And now, as they say, for something completely different. Take the Dog Sled is a short piece in eight movements by Canadian composer Alexina Louie scored for instrumental ensemble and Inuit throat singers. The movements have titles like Bug Music and Sharpening the Runners on the Dog Sled. The style is mostly a kind of high energy playful minimalism with quite a lot of percussion and percussive effects from other instruments. It’s often quite onomatopoeic. There are also some quite beautifully, hauntingly evocative passages. The throat singers are used sparingly but to good effect.
Linda Buckley is an Irish composer whose music combines, among other things, traditional Irish vocals, classical instruments, of more or less conventional form, and electronics to create an entirely unique sound world. This new album starts off with the most substantial and, to my mind, most interesting, piece; Ó Íochtar Mara (From Ocean’s Floor). The four movements combine Iarla Ó Lionáird singing in the traditional sean nós style with string quartet (Crash Ensemble) and Buckley herself on electronics. Each movement sets a poem in Irish with an accompaniment that is quite sparse and never overwhelms the vocalist. It’s mostly electronic drones with the strings kicking in in similar vein. It’s very beautiful and quite haunting. The vocals are sung with a great sense of the proper style and it’s an object lesson in how to combine folk vocals with classical instruments without making it sound like Victorian parlour music.
I’ve listened to a lot of music for voice and piano and a lot of music by Shostakovich but it was only on listening to this new album by Margarita Gritskova and Maria Prinz that I realised that I had hardly heard any of Shostakovich’s art songs; except for a few with orchestra. So I was glad to discover the interesting collection on this CD. There are twenty songs taken from twelve different works. (most of DS’ song cycles seem to require multiple voice types. I guess labour was cheap in the USSR). The pieces are drawn from right across Shostakovich’s career from Op.4 to Op.145. The evolution of style is as clear as in his chamber or orchestral music.
Earlier this month I was reviewing a new CD recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes for Opera Canada (you should be able to read it in the issue that’s currently at the printers). It’s a rather good performance from the Bergen Philharmonic with Stuart Skelton in the title role. In digging into previous recordings while writing that review I came across a 1995 recording with Philip Langridge in the title role. I was familiar with his ENO performance which was brilliant and is captured on DVD but there are serious issues with that recording so I was delighted to be able to have another listen.
Vladimir Jurowski is a notable Mahler interpreter so a new recording of Mahler’s great symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde is welcome; especially when Jurowski’s own Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is combined with soloists as fine as Sarah Connolly and Robert Dean Smith.
What one gets is some superbly lyrical and detailed orchestral playing. It doesn’t emphasise the dramatic but it’s exciting enough and “big” enough to tax the soloists in places. I’m always a bit torn about whether I prefer the majesty of Mahler’s original scoring or the greater intimacy of Schoenberg’s chamber reduction. Certainly the full orchestral version requires really top notch soloists and this recording has them. Connolly is especially good and sounds absolutely ravishing in the Abschied. She seems totally in control with delicate singing, great articulation of the text and no sense of strain. Robert Dean Smith sounds suitably ardent and is very clear though showing some signs of strain in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde but then who doesn’t?
This CD contains three works by Thea Musgrave. Two are fairly recent but the first, and to my mind the most interesting, dates back to 1973. It’s called Rorate coeli desuper! It’s a setting of text by the 16th century Scots poet William Dunbar interspersed with short Latin sections. The text is given, as sung, in Middle Scots and Latin but no translation. It’s a wonderfully varied and eclectic piece scored for five soloists and SATB choir. It is, I suppose, a sort of modern polyphony with lots of extended vocal techniques including droning, chattering, hissing and a very high soprano duet that imitates bird song. The text is wonderfully evocative. Here’s one verse as an example:
Done is a battle on the dragon black,
Our campion Christ confoundit has his force; The gates of hell are broken with a crack, The sign triumphal raisit is of the Cross,
The devils trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The souls are borrowit and to the bliss can go, Christ with his blood our ransom does endorse: Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.
Songs and Love and Sorrow is a new CD of music by Peter Lieberson played by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Hannu Lintu. There are two works on the album. The first is The Six Realms; a cello symphony in six movements heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The soloist here is Lieberson’s close friend Anssi Karttunen. Curiously this work was commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and premiered by them with Yo -Yo Ma conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. For more information on the piece see the Composer’s Notes.
The Anchoress is a 2018 work for soprano and instrumental ensemble by David Ludwig setting texts by Katie Ford. There are eight “scenes” each exploring an aspect of life of the medieval anchoress; a woman who voluntarily secluded herself in a cell attached to a church. Such women were seen as almost saintly and thought to have great insight which was sought by all ranks of people. Issues explored in Ford’s poems include faith, alienation, gender and social power as seen through the anchoress’ eyes.
David Lang’s love fail is a choral work inspired by the story of Tristan and Isolde. It was originally written for Anonymous 4 but later revised for the slightly larger forces of the Lorelei Ensemble (3 sopranos, 3 mezzos, 2 altos) who have now recorded it. It’s basically an a cappella piece though there are places where the singers play percussion instruments. The texts are a mixture of elements that the composer has taken (and translated where necessary) from various classic versions of the tale; Gottfried von Strassburg, Marie de France, Sir Thomas Malory and even Richard Wagner among others, and interspersed them with poems on themes of love and loss by Lydia Davis. The “classical” texts are somewhat repetitive and reflect the classic values of the story. Davis’ poetry is wordier and less obviously poetic and deals with relationships in more more modern, more personal, less mythic terms. It’s an interesting contrast that the composer exploits to find two rather different colour palettes within the constraints of eight female voices singing essentially tonal music. It works. The risk of tedium is avoided and the work hangs together for its full length.
Cantilena is a CD of art songs by various composers arranged for soprano, harp and cello. It’s an interesting twist on music that one is likely to be fairly (sometimes very) familiar with in the usual voice and piano format. It’s a generous disk with nineteen songs in all. The composers featured are Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Massenet, Tosti, Tedeschi, Richard Strauss, Gregory and Villa-Lobos. The performers are soprano Gillian Zammit, harpist Britt Arend and cellist Frank Camilleri. Arend and Camilleri are principals with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra.