July 02, 2006

Music Review: 10 Suggestions for Summer Listening! Part I

Here I present five of ten albums in various genres, hand-picked from the very favorites of my music collection. Some of the hyperlinks are audio samples, powered by Amazon.com.


Musica Antiqua Köln (directed by Reinhard Goebel) – Musica Baltica (1999)

This could become an essential album to anyone whose music collection lacks obscure composers of the Baltic Mid-Baroque (late 17th Century). It is also, hands down, the finest early music violin playing I have ever encountered, led by savant-genius Reinhard Goebel. He guides his ensemble thru the frolicsome flares necessary to any well-researched project of period-instrument Baroque performance, but one never feels bogged down in the mordents. He has also introduced me to some of the most haunting & unusual music. It is a long album, but don’t miss the final tracks, with two by Johann Valentin Meder, the controversial Danzig Kapellmeister. The Sonata di Battaglia begins with triumphant C-major chord which saws away for a solid two minutes before changing! Also, the regal trumpets & bassoons on Vincenzo Albrici’s Sonata a 5 continue to move me, after years of repeated listenings, to minuetting around the room.


Dawn Upshaw – Osvaldo Golijov: Ayre, Luciano Berio: Folk Songs (2005)

Stand up for the Crossover disc of the decade! The pairing of Berio's 1960's take on combining world folk genres with contemporary classical innovations, with Golijov's 21st Century attempt, leaves a lot to think about. Golijov is the Jewish-Argentinian-American who did all of those amazing, yet popularly denounced, arrangements for Kronos Quartet's Caravan (gypsy) & Nuevo (latin) crossover experiments. (Kronos fan-purists would prefer them to keep with the heady academic program, but really they're just keeping up with more realistic trends & innovations - their newest album is all from Bollywood soundtracks.) Golijov's own music, for instance in Ayre, has a ton of integrity whilst dipping into every imaginative world idiom. Clearly, if the 21st century offers any direction, it's welcoming inspiration from the sheer bulk of recorded music available, & relishing in its ability to be blended in the genre of notated concert music. Berio's Folk Songs have been recorded dozens of times, but this ensemble is especially tight, & the piece has really worn well during its transition from contemporary classic to over-preformed classic-proper. Dawn Upshaw, I think, is one of the most amazing vocalists alive. She can keep her day job at the conservative Metropolitan Opera while preforming the classiest new music & anything else she wants to: Weill, Bernstein, Ives, Berg, Adams, Purcell, Stravinsky, &c. Her voice is really just an instrument of her intelligence, tastely borrowing slides from jazz, an occasional hugeness from Wagner, & deepening it with her own gravity or lightening it with her wit. Golijov's music allows her to showcase a new breadth, replete with sufi trills, or whatever the music calls for. As for Berio, "I wonder as I wander" has never sounded so beautiful.


Kevin Volans - White Man Sleeps (1990)

1980s British Minimalism is one of the sadly neglected genres of 20th Century Music. Graham Fitkin, for instance, perhaps suffers from a contemporary embarrasment for cheezy synthesizers. His seminal Cud (1988) perhaps sounds a bit too much like The Muppets Take Manhatten. Many recordings by Fitkin have not been reissued - (Look for Argos CDs in used record stores!) Volans, however is the opposite in aestetic - his music is extremely earthy. A white South African native who moved to Dublin, several of the pieces on this album are for two harpsichords tuned liked African thumb pianos (a compositional risk, I assume, severely limiting performance possibilities). Kronos Quartet has recorded the string quartet version of White Man Sleeps, an arrangement of the version on this album for two harpsichords, viola da gamba, & percussion. The Smith Quartet preformance on this album, I cannot emphasize enough, rocks so much harder than Kronos. Really, man, this is some of my favorite music. Like Steve Reich, it clearly links '70s-'80s Minimalist form to traditional African counterpoint, written for early Western instruments, & performed with a lot of heart.


Steve Reich - You Are (Variations) (2005)

I am curious how Reich-virgins might approach this music, because, more than ever, he is building on a career's-worth of innovations. It has the form of Tehillim - (two two-part movements, lots of soprano-cannon-lines sung in hebrew, third movement slow). It has the thick piano writing of several earlier pieces, but his dissonence has deepened, like in Four Quartets. It has similar repetitive-philisophical-text-setting as The Desert Music & Proverb. Melodically, the second movement of You Are starts with a jumpy-hebraic melody reminiscient of Tehillim, which gets dissected in a way similar to The Desert Music, so that the words are slowed down into luscious chords, amidst thick pulsing pianos & percussion. I feel that Reich has yet to really disapoint, nor are developments of previous ideas ever boring (or, like Glass, pathetic.) This piece, despite borrowing from an entire career, feels fresh, original, & even a tad rebelious. His mystic-contemplative side is as deep as ever, his harmonies as luscious - everything - his pace, ochestration, drama, everything that makes music good, is of the finest quality. I guess one should consider this an excellent piece of music grown from a carefully developed style, which has evolved over four decades. Also, on the same album, is Maya Beiser's performance of his latest Counterpoint, Cello Counterpoint, a series of pieces where one instrumentalist plays on top of herself twelve-or-so times. This has by far the fastest changing structure & some of the richest harmonies of any of them. It's beautiful, recorded with gorgeous production.



Emmylou Harris - Wrecking Ball (1995)

In September, we'll be celebrating the 11th anniversary of this seminal album. What links it to 90's country music, or 90's rock? I don't know. It sounds more to me like someone has stuck this album in a future capsule from 2050, where Emmylou's plastic head has been preserved in a laboratory. Her voice is both alien & earthy. It aches as Jesus must have, yanked between two universes. The lyrics of the songs she chooses to sing are like a snow plant, organic but a seeming stranger - "And if you were Willie Moore / And I was Barbara Allen / Or Fair Ellen all sad at the cabin door /A-weepin' and a-pinin', for love / A-weepin' and a-pinin', for love." It's really the production that makes this music so special, tho. Daniel Lanois, who has also worked with Bob Dylan, U2, & Peter Gabriel, matches Harris' alien-earthy dichotomy with his own magic. What is the "wrecking ball"? Is it what happened to the rolling stone? A symbol for one generation, which began as aimless, & ended somewhat heartless & destructive? Neil Young sings back-up on his own song, "meet me at the wrecking ball / I'll wear something pretty & white / & we'll go out dancing tonight." Every song carries a subtle mystical overtone, subtle even when she's singing directly to her "savior". Her version of Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl" is my favorite of this oft-covered song. (I sing it with a ukulele). &, of course, "All My Tears" is one of the most beautiful things ever recorded.


Francesco said...

The Reich recording sounds fascinating. Will have to check that out. I first heard his music last fall at the Juilliard premiere of a 75-minute percussion piece in conjuction with modern dance. I actually enjoyed it immensely!

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