Lux Aeterna, 20th Century Choral Music of Ligeti and Kodaly According to Marcus Creed


OUR Recordings 6.220676

I thought I knew this music. After falling in love with György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) work having heard it so aptly used in Stanley Kubrick’s, “2001: A Space Odyssey” I eagerly purchased both of the complete works surveys on Sony and Telefunken but these fresh, insightful performances by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under conductor Marcus Creed have made me fall in love again. And, while I have some familiarity with Zoltán Kodály’s (1882-1967) music (he is underappreciated) I did not know his unaccompanied choral works. So this encounter was an absolute revelation.

This release succeeds on several levels. First, it is one of the always reliably fine productions from Lars Hannibal’s OUR Recordings. So, from the physical design to and the the choices of repertoire and performers as well as the sound of the recording, this is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the listener.

But what brings this release from competent to outstanding is the interpretive skillset of conductor Marcus Creed and the disciplined Danish National Vocal Ensemble. These are fresh, insightful readings that shed new light on these masterful composers and their work. Looking at Creed’s extensive discography it is clear that he commands a wide range of repertoire with a penchant for the twentieth century and beyond. His reading of Ernst Krenek’s massive 12 tone contrapuntal a capella masterpiece from 1941-2, “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae” Op. 93 remains perhaps this challenging work’s finest interpretation in the 1995 Harmonia Mundi recording and a personal favorite of this reviewer. So it should come as no surprise that he is able to breathe new life into these works.

The opening work is probably the most familiar here. Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (1966) was first thrust into the spotlight via its (unpermitted at the time) inclusion is the Kubrick film. This is mid-career Ligeti and one of the most effective uses of his “micropolyphony” and cluster chord harmonies. It is first heard in the Clavius Moonbase scene fairly early in the film. It accompanies the otherwise silent animation of a sort of space shuttle bus as it glides along the lunar surface. Along with the Kyrie of Ligeti’s 1965 Requiem and his orchestral “Atmospheres” (1961) work beautifully in telling the story in this film with its well known paucity of dialogue.

This opening track grabbed my attention immediately. The text, which appears in the traditional Catholic Mass and Requiem Mass is a communion hymn with the following words:

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy Saints for evermore:
for Thou art gracious.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them:
With Thy Saints for evermore,
for Thou art gracious.

But the experience of this music is positively otherworldly. Its wall of sound ambiance belies a rather complex construction which has become a landmark in the development of compositional practice. And it is vitally that this music, now nearly synonymous with the film, be heard as originally intended. It exists in both worlds now and this reading helps reaffirm it as the masterpiece it is.

The next six tracks are by Ligeti but this is the Ligeti still composing under the powerful spell of Bela Bartok. All date from 1955 but are a quantum leap back from the sound world of the first track. The two brief a capella choruses (the second includes solos for bass and soprano voices) are settings of words by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). These settings are ostensibly influenced by the composer’s early encounter with modern music in Vienna (Ligeti ultimately relocated from the artistically and socially oppressive Hungary to Austria). The second of these choruses had to wait until 1968 for a performance which provides some notion of how oppressive the Hungarian regime had been.

Those brief choruses are followed by four folksong settings which take the listener back into the sound world of Bartok and Kodaly with their respective folksong transcriptions. These are very enjoyable travels into Ligeti’s excellent but markedly more conservative beginnings.

Next is another Ligeti work but one from his later years demonstrating that he never stopped evolving as a composer. The “Three Fantasies after Friederich Holderlin” (1982) are themselves a quantum leap stylistically from the 1966 Lux Aeterna. These are also more complex settings and, suffice it to say, they are a powerful experience. What was micropolyphony in the earlier work is replaced by a more traditional style of polyphonic writing but one that could not exist were it not for those earlier efforts.

And then we come further back again to early and mid-career Kodaly in three a capella works, “Evening Song” (1938), “Evening” (1904), and “Matra Pictures” (1931). I say at the beginning of this review that I believe Kodaly’s music to be underappreciated. Indeed but I find myself with no excuse given the easy availability of so much music on You Tube and other online sources. And this is why the inclusion of this fascinating selection of the composer’s significant cache of a capella choral music is so very welcome.

Like, I suppose, many listeners I mostly know Kodaly’s work via his Peacock Variations and excerpts from his opera, “Hary Janos”. Of course I had also been aware of Kodaly’s pedagogy and his methods for learning music (and I was aware even before I saw it in “Close Encounters).

But my encounter with these fine choral works revealed to me the depth of the composer’s skills. This is marvelously written music by a composer intimately familiar with this medium and it has already sent me to exploring more of this composer’s work in all genres. It is not difficult to see Kodaly’s work as a logical predecessor to that of Ligeti. he same skill and invention the same ability to convincingly set text to music. This is a terrific release, highly recommended to lovers of choral music in general and, of course, of these two composers.

New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri


OUR 6.220674

Sunleif Rasmussen is the best known composer from the Faroe Islands which are about mid way between Iceland and Denmark. He turned 60 on March 19th. He is certainly lauded in his homeland but his works have demonstrated him to be an artist whose reputation can hardly be contained by a single country. His works favorably compare with the finest composers from all of the Nordic countries (Iceland, Faroe Islands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland). His work is known, as it should be, internationally.

This most recent release on the Danish label OUR Recordings contains music written between 2009 and 2014. All of these works are collaborations with the wonderful recorder player Michala Petri, a Danish artist whose name is as easily recognized as predecessors like David Munrow and Frans Brüggen. She is arguably the first lady of the recorder and the instruments most prominent advocate having first taken up the instrument at the age of three. and gone on to play over 4000 concerts.

The recorder is featured in several different contexts from solo to collaborations with choral, chamber, and orchestral groups. These contexts serve to demonstrate Petri’s facility as a performer as well as Rasmussen’s range of compositional vision.

The album opens with Flow (2012) for recorder and string trio. Here Petri is joined by the Esbjerg Ensemble String Trio with Bogdan Bozovic, violin; Michele Camile, viola; and Pau Codina Masferrer, cello. The piece was conceived as a companion piece to Mozart’s Flute Quartet K.285 (for flute and string trio). This work, in three movements utilizes a variety of extended techniques on the recorder and Petri’s collaboration was essential to provide the composer with information of the possibilities of such techniques with her instrument. The string writing is also laden with harmonics and techniques that were virtually unknown in Mozart’s time. To be clear, this “companion” piece is more homage than imitation but there are phrases which are clearly neoclassical nods to the Austrian master.

“I” (2011) is for the unusual grouping of recorder with chamber choir (with alto and tenor soloists) in a setting of a poem by Danish poet Inger Christensen whose text is a response to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”(1917). Christensen’s poem is a personal (and dare I say feminist) response to Stevens’ classic work. Lyrical writing in the composer’s essentially tonal idiom belie the intricate structures of this brief setting. It is clearly a challenge for all but the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under their director Stephen Layton, along with Petri, deliver a truly excellent performance.

Next up is a piece for solo recorder, “Sorrow and Joy Fantasy” (2011), essentially a set of variations on a theme. It is based on a folk melody which was applied to the Thomas Kingo (1634-1703) sacred poem/hymn, Sorrow and Joy. There are twelve variations each with increasing demands on the soloist. It is a stunning vehicle for Petri’s lyricism and virtuosity.

Next is “Winter Echoes” (2014), an homage to the late Danish master Axel Borup-Jørgensen whose work has been championed by OUR records. This piece, scored for recorder and 13 solo strings. Petri is accompanied by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under Clemens Schuldt. It sounds like a concerto in all but name. The piece requires Petri to play bass, tenor, alto, soprano and sopranino recorders as the piece progresses from low to high, dark to light. Extended instrumental techniques are present for the recorder soloist and the the string players.

The final piece, and the one from which this album derives its title, is “Territorial Songs” (2009). This concerto for recorder and orchestra finds Petri accompanied by the Aaborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen. It is cast in five movements. The composer states that he was inspired by bird song in composing this piece, an inspiration shared by Olivier Messiaen most famously but also by composers who have written for the recorder. Again we have music that is lyrical, basically tonal, and virtuosic for both soloist and orchestra. Rasmussen’s facility with orchestral color make for an exciting listening experience and, as always, Petri meets the considerable demands with grace and seeming ease.

The recording, as seems to be the case with all The OUR Recordings that have met these ears, is bright and clear. The liner notes include a statement from the composer and a very welcome and useful set of liner notes by my friend and colleague Joshua Cheek who alerted me to this release. He provides insight and detail that enhance one’s appreciation of the music. The photography and design are both beautiful and distinctive. Lars Hannibal deserves high marks for his work as producer. It is a fine 60th birthday gift to Maestro Rasmussen and a major release for Ms. Petri. If you don’t know Rasmussen’s work (or Petri’s for that matter) this is a fine introduction that will have the listener craving more.

Michala Petri and Sunleif Rasmussen at Other Minds in San Francisco, 2013

Michala Petri Goes Brazilian


OUR Recordings 6.220618

Since her debut in 1969 at the tender age of 11 Danish born recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has been one of the finest masters of the recorder.  This ancient instrument, a forerunner of the flute, has existed since the Middle Ages and has amassed a huge repertoire and Petri seems to have demonstrated mastery over all of it and has been an advocate and promoter of new music for her instrument as well.  She has inspired composers to write new works for her and she continues to entertain audiences and has assembled an ever growing discography of startling range and diversity.  Nearly single handed she has managed to honor past repertoire and firmly ensconce this instrument in the 21st century.

In this release, produced by Lars Hannibal (himself a fine guitarist and frequent Petri collaborator) Petri takes on the music of Brazil and, despite the fact that recorders have seldom found their way into the music of this geographic region, she delivers a convincing and hugely entertaining program on this disc.  Along with Marilyn Mazur on percussion and Daniel Murray on guitar the listener is given an entertaining cross section of Brazilian music ranging from the more classically oriented work of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) to the smooth jazz/pop sounds of Antonio Carlos Jobim (1925-1994) and Egberto Gismonti (1947- ).  In between are included works by the album’s guitarist Daniel Murray (1981- ) and a few names unfamiliar to this reviewer including Paulo Porto Alegre (1953- ), Paulo Bellinati (1950- ), Hermeto Pascoal (1936- ), and Antonio Ribero (1971- ).

There is a remarkable unity in this Danish production which stems from a meeting between producer Lars Hannibal and Daniel Murray in Vienna in 2014.  Hannibal’s ear found a kindred spirit whose musicality is a good match for that of Petri.  And like a good chef he added the delicate and necessary spice of the tastefully understated (but extraordinary) percussionist Marilyn Mazur to create a unique trio that sounds as though they’ve played together for years.  Here’s hoping that they’ve secretly recorded enough material for a second album.

All the tracks appear to be transcriptions though the transcriber is not named (I’m guessing they’re collaborative).  What’s nice is that there is nothing artificial or uncomfortable about these arrangements.  The overall impression left is that of a skilled ensemble and listeners encountering the original forms of these works might well assume those to be the transcriptions.  So convincing are these performances.

One last thing.  The sound.  This super audio CD release was engineered by Mikkel Nymand and Preben Iwan and the sound is fabulous.  I don’t have a machine that can read the super audio tracks on this hybrid disc but what I can hear is a lucid recording which embraces the subtleties of this unique ensemble.  Enjoy!

Piano Music by Axel Borup-Jørgensen, a Lost Master?


axelpiano

I had reviewed another disc of this composer’s music on this label here and I must admit that it took me quite a while to meaningfully grasp the music of this too little known Danish composer (1924-2012).  It should be no secret that the Danes have had and continue to have a rich musical culture and have produced quite a number of world class composers and this man is no exception.  However his style, apparently gleaned from his association with the modernists of Darmstadt, can be a tough nut to crack.

As with the aforementioned disc one might require multiple listenings before coming to realize that this man has a unique style and one that bears some serious attention.  This disc of piano music (and one piece for celesta) fills a gap in his recorded repertoire and is an excellent opportunity to see how he works in the genre of keyboard music.

These ten tracks contain works written from 1949 to 1988 so they cover a significant portion of his career and illustrate the development of his style.  Pianist Erik Kaltoft, a longtime associate of the composer, demonstrates interpretive skill as well as virtuosity and dedication in this fascinating survey.

The first (and longest 11:29) piece is Thalatta! Thalatta! (1987-88) and is given the opus number of 127.  The exclamation of the title translates as, “The Sea! The Sea!” and is said to have been spoken by the Greek armies upon reaching the Black Sea during one of their campaigns.  It is an impressionistic piece about the many moods of the sea.  His harmonies are like a modern update of Debussy, a bit more dissonant but providing a similarly soft focused feel.

Continuing with the maritime theme are the 6 miniatures called Marine Sketches (1949) opus 4b.  It is one of the earliest compositions in this collection (along with the Miniature Suite opus 3b, also 1949, on track 8).  Each of the pieces lasts around one minute and there are no track breaks to separate them.  The composer seems to expect that they will always be performed together and with a total time of 6:53, why not?  In contrast to the first piece these contain more melodic contours with less overall dissonance but clearly the same compositional fingerprint.

The four Winter Pieces opus 30b (1959) contain more energetic rhythms but with strategic silences punctuating the overall flow.  They end with a brief epilogue.

From winter we move to another season with the Summer Intermezzi opus 65 (1971) comes back to the sound world of the first track.  Here he experiments with different techniques to expand the language of the keyboard and incorporates the strategic silences of the piece on the former track.

Track 5 contains the earliest piece in this collection, Pasacaglia opus 2b (1948) which seems to suggest some influence of Scriabin.  It is a classic set of variations over the initial bass line and has a rather romantic feel.

Raindrop Interludes opus 144 (1994) is an impressionistic suite with the more dissonant style of his other later pieces.  It is the most recently composed of the recorded selections.

Epigrams opus 78 (1976) at 9:15, is the second longest piece here.  This is one of the most abstract pieces on the disc and demands concentration from both the performer and the listener to perceive delicate statements made with a wide dynamic range.

The Miniaturesuite opus 3b concentrates a praeludium, fantasia, interludium, sarabande and a repeat of praeludium in a brief 2:49.  It is more melodic and less dissonant in keeping with the composer’s earlier style.

Praeludier opus 30a (1958-9) are seven pithy and brief preludes.

The last track contains Phantasiestùck opus 115 (1985) written for celesta.  This instrument, forever doomed to familiarity by its use  in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, has a limited repertoire and this gentle abstract piece is a welcome addition.  It is consistent with the composer’s late style using dissonance and silences in an almost meditative and strangely nostalgic piece.

The extensive and useful liner notes are by Trine Boje Mortensen and are printed in both Danish and English (translation by John Irons).  The fine recording and mastering are by Preben Iwan in the fine acoustics of the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  Grateful assistance and input from the composer’s daughter Elisabet Selin.

One needs to be cautioned never to take lightly anything produced from this creative country and this album is proof of that.  Kudos to OUR recordings for bringing this music to the listening public.