CD/Digital releases

Kenneth Hesketh – In Ictu Oculi

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One of the things i’ve noted previously when writing about the larger-scale music of Kenneth Hesketh – which in general i’ve admired very much – is its tendency toward what i’ve called “laser-sighted focus”. This peculiar kind of über-clarity is exhibited in many of Hesketh’s works from the noughties, and from my perspective has proved problematic, not only becoming rather tiring, but actively working against what seemed to me to be the composer’s more fundamental (and engaging) instincts for more unconventional, nebulous forms of drama and narrative. So it’s interesting to be able to compare then and now with a new disc of more recent orchestral works released last month on Paladino Music. The three featured works, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Christoph-Mathias Mueller, were all composed during the last few years, and right at the outset it’s abundantly clear that much has changed, about which more in a moment.

If there’s a weakness shown here, it’s only to be found in Of Time and Disillusionment, where one encounters (in the first and fourth movements) vestiges of the kind of crystal-clear, spiky, spritely material so beloved by mainstream British composers, energetic Faberian froth that invariably sounds hackneyed and empty. However, and this is also something i’ve mentioned before, both the nature and the treatment of such material in Hesketh’s music has always managed to save it from ever sounding commonplace or generic, and the same is true here. The fourth movement, in particular, keeps veering away from mundane frivolity into weird asides, where we find burbling bassoons together with a soft glockenspiel (hard to tell if they’re in a dialogue or just blatantly ignoring one other) or a lovely kind of snappy swagger, where the orchestra sounds like they’ve drunk rather too much and are now trying to pick a fight. Far more telling, though – even more than the delicious traces of (French-inspired) opulence that are a definite Hesketh fingerprint – are the surprising levels of violence that rear up from time to time, yanking the structure around with such force that, if it wasn’t for the music’s traces of playfulness and retreats into delicacy, one might start to feel intimidated. Read more

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Jörg Widmann – Drittes Labyrinth/Polyphone Schatten

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Wergo has recently released a new disc featuring two works by Jörg Widmann, performed by the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heinz Holliger and Emilio Pomàrico. Polyphone Schatten (‘polyphonic shadows’) dates from 2001 and features a clarinet and viola as soloists, played by Widmann himself and Christophe Desjardins. Despite the levels of activity displayed in the piece, it makes more sense to talk about restraint, as one of the most striking aspects of Polyphone Schatten is the way Widmann matches the rapidity that typifies much of his material with incredibly soft dynamics and articulations. That’s not exactly the work’s default position, but it’s a sort of ‘comfort zone’ to which the music regularly returns, often to the point of near-inaudibility due to being either extremely staccato or moving with quicksilver velocity. In terms of relationships, the soloists are clearly in cahoots with each other, while the orchestra seems to behave by way of response to their activities, often in a supporting or imitative role but occasionally growing a pair and asserting itself in wonderfully wild fashion. For the most part, Widmann avoids conventional dramatic highs and lows, favouring quantities of detail rather than sheer weight and mass, though two climactic passages later on are remarkable in respect of how unexpectedly they emerge and how enormous they sound in contrast to what’s gone before. Read more

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Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

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This week i’ll be exploring four new albums of contemporary orchestral music that i’ve recently been spending time with, the first of which turned out to be a surprisingly big disappointment. Last year i was very impressed by Recurrence, a disc put out by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, mainly due to its inclusion of a three-movement work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason titled Emergence. On the considerable strength of that piece, i’d been looking forward to Bjarnason’s latest album of music, Collider, released on Bedroom Community a little over a month ago. A digital-only release, it features three works: Blow Bright and Collider, both orchestral, plus a small-scale setting of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for youth choir and orchestra, The Isle Is Full Of Noises.

