Switched On – Roger Eno: The Turning Year (Deutsche Grammophon)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Roger Eno has been recording music for nearly 40 years. We first heard from him in the form of a shared credit with brother Brian and Daniel Lanois in their Apollo soundtrack, after which he wrote a series of albums for the revered All Saints Records, either in a solo capacity, in collaboration with the likes of Kate St John or Peter Hammill, or as part of ambient supergroup Channel Light Vessel.

Now he has moved to Deutsche Grammophon, Eno is taking the chance to assess some of his solo work while making new compositions too. He describes The Turning Year as, “A collection of short stories or photographs of individual scenes, each with its own character but somehow closely related to the other”. It is an album of observation, describing a natural cycle but also effectively documenting his own musical evolution. For example the oldest work, Stars and Wheels, is a solo organ piece of 20+ years, but was re-imagined for this album as Roger worked with producer Christian Badzura.

What’s the music like?

Eno is a consistent composer, and his brand of pastoral ambience is very easy on the ear but surprisingly difficult to imitate. The Turning Year captures his voice beautifully, unfolding at an easy pace. The creation of mood takes greater importance than that of melody, but the two nonetheless work closely together, with simple phrases that undergo development to produce music of subtly powerful feeling.

It is to Eno’s credit that he never crosses the line into sugary sentiment. Right from the start, the evocative A Place We Once Walked is attractively coloured and slightly wistful in its contemplation. The title track has a greater sense of purpose, while Bells is deeply personal, its slow piano revealing intimate thoughts and designs. On The Horizon is notable for a really nice clarinet colouring, while a slight chill lies in store on the autumnal Something Made Out Of Nothing.

Stars and Wheels is rather beautiful in its new clothing, panning out with some remote sounds that at the same time are extremely comforting, recreating the feeling Apollo gave of travelling slowly through deep space.

Does it all work?

Yes. Eno really flourishes in this company, and the scoring really does his keyboard-sourced music a good deal of favours.

Is it recommended?

It is. Although arguably Roger Eno’s best work remains in his earlier albums for All Saints, the move to Deutsche Grammophon has really given him the opportunity to blossom, a chance he is taking with both hands.

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There are several options for purchasing and streaming The Turning Year, which you can explore here

On Record – Jóhann Jóhannsson: Drone Mass (Deutsche Grammophon)

drone-mass

written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Drone Mass is one of the last completed works from the late and much missed Jóhann Jóhannsson. It was commissioned by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, and given its first performance in 2015, at the Temple of Dendur in New York’s Metropolitan Music of Art. Jóhannsson took part in early performances of the work, but due to his sudden and sad death in 2018 was not present for this recording, made by ACME and their director Clarice Jensen in 2019. Joining the members of the ensemble were Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier, who also took part in the early performances.

As Jensen makes clear in the booklet, Drone Mass is ‘neither a setting of the mass nor a piece that simply drones’ – but it is a sacred piece that has recurring drones throughout the work. It also has new technology as a background theme, Jóhannsson using his mastery of electronic music to write about drones as a force in the world today. The work’s vocals are drawn from the ancient Nag Hammadi scriptures and are written in Coptic, leading to a billing for Drone Mass as ‘an electroacoustic oratorio’.

What’s the music like?

The music takes its lead from the vocals, bringing together elements of ancient polyphony and new, drone-filled electronic textures. Because of this it is possible to approach Jóhannsson’s music from several directions, hearing old, unaccompanied melodies that can switch to electronics with little to no warning. The two work well together, especially as Jóhannsson’s music moves at a relatively slow pace. His language takes its lead from the ‘holy minimalism’ of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, but is never derivative, searching as it does for a successful fusion of old and new methods of communication.

That search breeds a great deal of tension, which brings depth to the Drone Mass. The work starts with what sounds like an old, ornamented melody on One is True that gradually evolves into a substantial statement from all performing forces. Two Is Apochryphal is a meditative study with high, remarkably pure vocals, then Triptych In Mass contrasts plaintive violin arpeggios with two vocal lines, one drone like and the other much more mannered. The emotional centre of the work, however, lies in the two Divine Objects settings. Part one has a particularly haunting motif which develops into a powerfully wrought statement.

