George Lewis: ‘Afterword’
International Contemporary Ensemble (New Focus/TUNDRA)
George Lewis’s recent chamber and orchestral scores have been action-packed thrill rides, full of lovingly crafted dissonances and exciting collisions of rhythmic contour. But his foray into opera, “Afterword: An Opera in Two Acts,” is less traditionally dramatic. That’s intentional.
In the liner notes for this finely produced live recording, Lewis — a scholar, computer music specialist and trombonist — talks about the conceptual influence of Anthony Braxton’s operas. In those works, singers are not bound to representations of a single character from one act to the next. And so it is in “Afterword,” in which three singers rotate roles to depict the formation and development of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a pathbreaking experimental music community.
Lewis, a veteran of the artistic network, wrote a celebrated historical tome on the organization, and his libretto for “Afterword” freely adapts that text. The composer describes the result as a Bildungsoper, a “a coming-of-age opera of ideas.” As such, historical figures represented in his text dissolve into a collective voice. The result may stint on narrative continuity, but Lewis also offers stretches of poetic meditation. One such passage dramatizes an early meeting in which association figures debate a tenet of the A.A.C.M.’s artistic mission — specifically, all original music, all the time.
You may find yourself wanting to read along with the stream-of-collective-consciousness libretto, which is helpfully included with digital and physical purchases. Behind the vocal lines you can hear Lewis’s whirling, distinct approach to instrumental variation, even if his typical rate of change has been slowed a bit to allow for conversational English to flourish. And it does flourish, among the trio of vocal soloists, most prominently in an extraordinary performance by the contralto Gwendolyn Brown. SETH COLTER WALLS
Ravel: ‘Daphnis et Chloé’
Sinfonia of London; Sinfonia of London Chorus; John Wilson, conductor (Chandos)
The last time I reviewed a recording by John Wilson, the inquisitive, invaluable British conductor whose Sinfonia of London sounds like no other orchestra, the release was a gorgeous, poignant survey of Schreker, Korngold and Strauss last year.
Since then, Wilson has released welcome composer portraits of John Ireland and Kenneth Fuchs; an adorably saccharine disc of classic Hollywood film music; some rather uneven Rachmaninoff; English string music to die for; a complete account of “Oklahoma!”; and, perhaps my favorite of the lot, the third volume in his series of the charming scores of Eric Coates, with the BBC Philharmonic.
Wilson is a conductor defined by his range, and everything he records is worth hearing, so it may seem odd for me to choose a release of entirely canonical Ravel as the occasion to restate my praise for him. But this is no ordinary Ravel. Wilson spent more than a year painstakingly compiling an edition of the score that met his fastidious standards, and his players respond with equal dedication. You hear it all, and if there is not quite the raw lust of Charles Munch’s classic readings to be felt here, it is still fabulously beautiful, all light and air and glory. Magnificent. DAVID ALLEN
Arvo Pärt: ‘Tractus’
Maria Listra, soprano; Marrit Gerretz-Traksmnn, piano; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Tönu Kaljuste, conductor (ECM New Series)
Ever since ECM inaugurated its New Series in 1984 with “Tabula Rasa,” a collection of Arvo Pärt’s music, the recordings of Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” music that have appeared on the label have carried a particular air of mystery in their sound. Whether that’s because of the performers, the producer Manfred Eicher’s recording techniques or some secret ingredient is hard to discern. But it is certainly true of this collection focusing largely on music for strings, chorus and both.
The album begins in a deeply autumnal mood with “Littlemore Tractus,” a setting of a Cardinal Newman text on the twilight of life. A drone in the strings and shifting fourths and fifths link Pärt’s sounds to centuries-old sources of inspiration. A set of “Greater Antiphons,” string orchestra arrangements of what were originally choral works, reminds us how strong the affective element of his music is even in the absence of text. That sense is reinforced by “These Words …,” also for strings, and inspired by a liturgical fragment: Its sparks of dissonance and percussion outbursts hint at an unspoken spiritual battle.
“L’abbé Agathon,” a somber setting of an early Christian parable that at times resembles a verismo aria, is the longest work on the album. At its climax, the soprano (the outstanding Maria Listra) reaches a high passage sung with surpassing quiet and serenity. There, in one radiant yet austere moment, is this composer’s essential voice. DAVID WEININGER
Lucia Dlugoszewski: ‘Abyss and Caress’
Klangforum Wien (col legno)
When covering the premiere of “Abyss and Caress” in 1975, the New York Times critic Raymond Ericson described Lucia Dlugoszewski’s extremes of pitch, timbre and dynamics. “Common enough in contemporary music, it is true,” he allowed. And yet he lavished praise on Dlugoszewski, a Polish American composer, for putting those potentially clichéd textures through what he described as “a cycle of white‐hot intensity.”
Now, in this invaluable composer portrait album, you can hear the first recording of that vivacious and distinct work for trumpet and orchestra. The visionary conductor Ilan Volkov and Klangforum Wien play to their customary, considerable standards throughout. And, for the demanding solo trumpet part, these players secured the American Peter Evans, often heard in the company of John Zorn and the Wet Ink Ensemble.
Another work from the 1970s, “Fire Fragile Flight,” for chamber orchestra, plies similarly ferocious fields before also landing in a hissing, quieter finale. The kinetic qualities of Dlugoszewski’s style — she often wrote music with dancers in mind — can be heard on “Each Time You Carry Me This Way.”
Other tracks cover a wide range of her practice, starting in the 1950s with “Openings of the (Eye),” which was written during her period of association with Edgard Varèse and John Cage. While the brass quintet item “Angels of the Inmost Heaven” sounds like a study for the later “Abyss and Caress,” the substantial string quartet “Disparate Stairway Radical Other” (1995) shows that, in her final years, she was pushing her bracing style to new places. SETH COLTER WALLS
Bruce Brubaker (inFiné)
“One man’s nirvana is another man’s nap,” a Times reviewer complained about “Music for Airports,” Brian Eno’s 1978 foray into what he termed “ambient music.” Created largely through tape loops, Eno’s ambient works have, over the past quarter-century, become the province of new music ensembles and performers. It’s surely a sign of something that music created in part by chance is now the domain of precisely notated scores and arrangements.
This latest entry, from the omnivorous Boston-based pianist Bruce Brubaker, offers piano arrangements of Eno works, including three sections of “Music for Airports” and a few shorter pieces. Electromagnetic bows played inside the piano help recreate the resonant, atmospheric soundscape of Eno’s recordings. Brubaker is scrupulously faithful to those versions, a somewhat quixotic goal given the indeterminate, process-driven nature of the originals, next to which these arrangements sound just a bit careful and considered.
But by placing this music in a solo piano context, Brubaker reminds us of its important connections to early Minimalism, and some selections sound out of the Wandelweiser collective. On top of which, he makes this work — intended by Eno to be “as ignorable as it is interesting” — sound utterly gorgeous. DAVID WEININGER