03 Birtwistle ChamberHarrison Birtwistle – Chamber Works
Adrian Brendel; Melinda Maxwell; Nash Ensemble; Lawrence Power; Richard Benjafield
BIS BIS-2561 (bis.se)

This album of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s recent chamber works is released by the virtuosic Nash Ensemble. The exceptional performances by the world-class musicians are delivered with impressive bravura – a necessary quality when attempting to successfully interpret the highly challenging music of the British composer. 

The Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano is richly complex and contains a great deal of cerebral expressionism throughout the single movement. The unrelenting prickly gestures in this trio are answered with sombre lyricism in the strings, only to be interrupted with towering pianistic dissonances. The 20-minute Duet for Eight Strings (scored for viola and cello – each instrument having four strings combining to eight) is decidedly more romantic in expression as compared to the powerhouse trio heard before it. The rich and sonorous colours in this piece are wonderfully at odds with the unexpected suspended atmosphere heard throughout. Written in 1981 and later revised in 2018, Pulse Sampler, for oboe and percussion, is a raucous display of oboe fireworks above bombastic hits and jabs on various drums and wood blocks. This thrilling music is remarkably challenging for the oboe and Richard Benjafield delivers a stunning performance of unbelievable virtuosity and clarity of tone. Lastly, the Oboe Quartet, for oboe, violin, viola and cello, is a scintillating ride in four movements where each player engages in clever interplay. For those familiar with Birtwistle’s music, this release won’t disappoint as the inventive neo-modernist approach is ever-present and performed expertly by the ensemble.

04 max andrzejewski mythosMax Andrzejewski – Mythos
Berliner Ensemble; Max Andrzejeskski
Backlash Music (backlashmusic.net)

German drummer and composer Max Andrzejewski’s work takes up stylistic residence somewhere in between the freedom of jazz, energy of experimental rock and historically informed European classical music. His four-movement Mythos bears the earmarks of these multivalent stands of musical DNA, effectively interpreted by the 12-member Berliner Ensemble. 

The liner notes give us insight into the work’s origin story, boldly proclaiming that “the piece is born out of Max’s violent interaction with Richard Wagner’s infamous Ring Cycle […] built on German myth.” The resulting work “deals with the artistic remains of a much heralded prophet of classical music the way it maybe should be dealt with: scrap it and leave it for parts.” 

While few contest the ambition and grandeur of Wagner’s hefty four-opera cycle, or overlook his hateful personal anti-Semitism, how exactly does Andrzejewski repurpose this music? The notes claim he cites some (melodic) leitmotifs from the four overtures as a point of departure in Mythos, though it also imagines that, “even the most devoted Wagner connoisseur would have trouble picking out any trace of the original overtures.” I agree: Andrzejewski returns from his stealth mission having extracted thematic elements from his predecessor’s scores in order to recast them for his ensemble to render anew.

Moreover, with musicians hired from classical and jazz worlds Andrzejewski’s 21st-century group seamlessly integrates scored composition and improvisation using both acoustic and electronics. It inhabits a completely different world from Wagner’s 19th-century orchestral aesthetic. And for listeners today that’s a good thing.

05 Laura Cocksfield anatomies
Laura Cocks
Carrier Records CARRIER062 (carrierrecords.com)

Brilliant and fearless, American experimental flutist Laura Cocks’ solo album field anatomies is a collection of works featuring various varieties of flute, one each by US-based composers David Bird, Bethany Younge, Jessie Cox, DM R and Joan Arnau Pàimes – all exciting new discoveries for me. 

Today the executive director and “flutist-in-chief” of the TAK Ensemble, the title field anatomies was inspired by Cocks’ experiences in the prairie fields of her childhood, memories she carries in her body still and transfers to her flute playing. And the results are striking. 

Just one example is Bird’s substantial 18’38” Atolls (2017) for solo piccolo plus 29 spatialized piccolos. This studio recording employs panning techniques to emulate the surround sound of the 29 auxiliary flutists in the stereo field, here all played by Cocks. Beginning with a virtuoso catalogue of solo breath and metal piccolo clicking sounds punctuated by Cocks’ own vocalise, around the six-minute mark Atolls morphs into elegantly sculpted sound clouds. These are craftily constructed of single sustained tones expanding to masses of many-part chords ever shifting around the listener’s ears on headphones – or around the room you’re sitting in, if on speakers.

I was fascinated to read the composer’s note that the work’s “pitch material is derived from the combined spectral analysis of a crash cymbal and Janet Leigh’s infamous scream from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.” That may sound like a chilling listening experience, daunting even. Far from it, I find Atolls in turns highly intimate and elegantly sculpted – and at times a reassuringly gentle sonic experience.

06 Victoria Bond IlluminationIllumination – Piano Works of Victoria Bond
Paul Barnes; Philharmony Bohuslav Martinů
Albany Records TROY1880 (albanyrecords.com)

Veteran American conductor Victoria Bond (b.1945) is also very active as a composer. Her melodic inventiveness and dramatic flair are perhaps the most notable features of both her instrumental and operatic scores. On Illumination Bond shares her compositional spotlight with her collaborator, the concert pianist Paul Barnes. He has one of the most unusual doubles for a concert pianist I’ve ever heard: he is also a very credible singer of Byzantine chant. And he shows that vocal talent to good effect on the concluding four concise tracks, accompanied by a male chorus.

The album begins with Bond’s three-movement Illuminations on Byzantine Chant for solo piano (2021), an extended piano meditation on three contrasting Byzantine liturgical chants. It’s followed by two piano concertos – Black Light (1997) and Ancient Keys (2002) – the program bookended by Barnes’ idiomatically convincing rendering of the aforementioned Byzantine chants.

The composer writes that the title “Black Light implies the light that shines from African America music, which has had a profound effect on my compositions. The first movement contrasts a driving, aggressive orchestra with a playful, jaunty response in the piano.” The slow soul-searching second movement was inspired by Jewish liturgical music, while the third by the scat singing of Ella Fitzgerald set in a combination of orchestral variation and rondo forms. Featuring the Philharmony Bohuslav Martinů and Barnes’ rhythmically and dynamically incisive solo piano, this is my favourite music on the album.

07 Melia Watras String MasksMelia Watras – String Masks
Various Artists
Planet M Records PMR003 (planetmrecords.com)

American composer and virtuoso violist Melia Watras’ latest album String Masks primarily features her sensitive playing and several string instrument-centred compositions – with a brief detour to a delicate unaccompanied song with Icelandic lyrics. The dramatic exception is the 23-minute title track which also includes singers, actors and instruments invented by the iconoclastic American composer and music theorist Harry Partch (1901-1974), by far the longest and most complex work here.

String Masks opens with Watras’ Kreutzer for string trio, explicitly eliciting Beethoven’s well-known sonata for violin and piano of the same name, as well as borrowing from Janáĉek’s String Quartet No.1. Michael Jinsoo Lim (violin), Watras (viola) and Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir (cello) perform the four-movement score with restrained eloquence and passion. 

Watras has been captivated by the Partch Instrumentarium ever since they arrived at University of Washington, where Watras serves as professor of viola. She includes three of them in String Masks, the narrative-based work in which she echoes Partch’s manner of using his microtonal instruments to reflect the cadences and phrases of human speech, and to set an idiosyncratic mood. She effectively uses Partch’s Harmonic Canon (44-string zither with microtonal tunings), Bass Marimba (with organ-pipe resonators) and Cloud-Chamber Bowls (14 large hung glass carboys) in addition to violin, viola and voices.

The composer writes that the “otherworldly sounds of Partch’s inventions” are used to set the aural stage for a “fantastical vision of an underworld inhabited by string-playing legend[ary musician]s from the past. Read by three actors, each is evoked in the text, the narrative forming the metaphoric backbone of the aptly titled String Masks.

08 Seven PillarsAndy Akiho – Seven Pillars
Sandbox Percussion
Aki Rhythm Productions (andyakiho.com)

Critically acclaimed new music composer Andy Akiho has created a captivating and powerful commission for the Sandbox Percussion quartet in the form of Seven Pillars, the collaboration a labour of love between friends spanning eight years. 

Written as a multimedia chamber work, even without the intended video presentation included, the music is mesmerizing from the instant it opens. The complexity of the work belies the relative simplicity of the acoustic percussion tools at hand: bottles, glockenspiels, drums, wood blocks, metal pipes, sandpaper, marimbas, kick drum. Akiho takes full advantage of the skill and inventiveness of the individual performers by dedicating solo tracks to each, so that he can explore the nuances and textures of the simple objects. It is in the delivery that the writing takes flight. The remaining seven movements are for the full quartet, showing off not only the compositions but the slick performance and tight comradeship of the group. 

Akiho and Sandbox Percussion commissioned 11 video artists to create original films for Seven Pillars – one film for each movement of the work – however the hard copy of the CD makes no mention of this. It does however include a complex insert, a complicated paper cutout designed almost as a stage setting in lieu of the visual films. These took some studying, slowly revealing explanations of the form of each movement in relation to the work as a whole, and spelling out the instruments used (“brake drum” for instance). But the cards can’t quite replace the brilliance of the collaborative videos that encompass the worlds of dance, animation, experimental narrative film, time-lapse and more. They are also a lot more fun, as you can see here: youtube.com/watch?v=EXHORWr6xQ8.

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