This concludes my look back at 2015 with the newer new albums -- the ones with new, or at least contemporary, compositions, most by living composers.
1. Soloists/Warsaw Boys' Choir/Warsaw Philharmonic Male Choir/Warsaw Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Penderecki: Magnificat; Kadisz
Naxos' invaluable Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) project continues to bring us conductor Antoni Wit's impeccable renderings of the Polish composer's complex and challenging music, especially excelling in the choral works, as here.
One of the longer settings of this text (here nearly 45 minutes), Penderecki's Magnificat (1973-74) is also epic in sound, written in a high-avant style similar to his iconic St. Luke Passion, with extended singing effects (especially long glissandi, but also speaking and whispering), highly disjunctive melodies, extremely dense dissonance, and colorful cluster interjections by the orchestra, especially the winds.It has a prominent if intermittent role for solo bassist (here Wojtek Gerlach), surprising considering the speaker of the text is the Virgin Mary; it also includes a boys' choir. Even the climactic last movement is spooky, almost perversely so, though by Penderecki's standards the brass are arguably festive. Ignoring the liturgical implications in favor of the sheer sonic spectacle of it all, it's an avant-garde masterpiece. Much less well known is the 20-minuteKadisz (Kaddish), written in 2009 in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Nazi removal of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz. Penderecki's later style is much less avant-garde and dissonant, though still quite serious in tone. He has an interesting and very moving selection of texts: "Death moved from grave to grave," a poem by a young victim of the event, Abraham Cytryn; selections from the Biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah; three verses from the also-Biblical Book of Daniel; and excerpts from theKadisz Jatom (Orphan's Kaddish). There is more declamation here, spread out among a soprano, a tenor, and a speaker; the plangent clarinet solo near the end of the second movement, amid very spare orchestration, has an emotionally charged (in this context) flavor of Jewish folk music, as does the tenor's (Alberto Mizrahi) cantorial style in the last movement. My favorite passage, though, is the hushed a cappella male choir in the third movement. Discovering this piece was one of the highlights of 2015 for me.
2. Ursula Oppens
Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!; Four Hands
Rzewski's (b. 1938) monumental 1975 composition The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, 36 variations on Sergio Ortega’s Chilean protest anthem "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido," was written for Oppens, and she premiered it and later made the first recording. Here she returns to it, more familiar with its challenges and attributes, and tops her old recording and nearly everybody else's, though the composer's own shall forever remain of interest for his thoughts on it, and Marc Andre Hamelin's will never cease to be a pianistic wonder. Oppens refines her interpretation to find new depth and pathos in it, takes the option for a improvised cadenza (skipped on her first recording) and adds more beauty to the work thereby, and has better sound and perhaps more careful editing at her disposal this time out, meeting the piece's extreme virtuoso demands even better than before, especially in terms of rhythmic clarity (the piece is often full of complex polyrhythms). The People United is one of the great works of the 20th century, so a superb new recording is automatically a must-own. The CD is filled out with a much more recent work, Four Hands, a four-movement, 16-minute piece for which Oppens is joined by fellow pianist Jerome Lowenthal. It's a highly rhythmic, gestural piece, and this being its premiere recording only makes this album even more invaluable.
3. JACK Quartet/Jenny Lin/Orchestra Carbon/David Bloom/Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Rundel
Elliott Sharp: The Boreal; Oligosono; Proof of Erdös; On Corlear's Hook
4. Elliott Sharp: Octal Book Three (clean feed)
Sharp, known primarily as a guitarist, has been getting his notated works out into the world more often in recent years, and the Starkland album is an excellent example. The "title track" of this album, The Boreal, is for string quartet, but it sounds like no string quartet you have ever heard before, as the players' bows have been modified by being restrung, most drastically with metal-ball chains; the resulting sounds are already a vast departure from classical norms, and Sharp's tightly wound musical structures don't seem to bear much relationship to tradition either. The three-movement Oligosono (few/little sounds), for solo piano (Lin, who has played Sharp's music before), includes some inside-the-piano (I think) sounds, but mostly works on the keys even while again subverting expectations; it has little to do with normal piano technique, instead exploring quickly shifting and drastically contrasted textures, often focusing on repeated notes or chords/clusters that display rhythmic mutations and the interaction of reverberation and decay. Proof of Erdös (its title a reference to famed Hungarian mathematician PaulErdös and a reminder of how math has shaped Sharp's musical approach) is for chamber string orchestra; it reminds me of Arvo Pärt's "tintinnabulation" except vastly more piercing in tone. On Corlear's Hook is for full orchestra, including piano, and Sharp takes full advantage of how many opportunities that expanded instrumental palette offers for sonic contrasts.
Octal Book Three is more familiar Sharp territory, a solo guitar album. Well, solo Koll eight-string guitarbass with distortion and electronic processing. He calls the pieces "documentations of theme improvisations," and I suppose you could quibble with this being included in a classical list, even one of contemporary composers, but the impulse behind this musical approach strikes me as of a piece with, say, Xenakis, and nobody complained when I included him on the first part of this list. Sharp can produce nearly as wide a variety of sounds from his instrument as an orchestra can provide (I exaggerate for effect, but not much), and hearing his complex overlapped patterns played by just himself in real time is dazzling even beyond the impressiveness of the music itself.
