Saturday, March 28, 2020

Album Reviews: My Liederabend | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

You may notice I haven't posted in a few days. This week, I learned that online school is still a full-time job when you procrastinate as much as I do. Oh well.

But that doesn't mean I haven't been listening -- in fact, as assignments pile up, I've been listening more than ever!

A few nights ago, I had a particularly difficult and long-winded problem set. Long enough that I feel like I can put "reconstructing sounds of proto-Quechuan" on my resumé now. I found myself hankering for lieder, so I put on one album after another and next thing I knew, I had gone through four full albums.

I figured it prudent for my time (and yours) to do a mini-reviews post rather than four full-length posts. So here you go: a summary of my liederabend.

1. The Contrast: English Poetry in Song
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Quilter, and Huw Watkins. Released on BIS in February 2020.

I don't believe in God. But I do believe in Carolyn Sampson. And that's kind of the same thing.

I think there might have been a time when Carolyn Sampson was a strict early music specialist, but thankfully she's branched out. Of course, her Bach solo cantatas are still my favorite out there, but her musical sensibility applies so well to everything and anything, from heavily stylized French baroque to quirkier selections like these. I'm not going to try to find words to describe her voice, but let's just say this: I sent this album to a good friend and her reaction was (verbatim): "Who is this angel, and when can I see her live?" Joseph Middleton has that perfect touch of a pianist who specializes in lieder, never overshadowing the voice and always magnifying its drama. They are the unstoppable duo.

2. A Lesson in Love
Kate Royal, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Works by pretty much anyone you can think of. Released on Warner Classics in February 2011.

The program of this album is all over the place in the best possible way. Cabaret songs, Schumann and Brahms, folk music of America, Britain, Ireland, France, all in some of the best versions I've heard. Case in point: almost every soprano has recorded "Gretchen am Spinnrade" at some point, and Royal's rendition is easily in my top three (right up there with Carolyn Sampson). Her American music is better than most American singers -- two different takes of William Bolcom's jazz-twinged "Waitin'" give the varied program a distinct contour and a resounding cadence, and a short pastorale of Copland left me halfway to tears. Malcolm Martineau accompanies the simple British airs -- think "Danny Boy" and "O Waly, Waly" -- with just as much tender attention as the more conventionally difficult music on the program.

3. Art Songs
Fiora, soprano; Paul Hankinson, piano. Works by a lot of people, look for yourself you lazy bum. Self-released in 2002.

I'm pretty sure Fiora hasn't thought about this album in awhile. She's now a successful singer-songwriter with 600,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But before she hit her fame in that field, she released a single album of art songs -- she's a classically trained vocalist and composer. Honestly, I was really impressed. She's got this lovely syrup to her voice, fluid and unencumbered by excessive vibrato. Her program has a couple standouts, including the opening movement from Hindemith's "Das Marienleben" (a piece that makes me regret not being a soprano) and a beautiful original setting of "The Watcher" (couldn't figure out who the poet was).

4. The Divine Muse
Mary Bevan, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Haydn, Schubert, and Wolf. Released on Signum Classics in January 2020.

Haydn's vocal works never get the love they deserve. Recently, I've fallen in love with Arianna a Naxos, a virtuosic monodrama depicting the scene where Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Fiery, passionate, and vocally demanding, the music suits Mary Bevan's full voice perfectly, Ariadne's agony clear from her frenzied inflections. She cools significantly for selections from Wolf's vast vocal opus, the crunchy harmonies providing latticework for her calming melodic overlay. And of course, you can never go wrong with Schubert. Overall, a fabulous album -- though maybe not as fabulous as her recording of Holst's set of four songs for soprano and violin, one of my favorite pieces ever (I have a lot of favorite pieces ever).

Monday, March 23, 2020

Album Review: "Songs of Olden Times" by Heinavanker | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image result for heinavanker songs of olden times

WHO: Heinavanker; Margo Kõlar, director
WHAT: Estonian runic songs
RELEASED: September 2013
LABEL: Harmonia Mundi

I've mentioned this album more than once before. I know that.

But this morning, I woke up to day umpteen of isolation and it was slushy and gray and blah outside. It put me in a bad mood. This album was all I could think to listen to. So I listened as I was cooking, and it hit the spot.

Frankly, now that I'm through the album, I still can't think of listening to anything else. I may start from the beginning and listen through again.

