Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Far Cry Bring Their String-Driven Elegance Back to Central Park Under Friendlier Skies

A little over a year ago, A Far Cry played the first Naumburg Concert since 2019, to relaunch the annual series of Central Park performances which had run uninterrupted for 114 years until the 2020 lockdown. This blog joked at the time that the chamber orchestra stormed back into action – something of an understatement. In a decade of covering concerts in all sorts of thunderous and near-thunderous conditions, that was, shall we say, the most immersive of them all. After awhile, the hundred or so of us who stuck around for the whole thing would break out laughing when yet another thunderclap exploded overhead, and what felt like a bucket of summer rain would be dumped on us.

Tuesday night, the group picked up where they left off under similarly ominous skies with an alternately lilting and lulling series of imaginatively voiced string orchestra arrangements of Bartok’s Lullabies For Children. The ensemble had the most fun with the bouncy, minor-key Hungarian folk-flavored numbers, ornamenting them with plucky pizzicato and acerbic accidentals. Interspersed among them were traditional tunes from the Canary Islands and Japan arranged by A Far Cry violinist Alex Fortes, along with a cantabile miniature by Emily Irons

Next up was Franghiz Ali-Zadeh‘s Shyshtar: Metamorphoses for String Orchestra, in an arrangement expanded beyond the original version for twelve cellos. Tectonically shifting, persistent unease drifted through an allusive chromaticism reflective of the composer’s Azeri heritage. A strutting Bartokian edge gave way to hazy suspense that grew more surrealistically foreboding with a series of gentle downward glissandos. They took it out by digging in for a buoyantly wary march. Maybe it wasn’t the optimal segue, but what a gorgeously bracing piece of music!

Fortes also contributed a new arrangement of the famously mystical, hymnal third movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, which the group approached steadily, soberly, and a little on the fast side. With its lushness and sweep, it left the crowd breathless. Fortes has arranged the whole quartet; hopefully we’ll get to hear all of it someday.

By the time the intermission was over, the skies had cleared for a similarly sweeping take of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. There seemed to be extra deliciousness from the low strings in the cheerful sway of the first movement; likewise, the waltzing second movement was steely and robust, the third especially vivace, yet with an uneasy undercurrent. The group resisted any temptation to simply roll with the lullaby quality of the fourth movement, opting for symphonic grandeur, then dancing through the conclusion. The final piece on the bill was Castles, a baroque-tinged piece with a carefree chorale by one of the ensemble’s own, bassist Karl Doty.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on July 26 at 7:30 PM with perennial favorites the Knights and colorful violinist Lara St. John playing Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony plus works by Avner Dorman. Enter at 72nd St.; get there early (like, an hour, at least) if you want a seat.

July 14, 2022 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Poignant, Rapturous, Gorgeous Armenian Classical Album by the Aznavoorian Duo

The most rapturously poignant album of the year so far is Gems From Armenia, by the Aznavoorian Duo, streaming at Spotify. Sisters Ani and Marta Aznavoorian – cello and piano, respectively – draw on their heritage for a lyrical playlist of material that spans from the 19th century to the present. It underscores the disproportionately rich influence this tiny nation’s music continues to make around the globe.

They open with a steady, spare, pensive theme, Chinar Es by foundational Romantic-era composer and musicologist Komitas. As she often does throughout the album, Ani plays in the high midrange, with a stark vibrato that sometimes evokes a kamancheh spike fiddle. A second Komitas tune, Tsirani Tsar comes across as a more nocturnal variation, lowlit by Marta’s distantly starry piano. The third, Garoun A, is a gorgeous solo piano work, more mysteriously modern and practically furtive in places. The duo continue with a balletesque grace in the fourth, Al Ailux, both hypnotic and pulsingly rhythmic.

The fifth, Krunk is not a drinking song but an achingly beautiful love ballad and a launching pad for some of Ani’s most incisive, soaringly lyrical work here. The best-known in a long line of great Armenian composers, Aram Khachaturian is represented first by the emotive miniature Ivan Sings and then his lively, pointillistic tribute to his hometown of Yerevan.

Marta plays Arno Babajanian’s Elegy with restraint but also close attention to ornamentation that mimics the microtones of Armenian folk music. Ani returns for his Aria and Dance, a fondly reflective ballad and variations.

The duo make their way methodically from a stern, tightly clustering intensity through more sparsely lyrical passages in the first movement of Avet Terterian’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. They let the allusive chromatics and poignancy speak for itself, understatedly, in the second movement and romp with a triumphant, acerbic glitter through the conclusion.

The two bring out High Romantic passion in Serouj Kradjian‘s arrangement of the traditional ballad Sari Siroun Yar and follow with Alexander Arutiunian’s Impromptu, a dynamic mashup of a levantine dance and Rachmaninovian lustre.

Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance, an elegy for Armenian soldiers, is the most subdued and vividly sepulchral work on the program. The sisters conclude with the world-premiere of Peter Boyer’s Mount Ararat, climbing from a portentous cello melody to a syncopated gallop up the slope, with stunning, chromatically bristling breaks to view the scenery. This unselfconsciously beautiful collection deserves a second volume. For that matter, the Aznavoorians could have a franchise here if they felt like it.

May 3, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Memorable Duo Album by Saxophonist Thomas Giles and Pianist Liana Pailodze Harron

Under ordinary circumstances, an album titled Mysteries of the Macabre would be most likely to be found at Lucid Culture’s sister blog during the annual, October-long Halloween celebration of all things dark and creepy there. But these last several months have been all that. And it wouldn’t be fair to make you wait til the fall to hear saxophonist Thomas Giles and pianist Liana Pailodze Harron‘s album, streaming at Spotify. It’s a powerful and vivid reflection of our time.

Both artists dedicate themselves to popularizing the work of new and obscure artists: they make a good team. The album comprises four medium-length pieces, which are in general more haunting than outright macabre. The first work is Poeme for Saxophone and Piano, a partita by Asiya Korepanova. Giles enters on alto sax with just short of a shriek, then follows a steady, subtly dynamic series of allusively grim chromatic variations, employing a crystalline, oboe-like tone punctuated by foghorn trills. Harron doesn’t get to join the disquieted parade until the end. The obvious influence is Messiaen, a composer the duo will explore shortly.

They intertwine in a similarly somber, skeletal stroll in the next part, Harron fueling a turbulent drive and liquidly articulated cascades. Giles’ spacious, uneasily soaring minimalism finally lures Harron in to rise and fall, in an increasingly agitated theme. Korepanova may be best known as a pyrotechnic concert pianist, but this speaks mightily to her prowess as a composer.

Messiaen’s Theme et Variations is next, the two following a similarly determined if more muted path, Harron’s meticulous, icepick attack balanced by Giles’ floating legato, through the composer’s eerily chiming tonalities and an unexpectedly jaunty if enigmatic dance. Giles’ rise to a shivery, theremin-like timbre right before the piece winds down is breathtakng.

The two revel in the Gyorgi Ligeti piece from which the album takes its title, through initial poltergeist flickers, scrambling phantasmagoria, a dazzling display of circular breathing, from Giles, and some playful spoken word.

The concluding work is Jay Schwartz‘s Music for Saxophone and Piano. Giles parses spare, somber motives over just the hint of resonance from inside the piano, serving as an artful echo. From there Harron develops a bounding melody line as Giles’ tectonic sheets bend, weave and flurry. Rising and falling from a muted pavane to tense doppler sax and a grim quasi-boogie in the low lefthand, the musicians reach an ending that will take you by surprise. It’s a fitting conclusion to this darkly beguiling album.