5. Credo Chamber Choir/Bogdan Plish
Sviridov: Hymns and Prayers
These a cappella choral pieces are the last works of Gyorgy Sviridov (1915-1998). Very much in the tradition of Orthodox Russian liturgical music, though not all the texts Sviridov sets are in fact liturgical the pieces are mostly quiet and brooding, but with celebratory, emphatic outbursts at times -- don't turn up your volume too high in the pianissimo passages, or you'll be blasted later on by the extremely good sound on this release. The choir is superb, and the basses manage the extreme low range Russian music demands, even to an F an octave below the bottom of the staff. There may not be much variety here, but the sheer amount of beauty on display more than suffices to make this a memorable release.
6. Eric Ferrand-N'kaoua/Martial Solal
Solal: Works for Piano and Two Pianos
This was a pleasant surprise; I had no idea that, in addition to his soundtrack work (most famously Godard's Breathless) and being one of the greatest jazz pianists alive, he'd composed completely notated music. There are two major cycles here: Jazz Preludes (1990), seven mostly short pieces, and 11 Etudes (1999). Both of those plus Journey to Anatolia (2011), a set of variations on the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm," receive their recorded premieres here, and as good as they are, it's astonishing that nobody has put them out until now. They obviously partake of Solal's jazz background, but they also draw on classical tendencies (I doubt there are many jazz pianists who haven't had some classical piano training), and they could easily fit onto a recital program of, say, French composers -- and would enliven it considerably. On the only two-piano piece, Ballade for Two Pianos (1985), Solal (b. 1927) himself plays the first piano part. What a welcome "discovery"!
7. NYU Symphony Orchestra/ NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble/NYU Percussion Ensemble
Graugaard: Venus; Book of Throws; Layers of Earth; Three Places
Danish composer Lars Graugaard (b. 1957) created all four works here for these New York University groups -- he became Visiting Faculty Artist at NYU in 2010 but, far from being a stuffy academic, he incorporates electronics/computers and sometimes performs as Lars from Mars. Venus, the album's "title track," is the most intriguing; written for solo violin (Patti Kilroy), double-bass (Patrick Swoboda), electronics, and orchestra (conducted by Jens Georg Bachmann), it creates a mysterious world unto itself. Book of Throws, "for ensemble and improvising piano soloist," is a progression of orchestral eruptions through and over which the pianist, jazzman Jean-Michel Pilc, threads his way with no prior knowledge of what the ensemble will be playing, even though their music, unlike his own, is completely notated. Layers of Earth, for oboe, interactive computer, and percussion ensemble, demands the oboist (Ian Shafer) produce otherworldly timbres (even by the standard of oboe; I wonder whether sometimes it's electronically mutated); built, it seems, in cellular fashion, it finds the soloist fighting free of the surrounding textures to soar rhapsodically at times, but the metallic timbres of the percussion also enthrall. Three Places, with no soloists, is an ensemble piece of three contrasting moods, he says; they seem defined by timbres -- flutes swooping like flocks of birds, percussion chittering like insects, etc. This is all pretty far out in terms of structuring sounds across time with little or no relationship with past styles of music, yet not abrasive or hard to listen to as long as you're willing to forego easy melodies, tonality, and steady rhythm. I find it positively riveting.
8. Nicolas Horvath
Glass: Glassworlds 2: Complete Etudes Nos. 1-20
Perhaps some people may have forgotten that Philip Glass (b. 1937) spent a fair portion of the '80s performing solo piano concerts of his own works. Partly to give himself pieces written specifically for piano (much of his solo repertoire was transcriptions of his orchestral works), he wrote his first ten Etudes in the first half of the following decade. The second ten came in the period 2005-2012 (most are recorded here for the first time). He then revised the first book to make it all a "cyclic form development." Horvath played the world premiere of the complete set at Carnegie Hall at the beginning of 2015; he writes that his big, Romantic interpretations of this music are inspired by Glass's own playing and the etude tradition that includes Liszt and Rachmaninoff. (The always discerning Jed Distler coined the term "MinimaLiszt" in this regard.) There are hints here and there of non-piano pieces, sometimes because they were written contemporaneously, but his String Quartet No. 2 is deliberately quoted in the lyrical Etude No. 20 "Momento Mori" as a personal reference. Not to slight Glass's own considerable talents, but Horvath has a richer tone, and the Etudes really blossom under his fingers; as he plays them, there is no denying their place in the Etude tradition.
