Between Worlds is a collaboration between composer/cellist Margaret Maria and soprano/poet Donna Brown. It uses words and music to explore the tension between Thanatos and Eros via a symbolic journey from Sunset to Sunrise. The piece is in eight movements totalling a little over half an hour of music. The style and technique varies widely. Two poems “Sunrise” and “Sunset” are spoken over a sparse cello commentary. Others are sung but they too vary from a fairly conventional singing style backed up by complex, extended cello technique to a more declamatory style with metronomic accompaniment. To me it felt (in a weird way) “bardic”. By which i mean that the instrument was largely being used to emphasise the text in a way that Homer or the Beowulf poet might have related to. It’s also clearly a very personal statement about art, life and death and one’s reception of it is going to be impacted by how closely one can align with it philosophically.
Technically it’s well recorded (at Raven Street Studios in Ottawa) standard CD quality and comes with full texts and extensive bilingual (English/French) documentation.
Catalogue number: Centrediscs CMCCD 30522
So what do you get when you try to use music to explore The Ultimate Question of Life the Universe and Everything or at least that part of it that deals with epistemology and metaphysics and the relationship between music and text? Maybe you get something like Kate Soper’s The Understanding of All Things which consists of three works separated by two improvisatory passages.
James Kallenbach’s 2017 work Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement is a sort of cantata for female voices and cello quartet on the theme of what we must/can do when the diktats of authority clash with what we know to be undeniably just. The piece lasts just over half an hour and intersperses the words of Sophocles’ Antigone with those of Sophie Scholl. It’s tremendously effective and moving. The texts fit seamlessly and the soundscape of female voices (the Lorelei Ensemble collectively and singing various solo parts) and four cellos seems really apt as well as being rather beautiful in a meditative sort of way. Beth Willer conducts
Deutsche Grammophon has just re-released the recital by Bryn Terfel and Llyr Williams that was recorded live at the Verbier Festival in 2011. It’s a generous package. It kicks off with a couple of exquisitely sung Schubert songs which are followed by Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39. This is gorgeous lieder singing with the voice sounding very fresh, the diction spot on and lovely accompaniment.
After the interval there’s Ibert’s Chansons de Don Quichotte and Quilter’s Three Shakespeare Songs. These too are beautifully done. Then it’s on to the lighter stuff that Bryn always seems to throw in on these occasions and which does help making listening to the recording seem more like being at a live concert. Among other things there’s a lovely Ar Hyd y Nos and The Green Eyed Dragon. You have to admire a singer who can manage four languages with such clarity and feeling and still be personable and funny.
Mr. Emmet Takes a Walk is the latest in the series of rereleases of works by Peter Maxwell Davies performed by the Manchester ensemble Psappha. The work premiered in 2000 and was recorded in 2005 and it’s the composer’s penultimate work for the stage. (FWIW I’ve heard five of PMD’s stage works but never seen one performed).
The libretto, by David Pountney, describes what goes on in Mr. Emmet’s head as he prepares to commit suicide by having a train run over his head. It’s a series of blackly comic episodes including. negotiating a deal with Hungarians in a Japanese hotel, a sinister encounter with a heating engineer, a cabaret act and more. The scenes are interspersed with pre-recorded lists of “things to remember” including “things to dislike” like Americans and New Labour. Like other PMD pieces the instrumentalists are sometimes incorporated i the stage action.
Stories Out of Cherry Stems is a recording of four works for soprano and various accompaniments written by American composer Peter Dayton for soprano Katie Procell. There four works are:
- Entwine Our Tongues: Sapphic Fragments. The texts are five fragments of works by Sappho reworked in English by Jordi Alonso. The accompaniment is woodwinds; oboes and clarinets.
- Si Solamente sets three rather dark texts by Pablo Neruda (in Spanish) wth solo cello as accompaniment.
- Lost Daughter: Songs on the Myth of Persephone sets five varied texts, including Oscar Wilde and Tennyson, on different aspects of the Persephone myth to accompaniment by flute, harp and viola. The most substantial text is Louise Glück’s Persephone, the Wanderer. This is a complex text that toys with sex and winter, motherhood and eternity and it’s mostly spoken rather than sung.
- The final piece is a setting of the ten well known aphorisms by Max Ehrmann; Desiderata. I think these are somewhat tongue in cheek as the lively alto-sax accompaniment would suggest.
So continuing my exploration of music by contemporary female composers I listened to Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi’s Soundtrack for an Imaginary Opera. Ahvenniemi is both a composer and a philosopher who is inviting us, in this work, to reflect on opera as a social construct as much as text and music. There’s lots of information on what she’s getting at plus all the texts at this link.
The texts here are a mix of fragments from opera and other works plus a made up “operatic language” which is a sort of cod Italian. The pieces are all very different with the soundworlds created by what the composer calls “musical dumpster diving”. So, in the first track; “Beauty Hurts”, which riffs off Monteverdi’s Orfeo there are bits of “Monteverdi like” music mixed with strings slipping from arpeggios into slides plus lots of percussion and synthesizer. The second track; “Punish Me”, uses a variety of vocal techniques; speech, whispering, something akin to Sprechstimme and a kind of pop style, backed up by booming percussion and shimmering strings. Continue reading
Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you is a work for orchestra and soprano setting text arranged by Paul Griffith from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet. It was written for and dedicated to Barbara Hannigan who recorded it in 2015 (I think) with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Andris Nelsons.
It’s a piece in seven sections of varying moods expressing different aspects of Ophelia; both in the play and in the afterlife of the character in paintings etc. Generally the music sits on the fractured edge of tonality with a melodic line that owes something to folk music. Sometimes it’s extremely slow with a bassy, brooding air and other times it’s bright and busy.
So continuing my exploration of somewhat off the wall contemporary Icelandic music I come to Jóhann Jóhannson’s “oratorio” Drone Mass. The inspiration and textual base is the gnostic “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians” discovered in 19435. These appear to be very obscure texts and Jóhannson really just uses syllable combinations from them to create a series of vocalises. These are then set for string quartet, eight member choir and electronics.
The musical style is minimalist in a way that’s a bit like Górecki or Pärt but with electronics. It’s quite hypnotic with some really tectonic bass supplied by the electronics in places. The vocal style varies from something like renaissance polyphony to something more rhythmically articulated. It’s the sort of music one easily gets sucked into. Across the 50 minutes or so of music there’s enough variation of style to keep things interesting.
Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot is a sort of companion piece to Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. Indeed, the idea was suggested to the composer by the librettist at the after party for the premier of Eight Songs, or at least so Maxwell Davies claims in the interview that follows the performance on the recording.
The idea comes from the life of a reclusive lady in Sydney who may have been the model for Dicken’s Miss Haversham. She’s a bit nuts but in an altogether less depressing way than king George. It’s another theatrical performance piece (apparently repeating many of the gestures from Eight Songs but, obviously that’s not apparent in an audio recording). Once again the piece is scored for.vocalist, this time a mezzo, and small ensemble. The degree of extended vocal technique required here is less than in the earlier piece, maybe on a par with something like Pierrot :Lunaire. The ensemble though is supplemented with all kinds of toys including four metronomes, a football rattle and a whistle.