Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jacob Mühlrad’s Somber Choral Works Explore Ancient Jewish Themes

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad‘s new choral album Time – streaming at Spotify – weaves ancient Jewish melodies and rapturous original themes into a hauntingly intricate web of sound. Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin conduct the Swedish Radio Choir with an aptly meticulous touch throughout this serious, brooding, often gloomy and potently relevant music. Mühlrad seems determined to become the Jewish Arvo Part, and so far he’s off to a good start.

The album opens with Anim Zemirot, a five-part suite of miniatures inspired by the concluding hymm from the Jewish liturgy. Slow, somber waves rise and subside, often with a bracing contrast between men’s and women’s voices. As celebratory music goes, this is pretty dark.

The album’s central, title suite draws on the Tower of Babel myth and the increasingly arduous challenge to find global unity across borders. The composer bases it on the word “time” in 104 different languages. Like the album’s first track, its gravitas pulses slowly in waves, spaciously drifting or suddenly looming into the sonic picture. As he does throughout the album, Mühlrad employs pretty much the totality of the available spectrum, ominous lows balanced by similarly uneasy highs. Subtle echo effects are a deftly executed touch. Repetitive, rising figures which fall just short of imploring are very striking, as the ending, which is unexpected and too good to give away. Slow and methodical as this is, it’s also very challenging to sing, and the group rise to the occasion.

The simply titled Nigun is more nebulously immersive, with its long, sustained, enigmatically close-harmonied motives, a sort of liturgical paraphrase with a terse tenor solo at the center. The concluding suite, Kaddish, is a Holocaust remembrance utilizing texts by Elie Wiesel and the composer’s late grandfather – a survivor – along with the traditional prayer for the dead. The sheer stillness of the introduction packs a wallop, in contrast with the incantatory yet similarly otherworldly pace the ensemble reach as Mühlrad builds momentum.

Much as this is compelling music, the decision to separate each suite into its parts – many of them cut off suddenly after less than two minutes – becomes frustrating, and jars the listener out of a reverie. If that’s intended to boost Spotify nanopayments, someday somebody at the record label might have enough pocket change for a bus ride home.

April 24, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting, Intense, Politically Potent Pan-Asian Inspired New Sounds From Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu’s music is hypnotic, frequently nocturnal, incantatory and informed by ancient myths and traditions spanning across Asia. Inspired by those traditions, Shyu hardly limits herself to the kind of separation between artistic disciplines which so often dominates those practices in the west. Much of the music on her haunting, otherworldly new album Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack for even more ambitious multimedia projects.

Throughout her work, Shyu has always focused on commonalities, drawing on artistic and cultural influences from Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. This album shares that universality yet is also her most personal one. It’s rooted in the here and now, a response to bereavement and tragedy, addressing the sudden loss of Shyu’s beloved father as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lockdown. Here Shyu sings, narrates and plays Japanese biwa, Taiwanese moon lute and piano, joined by her Jade Tongue ensemble with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

In the opening suite, Living’s a Gift, Shyu becomes a one-woman choir delivering a pastiche of lyrics written by choir students at MS51 in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope during the grim early days of the lockdown. The band waft and dance gently behind her as she mashes up classic soul balladry, punchy indie classical, acerbic theatricality and a little hip-hop. If there’s any music that’s been released since March 16 of last year that gives voice to the relentless psychological torture that children in New York have suffered at the hands of the lockdowners, this is it: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as one of the kids blithely puts it in the first segment. No wonder suicide among young people is up sixty percent over the past year.

Akinmusire plays a solemn farewell over Maneri and Morgan’s stark, microtonal washes, Shyu’s piano driving a seething undercurrent in Lament for Breonna Taylor: the lyrics are from Taylor’s mom Tamika Palmer’s remiscence about her daughter’s plans to become a nurse before she was gunned down in a home invasion by Louisville police.

The Human Color, an understately lustrous piano ballad originally released in 2009, reflects on the enslavement of Chinese alongside Africans under the conquistadors in 19th century Cuba. A Cure for the Heart’s Longing, a more intertwining ballad spiced with spiky moon lute, is a setting of Javanese poetry by legendary wayang artist Sri Joko Raharjo. Shyu reprises a similar mood later, with more of a nocturnal sweep, in Finally She Emerges.

Shyu’s voice reaches an imploring, chilling intensity in Body of Tears, an anguished account of the moment she was informed she’d lost her dad, rising from troubled grace to anguished insistence. The stark, shamanistic When I Have Power is arguably the most powerful track on the album, Shyu singing from her high school diary. At 15, while selling candy on the bus on the way home from school, she was confronted by a kid who harrassed her and used a racist slur. “When I’m famous, I’m going to set things straight,” she resolved.

Display Under the Moon, a traditional Japanese biwa song, has fiercely plucked, operatic drama, a soldier in the moonlight dreading the next day’s battle. Plus ça change

The album’s final three tracks are dedicated to Shyu’s dad. Father Slipped into the Eternal Dream, based on a parable by Zhuangzi, is a kinetically soaring exploration of how to carry on in the face of bereavement and despondency. The lyrics reaffirm that our capacity to feel such emotional intensity is what makes us human.

With Eyes Closed You See All, a towering, bustling piano-fueled tone poem of sorts, channels hope and feminist determination to shift the paradigm toward equality. Shyu closes the album with Live What You Envision, a carpe-diem theme that picks up from elegantly plucked multitracks to a fierce coda.

For a listener who doesn’t speak any of Shyu’s many Asian languages, it’s a treat to be able to understand the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and to hear her assert herself as a great song stylist in the Betty Carter tradition. The only thing better than listening to this often harrowing record would be to witness what she would do with it onstage if she could. Hmmm…Shyu’s a native Texan, and Texas is one of the free states…

April 23, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sophisticated, Tuneful Album and a Central Park Show From Saxophonist Michael Thomas

There’s crushing irony in that saxophonist Michael Thomas‘ latest album, Natural Habitat – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a shout-out to New York at a time when this city has never been more hostile to musicians. There’s even greater irony in that Thomas could leave the city he always gravitated toward, return to his native Florida and enjoy a busy career there. For the moment, he’s toughing it out here, and is playing one of Giant Step Arts‘ series of outdoor concerts on the west side of Central Park on April 25 at around 1 PM with a quartet featuring Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Edward Perez on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. Go in through the 81st St. entrance, follow the noise and walk uphill about a block north.

Blake also serves as the irrepressible force that propels this tuneful and ambitious album, alongside pianist Julian Shore and bassist Hans Glawischnig. Thomas opens it with Float, a vehicle for Shore’s rippling lyricism, assembled around a spiraling, syncopated, warmly pastoral sax theme.. The bandleader cuts loose with a long, triumphant solo as the backdrop grows more kinetic but also enigmatic.

He switches to bass clarinet to open the catchy jazz waltz Different Time with a sagely cheery solo, Glawischnig dancing between Shore’s spare chords. The band follow the goodnaturedly funky sway of First with the album’s similarly energetic, hard-swinging retro 60s title track and its slyly circling Blake solo.

Harbor, a pensive but anthemic ballad, takes its title from Boston Harbor, where Thomas was inspired to come up with the finishing touches. He saves his longest, optimistically crescendoing solo for Fourth, the rest of the band returning to a swaying, funk-tinged groove.

The album’s most dynamic number is Demise, at first built around a brooding, circling Shore riff, Thomas back on bass clarinet. Shore then switches to bubbly Rhodes for a cloudbusting solo as Blake gets more and more memorably restless.

Shore anchors No Words with his increasingly frenetic clusters, Thomas taking charge of bringing the sunlight in this time. The album winds up with Two Cities – a joint homage to Boston, where Thomas went to school, and New York as well, the contrast between the two reflected in the unsettled rhythm. Thomas picks this as the place to cut loose with his fieriest sax solo here as Blake pounces and prowls. If this is an accurate interpretation, Thomas sees Boston as having younger cred, while Gotham lives up to its vaunted sophistication. In actuality, neither New York nor Massachusetts are free states at the moment, and neither has much of a musical culture outside of speakeasies and clandestine venues…and public parks.

