Pierre Boulez: Mémoriale; Dérive 1; Dérive 2. Fabrice Jünger, solo flute; Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain conducted by Daniel Kawka. Naïve. $16.99.
Ola Gjeilo: Choral Works. Phoenix Chorale conducted by Charles Bruffy. Chandos. $19.99.
Chanticleer: Love Story. Chanticleer Records. $16.99.
Masters of Bandoneón: Works by Astor Piazzolla and others. Cuartetango String Quartet (Leonardo Suarez Paz and Sami Merdinian, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Danny Miller, cello). Azica. $16.99.
Uncharted Waters. Ensemble Polaris. Pipistrelle. $16.99.
Shuffle. Play. Listen. Matt Haimovitz, cello; Christopher O’Riley, piano. Oxingale. $20.98 (2 CDs).
Some composers are unapologetic avant-gardists, and none more so than Pierre Boulez. Even at age 87, Boulez revels in the bad-boy reputation that he cultivated and attained some 60 years ago. His works are not and will never be for all tastes, and he is just fine with that. In recent years, he has been exploring new forms of ensemble and new ways of combining and contrasting instruments. The three works on a new Naïve CD show some of Boulez’ thinking in the late 20th and 21st centuries. The oldest, Dérive 1 for six instruments, dates to 1984 and sounds much like other Boulez works of its time. A year later, Boulez produced Mémoriale for solo flute and eight instruments, and it has an interesting background as well as a different sound quality. It is an arrangement of the central section of …explosante-fixe… -- a work that started out as a Stravinsky memorial in 1971 and that Boulez rethought and re-composed multiple times through 1993. There are four versions of the original work for flute, three for viola, three for cello, two for trumpet, two for violin, two for clarinet, one for harp and one for vibraphone. Mémoriale is not a version of the entire original work but of a portion of it, and of course it must stand alone for listeners who do not know its derivation – no problem for Boulez, who in recent years has had works performed incomplete or in part. Mémoriale is an effective piece in its handling of the flute, both integrating it with the ensemble and contrasting it with the other instruments. Effective in a different way is Dérive 2, whose lengthy gestation period began in 1988 and continued with a revision in 2002, then with an expanded and completed version not done until 2006. This work is for 11 instruments and takes Boulez’ sound world a step beyond that of the other pieces played by Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain under Daniel Kawka – yet the sound and structure remain noticeably those of Boulez.
Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo (born 1978) has taken a different approach to musical development in the choral works on a new Chandos CD. These 11 pieces are settings of sacred texts in which Gjeilo intends to reflect the natural beauties of Norway; in fact, the CD’s title is “Northern Lights.” There is a work of that name on the CD, from 2008, using the Latin text, Pulchra est, amica mea (the title of a Palestrina motet from 1584). Among the other pieces are Serenity (O magnum mysterium) from 2010, The Spheres (Kyrie eleison) from 2008, and Prelude (Exsultate, jubilate) from 2004. Although composed at different times and using somewhat different performance forces (a cappella chorus and/or piano, tenor saxophone, even string quartet), the works spring from the same sensibility and fit together well. Taken together, they provide a sonic picture that merges new thinking and new compositional style with an old language and the imagined sense of wonder that people long ago must have experienced in contemplating celestial mysteries whose scientific basis they could not understand.
The silky-smooth vocal ensemble Chanticleer generally specializes in older music, but its performances mix works of the 16th century with those of modern times in a way that is always sonically pleasing although not necessarily possessed of narrative consistency. The new Love Story album on the group’s own label includes four works to Latin texts, but the words are handled quite differently from the way Gjeilo does, dating back as far as the days of Claudin de Sermisy (1495-1562) and as close to today as those of Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Chanticleer performs in multiple languages, on this disc offering not only Latin but also French, German and English; and the group switches styles frequently in concert, here including everything from music earlier than the Baroque to arrangements of Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call, Jule Styne’s Make Someone Happy, and Rodgers and Hart’s My Romance. This is a live recording of the first concert of Chanticleer’s 2011-12 season, and it provides a very good aural picture of how the ensemble sounds and how it mixes together a wide variety of disparate music. The CD will be attractive mainly to Chanticleer’s existing fans and to listeners more interested in beautiful singing than in any particular type of composition or any traditional notion of coherence of programming.
Chanticleer’s crossover approach in the vocal area has plenty of parallels in the instrumental field, including new releases by Cuartetango and Ensemble Polaris. The first of these is a tribute – and scarcely the first – to Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), who singlehandedly transformed the tango into something new by mixing the traditional dance with classical-music forms such as fugue and with elements of jazz. Piazzolla did not shrink from dissonance or unusual instrumental combinations, either, and wrote a number of works that included the bandoneón, a concertina that is popular mainly in Piazzolla’s Argentina and in Uruguay. Through Piazzolla’s music, the sound of the bandoneón became known worldwide, and Cuartetango gives the instrument considerable prominence by featuring several guest players of the bandoneón and combining their sound not with that of a full orchestra but with that of a string quartet. This raises the profile of the bandoneón on this CD, four of whose 16 tracks are by Piazzolla. The quartet’s first violinist, Leonardo Suarez Paz, is even more prominent, as arranger of five tracks and composer/arranger of two others (one being an extended version of the other). The mixture of strings and bandoneón is not all that is heard here: several tracks have vocals, sung by Beatriz Suarez Paz. The CD as a whole is rhythmically pleasing and instrumentally attractive.
The instrumental combinations are the main thing in the new Ensemble Polaris CD as well. This includes 18 short tracks that range from traditional tunes to a Brahms waltz. The music is pleasant rather than compelling, being dominated by compositions or arrangements by ensemble member Alison Melville, who plays the traverso, recorders and seljefløyte (a Scandinavian folk flute also known as the willow flute). Among other instruments used by the nine-member ensemble are the jarrana barroca (a Mexican string instrument), ukulele, Swedish bagpipes, Celtic harp, bouzouki (a lute-like Greek instrument), Jew’s harp and nyckelharpa (a kind of Swedish keyed fiddle). The various permutations and combinations of these instruments make the CD more of a feast for the ears than the inherent quality of most of the works on it would indicate. Played by a more traditional ensemble, much of the music here would be forgettable; that it is not is testimony to the interesting arrangements and the skillful melding of some highly unusual sounds with the more-often-heard ones of, for example, voice, clarinet and percussion.
The music, not the instruments, is the unusual element in the rather oddly titled two-CD set, Shuffle. Play. Listen. Works for cello and piano are common, but not the way Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley do them. The first CD includes Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, Janáček’s Fairy Tale, Martinů’s Variations on a Slovak Folksong and a piece by, yes, Piazzolla, his Le Grand Tango. The arrangements work well and the playing is very fine, but this CD is scarcely a traditional one offering classical pieces – because the works are intermingled with portions of Bernard Herrmann’s score for the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. Descriptively, this sounds weird, and there is no particular reason for it: the classical works have no intimate relationship with anything in the film music. What is surprising, though, is how well the CD flows – anyone who does not know the provenance of the pieces will be able simply to enjoy the way one track moves into the next. Thankfully, the performers do not split up the classical works themselves – Stravinsky’s five movements are given in proper sequence – but instead offer the complete non-Herrmann pieces with portions of Herrmann’s film music in between. The concept is odd, but the execution is skillful and surprisingly successful. The second CD is a different matter: here Haimovitz and O’Riley do something more typical for performers seeking crossover identification by bringing their traditional instruments to bear on arrangements of music by such bands as Arcade Fire, Radiohead and Cocteau Twins. There are a dozen tracks here, all but one arranged by O’Riley. Some work better than others as pieces for cello and piano. The most interesting track is the last and longest: John McLaughlin’s A Lotus on Irish Streams, which is one of several tracks in which the performers do a good deal of improvisation. Actually, Haimovitz and O’Riley seem to have a particular affinity for McLaughlin, whose The Dance of Maya is also excellent. Another highlight is Empty Room by Arcade Fire. Seeing and hearing these performers in concert would probably be more exciting than listening to this two-CD set, since there is obviously considerable interplay between the musicians and a great deal of jazz-like give-and-take in their handling of the music. And the CDs will not have universal appeal, because the mixture of music, although very well performed, is certainly a bit on the odd side. Still, as a new approach to traditional classical music and to traditional performances using cello and piano, it is hard to beat as innovative and well-played a release as Shuffle. Play. Listen.