Does it all work?

It does. Although its constituent sections work well out of context, the Drone Mass is at its most effective when heard beginning to end in one sitting, taking shape and growing slowly but surely as it proceeds. The standard of performance is commendably high, too – thanks to outstanding singing from the Theatre of Voices, holding the sustained notes with impressive surety and accuracy. Meanwhile ACME provide the exquisitely shaded instrumental contributions.

Is it recommended?

Yes, without hesitation. Often pieces like this go for too many gestures or try to hit the harmonic sweet spots too often. Jóhann Jóhannsson is different, writing fluently to a larger scale, with music that grows in stature across its hour-long length. It leaves us with much to ponder, the only shame of course being that its composer is no longer around to hear what a fine recording has been made in his honour. In Drone Mass, he leaves a deeply felt and starkly effective representation of our times.

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You can purchase this compilation at the Deutsche Grammophon website, where you can hear more clips and read more about the project.

On record – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: The Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon (Deutsche Grammophon

orpheus-chamber-orchestra-complete

Soloists, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Various works (see DG link below for full repertoire details)

Deutsche Grammophon 4839948 (55 CDs)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This box set tells the story of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – soon to celebrate their 50th anniversary – and the recordings they have made to date for Deutsche Grammophon. Formed in 1972, the conductor-less ensemble from New York have amassed an impressive body of work, spanning repertoire from Handel and Vivaldi to Schoenberg and William Bolcom, examined here across 55 CDs.

The group have enjoyed a fruitful relationship with DG, undertaking several projects. Among these are the Mozart wind concertos, with principals from the orchestra employed as soloists, and a clutch of hand-picked Haydn symphonies. Jed Distler’s booklet introduction, meanwhile, reveals a remarkable agreement which saw them commit the Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies and Verklarte Nacht to disc in 1989, in return for a version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons four years later.

Also included in this set is a previously unavailable account of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, a live recording from Warsaw in 2018.

What’s the music like?

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra records are known for their crisp ensemble and energetic, engaging performances, but also for their poise. While their approach to Baroque music might not appeal to historical purists, nobody can deny the enthusiasm they bring to the Handel Concerti Grossi Op.6, nor their vibrant collection of Vivaldi Cello Concertos with regular collaborator Mischa Maisky, or the Flute Concertos with Patrick Gallois.

Their Mozart is particularly enjoyable, the wind concertos blossoming under the ‘home’ soloists, who have the advantage of an immediate musical rapport with their accompanists. The Sinfonia Concertante, with soloists Todd Phillips (violin) and Maureen Gallagher (viola), is especially good, while horn players William Purvis and David Jolley, clarinettist Charles Neidich, flautist Susan Palma-Nidel, oboist Randall Wolfgang and bassoonist Frank Morelli also excel. The Flute and Harp Concerto, with harpist Nancy Allen, is sublime, while a generous selection of the wind Serenades and string Divertimenti are delightful.

The Haydn symphonies fare particularly well, too, and often have an irresistible zest. The account of the Symphony no.80 in D minor is notable in this respect, but there is restraint and darker feeling in the Symphony no.49 in F minor, ‘La Passione’, its introduction taken at a daringly slow tempo. Meanwhile the disc of Rossini overtures still defies gravity in the absence of a conductor, a remarkable achievement!

The inclusion of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony boosts an already excellent account of the two piano concertos, with Jan Lisiecki. It is fresh faced and buoyant in the outer movements, with a balletic poise for the inner two. Meanwhile their account of Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus has plenty of spring in its step, as does a wonderful disc devoted to music for strings by Grieg and Tchaikovksy. The Dvořák Serenades, too, fare particularly well, and there are two thoroughly engaging discs devoted to the music of Copland and Ives.

Best of all are the orchestra’s Stravinsky and Schoenberg recordings. The Stravinsky selection has excellent accounts of the ballets Pulcinella (the suite) and Orpheus, but equally valuable are the shorter pieces, where the composer’s gruff humour is caught to rhythmic perfection. The performance of Dumbarton Oaks could hardly be bettered. The Schoenberg has some eye-watering virtuosity in the Chamber Symphony no.1, an ideal way in for doubters of the composer – as is a translucent Chamber Symphony no.2 and a velvet-textured Verklarte Nacht.

Finally a mention for the orchestra’s Respighi, a colourful and moving trio of pieces comprising The Birds, a selection of the Ancient Airs and Dances and a particularly vivid account of the Trittico Botticelliano, showing off the composer’s colourful orchestration but also his deeply felt treatment of long-treasured melodies.

Does it all work?

Largely. One could argue that the disc of French orchestral music is a touch too glossy, or that the recordings of Bartók, Kodály and Suk do not quite have the authority a central European ensemble might bring to them. Even with those reservations, however, they are so well played that there is so much to enjoy, the slow movement of the Bartók Divertimento a particularly chilly example.

Is it recommended?

Unreservedly. This is a superb collection from an orchestra who are essentially a single instrument themselves, so together are their interpretations and their virtuosity. Their recording legacy for DG is unlike any other, and it is to be hoped it will blossom still further over – who knows? – maybe the next 50 years. This is a remarkably solid platform on which to build.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Presto website.

Reading

You can read Arcana’s interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin here, and listen to a playlist picking out Ben Hogwood’s personal favourites here.

Talking Heads: Dov Scheindlin, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

dov-scheindlin

Interview with Ben Hogwood

It’s another hot, sunny morning in New York, and Arcana is talking with violist Dov Scheindlin, a member and former director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion Deutsche Grammophon have just issued all the ensemble’s recording for the label on a 55-CD box set. Dov has graciously given part of his early morning to talk about his time with the orchestra and some of their philosophies. We begin – naturally – by asking how the relationship started.

“I’d been a fan of Orpheus for a long time, and was a fan long before I was lucky enough to start playing with the orchestra. In 1988 I entered the Juilliard School. As a present I got my very first CD player, and I got a CD with it! It was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing Dvořák Serenades. I listened to that CD, over and over, and it remains one of my favourites. That was the first time I really got to know Orpheus. Then I got to see them in Carnegie Hall a few years later, and the live experience was totally transforming. I was really lucky because I was living in London for six years, and when I came back from there in 2004 I was lucky enough to begin playing with the orchestra. I knew some people in common, and they were generous enough to let me come in and sub, and gradually it became a permanent thing.”

He has vivid memories of his first concert with the orchestra. “Oh gosh, yeah – we did something fiendishly difficult, which was the John Adams Chamber Symphony. Without a conductor it’s extremely complicated, with 15 moving parts, and I think they threw me in the deep end! I played principal viola, which was amazing to me because I was playing with them for the very first time. I think the idea behind Orpheus of shared responsibility, and seeking leadership, it meant they were good about allowing people to step into big roles right away. One of the things they wanted to find out was how you would do in that situation. It was a great experience. We took it on tour to a number of places and then we played it in Carnegie Hall. It was great fun. I don’t remember what else was on the programme but the Chamber Symphony sticks out in my mind, an amazing experience.”

The Adams, presented in that concert as a ‘one part per player’ version of the Chamber Symphony for the first time, is typical of the orchestra’s adventurous approach. Scheindlin agrees. “One of the things about the small orchestra is that we love our repertoire, but it is a bit more constrained – we don’t play Rachmaninov symphonies or anything like that. We’re always looking for things to play, and we actively commissioned new pieces for a formation of our size. One of the things we also do is to look to the existing repertoire to see what could be done, convincingly, musically and tastefully for an orchestra of our size. That broadens the repertoire, and the Adams was an example of that. There are more examples coming up in our next season, and we think of ourselves as trying to broaden the mission of the chamber orchestra.”

Scheindlin had a great deal of experience of membership with string quartets, which stood him in good stead for joining the orchestra. “Absolutely. That was one of the things that made it a really good fit. Orpheus is not ‘leader-less’, it’s ‘leader-full’. I think they’re looking for everyone to contribute. Occasionally a great player comes in, but doesn’t have anything to say, or is just looking to follow the leader, and that doesn’t work out as well. We’re really looking for people who can contribute ideas, bring ideas to the table, and we bring them all together and make them larger than the sum of the parts. Playing in a quartet, and having that experience of being responsible for 25% at least of the interpretation, has been great training for being in Orpheus. It’s about knowing when to contribute, when to sit back. It’s one of those subtle dances, because everyone has hundreds of opinions about everything. You need to pick the right moment to make your mark, and not overplay your hand. I think that people with a chamber music background do very well at Orpheus for that reason.”

Scheindlin finds the viola section a particularly stimulating place to be, right in the middle of the musical action. “It’s one of the things I love about playing the viola. Aside from the warm sound, and the timbre of the instrument, it is the position in the middle of the ensemble. It really makes you sensitive to everything that’s going on in the music. You’re not like likely to get lost at one end or the other. That’s another thing that’s been great for Orpheus, is that everyone knows the score very thoroughly. As the violist you’re right in the middle of the score, and what you’re playing often doesn’t make sense without having the whole context, so you’re constantly aware of all the other parts. You’re not just playing your part, you’re playing the whole piece – it’s just that you’re only sounding your own part. As a violist I love that.

As well as the DG box set, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has accompanied Brad Mehldau on a recent Nonesuch release, Variations. The recording was made some time ago, but has fond memories for Dov. “That was really fun. We did a whole tour of Europe, and he was such a low key personality, we were all kind of in awe of him. He would just sit down and focused, and when we played we felt like it was brand new every time even though it was a classically written out sort of piece. Although there I remember there were there there’s a cadenza in there I think where he did something totally different at the time and we were just sort of sat there in amazement. But yeah, that was a great experience with Brad Mehldau. I think we did that tour about 10 years ago, so I’m so happy to see that recording has seen the light of day.

Fast forward to performing in the light of a pandemic, and we start to talk about the experience of playing live while wearing masks, as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra did recently in their concert of Haydn’s Seven Last Words. Scheindlin admits that performances can be compromised. “It’s a somewhat disembodied experience. I’m so glad for the existence of the masks, and they make it possible for us to play together, those and now the vaccines, of course. I’m not against them, but they are definitely an impediment to direct communication. That said, you get over it and we do a lot of eye contact. I got used to looking for people’s eyes, though you do feel like you’re missing part of the picture also sometimes. If the mask isn’t positioned properly it can affect your own perception of your sound, but you get used to it. Certainly we’d much rather play with masks than not play with them.”

It was clearly a thrill to return to the live environment. “Absolutely. We hadn’t played together in about six months, and finally in September we did our first live, chamber music concert. It was Egmont. My very first concert was a chamber music concert in the courtyard of a church. They had drawn circles in chalk on the lawn, and everyone was able to bring their own lawn chair to sit in there, maybe 50 people in all. It was a beautiful late afternoon, and we started with the Sextet from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. It is such a beautiful, nostalgic and reflective piece, and something about it was just a transcending moment. I just felt so grateful and realised I would never take the experience of playing a live performance for granted again. The pandemic has obviously not been a net plus for humanity, but if there’s one thing I take out of it it’s rededicating myself to the power of what we do.”

Scheindlin speaks candidly about his own experience of lockdown. “It was a challenge,” he says frankly. “I have two young children, aged nine and six. When the pandemic came their schools closed down and we were suddenly teachers and chefs and all kinds of things that we’ve never been before. That took a tremendous amount of our energy, particularly the first six months up until September when school reopened, which freed up a little more time. It was a tough period, but it was great to spend more time with the family. I’m used to playing so many concerts at night, and my wife is a violinist as well, so also plays a lot at night. Three or four nights a week we wouldn’t be putting the kids to bed, but now suddenly we’re putting them to bed all the time! That part was nice, but having to stand over their shoulder while they did remote learning wasn’t that great, I’ll confess. It took up a lot of our energy. I made it an iron law to practice an hour a day. That was about the most I could consistently muster. I had to have that hour as a moment of sanity, a moment of focus and purpose when we didn’t know when we would get back to playing. I practised Bach Suites every day.”

He vividly recounts the start of lockdown. “I remember three or four days into it I got very shaken. They were starting to cancel things – the next few weeks, the next month – and then it became “Oh sorry, we’ll see you in the fall”, and I was wondering when is it ever going to change? Fortunately, with distancing, masks and amazing vaccines which I think I certainly didn’t expect to work so quickly, we’ve been able to get back together. It’s miraculous.”

With those revelations came an awareness of the orchestra’s importance in the community. “When we started performing again, the audiences were so grateful. Everyone was grateful, it was almost like a religious experience. One of the great things we did when we couldn’t be together in person was play a series of concerts, which we called reflections, on Zoom for audiences in elder care homes, and for people with severe medical issues and dementia. It was a great way to stay in touch with our audiences, to see the joy on their faces when they were able to hear music, even if they weren’t physically there. We did those fairly regularly, one person, or I would play with my wife. That was a great experience during the shutdown. We strive to serve and represent our community, and we’ve missed everyone, and we’re trying to reconnect right now and looking forward to next year when we can go back to performing in the places that we usually do.” A chance to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, too? “Yes – and a personal recovery from when I turned 50 too!”

In celebration of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s 50 years, Deutsche Grammophon have released a box set of all the ensemble’s recordings on the label. From experience, when you think you’ve heard every recording another one pops up that DG sneaked out in the 1990s, especially. “There is such a repository of amazing repertoire”, says Dov. “I’ve been digging into it myself.” We talk about shared favourites, such as the disc of Respighi pieces including Trittico Botticelliano. “That’s a great, lesser-known bit of repertoire that’s just beautiful music and which hasn’t seen the light of day. I’m not actually on it because it was before my time but I love that recording and am proud we brought that repertoire back.”

Asked for a personal favourite, Dov is quick in his response. “We recently did a Mendelssohn CD with Jan Lisiecki playing both Mendelssohn piano concertos. I know the first one but had never heard the second, and they are charming pieces. He does an amazing job. We also did the Italian Symphony, which is on the box, and that’s a piece we come back to again and again. The first chord makes me think of Orpheus straight away, and it’s great that we have it on CD now. There are so many that are really wonderful – the Ives recordings, the Stravinsky. There is such a rich bunch of stuff, and I hope we get to continue making them and finding new repertoire to bring forward.”

The orchestra is famous for working without a conductor, and I ask Scheindlin what the secret behind their success might be. Is it because they are a team of leaders? “I think so. There is a certain verve that comes from everyone interpreting a piece in real time without an intermediary. We’re all directly connected to the score and to each other, and we don’t need to follow a human metronome. There are great and inspiring conductors, and when you get to a certain scale you need one, but I think what makes our music making so fresh and live is that we’re all leading all the time and playing our hearts out.”

The forthcoming season is packed with exciting concerts. “We’re really excited about our tour with Branford Marsalis,” he says. It was supposed to happen this past year but we’re really thrilled it could be rescheduled. We’re doing our sort of first concert of Cuban-style music, with Arturo Sandoval, which should be really great, and we also have a tour coming up in in Japan with Nobuyuki Tsujii who we’ve also recorded with. We’ll be taking the Chopin concertos to Japan, assuming that we can still get around the world by then. We’re so happy to be coming Carnegie Hall, which we haven’t been in for a year and a half now. January will hopefully be a triumphant return! We’re optimistic for the season.”

There is clearly a thirst in New York for the return of live music. “Everything was so quiet for a year, and suddenly I’m getting calls all the time to play something next week! Suddenly people are deciding it’s possible and feasible to have live music again. I know there are these variants out there, and obviously we’re watching that, but so far the situation in New York is good and coming to life.”

With the orchestra committed to new music, have they received extra numbers of commissions? “It’s been tough for composers, because it would never have occurred to great composers of the classical time to write anything without an idea of when it would be performed. We’re actively bringing in new pieces next year, and we are continuing commissioning and we’re planning to commission for our 50th season in 2022 to 2023. That’s part of our mission, and we’re looking forward to getting back to that.”

For more information on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, head to their website. To hear clips from the Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, head to the label website, where you can also purchase the set, on 55CDs or as a download.

On record – Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon: Music of the Spheres (DG)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sam Swallow (vocalist), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)
Richter Journey (CP1919) (2019)
Dowland arr. Muhly Time Stands Still (1603)
Adès Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005)
Bowie arr. John Barber Life on Mars? (1971)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838228 [69′]

Recorded 9 June 2019, Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Only the Aurora Orchestra could put together an album running from Mozart to David Bowie. Yet as we have seen from their previous themed releases such as Insomnia and Road Trip, there are no gimmicks involved in their musical choices and a clear theme runs through the programming.

Music of the Spheres is no exception, beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony before music from Max Richter (Journey), Dowland via Muhly (Time Stands Still) and the Violin Concerto of Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths. The soloist here is Pekka Kuusisto, while the Aurora play the Jupiter symphony entirely from memory, as they did in the BBC Proms in 2016.

What’s the music like?

There is something for everyone here. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is his 41st and final essay in the genre, setting a new bar for the form when it was completed. While the first three movements are particularly fine it is the finale that comes in for the greatest acclamation, for its well-nigh perfect fusion of melody and counterpoint.

Richter’s Journey CP1919, is inspired by and named after the discovery of the first Pulsar star. It fits perfectly onto the tail of the Mozart, running at a slow speed and operating in C minor rather than the earlier piece’s key of C major.

By contrast Adès’ Concentric Paths operates in a wider orbit, the violin soaring at great heights over the compelling orchestral writing, which has in its spiralling strong echoes of the music of Benjamin Britten. As soloist Pekka Kuusisto has described, ‘it’s hyper-emotional music for people in an accelerating world’.

Complementing these instrumental pieces are two songs of identical length but very different form – a serene early 17th century song from Dowland and one of the best-known pop songs of the 20th century. Having heard from Jupiter and CP1919, Sam Swallow asks, to effective arranged accompaniment, is there Life On Mars?

Does it all work?

Pretty much! The Jupiter gets an athletic performance from the Aurora Orchestra – no dallying here, or lingering on expressive notes. That does mean a darkening of the slow movement, and maybe some constricted phrases, but by contrast it means an exciting first movement, a mysterious Menuetto and a lithe finale, busy and brilliantly played.

The Richter is haunting and really effective, its simplicity leaving the orchestra plenty of room to create a remote atmosphere. The songs are great too – Iestyn Davies is the perfect choice for the Dowland, with Nico Muhly’s sensitive orchestration, while Sam Swallow puts his own stamp on Life on Mars? without losing the essence of the original, which is an impressive achievement.

Yet the performance I kept coming back to was Pekka Kuusisto’s white-hot rendering of the Adès. This is terrifically difficult music to play, but he makes it sound easy even at the highest points of the violin range, and the moods range from serenity to power and even anger as the music moves relentlessly forwards. On occasion I have to admit I find Thomas Adès music hard to relate to emotionally, but this is a clear exception and the music digs deep.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Aurora’s albums are great at bringing music of very different origins together, exposing new elements and old qualities, and it does so again here. Freshly minted Mozart and brilliantly played contemporary works, plus a good deal of imagination. What’s not to love?

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Presto website