Happy first day back to "school," guys. Stay strong.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Album Review: "Serious Business" by Spektral Quartet | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

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And I oop--

 Spektral Quartet
WHAT: New works by Sky Macklay, David Reminick, and Chris Fisher-Lochhead, plus a Haydn quartet
RELEASED: January 2016
LABEL: Sono Luminus

Challenge: I'm going to write this post before my oxtails come out of the pressure cooker in half an hour. For those of you who care: onions, garlic, stock, and red wine (a little bit for the oxtails, a little bit for me 😉). That's it.

Classical music is too damn serious. Have you ever dropped your program during a piece? People will literally look at you as if they want to throw you off a bridge.

Classical music hasn't always been so serious -- you can thank Richard Wagner for that -- but rarely is it overtly funny (barring opera buffa, of course). Haydn had his moments, even Mozart and Beethoven stepped into parody-land once in awhile.

For this album, The Spektral Quartet asked three composers to try their hands at "funny music" with wildly different results. Sky Macklay composed a piece that consists entirely of cadences -- Many Many Cadences as the title so creatively describes. The cadence, of course, functions as a tonal stabilizer. Macklay forces the quartet to hop between cadences with such speed that any sense of stability is lost, even though there is theoretically a "stabilization" every few seconds.

David Reminick chose absurdist poetry as his starting point; The Ancestral Mousetrap requires the quartet to sing a libretto by poet Russell Edson. They sing very well, proving my theory that instrumentalists are sometimes better singers than singers. One of the members sounds like Elvis Costello -- whoever does the bulk of the singing on the 4th movement.

The final premiere on the album, Chris Fisher-Lochhead's Hack, uses the instruments of the quartet to model the sounds produced by standup comedians during their routines. My linguist brain was intrigued. On the album, it doesn't evoke human speech so much, but it's so cool when they map the composition over the comedian's bit. Either way, cool piece.

And then in the middle of all this fun new music came the Haydn "Joke" quartet. I've played it. It's funny. But also, I kind of wish they had commissioned another new piece? I'm not exactly complaining, I'm always in favor of a good performance of a good Haydn quartet. But it also seemed a touch out of place.

Anyway, great album. Go listen. My oxtails are calling.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Album Review: "Songs in the Key of Life" by Stevie Wonder | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

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WHO: Stevie Wonder
WHAT: Stevie Wonder (need I say more?)
RELEASED: September 1976
LABEL: Tamla Records

I felt like listening to Stevie Wonder today.

It would be criminal of me to review this album. Coincidentally, I need a day off from writing.

If you haven't listened to this album, look at yourself really closely in the mirror and evaluate your life choices. Then go listen. Now.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Album Review: "Discussions" by Roscoe Mitchell | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image may contain: Human, Person, Musical Instrument, Leisure Activities, Horn, and Brass Section

WHO: Roscoe Mitchell, composer and saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell Orchestra
WHAT: New compositions and improvisations by Roscoe Mitchell
RELEASED: September 2017
LABEL: Wide Hive

When I crave free jazz, I'm usually in one of two situations. More often than not, I listen to free jazz when I'm walking around NYC -- the aural chaos of the music befits the visual chaos of the city. However, I also find that I love to listen to free jazz when I'm cooking or washing dishes. Cooking isn't so cerebral for me; it leaves my brain free to ponder anything and everything. Raise your hand if you've ever had a mid-meatloaf existential crisis. Or is that just me?

So, I try to put on some music that requires me to pay attention. Today, it was this phenomenal free jazz-classical-fusion (kind of?) album.

Roscoe Mitchell founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago a little more than 50 years ago. AEC was among the pioneering ensembles of this high-entropy kind of free jazz, a little less predictable than their predecessors and a little more similar to avant-garde classicists of the day like Stockhausen (💗) and Berio.

Mitchell is mainly known for his small-ensemble improvised compostions, but in this album he extends a few of his earlier compositions to a full orchestra. The way he uses the orchestral timbre is interesting -- the proud opening of "Home Screen" reminds me vaguely of a totally unrelated piece, Silvestre Revueltas's Ocho por Radio.

I find that the full orchestra gives me more to consider, more to pay attention to. Infinitely many different sounds can come out of any one instrument; infinity times a twenty-person orchestra, now that's living. Mitchell's use of the orchestra keeps your focus darting from one instrument to the next. He almost treats every instrument as a melody and an accompaniment at once. Of course, Mitchell also programs some of his signature small-ensemble improvisations, providing some contrast adding that disorder that free-jazz aficionados crave.

