Sunday, March 1, 2009


Georgy Ligeti. Lux Aeterna, Drei Phantasien Nach Friedrich Holderlin, Sonata for Solo Viola. Robert Heppener. Im Gestein. Susanne van Els, violist; musikFabrik; Cappella Amsterdam, conducted by Daniel Reuss. Harmonia Mundi France. "Ligeti’s mesmerizing Lux Aeterna, from 1966, is a bona fide avant-garde hit, partly because of its exposure in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The work wears its years lightly; Ligeti’s slowly shifting harmonic clouds and throbbing tone clusters conjure cosmic mystery like little that came before or after. On this richly rewarding CD by the Dutch chamber choir Cappella Amsterdam, Daniel Reuss leads a broadly paced, pristinely voiced rendition, enhanced by an atmospheric yet finely detailed recording. A sense of time-loosed drift also saturates Ligeti’s Drei Phantasien, a cappella settings of selected lines from three Friedrich Hölderlin poems composed in 1982. But here the music often turns animated, even eruptive, in response to especially potent emotional triggers in the texts. The chaotic passages recall some of Ligeti’s more experimental works of the ’60s, but the calmer sequences seem to reach back further still, to medieval polyphony and folkloric sources. In the Sonata for Solo Viola (1991-94), three of the six movements surround and separate the choral works here; demarcations between the ancient and the postmodern crumble as Ligeti taps fiercely demanding techniques to evoke folksy rusticity. Susanne van Els makes it sound effortless and natural. The Dutch composer Robert Heppener, born in 1925, two years after Ligeti, flourished briefly in the 1950s before he was overshadowed by more experimental composers. Im Gestein, Mr. Heppener’s 1992 setting of six Paul Celan poems, applies floating harmonies and luminous textures not unlike Ligeti’s to more conventional modes of expression, accompanied with brilliant daubs of instrumental color (performed here by the ensemble musikFabrik). Libera me, Domine, a Gregorian plainchant, concludes this unusually thoughtful, compelling collection" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 1/18/09].

The Light That Is Felt: Songs of Charles Ives. Susan Narucki, soprano; Donald Berman, pianist. New World Records. "MOST artists crave the limelight, but Charles Ives often worked in isolation, his day job in insurance providing the financial means to indulge his passion. He wrote nearly 200 songs and published 114 of them privately in 1922, describing their publication as 'a kind of house cleaning.' The painterly details of Ives’s songs are vividly conveyed by the bright-voiced Susan Narucki and the pianist Donald Berman on a new disc whose 27 diverse selections (most from H. Wiley Hitchcock’s 2004 critical edition) highlight Ives’s multiple influences. Those included European Romanticism and religious and secular American tunes, which he meshed with his own inventive, radical harmonies. Like Bartok, Ives used both simple folk melodies and dissonance, sometimes blending them. Gentle, melodic songs are interspersed here with more tumultuous works, demonstrating the wide spectrum of Ives’s emotional and musical palette. The spare and evocative Where the Eagle Cannot See is followed by the theatrical, astringent intensity of General William Booth Enters Into Heaven. The heavy weariness of Like a Sick Eagle is aptly conveyed by Ms. Narucki and Mr. Berman, before they plunge into the violent waters of Swimmers, whose wildly turbulent piano part underpins a soaring vocal line. The disc opens with the wistful, tonal Songs My Mother Taught Me and concludes with the Romantic Romanzo (di Central Park). Also included are the pictorial Tom Sails Away, with its lively evocations of town and family life, and The Housatonic at Stockbridge. Romantic, Brahmsian songs like Du Bist wie Eine Blume (You Are Like a Flower), Feldeinsamkeit (In Summer Fields) and Minnelied (Love Song) reflect Ives’s interest in German lieder. His less familiar, moody settings of translations of poems by the medieval Italian poet Folgore da San Gimignano are more harmonically imaginative" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 1/18/09].

Tarik O'Regan. Scattered Rhymes. Orlando Consort; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hillier. Harmonia Mundi France. "The technique that pop musicians call sampling — taking bits of one recording and using them as elements in another — is very old news in classical music. In the 16th century, composers created parody Masses built around quotations from popular (and usually secular) songs instead of using plainchant, as earlier composers had done. The British composer Tarik O’Regan stands . . . in Scattered Rhymes . . . takes thematic fragments from a famous Mass as the basis of an elaborate setting of Petrarch sonnets and an anonymous 14th-century love song. Mr. O’Regan borrows his themes from the oldest existing polyphonic Mass by a single composer: Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, composed in the 1360s. Mr. O’Regan’s often dense rhythms and counterpoint make it hard to spot the source material within the work’s invitingly variegated textures. But he means you to hear it; he suggests performing Scattered Rhymes alongside the Machaut, as the Orlando Consort and (in the O’Regan only) the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir do here. The Orlando singers make the juxtaposition less odd by singing the Machaut with a velvety modern tone, a very different sound from what you can hear on the Ensemble Organum’s conjectural 1995 recording on Harmonia Mundi, which presents the work in more rough-hewn timbres. As a performance of the Mass, it sounds pleasant but newfangled; as a companion piece for the O’Regan, it works beautifully. Two similar pairings are also included. Douce Dame Jolie is first performed in Machaut’s version, as a single unaccompanied line, and then in Mr. O’Regan’s playful reconfiguration, with the melody sped up, slowed down, harmonized and otherwise toyed with. And a beautiful account of Dufay’s Ave Regina Caelorum precedes Gavin Bryars’s serene, textually quirky Super Flumina" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 1/18/09].

Richard Rodgers. Allegro (libretto by Oscar Hammerstein). Sony Classics. "The first complete recording of Allegro, the unsuccessful 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein show, fills a gap in the library of Broadway cast recordings. . . . The music looks both backward and forward. If some numbers have the singsong effervescence of early Jerome Kern, the dissonant title song about the frantic pace of city life is avant-garde for its time; there is a singing Greek chorus" [Stephen Holden, The New York Times, 2/1/02].