April 22, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magical, Transcendent New Carillon Music

Tiffany Ng is a virtuoso of one of the rarest instruments: the carillon. It didn’t used to be that way. A hundred years ago, every respectable European town with a bell tower or two had one, sometimes several. Like church organs, every carillon is custom-made for its own space and available bells. Ng chose the magnificent model on her home turf at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to record her magical, otherworldly album Dark Matters: Carillon Music of Stephen Rush, streaming at Spotify.

Rush made waves in the carillon demimonde with his Three Etudes in 1987 and remains a major figure. Ng maintains a steady pace through the clever counterpoint and echo effects of the first segment and the hypnotic, more spacious tolling of the second. The finale, “With Drive,” is nothing short of mesmerizing, a web of alternate sonic universes unfolding as the overtones ring out, Ng shifting from a march of sorts to a solemn, spare, deep-space clang and a catchy, icily dancing theme.

The album’s title track has allusive chromatics and music box-like chimes in contrast to spare, resonant low accents and a relentless, sepulchral mystery. Six Treatments, a site-specific electroacoustic suite, spans from anvil minimalism to sparse, plaintive figures, a playfully ghostly “tilted waltz” and a vast, meditative panorama. The electronics kick in most noticeably in a shivery, wintry river tableau, followed by a rapt, often warmly fugal Charles Ives homage and a whirring, lingering vortex of a conclusion.

Ng begins Rush’s Sonata for Carillon as the closest thing to variations on a bold, on-the-hour riff here, building to a friendly exorcist theme of sorts. Part two, Flux most closely approximates a stately piano theme, but with some devious echo effects. The finale, Variations on Holy Manna, is as catchy and dramatic as it is trancelike.

The composer conducts a brass quintet – Keenan Bakowski on trumpet, Zoe Cutler on trombone, Dominic Hayes on horn, Michael Stern on trumpet, Jacob Taitel on tuba and Tanner Tanyeri on percussion – alongside Ng in the album’s suspensefully shapeshifting, concluding number, September Fanfares. The recording quality is sublime: it’s as if you’re there in the tower with Ng. What a ravishingly beautiful album.

April 22, 2021 Posted by | carillon musid, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz on a Chilly Spring Day

.About ten minutes into the first number at his Saturday show, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter took advantage of a spring-loaded Joe Martin bass solo for a chance to pull on a windbreaker. That made sense: it was a raw, chilly, overcast afternoon.

It’s a little early in the year for outdoor jazz festivals. Was the air conditioning at the Village Vanguard working overtime? Before the lockdown, Potter would routinely sell out a weeklong stand there.

Nope. Potter was playing Central Park.

The chance to see him leading a chordless trio, featuring some breathtakingly masterful drumming from Nasheet Waits – for free! – was every bit the thrill it promised to be. Musicians are typically nocturnal creatures, but none of the acts in the ongoing weekend series that Giant Step Arts are booking in the park have phoned in their shows. Until we get back to normal – which is inevitable, if we are going to survive at all, let alone as a society – what photographer Jimmy Katz’s organization is doing is genuinely heroic.

At the series’ installment couple of weeks ago, the crowd was transient, many people lured away (or driven away) by a loud electric band up the block. This time, everyone had come to stick around and listen. The audience gathered around the rise at Central Park West close to 82nd Street wasn’t a mass sea of bodies, but they would have sold out the Vanguard.

The show was everything that everyone had come out for, maybe a little on the judicious, spare side. In over an hour onstage (or on bedrock, maybe), the group seldom hit a straight-ahead swing, shifting artfully and slyly between themes, JD Allen style, rather than playing anything all the way through. Potter was very generous with solos. Martin’s approach was a spring-wound intensity, sometimes very spaciously, echoing the bandleader at times.

Waits’ game plan was symphonic, starting with sticks, then moving to mallets, brushes and finally sticks again. While Potter waited til the closing number to swing hard, Waits was fueling a turbulent forward drive with hypnotically churning helicopter-wing rumbles, teasing out a very subtle clave at doublespeed on the rims of his snare, and taking charge of the suspense factor.

Potter didn’t waste time dispensing adrenaline: after the band had edged and shimmied themselves into the opening theme, he chose his spots to rise to trills, and slithery glissandos, and chilling microtones. The first number – if you count thirty-three minutes as a number – had a jaunty but spacious latin flair. About two thirds of the way in Potter, shifted to ominous modalities to match the encroaching grey clouds overhead.

Waits’ rolling thunder syncopation and Potter’s tantalizing, spacious cheer fueled an expansive, dynamically vast romp through I’m In the Mood For Love, the bandleader finally going for fullscale lyrical suaveness but also some wildfire spiraling as the trio wound it out. They went back to endless variations on a latin groove for the closing number, Potter’s crisply chopped blues phrasing, flurries and glissandos matched by Waits’ insistence and flourishes on his hardware as Martin chose his own subtle spots for victorious ricochets.

Giant Step Arts’ next Central Park show is on April 24 at around 1 PM (start time has been a work in progress here) with trumpeter Marquis Hill and his band on the little hill north of the 81st St. entrance on the west side. There will probably be Mister Softee and people with boomboxes within earshot in the quieter moments. What there won’t be is Bill Gates’ spyware, or a temperature gun, or a list of attendees which goes straight to Bloomberg’s trace-and-track gestapo to single out anyone who might be a threat to permanent lockdown surveillance. We’re going to win this war: this concert series is a small but enormously important step toward victory.

April 21, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. Quince Ensemble sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable recent work from the past decade.

April 18, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Major Discovery of Rapturous, Previously Unreleased Alan Hovhaness Piano Works

Although Alan Hovhaness earned a place in the pantheon with his mystical, often haunting, Armenian-inspired orchestral works, he was a fine organist and pianist. His piano music is lesser known, and while it often shares those same qualities, it’s often delivishly rhythmic…and challenging to play. One would think that the complete works of the greatest American classical composer would have seen the light of day by now, but as pianist Sahan Arzruni reveals on his new album Alan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions – streaming at Spotify – there was more in the archive. And the quality is astonishing, consistent with the rest of the composer’s iconic repertoire.

How was this material discovered? Arzruni worked closely with Hovhaness and has continued to be a leading advocate for his music, and as a result was given unprecedented access. Most of these newly unearthed compositions are on the short side, interspersed among some of Hovhaness’ better-known piano pieces.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an early champion of Hovhaness, and would play his lively, broodingly Indian-tinged miniature, Mystic Flute, as a concert encore. Here, Arzruni gives it equal parts opulence and fire. He rolls with the wave motion in Laona, a river tableau. In the 68-page album booklet – in Armenian, Turkish and English – Arzruni mentions that Laona, in upstate New York, was a summer home to the 19th century spiritualist movement. It’s hardly a surprise that Hovhaness, who believed himself to be the reincarnation of a medieval Armenian composer, would make a point to spend time in that area.

The six-part suite Yenovk – which the composer dedicated to his colleague, Armenian traditional singer Yenovk Der Hagopian – is an early version of Hovhaness’ Madras Sonata. Arzruni plays with detail and dynamism through the percussive modal minimalism of the Fantasy and Ballata, the gorgeously glittering, carnatic-flavored Jhala, a couple of enigmatic songs without words and the concluding fugue, a playful mashup akin to what Bach would have done if he’d gone to the Paris Expo with Debussy.

Persistently rhythmic, oud-like voicings recur throughout this music, as in Arzruni’s bracingly crescendoing take of Lalezar, a magically ringing, chromatic love theme. The Lake of Van Sonata, an Anatolian waterside portrait, is similarly sparkling but more vast and somber in places. The Suite on Greek Tunes, by contrast, is a much simpler, bouncier, catchy little triptych.