9. Martha Guth/Trinity Cathedral Choir of Columbia, South Carolina/Cathedral Choir of Boys & Girls/Trinity Chamber Orchestra/Jared Johnson
Rogers: Magna Mysteria
This is more traditional than most music on Innova, and through the first four movements, though I was enjoying it, I couldn't help wonder what prompted this label to issue it. Then the fifth movement, "Truth's Paradox," punched me in the gut even as it sent chills down my spine. I never heard of John Fitz Rogers before, but I'll tell you something: you don't write music this powerful and well put-together unless you're a master. The text, mixing Bible excerpts and passages from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, is also brilliant. That the recording of this 45-minute work's second performance (with some studio work as well) came out sounding this good on every level is also a tribute not only to the many musicians involved, but also to Rogers: some of the dissonances heard here -- though I hasten to note that this is not a harmonically harsh work most of the time -- can only be handled so well in such circumstances if the composer's voice-leading is exquisitely helpful. After that shattering fifth movement, Rogers puts us back together again with the seventh and final movement, "Revelation," which opens with a thrilling soprano solo sung beautifully by Guth followed by warm, hugging textures of choir and orchestra in lush and reassuring harmonies, climaxed by Guth's voice soaring over it all. Wow.
Plays Terry Riley
ZOFO is the piano duo Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi. Starting from a desire to play the five four-hand pieces in Riley's The Heaven Ladder, Book 5, ZOFO expanded the program by commissioning "Praying Mantis Rag" and arranging, with Riley's input, two string quartet pieces ("Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight" and "G Song") and "Simone's Lullaby" from The Heaven Ladder, Book 7. Don't come into this album expecting anything like "In C" or Riley's lengthy improvised pieces; this is completely notated music of less grand dimensions (the longest pieces are 12-minutes-plus), often seeming playful. On the other hand, the sonic dimensions of being able to utilize the full range of the piano via four hands instead of two adds grandness of sound. The motivic material has Riley's unique meld of concert-hall and vernacular flavors, and the development of each piece has a little of the embellishing technique of his Minimalist improvisations, just more compact. Even folks not into Minimalism will be able to relate to these pieces. Also noteworthy is the excellent engineering, which captures the full richness of the sound in a very realistic perspective, with plenty of air/room-space around the instruments. The package includes a standard CD and a Blu-ray with the same program.
11. Keith Kirchoff
Michael Hicks: The Complete Solo Piano Works 1982-2010: Felt Hammers
The heart of this album is the 14-movement The Stations of the Cross, which is also the most recent piece. No movement reaches the three-minute mark, and five are under a minute. Their material is very sparse -- few notes, sometimes with unusual amounts of space (length both of notes and of rests) between them -- but the starkness emphasizes the piquancy of the harmonies. "The Annunciation" is very similar, but with even longer rests. The earlier music -- the 1982 companion pieces "Mantikos" and "Sophikos" -- is much denser and more notey, skittering across the keyboard with bursts of energy, though already with pregnant pauses (especially in "Sophikos"). Hicks's music focuses on frequent (almost constant) contrasts -- of dynamics, of textures, of levels of dissonance, of motion vs. stasis, of registers -- which makes it very gestural in construction. My favorite piece after is "L'Épitaphe de Monk," which deconstructs jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule with Nellie," putting fragments of Monk's motifs into a Hicksian structure. The only piece I don't like, "The Idea of Domes," opens the album; the solfege aspect seems gimmicky, and if the pianist needs to sing notes, I'd prefer a wordless presentation. Just my taste, perhaps. Other than that, though, I found the pieces stimulating, and I am inclined to cut some slack for projects with "complete" in the title if the best works are of high quality.
Best Release by Friends of Culture Catch:
Eight Strings & a Whistle: Albert's Window (Ravello)
This creatively named N.Y.C. trio consists of flutist Suzanne Gilchrest, violist Ina Litera, and cellist Matt Goeke. Their program here focuses on tonal but adventurous 20th and 21st century music -- the Rokeach and Cionek works were recently written specifically for Eight Strings & a Whistle. "Going Up?" by Martin Rokeach (1953- ) fits its title, constantly reaching upward. Aloysia Serenade, Op. 19 by Peter Jona Korn (1922-1998) is a 1953 work in four movements of varying character. I'm not sure why it's called a serenade; it's pretty dark at times. Titling aside, it is an extremely well-written piece, emotionally evocative and full of apt uses of the ensemble's timbres. The three-movement Bad Robots by Edmund Cionek is said to be inspired by the rhythms of copy machines, which explains its stop-and-start phrase rhythms. It is witty and distinctive, further enlivened by some extended cello sounds in the finale. The introduction of the two new pieces and the rediscovery of the Korn work make this a most welcome release. Also included is the Trio, Op. 40 by Albert Roussel (1869-1937); written in 1929 and thus not contemporary, is certainly a fine piece of music, but obviously doesn't fall within the boundaries of this list. But, given the unusual instrumentation of this ensemble, perhaps it was an inspiration for them.
Best Music-Related Art/Book:
Denise Burt: Seeing New Music -- Contemporary classical music through the eyes of a graphic designer (Narayana Press)
Burt (b. 1972) has been designing album covers for a decade plus. This book collects her art for 24 releases and tells the story behind each one -- her interactions with the composers, if any, her/their thoughts on the music and how that inspired her designs, and so forth. The designs are varied -- she's no one-trick pony -- and often quite effective, and even when at first glance I don't like one or two, her explanation of the context makes them make sense. It's a very interesting look behind the scenes. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.