10 PhilipGlass MusicinEightPartsPhilip Glass – Music in Eight Parts
Philip Glass Ensemble
Orange Mountain Music (orangemountainmusic.com) 

There is a type of sensual, corporeal and self-encompassing sensation that can occur with grand-gesture music – Eduard Hanslick’s “warm bath” of the symphony, for example. This visceral feeling is equally true here, as listeners are invited to slip in and immerse ourselves in this “new” Philip Glass work, which is actually a 1970 score that went missing, and accordingly, unrecorded, until surfacing at Christie’s Auction House in late 2017. 

Like much of Glass’ work, repetition, in this case dynamically intensifying and iteratively building over eight parts, takes on a hypnotic effect, lulling attuned listeners to an otherworldly place of self-reflection and meditation. It is precisely this sort of self-reflexivity that gloms onto Glass’ sometime identification as a post-modern composer, as the repetition brings with it a type of sameness that allows the mind to wander and find its own truths, experience and beauty within the music. In this way, Music in Eight Parts, reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s (another artist who bristled with the postmodern label) unfinished, and posthumously released, The Pale King, where the banal minutiae of the everyday vocational routine of Peoria-based IRS collectors during the 1980s is presented with such intricate detail that readers are potentially swept away to a higher level of mindfulness and consciousness. 

While Music in Eight Parts may be a composition from the Nixon era, this recording (remote assembling?) is truly of the 2020 pandemic age, with all parts recorded separately by Philip Glass Ensemble members, and then produced, mixed and mastered by Michael Riesman, without togetherness, in-person interaction or “performance,” at least not in the way that many have traditionally understood that term. However, despite the appropriate and necessary distanced and clinical construction of how the recording came together, the result is warm, inviting and well worth adding to your music collection.

11 William SusmanWilliam Susman – Scatter My Ashes
Octet Ensemble
belarca belarca-004 (belarca.com) 

Let us begin with props where they are deserved. OCTET, the ensemble dedicated to performing William Susman’s music, and possibly others’ as well, is a good bunch of players. Their work on this just-released collection is fine and tight, although there occur a few instances of pretty rough intonation, notably toward the end of Triumph, the third movement of Camille. Among the instrumentalists, of whom the composer is one, a vocalist adds the human voice to the collective timbre. Mellissa Hughes more than meets the requirements; the beauty of her tone draws my ear to her and everything sounds like a song. There are in fact two song cycles on the disc: Scatter My Ashes and Moving to an Empty Space. Hughes delivers the text of Sue Susman, the composer’s sister, with remarkable clarity, and recording engineer John Kilgore does well to balance voice with ensemble. 

Susman’s a kid in the candy store when it comes to rhythmic groupings, and it’s fun to follow along as he keeps dipping into one jar after another of irregular divisions of regular bars. The music is consistently upbeat, chipper, heartening. Consistency is not entirely a virtue, however, and one of the record’s faults is with the tonal palette of the music. He favours a kind of colouristic minimalism, tending toward bright polytonal alternating sound plateaus. Usually two per number. Often sounding very like the ones used in other numbers. Which begins to wear. On the ear. Like a series of incomplete sentences. Used for critical effect. 

The third piece, Susman’s Piano Concerto breaks the mould at least in terms of variety of texture and tonality. Although he begins the piece with the same trope as he uses in Triumph (a C-major scale building into a cluster), by placing the piano in the role of soloist, he gains more freedom to explore textural possibility. And the second-to-last song, Begging the Night for Change (aptly) manages to step away from the narrow range of keys/tonalities favoured, and is to my mind the most effective piece on the disc.

12 Peteris VasksPēteris Vasks – Works for Piano Trio
Trio Palladio
Ondine ODE 1343-2 (naxosdirect.com/items/vasks-works-for-piano-trio-526894)

When Pēteris Vasks, Latvia’s preeminent contemporary composer, visited Toronto in the mid-1990s, he left me with vivid memories of his intensely gripping String Symphony (“Stimmen”) and his no less intensely gripping handshake.

This CD begins with the 15-minute Lonely Angel (2019), Vasks’ rearrangement of the Meditation from his String Quartet No.4 (1999). Vasks writes, “My guardian angel has had to do an awful lot of guarding during periods of my life… Sometimes even he must feel like it is all just too much.” This is pensive music, with long, soulful string lines over gentle piano ripples and bell-like notes.

Vasks writes of Episodi e canto perpetuo (1985), “It is like the hard road through evil, delusion and suffering to a song centred in love.” In eight movements, the 28-minute work encompasses restless turbulence, hushed solemnity, heavily rhythmic coarseness and a prolonged cry of anguish that finally fades away.

Plainscapes (2011) is Vasks’ rearrangement of a 2002 composition for violin, cello and chorus. He writes, “This is in late spring… after this rising of nature, a sense of infinity and eternity with those immense starry heavens, returns to the music.” The 18-minute piece begins with soft rustlings suggesting (to me) a forest at dawn and crescendos to a life-affirming climax and the clamour of nature untrammelled, subsiding as nightfall brings stillness.

These compelling, expressive works are thrillingly performed by Trio Palladio, each member a leading Latvian soloist. Strongly recommended!

13 Magnus LindbergMagnus Lindberg – Accused; Two Episodes
Anu Komsi; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 13452 (naxosdirect.com/items/magnus-lindberg-accused-two-episodes-534964) 

Nothing much happens in Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s song cycle Accused. During the French Revolution a protester fighting for freedom and equality is asked by her jailer how she is doing. In the midst of the Cold War an East German citizen is grilled by the secret police about reading the popular West German news magazine Der Spiegel. More recently, in the trial of WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a prosecution witness is cross-examined about Manning’s idealism. 

The texts, in French, German and English, are taken from transcripts of actual interrogations. At odds with their matter-of-fact banality, the music packs a real punch. All six roles are sung with relentless theatricality by the virtuosic soprano Anu Komsi. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan gave the world premiere in London in 2015, and Komsi sang the North American debut in Toronto two years later in a memorable concert with the Toronto Symphony, one of six co-commissioners.

The versatile Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Hannu Lintu, gives a dynamic account of the dangers lurking beneath the ominous orchestral textures. But there is hope – in the resilient pizzicato strings, the defiant brass fanfares, and, at the end, the sublime vocalise with the soprano abandoning words altogether. It’s a brilliant coup de théâtre.

Lindberg wrote Accused in 2014, but its timeliness is uncanny. Here it has been effectively paired with Lindberg’s inventive Two Episodes, written two years later. Fortunately, texts and translations are included.

14 John AylwardJohn Aylward – Angelus
Ecce Ensemble; Jean-Phiippe Wurtz
New Focus Recordings FCR261 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/john-aylward-angelus) 

The title of John Aylward’s recording Angelus is derived from its Christian incipit – those first few words of the text: Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ (The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary). Perhaps the angels called upon by these ten musical prayers are in fact more ancient mystical creatures of the Abrahamic Universe; or an even older one. No matter which you choose to believe – and even if you do not “believe” – otherworldly visions of your own are bound to ensue upon listening to this exquisitely ethereal music.

Aylward’s Angelus is a series of reflective supplications and declaratives. They are prayers and inner meditations on, or with, spirit beings, albeit in the material world. They are also dialogues and existential arguments with the spiritual self. The composer makes no effort at all to disguise this in these works. In being drawn to this kind of contemplation, Aylward – like Luciano Berio – explores complex interactions of music and text; of recitation, singing with unusual and often complex instrumentation. 

Vocalist Nina Guo’s performance is wonderfully sprite; at times even marvellously deranged. Her declamatory cries in Angelus Novus and metaphorical conjuring in Dream Images is absolutely breathtaking. Meanwhile, the performance of the Ecce Ensemble is an inspired one. Their musicians intertwine their individual sensuous utterances playing winds, reeds, strings and percussion to make Aylward’s ghostly compositions shimmer with something resembling an extraordinary awakening of real and imagined beings in the flesh and in the spirit.

Listen to 'John Aylward – Angelus' Now in the Listening Room

15 Sharon Isbin AffinityAffinity
Sharon Isbin; Elizabeth Schulze; Isabel Leonard; Colin Davin; Maryland Symphony Orchestra
Zoho ZM 202005 (zohomusic.com/cds/isbin_affinity.html) 

Musical greats, in any genre, tend to possess a studious knowledge of musical tradition, channeled into a unique personal voice. It is this distinctive, mature, yet vivacious sound we hear when listening to guitarist Sharon Isbin, and it only takes a cursory glimpse at her discography or biography to confirm a thorough education in classical guitar lineage. Her 2020 release Affinity is an impressive undertaking that offers a modern take on recurring themes from her prolific career. Most notably, her virtuosity and commitment to broadening the repertoire of the instrument through commissioned works. 

The recording takes its name from Affinity: Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra, by Chris Brubeck. Brubeck’s writing showcases Isbin in both technique and grace, providing an opening to the disc that is exciting, while not devoid of tender moments. At first I expected to hear more guitar, but after continued listening, Brubeck’s orchestral writing balances perfectly with its soloist. A mature rendition of El Decameron Negro, written for Isbin by Leo Brouwer, is heard here a quarter century after Isbin’s first recording the piece. The second unaccompanied guitar number we hear is by Grammy Award-winning Chinese composer Tan Dun, and has a more abstract sound, providing a welcome contrast to the aforementioned pieces and Antonio Lauro’s Waltz No.3. The album’s well-programmed closer, Richard Danielpour’s Of Love and Longing, is a succinct yet compelling song cycle that truly keeps a listener on their toes until the last note.

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