I'm going to keep it short today because I'm quite tired and I'm not done cleaning out my refrigerator, but I'm just going to say that this was a great album for washing dishes and chopping onions. Give it a listen and tell me what else it's good for!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Album Review: "Where Only Stars Can Hear Us" by Karim Sulayman and Yi-heng Yang | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image result for where only stars can hear us schubert

WHO: Karim Sulayman, tenor; Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano
WHAT: Songs by Schubert
RELEASED: March 2020
LABEL: Avie Records

A few months ago, I had the fortune to see the Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble give a workshop here in New Haven as part of their inaugural performance weekend (my thoughts here). I was milling about afterwards and ended up briefly chatting with one of their tenors, Karim Sulayman.

Rewind for one second: Sulayman's first solo album (I think? Karim, feel free to correct me on this post's Twitter thread) won last year's Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Solo. That album, an Orpheus-themed program he recorded with Cleveland baroque ensemble Apollo's Fire, deserved every bit of that gold statue.

Anyway, I told him I was a sometimes-critic and that I loved his first album, and he said, "Oh, you should review my second album which comes out in March!" I'm sure he's talked to a lot of people since that September night, and I have no reason to believe he would remember this exchange six months later. But hey, I was planning to listen to the album anyway, might as well write a thing or two.

This Schubert has its priorities straight. Text comes first in Sulayman's interpretations. The small inflections in his timbre convey textual themes equally well to audiences of all German-speaking levels -- take that from me (three semesters of college German) and my best friend (a lifetime of Mahler scores and nothing else). From the seemingly bratty child in Erlkönig (RIP), to the poignantly longing fisherman of Des fischers Liebesglück, he is an actor first.

If you do nothing else, watch this video. Like, I'd rather
you watch this video than read my review. Completely serious.

But, of course, that's not to detract from his voice, clear and transparent. He barely covers his sound, allowing every ounce of that underlying emotion to shine through -- have you ever heard what a smile sounds like? Now I have.

Both performers treat these lieder as chamber music. It's unclear who leads the stretches that come so often throughout the album, but whenever one part pushes, the other follows. Yang's slightly delayed cadences gain weight with a quick breath from Sulayman. Sulayman stretches a phrase climax, Yang rolls a chord to help accent. The two work symbiotically, melding the intense drama from each of their parts into a composite, deeply affecting pathos.

I want to hear Yi-heng Yang play more Schubert on this amazing 1830 fortepiano. What are the odds someone can fund her to do a sonatas album? (Plus, her Erlkönig was....just wow. Especially considering the slow action on most Wow wow wow.)

Schubert is parlor music. I really don't need to hear a Wagnerian heldentenor shake the walls with Winterreise. A good Schubert duo goes overboard in their story-telling, but not in their sound production -- the walls don't need to shake as long as my heart is full. Sulayman and Yang are a good Schubert duo. Perhaps even a great Schubert duo. Or maybe an unstoppable Schubert duo.

Old people, a word from the next generation: stop crying about how we'll "never have another Pavarotti" and instead listen to the immensely talented tenors that we do have. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Besides which, can you imagine Pavarotti singing Schubert? Ew.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Album Review: "Prologue" by Francesca Aspromonte and Il Pomo d'Oro | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

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WHO: Francesca Aspromonte, soprano; Il Pomo d'Oro; Enrico Onofri, director
WHAT: Prologues to operas by Monteverdi, Caccini, Cavalli, Landi, Rossi, Cesti, Stradella, and A. Scarlatti
RELEASED: May 2018
LABEL: Pentatone

Guys, I'm really fucking bored. My brain is kinda turning to mush. I've turned to practicing cello to give myself something to do. Do you know how much I hate practicing? A lot. I hate practicing a lot.

Anyway, one thing I think we could all use during this weird, crazy time is music to listen to -- according to an email that one of my professors sent a couple hours ago, "music can be at its most powerful in times of crisis and uncertainty." Musicians always know how to cheer up a crowd, huh?

So I'm going to try to review an album every day that I'm stuck inside. No particular theme, just what I happen to be listening to at the moment. They're not going to be long, but hopefully they'll keep me busy and give you some new music to try out.

One thing that you should know about me is that I organize all the music I have yet to listen to into 60 or so playlists according to instrumentation and time period. "Romantic Keyboard"; "20th-Century Choral"; you get the idea. My "Baroque Solo Vocal" list is on the long side -- up around 170 hours (but I'm also terrible about clearing out what I've already listened to).