March 31, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic, Historically-Inspired Collection of Rarities For One of the World’s Most Soulful Instruments

What better to brighten a dreary January in apartheid-era New York than an epic album dedicated to little-known material for the vastly underrated bassoon? Laurence Perkins knows as well as anyone else who plays a low-register instrument that his axe of choice is just as well suited to somber depths as it is to buffoonery. There’s some of both and a lot in between on his fascinating latest album Voyage of a Sea-God, which isn’t online yet It’s a dynamically vast collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Carducci String Quartet, among others. Just as ambitiously, Perkins has assembled the program as a musical capsule history of the 20th century.

He takes the album title from a Mozart bio which likened the instrument to a mythical triton blowing a conch shell. He teams up with pianist Michael Hancock to open the record with the moodily expressive flamenco echoes of a real rarity, British Romantic composer Richard Henry Walthew’s Introduction and Allegro,

His fellow bassoonists Amy Thompson, Matthew Kitteringham and Catriona McDermid join him for another rarity, Prokofiev’s blithely strolling miniature Scherzo Humoristique: cartoonish as this is, the textures of the more resonant moments are luscious. A little later, they negotiate William Schumann’s colorful Quartettino for Four Bassoons, from an initial dervish dance, to nocturnal solemnity, a playfully fleeting waltz and a fugue.

One of the better-known pieces here is Saint-Saens’ Bassoon Sonata, with Hancock rising from a chiming triumph to more torrential heights as Perkins stays in wistful mode in the first movement. The second gives Perkins a challenging, slithery workout as well as moments of poignancy over a coy operatic bounce. Yet the baroque-flavored third movement is where Perkins squeezes out the most subtlety and pathos.

Thompson and McDermid return for two segments of Granville Bantock’s Incidental Music for Macbeth, the first a bagpipe-like Scottish air, the second a cheerily strutting “witches dance” for the full bassoon quartet. The string quartet, bolstered by bassist Michael Escreet, violist Susie Meszaros and harpist Eira Lynn Jones join Perkins for an expressively reflective, dynamic performance of Arnold Bax’s Threnody and Scherzo, shifting from a striking sense of longing to more puckish, Gershwinesque terrain, then bouncing and blipping between the baroque and, eventually, a more darkly acerbic chase scene.

This is a long album: there are many more treats here!

Hindemith’s Bassoon Sonata is more tuneful than most of his repertoire, veering in and out of rainy-day focus against Hancock’s steadily waltzing backdrop, then unexpected glitter, goofiness and pastoral touches. Henri Dutilleux’s Sarabande and Cortege for piano and bassoon have a bracing, chromatically-fueled bite matched by moments of creepy phantasmagoria with some devious quotes from more famous works.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino For Bassoon and String Orchestra, William Goodchild conducting the ensemble, begins with some jarring contrasts between vigorous lushness and Perkins’ introspectively wandering lines, then a more seamless counterpoint ensues. Serioso strings anchor Perkins’ moody march in the second movement; the similarly disquieted third features one of Perkins’ most incisive solos here.

Perkins premiered Alan Ridout’s two Shakespearean character studies for solo bassoon, Caliban and Ariel, in 1974. The former has a gnomic creepiness; the latter is spacious and airy yet far from carefree. The highlight of Andrzej Panufnik’s haunting Concerto for Bassoon and Small Orchestra – inspired by the murder of Polish dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko – is a long, sparse, woundedly resonant Perkins solo in the second movement. From there, stabbing string motives alternate with methodical bassoon lines, then give way to vast Shostakovian desolation, distantly hopeful austerity, and Gorecki-esque prayerfulness. What a profound piece of music for an era where big pharma whistleblowers are being assassinated.

The last of the piano-and-bassoon pieces is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Bassoon Sonata, the most modernist but also strangely compelling piece on the program, with a persistently restless, sometimes furtive feel. The final track is David Bedford’s Dream of Stac Pollaidh, a Scottish mountainscape which Perkins plays solo with matter-of-factly cadenced, syncopated steps toward the summit.

