November 18, 2021


Monteverdi: Madrigals and Arias. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.

Ghost Songs: Contemporary Music and Words from Ireland. Laetare Vocal Ensemble conducted by Róisín Blunnie. Métier. $18.99.

Dal Niente Portrait 2020-2021: Music by Igor Santos, Hilda Paredes, Tomás Gueglio, George Lewis, Melissa Vargas, and Andile Khumalo. Ensemble Dal Niente. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Highly rarefied and performed with conviction for an audience that is guaranteed to be very small, whose members will be very appreciative of the way the discs cater to their very specialized tastes, these CDs use the human voice – sometimes alone, sometimes with instruments – to explore various emotional states and transport listeners to specific time periods and places. Rinaldo Alessandrini’s offering of music by Monteverdi bears the title “Daylight” and is intended as a companion to a prior release called “Night,” which dates to 2017. It is not necessary to know the earlier release to appreciate this one, but it does help, since the mixture of instrumental and vocal material here is not arranged chronologically or in any discernible manner except insofar as it reflects Alessandrini’s enjoyment of the music – and presumably that of his presumed audience. The material is excerpted from Monteverdi’s nine books of madrigals and also includes songs, opera arias and a couple of instrumental works. Some of the juxtapositions are inspired: women’s voices singing Sù, sù, sù pastorelli vezzosi from Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi are immediately followed by men’s singing Sù, sù, sù augelletti canori from the ninth book of madrigals. Most of the music, though, is arranged solely because Alessandrini wants it a certain way: this Naïve recording bears the subtitle “Stories of Songs, Dances and Loves,” and that alone shows how diverse the music is and how disconnected (except in Alessandrini’s mind) many of the pieces are from many others. A highly personal tribute to Monteverdi as well as a companion piece to the earlier Night CD, this disc is exceptionally well sung and played, with the usual attention that Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano give to all the nuances of period style and historically informed performance practices. The 20 selections on the disc span 60-plus years of Monteverdi’s long compositional life; in addition, Alessandrini includes a few items by Biagio Marini and Andrea Falconiero as linking material – this approach was customary in Monteverdi’s time. Thoroughly versed in authentic performance practice but quite indifferent to any sort of chronological or easily graspable arrangement of the material, Alessandrini has here assembled a CD that is wonderful to hear for those who love everything Monteverdian – but rather incoherent, musically speaking, for those who might prefer a presentation with a clearer and less intensely personal approach.

     Intended for listeners with a strong focus on and love of Ireland and its folk and fantasy tales, as well as its turbulent history, and including an unusual mixture of music with spoken-word-only sections, a new Métier CD called Ghost Songs is also performed with considerable skill and sensitivity. The Laetare Vocal Ensemble, a 36-voice Dublin-based chamber choir, has no problem whatsoever with the genre-mixing elements that are pervasive here, as in so many CDs with a contemporary focus. The disc offers a generous helping (80 minutes) of musical settings, poems, play excerpts and more – some sung by the choir, some read by the authors themselves (Marina Carr, Paula Meehan, Dairena Ní Chinnéide), some read in a suitably cultivated voice by a radio presenter (Carl Corcoran, who reads poetry by W.B. Yeats – by far the best-known contributor of words here – and Lola Ridge). As with the Alessandrini CD of Monteverdi’s music, this one has no obvious reason for its particular sequence: it is not chronological; material is not grouped in any discernible way; and there is no particular thematic unity beyond that generated by the Ghost Songs title and its straightforward, if not very informative, subtitle: “Contemporary Music and Words from Ireland.” There are in fact a couple of tracks here, the last two, called The Ghost Song, and there are other pairs with a similar focus, such as The Graves at Arbour Hill. In both these cases, Paula Meehan, who wrote the words, first delivers them; then there is a musical setting incorporating them. This is an approach taken elsewhere on the disc as well – for instance, with Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens. In all three of those cases, the musical settings are by Seán Doherty, who is quite sensitive to the verbiage and does a good job of setting the material for the vocal ensemble. Other composers heard here, including Síle Denvir, Rhona Clarke, and Michael Holohan, also appear to be steeped in Irish tale-telling traditions and accomplished at setting words appropriately. There is a wealth of material here – 35 tracks of it – but much of it is quite brief, a minute or less, and nothing lasts as much as seven minutes: there is one six-and-a-half-minute piece and one five-and-a-half-minute one, but the preponderance of material is in the minute-and-a-half range, making its points or doing its scene-painting (verbal or musical) in miniature and then giving way to something new and, most of the time, equally brief. This disc is an immersive experience in elements of contemporary Irish music and mostly contemporary Irish poetry and tale-telling, its sincerity and authenticity beyond reproach but its target audience a very narrowly defined and highly focused one.

     The location is an ocean away, but the ensemble size is similar for the ultra-modern music on a New Focus Recordings CD called Dal Niente Portrait 2020-2021. As the disc’s title indicates, the focus here is as much on the performers – the Chicago-based, 23-member Ensemble Dal Niente – as on the six works presented. Three of those include vocals and three are instrumental, that word defined rather loosely because the material tends to be aggressively modernistic, not only through electronic modification but also through extending performing techniques and instrumental sounds far beyond what listeners (other than those already firmly committed to the musical avant-garde) might expect to hear. The connective tissue of this CD is both geographical (as it is for the Laetare Vocal Ensemble’s disc) and anti-geographical: from its Chicago base, Ensemble Dal Niente created a series of virtual collaborative performances spanning three continents during the pandemic-forced closings and lockdowns of the 2020-2021 time period, reaching out virtually at a time when in-person music-making was simply not possible. Cleverness and creative response to an unprecedented-in-our-lifetime situation abound here, not only in the organization of the disc but also in the works themselves, whether or not they were created during the COVID-19 pandemic. The oldest piece on the CD, dating to 2004, is in some ways the most intriguing of all. It is Hilda Paredes’ harp concerto Demente Cuerda, whose title as written means “crazed string” but, if written de mente cuerda, would mean “of sound mind.” That is very neat word play (or almost-word play), and the work offers some attractive contrasts between the harp’s delicacy and the massed sound of the other instruments – although the interplay somewhat overstays its welcome by going on for 15 minutes. Another instrumental piece here is Igor Santos’ confined. speak. (titled using no capital letters and two periods – typical affectations for some contemporary composers). This piece does date to pandemic times (2020) and is intended to express confinement with musical means, ranging from mutes to limited pitch use. It does not, however, really sound very different from many other self-consciously modern instrumental works. George Lewis’ Merce and Baby (2012), however, does have some out-of-the-ordinary sounds. The title refers to choreographer/dancer Merce Cunningham and jazz drummer Baby Douds, and the piece is interesting not only for its easily anticipated forays into percussion but also for its less-expected willingness to lapse into lyricism for a while. The three vocal works on the CD are, on the whole, less interesting. Triste y madrigal (2021) by Tomás Gueglio has nothing to do with Monteverdi and everything to do with sound assemblage, containing some actual soprano passages, some voice clips from the 1940s, and instrumental material that ranges from murky to perky – a good reflection of the bizarrerie of pandemic-era life, but not a work that is particularly convincing to hear. The form, not the function, rules Melissa Vargas’ 2010 Es casi como el inicio…y comienza (the ellipsis is, yes, part of the title): a clock timer is used to pace broad instrumental passages that contrast with screechy vocals. And Andile Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask (2021) tries to reflect not only pandemic times but also violence against women in Khumalo’s native South Africa, using a gratifyingly clear spoken text mixed with instrumental passages that do not really add much to the verbiage. This hit-or-miss assemblage of modernity in the time of COVID-19 will please fans of Ensemble Dal Niente, for whom it will appear to evoke emotional connection dal niente (out of nothing); but there is nothing here sufficiently engaging or convincing to reach out to listeners who are not already enthralled by the most-modern aspects of today’s music scene.

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