Gavin Bryars’ A Native Hill is a setting of sections from Wendell Berry’s 1968 essay of that title. It was written for, and recorded by, Philadelphia based choir The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally. The essay was written by Berry shortly after moving back to Kentucky to farm. It deals mainly with how landscapes and the humans in them are shaped by each other in profound ways. It’s very local and specific and reminded me in a curious sort of way of WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape that came out a few years before the Berry essay.
Songs for Murdered Sisters is a new song cycle by Jake Heggie setting poems by Margaret Atwood. It came about as a result of an initiative by Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins ,whose own sister was murdered by her ex in 2015, to raise awareness about violence against women. It’s now been recorded by Heggie and Hopkins and will be released by Pentatone in digital format tomorrow. It’s also available as a free video stream on the Houston Grand Opera website until March 21st. (ETA March 18th – extended to April 30th)
The Travelled Road is a new recording of songs by Saratoga Springs based composer Evan Mack. Mack sets a rather eclectic set of texts and his musical style is varied. His roots in opera are evident and I enjoyed these songs much more than most American art song that comes my way.
The first piece is A Little More Perfect and it sets Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges; the case that effectively legalised same sex marriage in the United States. It’s scored for mezzo-soprano, piano and cello. It starts out quite sparely, though the cello is quite lush from the beginning and then builds to a much more operatic climax. Megan Marino has the heft to carry the louder bits and she has near perfect diction. She’s well supported by John Arida on piano and Jameson Platte on cello.
No, not Flanders and Swann but rather a well constructed new recording from Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It contains music by four composers exemplifying that lush territory that lies emotionally, if not always temporally, between Wagner and the Second Vienna School. The two central works were both inspired by Richard Dehmel’s Verklärte Nacht. The first is a 1901 setting of the text for mezzo, tenor and orchestra by Oskar Fried. It’s lushly scored and rather beautiful. The sound world is not dissimilar to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. Gardner gets a lovely sound from his players and some really gorgeous singing from Christine Rice and Stuart Skelton. The second Verklärte Nacht is the more familiar Schoenberg piece for string orchestra. It’s curious how without voices and with only strings it manages to sound almost as lush as the Fried.
The Priestess of Morphine is a new short opera with music by Rosśa Crean to a libretto by Aiden K. Feltkamp. It deals, allusively, with the life of German writer Gertrud Günther who, under the name of Marie-Madeleine was a best selling author of erotic fiction and poetry. She was also Jewish, a lesbian and an opium addict. She died rather mysteriously at a sanatorium in Katzenelnbogen in 1944; her work having been denounced as degenerate and banned by the Nazis.
Presto Classical lists over 100 recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise for (almost) every voice type accompanied on pianoforte, fortepiano, string quartet and probably more. It’s also frequently performed live and I’ve certainly seen it done multiple times in settings ranging from the most formal of Liederabend to staged with projections and all manner of things. So why bother with another new recording? Well it’s largely because I’m a fan of English baritone Roderick Williams who has just had a Winterreise recording, with Iain Burnside at the piano, released on the Chandos label.
The Crossing must be one of North America’s most interesting and accomplished choirs. They specialise in difficult contemporary music that is a million miles away from most of the new music that is being composed for the (lucrative) amateur choir market. Their latest CD; The Tower and the Garden, is due for release on the Navona label on February 12th. I really like it.
There are three pieces on the disk. The first is an a cappella setting of Walt Whitman’s A Child Said, What is the Grass? by Tolvo Tuley. It’s worth reading the text in advance because this piece builds up in layers like renaissance polyphony or, perhaps more aptly, a piece by John Tavener. There are certainly echoes of the Greek Orthodox tradition here but only echoes. What really strikes is that the tension that keeps building and really doesn’t resolve. It’s as uncomfortable and enigmatic as Whitman’s answer to the child’s question; “the beautiful uncut hair of graves”. Throughout the choir display an astonishing control of textures and dynamics.
Tapestry Opera’s original 2019/20 season was to have included a remount of Gareth Williams’ and Anna Chatterton’s Rocking Horse Winner which premiered to positive reviews in May 2016. This is quite unusual as all too often, new Canadian operas, even the successful ones pretty much disappear after an initial run. Needless to say the staged show didn’t happen but, happily, Tapestry decided to make an audio recording instead.
Three of the four principals from 2016; Asitha Tennekoon, Keith Klassen and Peter McGillivray reprise their original roles while Lucia Cesaroni replaces Carla Huhtanen as Ava. This time around the house is represented by Midori Marsh, Alex Hetherington, Stephen Bell and Korin Thomas-Smith.
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.