Wait, there’s more: an enigmatically marching miniature by Herbert Howells. The amount of creativity and singleminded dedication that went into this record is awe-inspiring.

January 21, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Summery, Psychedelically Loopy World Premiere to Brighten Your Winter

Contemporary music ensemble Wild Up’s world premiere studio recording of Julius Eastman’s Femenine – streaming at Spotify – is playful, upbeat, hypnotic and utterly surreal. Baritone sax – played alternately by Erin Rogers, Marta Tasienga or Shelley Washington – figures heavily as the lead instrument. Bells, played by seemingly the entire ensemble, often anchor a shimmery backdrop. The group perform Eastman’s suite as a contiguous whole, broken up into comfortable individual tracks, some going on for as much as twelve minutes. You could call this the b-side to Terry Riley’s In C.

The introduction, titled Prime, is a dreamy, hypnotic tableau, a series of slowly expanding cellular vibraphone and piano phrases over peaceful ambience akin to a choir of tree frogs. A warm, gospel-tinged melody slowly coalesces as the rest of the orchestra slowly flesh out the vibraphone’s loopy riffs.

The orchestra run a jaggedly syncopated staccato loop in the second segment, Unison as percussion and then baritone sax add occasional embellishments. The title of part three, Create New Pattern, is a giveaway that Eastman’s initial device will be come around again, this time as more of a celebration.

Immersive, churning riffage morphs out of and then gives way again to the initial syncopation in Hold and Return. A cheery, balletesque atmosphere takes over in All Changing, with bells, vibes and eventually flutes at the forefront. Flugelhornist Jonah Levy moves to the front with a carefree, soulful solo as the group dig into the rhythm in Increase, singer Odeya Nini pushing the top end with her vocalese. Eventually Jiji’s guitar gets to add grit over the chiming waterworks, followed by a blissful Pharaoh Sanders-inspired sax interlude.

The group morph into the next part, Eb, with big portentous accents in the lows, sax fluttering and flaring amid the orchestra’s steady circles. The energy picks up significantly in Be Thou My Vision/Mao Melodies, then exuberant echoes of the disco era that Eastman came up in rise in Can Melt.

An unexpected if muted discontent surfaces in the final segment, Pianist Will Interrupt Must Return, everyone fading back into the woods. This is a tenacious, dauntingly articulated recording by a cast that also includes pianist Richard Valitutto; cellist Seth Parker Woods; vibraphonists Sidney Hopson and Jodie Landau; violinsts Andrew Tholl and Mona Tian; violist Linnea Powell; cellist Derek Stein; bell players Lewis Pesacov and music director Christopher Rountree; horn player Allen Fogle; tenor saxophonist Brian Walsh; flutists Isabel Gleicher and Erin McKibben.

January 13, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roberto Prosseda Brings Rare Morricone Solo Piano Music to Life

Ennio Morricone is best remembered for his film scores, notably his Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtracks, where he built the foundation for what would become known as the southwestern gothic genre. Although Morricone was a pianist, he didn’t write a lot of solo piano music, and much of that material remains obscure. On his latest album, pianist Roberto Prosseda has unearthed some of those works along with some better-known title themes, courageously recorded in Sacile, Italy last spring and streaming at Spotify.

He opens with a starry, spare, neoromantic miniature, The Legend of 1900 theme and closes with the jarringly polyrhythmic modernism of the conclusion of the Four Studies For Pedal Piano. In between, Prosseda has grimly precise fun with the carnivalesque, Lynchian strut of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: the way Morricone shifts the melody from righthand to left is a typically artful move. It’s fascinating to hear how the composer hides a border-rock melody just beneath the surface of Love Circle, and somewhat deeper in The Tartar Desert.

Prosseda brings a spacious, bittersweet rapture to the Cinema Paradiso theme and a striking dynamic range to the broodingly immersive, Satie-esque minimalism of the First Study For Piano and then the steadier White Dog.

