April 15, 2021


And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide. New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; Craig Phillips, bass). BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Marty Regan: Selected Works for Japanese Instruments, Volume 4—Lost Mountains, Quiet Valleys. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Eric Lyon: Giga Concerto. String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, violins); Eric Saunier, drummer; International Contemporary Ensemble. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Prayer and piety seek connection between frail, fallible individual humans and God as a spiritual guiding force – a connection sometimes accomplished through entirely traditional forms of supplication and sometimes through new ways to reach out to the unseeable and ultimately unknowable. A new BIS recording featuring the quartet of singers known as New York Polyphony beautifully explores ways in which composers born as long ago as 1445 and as recently as 1970 have tried to establish meaningful connectedness with a being, or force, far beyond anything that humans can ultimately comprehend. “Passiontide” in the disc’s title refers to the final two weeks of Lent, but this is music that can have meaning for believers anytime, and potentially to those of faiths other than Catholicism. The disc opens with Crux triumphans by Loyset Compère (c. 1445-1518), who here creates a beautifully harmonized celebration of one of the central tenets of Christianity, after which the four singers present Tu pauperum refugium, a well-known motet by Josquin Desprez (c. 1450-1521). The underlying conventionality – by today’s standards – of the thinking within these works sets the stage for something much more modern but clearly connected to them emotionally. This is Salme 55 by Andrew Smith (born 1970), an extended lament focusing on betrayal by a onetime friend and attacks by known enemies. The sentiments and concerns are Biblical, but the techniques Smith uses are modern, including uncertain tonality as well as the fragmenting of melodies to indicate the troubled, even disordered state of mind of the psalmist. The singers then return to much earlier times for Pater noster and Ave Maria by Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562), in which the vocal interplay seems to look ahead toward some of the approaches that Smith employs. Next on the disc is Taaveti laul 22 (Psalm 22) by Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), a setting from 1914 that uses strong dynamic contrast and harmonic intensity to make its points. This leads into the longest work on the CD, the world première recording of an impressive multi-part Officium de Cruce by Compère. The underlying sentiment here is the same as in the composer’s work that begins the disc, but the nine-section Officium de Cruce explores multiple forms of expression and expressiveness as it tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion with both drama and emotional heft. The impressive solo and ensemble singing of New York Polyphony are especially welcome here, showing both the differentiation among the work’s sections and the foundational musical and liturgical thinking that together drive the entire piece forward. The brief O salutaris hostia by Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452-1518) then concludes the disc in an entirely appropriate affirmation of Jesus’ triumph and the salvation of all those who follow and believe in the Passion and the reasons for it. The nature of the music on the disc and the sentiments expressed by the composers from so many centuries will not speak to everyone, to be sure, but the lovely singing and the skill with which the four performers blend and separate as the music requires make this recording a treat for listeners who, whatever their religious and spiritual leanings, appreciate the quality of vocal music performed with this level of commitment and beauty.

     The blending and connection sought by Marty Regan (born 1972) are of a different type on a new MSR Classics CD featuring seven works for Japanese instruments, all in world première recordings. The featured instruments here are the shakuhachi, an end-blown bamboo flute, and the koto, a form of zither that is Japan’s national instrument. Three of the works on the disc – the title track (2015), Withering Chrysanthemum (2016), and Still (2016) – use only Japanese instruments. Three others – Silent Cry of a Heron (2016), You Left Me, Sweet, Two Legacies (2015), and Send Off at Yellow Crane Tower (2014) – use both Japanese instruments and Western strings or winds. And one piece, Silence (2015), incorporates a soprano, piano and percussion section as well as violin, cello and 13-string koto. Regan does not seem interested in exotic-to-Western-ears sound for its own sake but for the emotional landscapes it opens up. The interplay of differing instruments creates some sound worlds and sound pictures that are both intriguing and involving. The solo-instrument pieces, however, are less successful and more indulgent, Still using only shakuhachi for more than five minutes and Withering Chrysanthemum employing solo koto for a seemingly interminable 15-minutes-plus. Silence, using as it does the widest variety of instruments and sounds among the works here, is the most variegated piece on the disc, but not the most immediately appealing: that is You Left Me, Sweet, Two Legacies, in which the flow of violin and cello, mixed with and in contrast to the sound of 13-string koto, produces a combination that draws listeners in and connects seamlessly with the two very different types of sound represented by the members of the ensemble. This entire CD is very much a rarefied experience – one that will appeal, at least some of the time, to listeners primarily interested in hearing music produced by instruments rarely encountered in Western recitals. However, the totality of the disc – which runs an hour and a quarter – is likely to be more than an audience unfamiliar with Japanese instruments will find congenial; the pieces are better heard one at a time, over a period of several days, than in sequence from start to finish of the CD. It is over such a time period that genuine connections with an audience that is not already steeped in Japanese music are most likely to develop.

     Yet another form of connection is on display, or attempted to be put on display, in Eric Lyon’s Giga Concerto on a New Focus Recordings CD. There are two connections created or sought here, actually, one with Brahms and one with contemporary sociopolitical issues. If those sound like uneasy combinations – well, they are, and that is at least part of Lyon’s intent. The six movements designated I through VI of Giga Concerto alternate with Lyon’s instrumental arrangements of the five songs from Brahms’ Op. 105, each played by violin duo and drumset. The songs sound, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly ridiculous this way, but the irreverence is certainly intentional on Lyon’s part, because Giga Concerto incorporates not only various almost-Baroque flourishes here and there but also quotations from several songs that Lyon deemed suitable for a year (2018) in which President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un were talking about nuclear weapons. True, those discussions themselves had an aura of absurdity, even silliness, about them, despite the enormous stakes and the terrifying potential of the weapons being discussed. But specificity of contemporary references quickly renders any work of art outdated and extraneous, and that is certainly the case here. So what audiences receive in Giga Concerto is a largely deliberate mishmash of mostly upbeat, often comical material sprinkled liberally with quotations or near-quotations from various pieces, whether Brahmsian or from other sources. There are so many styles at play (or at work) here that Giga Concerto ends up having no style at all: it is an intentional mishmash that is actually fun quite a bit of the time, and that might have worked if it were 10 or so minutes long. But Lyon does not know where or when to stop, and Giga Concerto continues for 40 minutes, a length at which it quite clearly overstays its welcome. Intended both as experimental music and as social commentary, it does not success particularly well as either. It is most enjoyable for its sheer sound – those wildly inappropriate drumset elements of the Brahms arrangements are quite enjoyable, at least for a while, and the sound of the non-Brahms material is, if nothing else, creative. The sociopolitical elements of Giga Concerto are obsolete and would not have been particularly pointed in any case. The work would probably be highly entertaining to watch – the virtuosic performance by everyone involved calls up images that can be highly entertaining in their own right – but it is less so to hear, even for listeners who feel a strong attraction to contemporary music and the desire of many of today’s composers to reach back and forward at the same time in a bid to create works that will connect with an audience of some kind, somewhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment