Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Iconic, Haunting Schubert Song Cycle Reinvented For Our Time

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin‘s new live recording of Schubert’s Winterreise – streaming at Spotify – is heartbreaking on more levels than usual. DiDonato isn’t phased by singing a male role: she’s done that before. Unquestionably, she brings new levels of depth and angst to Wilhelm Muller’s interminable, metaphorically loaded journey through a winter wasteland. Maybe listening to this from a male perspective actually doesn’t give her enough credit, considering how troubling it is simply to hear a woman channel so much emotional devastation. In her liner notes, DiDonato relates how she’s been intrigued by how little we know about the nameless love interest whose ex was sent off stumbling into the snow. In this interpretation, the breakup was just as hard on her.

Nézet-Séguin’s clear-eyed, meticulous focus is a welcome backdrop and guide for everyone involved. He lets what might well be the most famous classical song cycle ever written tell itself, carving out a path of subtly blinding lucidity. The elephant in the room here is that this is a concert recording, from Carnegie Hall in December 2019. Just over four months later, the venue was shuttered and remains cold and dead. That context is as heartbreaking as the story itself. How much longer are New Yorkers going to tolerate Cuomo and the lockdowners’ relentless campaign of terror?

With that in mind, the suite is an even more potent metaphor – it’s hardly a stretch to read Muller’s tale of lost love as a parable of freedom lost to forces of evil, followed by an escape attempt whose end remains in doubt. Take The Signpost, a muted, troubled, spare interlude about eighty percent of the way in: is this simply an embattled individualist’s lament, or a subtle revolutionary cry? This duo leave that possibility wide open.

DiDonato’s downward cascades in the sarcastically titled overture pack quite a wallop as Nézet-Séguin maintains a very light-footed stroll, eschewing any temptation to go for either grand guignol or florid operatics. It’s a portent for the rest of the record.

There’s an almost furtive scramble to the fourth segment, Numbness, the anguish of DiDonato’s narrator wanting to melt the ice with her tears and rekindle the affair. Happy memories under the linden tree seem more ghostly here, at a distance: sleep in heavenly peace, ouch!

Rivers rise with DiDonato’s voice as Nézet-Ségui serves as anchor, both musically and emotionally. Rest proves tantalizingly elusive, a spring thaw vastly more so, in a rare crushing crescendo. Increasingly somber intimations of mortality are much more vastly spacious and funereal. The scene where the traveler ends up sleeping in the graveyard because the inn is full seems only logical, and Nézet-Séguin really makes those cruelly conclusive chords sink in. And the hushed coda, out on the ice with the homeless, drunken hurdy-gurdy player, makes for sheer horror. These two really go to the core of this music. Newcomers to the Winterreise who discover it through this recording are especially lucky.

May 30, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jitro Czech Girls Choir Celebrate Owls, Mudpuddles, and the History of Western Music

Today’s album falls into the fun classical category. Czech composer Ilja Hurnik liked bright, singable melodies but also enigmatic harmonies. His music is picturesque to the extreme, deceptively playful and more complex than it might seem on the surface. The Jitro Czech Girls Choir’s new album Gratias, a Hurnik retrospective streaming at Spotify, contains two numbers about owls and more than one vignette of children having fun in the rain…alongside an improbably successful capsule history of western choral music. That speaks volumes. Jiří Skopal conducts these young women in an evocative performance of very serious unserious music.

Variations on a Mouse Theme are actually an ambitious attempt to trace the entire history of choral music, from the pre-Renaissance to the present, in less than ten minutes. After a coyly bustling bit of an intro, there’s a trio of leaping, Handel-ish miniatures followed by a more austere interlude punctuated by incisive bursts in the high harmonies. The false ending to the fourth segment is irresistibly funny, the group gamely tackling the thorny harmonies and tricky rhythms of the modernist coda.

June Night, for piano and choir, comes across as a more sober series of etudes: counterpoint, Romantically-tinged glitter with an affecting soprano solo, and a study in slowly shifting long tones are part of the picture. If the chromatics of the fifth segment are to be taken on face value, they’re a headache.

The Children’s Tercetta suite is more piano-centric. Icicles drip busily, a sparrow and swallow banter, a colt romps for a bit, a butterfly dips and lingers gracefully. Pianist Michal Chrobák’s poignancy alongside the voices in that second owl miniature make a strikingly somber contrast: it’s one of the album’s high points.

Water, Sweet Water is a triptych for choir and the most lushly enveloping piece here. The ensemble wind up the album with the brief, strikingly translucent six-part Missa Vinea Crucis for choir and organ. The opening kyrie is stunningly dark and chromatically bristling: organist František Vaníček brings to mind the great French composer Maurice Durufle, as he does again in the disquieting twinkle and gusts of the gloria. The lively counterpoint of the credo and ethereal agnus dei each make quite a contrast.

Much as all this music is essentially etudes, the fun Hurnik obviously had writing it translates vividly in the girls’ performance.

May 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cellist Arlen Hlusko Finds Mesmerizing Beauty in Scott Ordway’s New Solo Suite

Cellist Arlen Hlusko’s new recording of Scott Ordway’s Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello – streaming at the composer’s music page – is a bundle of contradictions: sprightly and immersive, old and new. Drawing equally on the baroque and current-day minimalism, it’s on the slow, pensive side, but with all sorts of dynamic shifts and demands on extended technique. Hlusko really sinks her teeth – and her bow, and her fingers – into this. It’s quite beautiful in its own austere way, emphatically rooted in the lows. Some of this could be a work for solo bass.

She begins the suite with a stately, minimal, circling baroque-tinged pizzicato theme which  instantly reveals the room’s rich natural reverb. She picks up her bow for the echoingly brief second movement, its long, rising tones and harmonically-spiced chords.

Her attack grows spikier and more forceful, occasionally with percussive boom or plucked glissandos, There are a handful of passages with striking low/high contrasts and uneasy close harmonies, as well as one centered around expressive allusions to a well-known Bach theme.

Movement nine has rich contrast between the almost feral attack of the first part and the wistful, wispy ending. From there, Hlusko shifts energetically from increasingly complex, raga-like variations around a pedal note, to aching, slowly crescendoing single-note lines, to what could be a fondly anthemic 19th century folk ballad. Ordway brings the suite full circle as a warmly resonant pavane.

May 27, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting, Stunningly Individualistic, Exotic New Orchestral and Piano Works From Konstantia Gourzi

Anájikon, the new album from Konstantia Gourzi – streaming at Spotify – will blow your mind. Gourzi’s often haunting compositions bring to mind sounds from traditions as far-flung as her native Greece, Armenia, Iran and India as well as contemporary minimalism. The rhythms here are strong and prominent, with heavy use of percussion. There’s more of an emphasis on melody than harmony, and Gourzi’s tunes are rich with chromatics and implied melody. There’s a careening intensity to much of the orchestration.

Gourzi conducts the Lucerne Academy Orchestra in the achingly lush, often utterly Lynchian Two Angels in the White Garden. A dramatically dancing percussion riff – and a hint of Richard Strauss – punctuate the mournfully tolling and then enigmatically swirling, allusively chromatic interludes of the first part, Eviction. The rhythms are more muted in Exodus, the brooding swirl of the orchestra receding for a hauntingly minimalist piano theme anchored by ominous bass and flickers throughout the ensemble. Part three, Longing has a dense, stormy pulse, akin to Alan Hovhaness in a blustery moment. The orchestra rise from stillness over looming, pianissimo drums to a bit of a Respighi-ish dance and then contented atmospherics in the conclusion, The White Garden.

The Minguet Quartett – violinists Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violist Tony Nys and cellist Matthias Diener – first contribute Gourzi’s String Quartet No. 3, The Angel in the Blue Garden. The first movement, The Blue Rose begins with an insistent, staccato violin pulse anchoring achingly beautiful, lyrical cello and then a similarly melancholic, modal, Armenian-tinged viola line; it ends surprisingly calmly. Movement two, The Blue Bird pairs spare, broodingly soaring cello against fluttery echoes from the rest of the quartet – anxious wings, maybe?

