Recurrence: New Icelandic Orchestral Music


“Well I’ve never been to Iceland, but I really like the music.”  Please excuse the Hoyt Axton paraphrase but this music brings joy to this listener’s heart.

Wow!  Even as a writer with an avowed fondness for music from the Nordic regions I am pleased to say that I am just stunned at this recording.  This is all new music written in the last few years by Icelandic composers and performed by the Iceland Symphony which seems well prepared to handle these large works.

These seven tracks document five works by living composers and, I dare say, rising stars in the classical orchestral realm as well.  Only one of these composers is likely to ring a bell in all but a few listeners and that is Anna Thorvaldsdottir, probably the best known musician from Iceland since Björk.  And it is worth noting that three of the five works are by female composers.

There is a consistency in the large orchestral sounds from these composers that provide a unity for the listener and a challenge for the recording engineers.  In fact this is ideal to show off the sonic facility of the Sono Luminus label and the skills of producer Dan Merceruio and recording engineer Daniel Shores.  This is the sort of album that stereo salons use to show off the range of their amps and speakers.  It is indeed thrilling to hear and the better your sound system, the more exciting this will be.  Those blessed with Blue Ray Audio capability will doubtless get the best sound of all.  Both standard CD and Blue Ray Audio discs are included in this package.

In order of appearance the composers are: Thurídur Jónsdóttir (1967- ), Hlynur Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (1980- ), Daniel Bjarnason (1979- ), and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Bjarnason is also the very capable conductor of the Iceland Symphony in this recording.

The music, Flow and Fusion, bd, Aequora, Emergence (three movements), and Dreaming are not given composition dates but are presumably recent compositions by these young artists.  There are liner notes which are useful to the listener but the main point here seems to be the glorious sound.  One hears influence and/or homage to some of the great sonic experimenters of the late 1950s and 60s like Penderecki, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and probably some Icelandic composers whose works have yet to be heard outside of Iceland.

The album has the notation below the title of “ISO Project 1” so here’s hoping that there will be at least a second volume and that we be given the opportunity to hear more from the rich musical landscape of Iceland.  Bravo!  Brava!  Keep it coming.

 

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American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


BMOP 1050

Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon.  But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.

Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987).  Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.

Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra.  Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity.  This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem.  It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind.  It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting).  One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.

Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.

The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak.  It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.

In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience.  His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing.  But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.

As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist.  Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind?  Let’s hope so.

Huang Ruo: Red Rain, a New Generation From the East Makes Itself Known


redrain

This recording grabbed my attention in wonderful ways from the very beginning and didn’t cease to amaze me until it ended.  Huang Ruo (1976- ) is one of the most striking new voices this reviewer has heard in some time.  This Chinese born American composer draws on his ancestral culture, modern culture and synthesizes it with contemporary compositional techniques in new and interesting ways.  He provokes the same sort of excitement in this reviewer that first contact with the music of Bright Sheng and Ge Gan Ru did when they first came into earshot some years ago.

huangruo

Huang Ruo (1976- )

(Perhaps it is due to the rising star nature of this artist but there seems to be relatively little reliable info on him.  His website is apparently not yet complete and even his Theodore Presser page fails to even give dates for his scores.  I’m hoping these glitches get resolved soon because I think this is a composer who deserves serious attention.)

The very first track, Four Fragments (2006?) in the version for cello solo (apparently there is a version for violin solo but it is not clear which came first) is a powerful and virtuosic piece loaded with various pizzicati, glissandi and other effects that perhaps only a score could really tell you with certainty.  What is interesting is the really organic nature of these effects, that is to say that they serve the composition and aren’t simply “golly gee what a virtuoso” type fireworks. The amazing Canadian Korean cellist Soo Bae handles this work beautifully and seemingly with relative ease.  This is the second longest (by about ten seconds) of the pieces on this disc and the music, the performance snagged me immediately.  What a powerful piece!

After that I was prepared for perhaps a let down, something more “ordinary”.  But, no, the next track, the title track, Red Rain (200?) for piano played by the wonderful Emanuele Arciuli is another distinctive statement which seems to mine the riches of the composer’s native culture and place it anew in a contemporary and relevant modern context.  At 10:50 it is a substantial piano work.  Like the cello piece it seems to use some unconventional idioms for the instrument and by that I mean it sounds nothing like Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy or even Boulez or Stockhausen.  It seems infused with an eastern musical flavor no doubt gained from techniques native to non-western traditions.

In another assault to any expectations I might have had the three movements of Shifting Shades have the pianist using a whistle such as your gym coach likely used with the pea inside to create a tremolo.  Here the pianist whistles (and plays some sort of flute, maybe a recorder or shakuhachi? at one point; he also apparently plays directly on the piano strings at times) whilst playing the rapid tremolos and the drones that seem to characterize Huang’s keyboard writing. Stephen Buck is the hard working pianist here.

Buck comes back again for the Tree Without Wind for piano (this time played a bit more conventionally).  This is the longest piece on the disc at 13:57 and rewards the listener’s attention.  It seems to probe mythological depths and was suggested by a Chan Buddhist narrative by Hui Neng.  Tremolos, clusters, drones and melodic fragments take on a symphonic grandeur at times.  There is a wide range of dynamics and tempi as the pianist recounts in sounds the meaning of movement and silence.

Three Pieces for Piano gives names to the short movements.  Prelude: Diffluent, Postlude: Left… and, Interlude: Points and Lines all contain the same techniques as the other piano pieces here (though without any additional instruments this time).  These sound like they might be earlier works and perhaps studies investigating different techniques though they seem fully fleshed out and complete in themselves.  The three movements are varied and the last one is apparently the composer’s only dalliance with twelve tone techniques and is by far the most conventional sounding work here though Huang’s distinctive fingerprint is present.  Once again we hear Stephen Buck navigating the score.

In the last track we get to hear the composer himself at the piano with Arash Amini (a member of the American Modern Ensemble) on cello in Wind Blows…  Like the previous tracks and as indicated in the fine notes by Stephen Buck this piece utilizes specialized effects to produce a unique sonic image.  The piano part is referred to as a “drone” and it is indeed static at least in relation to the part for cello. Unlike the preceding pieces there seems to be less concern about evoking images and more concern for just the sound itself which is described aptly as “meditative”.   In fact it is powerfully lyrical, even “Brahmsian” if I can be forgiven for that comparison.

The brief biography in the overall fascinating liner notes describe the composer as having been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional Chinese folk musics to Chinese Opera, various western classical traditions including modernists such as Lutoslawski and various “pop” traditions as well.  He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and he appears to have achieved a fascinating synthesis in what seems to be his mature style.  He is a composer, conductor and vocalist.  His music is unique and beautiful as a Taoist painting but grounded in traditions that embrace perhaps the entire world as filtered through his creative mind. Bravo Innova for bringing this music to light in this fine and interesting CD.

Definitely keep and eye and ear out for this guy.  He has many things to say and interesting ways to say them.