Today, I wanted Italian baroque opera, probably because I'm mourning the cancellation of Yale's annual baroque opera project (Cavalli's Doriclea, for anyone who cares -- good luck finding a recording). Luckily, this was near the top of my list.

Though prologues have fallen out of fashion in opera today, they were among the most important parts of early operatic structure. An allegorical character -- usually just named "Prologue" -- would come onstage and address the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall and foreshadowing the overarching themes of the plot to come. Usually, this takes the form of a recitative (imagine you're speaking, but while singing one note over and over again) with instrumental interludes (usually ornamented versions of a single theme).

Owning a recitative is hard. I've tried (and failed) myself -- it takes a lot of energy to make a repeated note interesting. You wouldn't know that from Francesca Aspromonte's performance. Recitative is clearly second-nature to her; her text stresses land with gravity, but don't halt forward momentum. Her voice is clear and sweet, blooming beautifully in the brief arias where she has less text to worry about.

Il Pomo d'Oro somehow put out six albums in 2018 alone, and all of the ones I've listened to are fantastic. This pared-down ensemble of a couple violins and a continuo section hits the mark; the violinists clearly play together rather than following one another, and the harpsichordist's improvisations combine pinpoint precision with wild, unhinged improvisation.

Great album, would recommend.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Review: Ensemble Graindelavoix at The Met Cloisters

WHO: Ensemble Graindelavoix; Björn Schmelzer, director
WHAT: JOSQUIN Stabat mater; BROWNE Salve regina; OBRECHT Salve regina à 6; ASHWELL "Sanctus" and "Agnus Dei" from Missa Ave Maria
WHERE: Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters
WHEN: March 7, 2020 at 3pm

What a week it's been.

I try to be an optimist when I can. So, when the Yale Glee Club's tour got canceled two hours before we were supposed to leave, I decided I'd hop down into NYC and see a couple weeks of concerts instead. Foolproof, right?

Well, I only got to three concerts before all my other tickets started getting canceled. So now I'm back in my apartment in New Haven, leaving only to make apocalyptica runs to Trader Joe's or to take long, brooding walks with friends (maintaining a distance of six feet, of course). Sigh.

But hey, more time for writing, I guess? Optimism!

Whoever curates The Cloisters' live arts series deserves a medal. I've now seen four concerts this year in the Fuentidueña Chapel, and each one has left me significantly happier than when I sat down. This one was no different. Despite the surgical-mask-clad couple next to me and the stenches of hand sanitizer and hysteria in the air, Graindelavoix provided a perfect, hour-long vacation.

And it was after-hours on a Friday too. Meryl, if you're reading this, you're a saint.
I consume a lot of Renaissance polyphony -- it's my go-to stress relief music. Each ensemble has their signature sound. Tenebrae has wobbly basses. Voces8 has no vibrato at all (AT ALL). Vox Luminis has a distinctive ensemble crescendo (it's freaky how together they are).

Grandelavoix's hallmark seems to be a heftier take on polyphony. Tempos are majestically slow (not to be confused with boring), and the singers have this sinewy, almost buzzy tone that highlights harmonic clashes. Everything is prone to ebb and flow; the tempo stretches like taffy, then slowly regains its shape. The singers each add their own ornaments into the music, almost reminiscent of traditional folk polyphonies of Corsica or Sardinia.

Conductor Björn Schmelzer's degrees are not in conducting, but rather in musicology and anthropology. His interpretations stem from interdisciplinary approaches to music, clearly well-informed by early modern history as well as medieval vocal traditions. Merely a catalyst for an ensemble that clearly trusts each other, his large gesture pulls musicality from the ensemble like a stubborn cork from a wine bottle.

God, I'm in a metaphorical mood today. Gotta let the imagination run wild when you're inside all day, I suppose.

Anyway, I get the sense that Graindelavoix doesn't make it stateside so often, but if they're near you I'd recommend you go. In the meanwhile, they have many fabulous albums -- the one that I listened to on the way back downtown was Byzantine chant and 13th-century antiphons from the Codex Cyprus, one of few medieval manuscripts surviving the French court in Nicosia, Cyprus. And, according to one of their countertenors (s/o Andrew for chatting with me for like 20min), there's a new Josquin album dropping next year to celebrate 600 years since his death. Take that, #Beethoven250!