The Blue Moon: The Bright Side is more minimal and hypnotic, high strings shimmering and weaving an otherworldly melody over a persistent cello pedal figure. The muted mystery of Turning, which follows, is over too soon. The Dark Side begins with a circling, distantly Balkan-tinged dance, pizzicato cello and viola answering each other beneath plaintive lustre.

Violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn close the record with a stunningly and starkly lyrical performance of Gourzi’s Three Dialogues For Viola and Piano, the most vividly Hovahaness-esque work here. Part one has variations on an allusive, poignant melody descending over simple, alternately lingering and insistently rhythmic piano accents. A catchy, circling bell-like interweave persists and finally rises in part two. Part three is at first shivery and otherworldly, then Youn runs a rippling riff beneath Mönkemeyer’s austerely looping, sailing lines. If this is your introduction to this brilliant and fascinatingly original composer, you are in for a treat: this might be the best album of the year so far.

May 19, 2021 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dragon Quartet Tackle a Harrowing, Transgressive Masterpiece and Other Russian Works

Today it’s time to salute transgression, and freedom fighters, and one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written.

Is it transgressive for a Chinese string quartet to play play popular and less popular but underated Russian repertoire? That probably depends on who you ask, and where you ask that question.

The Dragon Quartet – violinists Ning Feng and Wang Xiaomao, violist Zheng Wenxiao and cellist Qin Liwei – released their second album in the spring of last year. It’s streaming at Spotify; the centerpiece is Shostakovich’s chillingly immortal String Quartet No. 8. Having outlived Stalin, who had murdered so many of his friends, the composer wrote this piece in less than a week, fearing that he might not live to finish it since the tyrant’s successor, Krushchev, had gone on the warpath against artists again. If you know classical music, you undoubtedly know this one, where the composer inserts his initials thousands of times into the score (in German). If you don’t, you are in for a treat.

The slow, sheer despondency of the first movement is an especially severe contrast with the haggard chase scene (and sarcastic Wagner quotes) in the second. The dynamics of the marionettish dance of death in the third enhance the relentlessly sinister quality, particularly its ghostly swirls.

The fourth movement is where the gestapo knock on the door, one of the most iconic sequences in all of classical music. The quartet really dig into the lushness and desperation that follows: Ning’s muted lines as hope runs out pack a wallop, quietly, as does the resonance of the conclusion and Qin’s stark, solemn cello.

Mieczyslaw (Moishe) Weinberg was for several years Shostakovich’s neighbor and drinking buddy, and a vastly underrated, wildly prolific composer. He’d escaped the Holocaust only to be jailed by Stalin: although Shostakovich advocated for him, it was Stalin’s death that saved his life. Here the group play his String Quartet No. 2, which he wrote in 1945. It makes a good segue.

Ning soars uneasily over moody, sometimes insistent lows, with the group supplying vividly aching low/high contrasts as the piece gets underway. They give the second movement a fin-de-siecle, Debussy-esque wistfulness but also a marching cynicism and then flurry vigorously yet very warily through the third. The melodies hypnotically circling over the ghostly backdrop of the fourth movement are another higlight of the album. The group find a melancholy song without words and then get their hands dirty with the bracing round-robin counterpoint of the concluding movement.

Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 is an attractive piece of music, played expertly and thoughtfully, but it’s not going to blow you away like Shostakovich. It’s a love song to Borodin’s wife that ends as the happy couple go on a brisk stroll together. Before that there’s clever, Haydn-influenced counterpoint and shadowing, old world pensiveness, some stately waltzing, balletesque grace, and hummingbird-like speed from Feng when the conclusion calls for it.