Now for the world premieres! Arzruni reaches for gravitas and majesty along with sharp-fanged pointillisms in Invocation to Vahakn (the Armenian god of war), an otherworldly lyrical 1946 suite of miniatures that’s on the minimal side and way ahead of its time. Percussionist Adam Rosenblatt kicks in a boomy beat in places.

Journey Into Dawn, a 1954 partita, opens with bell-like, Mompou-esque mystery, invokes Bach, romps into India for a bit, then Arzruni shifts to the album’s most fascinatingly allusive harmonies, thisclose to twelve-tone acidity.

Vijag is a capsule Armenian rite of spring – the countermelodies are phantasmagorically exquisite, and Arzruni makes short work of them. The final world premiere recording here is the 1946 Hakhpat Sonata, inspired by an ancient Armenian monastery complex dating to the tenth century. In eight parts, it runs from sober contemplation to precise, dancing figures, concise rainy-day sonics, Indian and Balkan-tinged circularity, Rosenblatt employing his ominous, gong-like thunder sheet and kettledrums. Arzruni has done a great service bringing this magical, undeservedly obscure repertoire to a global audience.

April 18, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Especially Epic, Dynamically Conversational New Suite From Nate Wooley

Trumpeter Nate Wooley has put out a toweringly ambitious amount of largescale, highly improvisational work lately, notably his increasingly dark Seven Storey Mountain series. His latest album, Mutual Aid Music – streaming at Bandcamp – continues in that vein, but with a lyricism and often minimalist focus that may take recent listeners by surprise. Wooley asserts himself more melodically here than he’s done in recent years on album. The AACM influence on this epic double-disc set is vast, more so than in practically anything Wooley has written, both in terms of shifting ambience and room for group improvisation. Much as there’s new transparency in this music, it’s for people with long attention spans: every track clocks in at around ten minutes, sometimes more.

As usual, he has a killer supporting cast here: saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, violinist Joshua Modney, cellist Mariel Roberts, pianists Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Russell Greenberg,

Wooley’s bracingly haphazard microtones to open the first disc are a false alarm: his resonance, and sputters, and even the occasional squalling peak build a warm lyricism as the group linger and flit in and out of the background, vibraphone and piano piercing the veil. Rapt stillness descends at times, with Modney, Roberts and the piano throwing sparks above the haze, the bandleader exerting a final calm.

Spacious, Wadada Leo Smith-esque call-and-response grows more lively between Wooley and Laubrock as the second number gets underway. Moran is the eerie elephant in this room for awhile, the piano kicking off a galumphing, loopy drive that recedes and then returns with more of a wink and a Brian Jones-style circle of tinkling echoes. That’s got to be Courvoisier at the keys.

Moran and the piano introduce segment number three with a plaintive spaciousness, the horns dragging the rest of the group into a noir morass: this swamp is cold and forbidding and bodies are buried here. The twisted mobile fluttering in the breeze toward the end is the album’s most chilling interlude.

Massed flutters and coy faux backward masked riffs congeal uneasily as piano and sax resist in segment four, and there’s more wry humor in Courvoisier’s under-the-lid rustles and Modney’s sarcastic harmonics. Yet the activity on the high end, notably Moran and Modney, shifts to a a poltergeist atmosphere as the group wind it out.

The second disc opens with a big hit on the gong, Modney shredding, Roberts a whale at play, as a Terry Riley-ish study in hypnotically pulsing highs develops. From there, vast wave-motion surrealism contrasts with squirrelly flickers and thickets overhead.

Part two begins as a music box in a haunted attic, then gremlins – Roberts and the piano – take over, ceding to an echoey shimmer before a more agitated return. Part three shifts from solo neoromantic piano gloom to distant-nebula atmosphere splashed by Greenberg’s gongs, adrift between stars and their dust. The conclusion is about a quarter hour of increasingly dizzying polyrhythmic webs, Wooley a lone sentry as the mist moves in, Modney leaking astringency amid funhouse mirrors, and bustle receding to rapture as it winds out. Even all this is a only a capsule account of the strikingly dynamic, expertly conversational, raptly captivating interplay at work here.