While none of the pieces are very good, it’s unfortunate that the album is named after the worst of them. At 15 minutes’ duration, Collider has plenty going on in it, and if you’re willing and/or able to engage with it on a purely superficial level then there’s possibly some enjoyment to be had. But beneath the surface, there’s essentially nothing of any substance to be found. This is, to put it bluntly, painting-by-numbers orchestral writing: a bit of generic brooding here, a bit of scattershot textural mayhem there, unfocused blather that Bjarnason tries to make meaningful through minimalistic outbursts (faux-excitement) and saccharine, filmic lyricism (faux-emotion). Writing music that’s as boringly over-familiar and formulaic as this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it all feels so deliberately manipulative. Yawn/yuck. Read more

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Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 2)

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Record label Another Timbre has recently released the five discs that comprise the second part of its Canadian Composers Series, featuring music by Alex Jang, Cassandra Miller, Lance Austin Olsen and Linda Catlin Smith. While the excellent accompanying booklet to the series (which, at over 100 pages, is more a book than a booklet) elaborates on the many points of contact and connection between the composers, it would be misleading and inaccurate to say that the music on these five discs shares fundamental similarities. There’s no hint here of a kind of ‘Canadian Collective’ in the manner of the Wandelweiser posse; it’s impossible to miss the fact that all four composers take an overtly reflective approach, not only to their materials but to the way those materials are wielded, but that’s hardly unique to Canada and in any case the way each composer articulates that act of reflection is entirely individual. Read more

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all that dust: music by Morton Feldman, Matthew Shlomowitz, Séverine Ballon, Milton Babbitt and Luigi Nono

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The launching of a new label devoted to contemporary music is something to celebrate, and the newest kid on the block is all that dust, the brainchild of composer Newton Armstrong, soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop. The label’s first five releases have recently appeared, and there are a couple of things to say more generally before getting stuck into them individually. First, all that dust is a label not only concerned with the newest of the new; two of these releases are works composed in 1964, and another dates from the early ’80s. Second, all that dust is interested in digital as a valuable medium in its own right: two of the releases are only available digitally, and have been specifically engineered for binaural listening. Third, the label’s approach to presentation is slick but nicely generic, opting for abstract artwork rather than tailoring each one with something personalised. This somewhat extends to the liner notes, which while they do at least provide some context for the music are generally rather meagre and perfunctory. Overall, though, in terms of presentation what all that dust are clearly seeking to emphasise above all else is the music, indicating that we shouldn’t fuss about admiring fancy covers or reading lengthy tracts but just launch as quickly as possible into these five very different soundworlds. Hard to argue with that. Read more

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Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye

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What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?

i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.

In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.

In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it. Read more

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Erkki-Sven Tüür – Illuminatio/Whistle and Whispers from Uluru/Symphony No. 8, Arvo Pärt & Alfred Schnittke – Choral Works, Arvo Pärt – The Symphonies

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Returning to one of my occasional themes, there have been some interesting releases of Estonian music in the last few months. In February, i wrote about the Ninth Symphony by one of the country’s most dynamic composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, so it’s nice timing that the Ondine label has brought out a disc featuring his Symphony No. 8, performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts. The disc also features two slightly older, large-scale pieces, Tüür’s 2008 viola concerto Illuminatio and Whistle and Whispers from Uluru, a work for recorder and string orchestra composed in 2007. One of the primary traits of Tüür’s music is energy, and large amounts of it, though the works on this disc demonstrate (as does the Ninth Symphony) that the way this energy is wielded is not only with devil-may-care abandon – though Tüür is hardly afraid of doing this – but just as often with considerable caution and care. Illuminatio, featuring soloist Lawrence Power, is a case in point, placing the viola within a context that encompasses both the monumental and the fantastical, guided by the soloist’s veering between momentum and lyricism. Particularly striking are its second and third movements; the former charting a complex journey between two poles but where the poles themselves are never fully revealed, the latter starting with the viola rhapsodising but somehow ending up in a barrage of orchestrated machine gun fire. The work’s final thrust towards a place of ethereal transcendence makes sense in pretty much the same way that dreams make sense. Read more

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