May 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Augusta and Georgina McKay Lodge Unearth Colorful Rarities From 18th Century Germany

Violinist Augusta McKay Lodge and her violist sister Georgina are a throwback to a time when classical musicians were also routinely expected to be good improvisers. Their new album J.G. Graun: Chamber Music from the Court of Frederick the Great – streaming at the violist’s music page – unearths rare baroque treasures for a global audience. What’s most exciting about this recording is that it contains a small handful of world premieres. It’s also noteworthy for including two of the earliest known works for viola as a featured instrument. And in keeping with a mid-eighteenth century German esthetic, the ensemble revel in opportunities to add individualistic embellishments, dynamics, and even entire parts. Much as obscure archival works are becoming more and more of a meme, this elegant and often unexpectedly colorful album is a real find. The duo have assembled an all-star cast here which includes Eva Lymenstull on cello and David Schulenberg on harpsichord.

They open with Johann Gottlieb Janitsch’s somberly crescendoing Trio Sonata in G minor For Violin, Viola and Continuo. The pedalpoint of the viola and harpsichord build a hypnotic quality early in the second movement, then waltz through the conclusion. Music for the entitled classes from this era is seldom so dark; needless to say, this is a welcome rediscovery.

Schulenberg reaches for an opulent rubato to open Johann Gottlieb Graun’s Sonata in C minor For Viola and Keyboard, Lodge rising from spare, plaintive phrasing to a long series of biting, lively fugal exchanges with the harpsichord. There are plenty of convention-defying surprises in this piece: kudos to the Lodges for resurrecting it.

Graun’s Sonata in B-flat For Violin and Keyboard is considerably more lighthearted, but this is a vigorous performance, lit up by Lodge’s steely legato, and Schulenberg’s playful ornamentation and pacing. The short phrases of the Sonata in C For Cello and Basso Continuo, by Carl Heinrich Graun, are more predictable, Lymenstull’s shifts in attack and dynamics front and center.

Franz Benda’s Sonata in C minor For Viola and Basso Continuo begins with elegantly wary pacing from Schulenberg behind Lodge’s gorgeously bittersweet resonance and melismas. The brooding counterpoint goes straight back to J.S. Bach and so does the sheer tunefulness: it’s arguably the high point of the album.

The Lodges save their most animated embellishments for the final work here, J. G. Graun’s warmly nocturnal, lilting Trio Sonata in A For Violin, Viola and Basso Continuo, anchored once again by Schulenberg’s uncluttered, nuanced harpsichord parts.

May 1, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Revealing New Take on an Iconically Scary Suite From Patricia Kopatchinskaja

As a student, Patricia Kopatchinskaja fell in love with Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. But she didn’t stop with the music: “All my life I have felt that I was Pierrot,” she reveals.

Scary admission. Now we know why she would seize the opportunity to be the macabre Michael Hersch’s go-to violinist. For fans of Schoenberg’s iconic portrait of mad obsession (and staple of horror movie scores), Kopatchinskaja has recorded the suite on her new album, streaming at Spotify. It’s truly a dream (or nightmare) come true for her, since she doubles as both violinist and vocalist.

And she revels in it. The way her voice matches that fleeting glissando early in the opening miniature attests to how deeply she dives into the rest of it. Having seen the great Lucy Shelton gleefully tackle these pieces more than once, it’s fair to say that Kopatchinskaja’s approach just as fearlessly entertaining, and surprisingly nuanced. Shelton would really dig in and try to half-sing Albert Giraud’s texts. Kopatchinskaja is more of an otherworldly narrator sprite.

Pianist Joonas Ahonen and the rest of an inspired ensemble join her in giving a stately strut to Colombine, providing sotto-voce, cynical cheer in Der Dandy, flitting mystery in Ein blasse Wascherin, a moody stroll for Madonna, and a distant moroseness to Der kranke Mond. Beyond just those highlights, the attention to detail throughout the twenty-one short segments is spectacular, from film noir furtiveness to deep-space gloom, unexpectedly restrained phantasmagoria and flickers of sardonic humor.

There are a handful of other pieces on the record. Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.7 drift sepulchrally and offer stygian mystery alongside puckish cheer. Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen bounce slyly through Fritz Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese and its ersatz Romany riffage.