Other works on the program here include the saturnine, rather wistful The Two Stages of Life; the Second Study for Piano, where Prosseda works a startling-versus-calm dichotomy; and the absolutely gorgeous Angels of Power, shifting between a love theme and a moody, baroque-tinged melody.

There’s also a bounding invention, a boldly crescendoing processional, and an altered canon that bring to mind the work of Vincent Persichetti. Morricone was a lyrical composer and excelled at capturing a vast expanse of moods. Doctrinaire Second Viennese School atonality was not his thing.

December 26, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fearless, Bristling, Undaunted Solo Album by Cellist Hannah Collins

Hannah Collins is the cellist on the wittily scathing DWB (Driving While Black) soundtrack album. Her new solo record Resonance Lines – streaming at Bandcamp – is a treat for fans of low-register sonics, and high-voltage 20th and 21st century works. She doesn’t mess around: her extended technique will give you chills. There’s an iconic suite as well as a very popular, considerably shorter current-day work. Collins’ loosely interconnecting theme celebrates close collaborations between non-cellist composers and the artists they wrote for.

The famous work here is Britten’s Suite No. 1 for Cello Solo. It’s arguably the composer’s best piece, With a spacious yet incisive attack, Collins digs in and lets the overtones bristle through a fearlessly macabre homage to Bach’s Cello Suites, from sudden, shivery sunbursts, to austere drafts filtering under the door, to a pizzicato horror film. Why didn’t Britten ever write anything as chilling or intense as this ever again? We’ll never know. Mstislav Rostropovich’s premiere interpretation is the model for others brave enough to tackle it, but this is equally memorable.

The popular contemporary classical piece here is Caroline Shaw‘s In Manus Tuas. Again, Collins’ brilliance is her semi-savage attack of the composer’s signature, circling riffage. It’s easy to play this as a rapt homage to a beloved sonic space. Collins seems to want to sneak the keg in and then light a bonfire…before the group meditation, anyway.

She opens the album with a briskly crescendoing take of one of the earliest known works for the cello, 17th century Italian composer Giuseppe Colombi’s Chiacona. Kaija Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne, a deviously and dauntingly shivery take on the same theme, is next: Collins is undaunted. And she’s undeterred through the sometimes ghostly, sometimes monstrous flurries and slides of Saariaho’s Sept Papillons.

She closes the record with the world premiere of Thomas Kotcheff’s Cadenza (with or without Haydn), a playful and increasingly wild, electrifying, shreddy new work written as a coda for the Haydn Cello Concerto in C major, It’s an apt way to close an album that invites repeated listening.

December 17, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Electrifying Debut Album by Cellist John-Henry Crawford

Cellist John-Henry Crawford obviously wanted to make a splash with his debut album, which hasn’t hit the web yet. First he tackles an old Germanic warhorse, then a cruelly challenging solo sonata and closes with prime Shostakovich. And he leaves a mark with each piece.

Brahms’ Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99 may be a pleasant if unmemorable work, but Crawford goes deep under the hood and finds innumerable ways to hold the listener’s attention. He airs out his vaunted technique in Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello And Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40 is as sardonic and vibrant as anyone could want.

Right out of the gate in the first movement of the Brahms, Crawford explores the fullness of his range, with a stark, stygian resonance on the lows and contrasting airiness in the highs. His use of vibrato is intuitive and varied, depending on the phrase: he tends to be sparing with it, eschewing full-blown High Romantic drama. Meanwhile, pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion matches that dynamic attack, from distant glimmer to the occasional insistent peak.

There’s a welcome spareness to the second movement, from both cellist and pianist. Yet Crawford’s versatile attack in the pizzicato sections, from a stomp to a whisper, are attention-grabbing to say the least. The two really dig into movement three: this is far more of a boisterous country waltz than tiresome Viennese high-society gala. They close it out with a finely detailed wariness and wistfulness: if only others would play it that way more often.

Crawford’s approach to Ligeti’s completely different, elegaic Sonata for Solo Cello is similar in that dynamic contrasts and shifts are every bit as finely honed, and striking when a sudden, troubled moment appears. The steadiness of the first movement harks appropriately back to Bach; the chase scenes of the second are less furtive than simply breathtaking.

The duo close out the album with Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40. It’s the composer putting an acerbic modernist edge on his early Romantic influences, with a vividly lyricism. The first movement shifts between a rather nostalgic glimmer to more enigmatic insistence, aching crescendos and a stunning move to a mutedly stalking theme out of a poignantly resonant passage.

The elegantly off-center dervish dance of a second movement is pure fun: Crawford’s harmonic glissandos are hilarious (and brutally tough to play). The third’s slow, broodingly upward drift from minimalism to an increasingly wary pavane and back is otherworldly and unselfconsciously affecting. The two wind up the sonata, and the album, with a gremlinish playfulness, trading off breathlessly between torrential streams of notes and an irresistibly wry jauntiness. It’s reason to look forward to whatever else these two choose to do together – and let’s hope they will.

June 7, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elisabeth Remy Johnson’s Solo Harp Album Highlights Gorgeous Works by Female Composers

Elisabeth Remy Johnson‘s new album Quest – streaming at Spotify – is a rapturously eclectic mix of solo works for harp by women composers from the past 150 years. Beyond the monumental amount of sleuthing that Johnson put into this, these compositions are absolutely gorgeous, deserve to better known and transcend the lure of the harp demimonde. Most but not all of them are on the quiet side; Johnson’s attention to detail and dynamics is as meticulous as it is heartfelt. And her new arrangements of piano works are revelatory.

She opens with the album’s title track, an utterly Lynchian short work by Niloufar Nourbakhsh, eerie dissonances interpolated within a simple two-chord vamp. Cécile Chaminade’s even briefer Aubade, a subtly wistful pavane, makes a good segue, even if the idiom is completely different.

Amy Beach’s A Hermit Thrush at Morn is a characteristically fascinating blend of the Romantic….and what Messiaen might have written had he been up early one New Hampshire morning to transcribe birdsong. French Late Romantic composer Mel Bonis is represented by five arrangement of short piano pieces: a gently bubbling stream; a steady, baroque-tinged lullaby; Mélisande, a nocturne; Desdémona, a broodingly ornamented waltz; and a distant, dreamy clock-chime theme.

Johnson stays in stately 3/4 time for one of Fanny Mendelssohn’s better-known short piano works, Melodie. Romanze, a Clara Schumann piano piece, gets a tersely resonant reinvention on Johnson’s harp that brings out new levels of pensive angst. There’s more of that, played more spaciously, in Lili Boulanger’s Debussy-esque D’un Vieux Jardin.

Johnson maintains that ambience in her imaginative, pointillistically harmonized version of the old folk song Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies, shifting to the stark, starry bluegrass tinges of John Riley, from Kati Agócs‘ suite Every Lover is a Warrior

Sally Beamish‘s Pavan has immensely more sprightliness and color than the title would imply. There’s mysterious, scintillating detail in Skye, a dynamically shifting Scottish-inspired work by Freya Waley-Cohen. Johnson winds up the album with the longest and most dramatic piece here, Johanna Selleck‘s Spindrift, a bracingly chromatic, windswept ocean scene that draws heavily on extended technique.

Johnson’s extensively researched liner notes are acerbic and priceless: “From today’s perspective, some of the stories of the composers born in the 19th century range from mystifying to enraging. I believe their families did not operate from an overt intent to oppress, but instead were contemplating societal norms, and trying to chart the path of least resistance for their daughters, sisters, and wives. Luckily for us, each of these women defied the limits and defined their own paths. It also bears mentioning that, for the most part, each had substantial financial resources at their disposal.”

June 1, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, 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