Off the shelf


Two innovative new releases highlight the course of classical music in the 21st Century: Cortical Songs (Nonclassical) by the duo John Matthias and Nick Ryan and Provenance (Innova) cellist, Maya Beiser’s new album. Both albums underscore a growing desire by musicians and composers to avoid confining forms, formats, and labels. Both releases come right up to the classical music line; neither crosses it.

Beiser’s album is the most recent addition in a line of releases over the years exploring cross cultural musical influences. Beiser can thank Yo Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project for making albums like Provenance viable. Provenance means origins. The album reflects Beiser’s origins (she grew up in Israel) and the intertwined origins of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. For the project, Beiser commissioned four new pieces and recorded a cover of Jimmy Plant and Robert Page’s Kashmir – Beiser brilliantly carries the song’s vocal line with her cello. The album wears well on repeated listening. Part of the reason for this is the homogeneity of sounds, effects, and atmospheres utilized in each piece. Another reason this album wears well is that there are genuinely interesting moments. There is the ear opening arrangement of Kashmir of course, but Tamar Muskal’s work Mar de Leche also stands out because of the piece’s own origins – a Ladino love song. Sung text opens the piece followed by a variety of interesting rhythms including stumbling pizzicato’s and infectious dances. As expected, Beiser’s playing is exceptional through out.

The album Cortical Songs is different. You could say its origins rest in the constant computing and calculations of the human brain. The piece Cortical Songs is a short 15 minute-ish work for solo violin and string ensemble built from the rhythms of firing neurons in the human brain (no joke). Matthias and Ryan use these neuron patterns in the piece, but the musicians’ bowing is controlled to some degree by a computer brain – as I understand it – which prompts musicians to play. It sounds crazy. It is crazy. The musical results, however, aren’t so crazy. Because of the string ensemble’s background purring and the solo violin’s nimble passages, Cortical Songs is a lot like an ambient concerto grosso. A fifteen minute piece of music is pretty short for an album. The rest of the disk is filled by remixes of cortical songs by the likes of Gabriel Prokofiev, Thom Yorke, and John MacLean to name a few.

Cortical Songs is one of the first Nonclassical albums released in the United States. It is an interesting release, offering a lot of promise for a label that has the potential to be the next ECM or Nonesuch.

These last few weeks, I have been mildly (okay, majorly) obsessed with Charles Ives. This obsession could be the result of the decent amount of Ives’ music which makes it way to concert stages and recital halls out here in the Northwest. Alternatively – and more likely – it is the result of Michael Tilson Thomas’ latest Keeping Score on the Holidays Symphony.

Charles Ives’ music is one of MTT’s calling cards. And each recording he has made has been a revelation; a new benchmark. One of his early Ives recordings was of Three Places in New England for DG with the Boston Symphony. It has maintained a special place in the Ives catalog for years because of the conductor’s innate understanding for the music; the memories Ives tries to capture in his music, his experiments, and novel ideas unleashed on the listener are gauged perfectly.

Now, MTT has translated his understanding of Ives’ bad-boy ideas to DVD giving those curious about the composer an insightful entry point into the composer’s primativist, jocular, and frequently difficult style. MTT isn’t the only one explaining the Holidays Symphony. Musicians from the San Francisco Symphony help too. Hearing musicians talk about being enveloped by hymns, contrasting textures, and as MTT describes them – orchestral crunches – are insightful contributions for our understanding of this American masterpiece. They give the listener a sense of what it’s like to be surrounded by Ives’ maelstrom. A companion audio recording is also available with the chamber version of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

Dorian’s box set of the complete recordings of the Ames Piano Quartet has been available for almost a year now. On a personal note, the Ames Piano Quartet is the quartet in residence at my alma mater – Iowa State. For four years twice a year, they opened up the piano quartet repertory for me. I count their live performances among the most important for cementing my love of classical music. Highlights of this eight disk set include affectionate recordings of Joseph Suk’s Piano Quartet in A Minor; Paul Juon’s Rhapsody; and Ernest Chausson’s Piano Quartet in A Major. Also not to be missed in this set are Antonin Dvorak’s piano quartets which have are played with Spillville (or Ames), Iowa rustic zeal. Just as enticing are Johannes Brahms’ three quartets. Models of balance and warmth. Since professional piano quartets are few, these three works have fallen victim to zealous egos of classical music stardom. This is not the case with the Ames Quartet’s readings.

Last year, I heard Ludwig Thuille’s Piano Quintet for the first time. The piece is unlikely to be remembered as one of the great piano quintets or even as an average piece of music. A recent release on Naxos, performed by the Chantily Quintet and Gianluca Quartet, pair the Piano Quintet with Thuille’s Sextet which is regarded by those who even know about this composer as his masterpiece. Thuille’s Sextet suffers from the same convoluted style that makes the quintet such a difficult piece for audiences to enjoy or musicians to play. Both groups find their way through Thuille’s thicket of notes, making sense of the pieces in spite of the composer.

Benjamin Lees’ death makes a recent release of three of his string quartets timely. The Cypress String Quartet recorded Lees’ First, Fifth and Sixth String Quartets for Naxos’ American Classics series. Lees wrote the fifth quartet in 1952, while the fifth and sixth hail from early in the 21st Century. While Lees is likely to be remembered (if at all) for two orchestral works – his symphony Memorial Candles and Violin Concerto – his string quartets, and this release, shouldn’t be discounted. Lees, who described himself as a visceral composer, demonstrates his visceral tendencies in each of the three quartets. Lees happily rejected the atonal fashions of the middle part of last century and later snubbed the minimalist pulse which closed the century. The decision served him well. These quartets are distinctive, challenging, and yes, even approachable pieces for string quartet.

Gyorgy Ligeti reportedly worried during the final years of his life that he wouldn’t be remembered as a composer. The NY Philharmonic’s New York premiere of the Le Grand Macabre last week and the Parker Quartet’s recording of his string quartets suggest (prematurely perhaps) Ligeti was worried for nothing. Like Lees, he also eschewed the serial conventional wisdom of the 50’s. For Ligeti, rejected the closed world serialism represented. The first quartet, titled Metamorphoses nocturnes demonstrates this point well as a skewed melody unfolds which leads into fretful, animated passages before these passages deliquesce into oblivion. The second quartet, and the Parker’s performance, is a sonic marvel. Ligeti’s extremes in this quartet – and there are many – are pulled off exceptionally well for such a young ensemble. I would consider this a definitive disk if the Arditti Quartet hadn’t set the bar so high for this repertory with their recording of the same pieces for Sony.

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