To close the album, Ahonen parses Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces op.19 for moody acidity, lingering unease and peek-a-boo humor. The inclusion of Schoenberg’s pointless arrangement of Johann Strauss’s schlocky Emperor Waltz makes an awful segue out of Pierrot Lunaire: punk classical this is not. Going straight to Schoenberg’s Phantasy For Violin and Piano, op.47, which Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen play colorfully and acerbically afterward, would have been perfect.

April 27, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Susan Krebs Chamber Band Play Imaginative, Deviously Funny Jazz and Other Styles

It was impossible to resist cueing up the final track on the Susan Krebs Chamber Band’s album Spring: Light Out of Darkness before listening to the others. It’s hilarious, a quiet, completely deadpan, roughly seven-minute chamber arrangement of the most famous themes from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There’s no whirling, aching release from cabin fever and no virgins being sacrificed here: pianist Rich Eames plays the percussion parts. This seems closer in spirit to Bridget Kibbey romping through the Bach Toccata in D on the concert harp than, say, Richard Cheese doing lounge versions of Nirvana songs.

The rest of the record – which came out in 2018 and is still streaming at Bandcamp – is just as imaginative and entertaining. The group ease their way playfully and atmospherically into a lithe jazz version of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning that wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez playbook, spiced with Luis Mascaro’s violin and Rob Lockart’s bass clarinet  over Eames’ piano and Scott Breadman’s drums.

Likewise, the band coyly edge their way toward oldtimey-flavored swing in their take of the Doris Fisher classic Whispering Grass, Krebs’ half-spoken, half-sung delivery underscoring its message of how loose lips sink ships. She looks back to the cabaret origins of Some Other Time in a slow, lingering version with piano, bluesy violin and sailing clarinet.

Spring is another ridiculously funny interlude, the famous Vivaldi theme from the Four Seasons reinvented as a jaunty soul-gospel tune. You Must Believe in Spring has a steady implied clave bounce and cheerily lyrical piano, then Krebs shifts to a wee-hours saloon blues ambience for the album’s title track. It’s been a rough year: this album will lift your spirits.

April 26, 2021 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Symphonic Malian Mashup

Of all the strange and beguiling orchestral cross-pollinations of recent years, kora player Toumani Diabaté’s live album Korolen with the London Symphony Orchestra under Clark Rundell is at the top of the list. You could call this six-part suite a harp concerto, the kora being one of that instrument’s ancestors and sharing a ringing, rippling upper register. The music is calm, expansive, unhurried, sometimes warmly playful, sometimes meditative.

This archival 2008 concert – streaming at Spotify – begins with a Diabaté solo, introducing the spare, warmly expansive pastorale Hainamady Town. Then strings and winds enter and add lush, sweeping ambience. Diabaté’s spur-of-the-moment arrangements are strikingly uncluttered and atmospheric: an oboe sailing here, a brassy echo there. Diabaté turns more and more of the melody over to the orchestra as the layers grow more pillowy.

Diabaté’s lively solo introduction of Mama Souraka seems improvised; the decision to pair the kora with xylophone and pizzicato strings along with gentle staccato accents seems completely logical. Yet so does the doppler-like sweep later on.

Elyne Road opens with a windswept British folk ambience over an understated waltz beat; Diabaté’s clustering riffs shift the music into even sunnier African terrain. The ensemble return to the solo intro/orchestral crescendo model in Cantelowes Dream, with a Diabaté joke that’s too ridiculously funny to give away. A Spanish guitar delivers a spiky Malian solo; Diabaté’s conversations with high woodwinds grow more animated and gusty.

Moon Kaira is the most lushly dancing piece yet ultimately most hypnotic segment here, with a triumphant interweave of voices. The bassoon matching Diabaté’s intricate doublestops is a trip. The ensemble close with Mamadou Kanda Keita, a pulsing, vamping salute to the griot tradition with expressive vocals by the late Kasse Mady Diabaté, and a guitar/kora duet on the way out.

April 26, 2021 Posted by | classical music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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