April 17, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

April 16, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last-Ever Orchestral Album Made in the UK?

What a creepy coincidence that two of the most harrowing British orchestral works ever written would be recorded on two of the nation’s most fateful dates in recent history. December 12, 2019 was election day. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone involved with the London Symphony Orchestra had any idea of the horrors that would take place the following year, but there’s a bristling intensity, a sense of dread and desperation in their performance of Vaughan Williams’ 1935 Symphony No. 4 at the Barbican that night.

Antonio Pappano also led the orchestra through Vaughan Williams’ much differently dark Symphony No. 6 there on March 15 of last year, the final day of freedom in that country. To date, this chilling, riveting performance – streaming at Spotify – is the last live orchestral album ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Some rock bands have recorded clandestinely since then, but it’s hard to imagine that a full orchestra could pull off such a feat. And this isn’t just a powerful, insightful interpretation of two iconic works: these performances will rip your face off.

There’s a franticness to the introduction of the first movement of Symphony No. 4, leaving no doubt that the gusting pulses afterward do not bode well. The brass is particularly strong here, enhancing the effect, especially as the chromatics grow more macabre. By contrast, the lull afterward seems more conspiratorial – or more enigmatically suspenseful – by comparison to most recordings (the BBC Symphony under Martyn Brabbins also put out a noteworthy, grimly colorful recording of this last year).

Pappano’s dynamics are just as rich in the second movement, from the initial stalker bassline, to methodically pulsing portents, the morose flute theme overhead. a crashing coda and then the lustrously sweeping yet relentless unease afterward. The leaps and bounds of the third movement become more of a chase scene than danse macabre, notwithstanding a momentary cheery, Tschaikovskian interlude. Brisk as this may be, all hands are on deck and primed for battle.

Likewise, the faux-martial bombast of the fourth is downright Shostakovian, which becomes even more striking considering how low Pappano brings the lights down for the deep-space reverie midway through. Few ensembles allow themselves to channel the kind of sheer terror this orchestra does at the end. To call this music prophetic is an understatement: where so much of the world was oblivious, Ralph Vaughan Williams obviously had his eye on the ball.

Where Symphony No. 4 is a prelude, No. 6 is a dystopic postlude, composed in 1947. The opening movement’s bustling energy here is just as uneasy, from suspiciously overwrought staginess to the witheringly cynical, bounding, vaudevillian theme that follows, Pappano reaching for fullscale phantasmagoria. The aching, bittersweet longing that emerges immediately afterward will break your heart. When are we going to get back to normal, he asks. Will we ever get back to normal?

Movement two strongly echoes both the stalking menace of Symphony No. 4’s second movement and the vastness of the third, along with some famously bellicose Tschaikovsky. Is this the composer trying to remind us that we’d better remember our history so as not to repeat it?

What’s with that tenor sax weaving in and out of the third movement’s mashup of the work’s initial bustle and striding cynicism? Pillorying postwar optimism, it would seem: Hitler may have been toast, but the Soviet Union was as much a horror as ever and the Chinese Communist Party’s genocidal campaigns would soon be underway. Like the third movement of Symphony No. 4, this is on the fast side, but the impact is unescapable.

As is the utterly eerie hush throughout the fourth movement: Vaughan Williams slows down his signature interweave so we can watch the gears’ fateful motion up close this time, and Pappano has the orchestra locking in their long-range sights. An oboe solo channels longing and disappointment; the shivers from the strings go on and on and bring a chill that never lifts. You could call this a musical counterpart to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins.

The London Symphony Orchestra have released a ton of live recordings since the lockdown, and most of them have been fantastic. One suspects that they have many more lined up on the runway, but so far this is the very best of them all. In fact, this may be the best album of 2021 in any style of music.

April 16, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment