the Icelandic landscape and beyond, for the most part leaving us safely and gently deposited on the earthly shore.

09 Pacifica QuartetContemporary Voices
Pacifica Quartet; Otis Murphy
Cedille CDR 90000 196 (naxosdirect.com/search/735131919623) 

Markedly different works by three laureates of the Pulitzer Prize for Music – Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first-ever woman recipient (1983), Shulamit Ran (1991) and Jennifer Higdon (2010) – are performed by the Grammy-winning Pacifica Quartet, Indiana University artists-in-residence.

In Zwilich’s 17-minute, three-movement Quintet for alto saxophone and string quartet (2007), Indiana University professor Otis Murphy adds what Zwilich calls “a certain sassy attitude to the mix.” Murphy’s bluesy saxophone saunters and riffs above pulsating, animated strings, yet moody lyricism prevails over the “sass.”

Ran’s 22-minute Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3 (2013) honours artists who, facing death in the Holocaust, continued working. The opening movement shifts from serenity to disquiet, followed by Menace, a Shostakovich-like sardonic scherzo. The third movement is titled “If I perish – do not let my paintings die,” words of Felix Nussbaum, who painted until dying in Auschwitz. The unsettled, fragmented music reflects, says Ran, “the conflicting states of mind that would have made it possible, and essential, to continue to live and practice one’s art.” Of the elegiac epilogue, she says, “As we remember, we restore dignity to those who are gone.”

Higdon describes her 18-minute Voices (1993) as transitioning “from manic and frenzied to calm and quiet.” In movements titled Blitz, Soft Enlacing and Grace, the Pacifica Quartet gorgeously illuminates the densely scored music, a textbook of string sonorities. 

Three very stylistically diverse compositions, but not a single dull moment on this entire CD!

10 Ning YuOf Being
Ning Yu
New Focus Recordings fcr242 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/ning-yu-of-being/) 

For pianist Ning Yu, clearly tradition is a wonderful reality; but not understanding that the inner dynamic of tradition is always to innovate would be a prison. It’s certainly what the lively works by Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki and Emily Praetorius in Of Being seem to tell us. This is chiselled music; uniquely beautiful, but also defiantly provocative. It is a body of music carved from the bedrock of the Western music tradition and yet it forces the listener to reconsider what that tradition is. 

In doing so, Yu actively throws overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have become expressively blunted through overuse. Then she rebuilds the architecture of the music from what might – or mightn’t – be left. Sound and silence are treated with equal respect, and innovation is always paramount. This means that Yu might also reach outside the keyboard and inside the instrument to create the purest melodies and harmonies as she manipulates the strings – stretched taut across the cast-iron plate, which she often strums delicately or strikes percussively.   

Her pedalling adds sudden moments of drama to the music as if opening a window and letting filtered light into the room full of sound, by unexpected use of the sostenuto followed by the unacorda; all of which may be abruptly shut down expressly with the damper. In the end the music seems to unfurl as if in streaming ribbons suspended interminably in time.

Listen to 'Of Being' Now in the Listening Room

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