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

On record – Yuja Wang, LAPO / Gustavo Dudamel: John Adams – Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (DG)

Yuja Wang (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Gustavo Dudamel

John Adams
Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (2019)
China Gates (1977)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838289 [32’05”]

Recorded November 2019, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is John Adams’ first major work for piano and orchestra since 1997. Its world premiere took place in 2019, with dedicatee Yuja Wang taking the solo part in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The same team are on the money here with the first recording of the substantial new piece – with a contrasting makeweight, as Wang offers one of Adams’ much loved shorter works, the solo piano composition China Gates.

What’s the music like?

In a word, dynamic. The composer’s direction for the first of the three movements of Must the Devil…says a lot – Gritty, Funky, But in strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-Like. It describes the music perfectly, for as Yuja Wang drives the music forward with big, block chords there is a great deal of positive mechanical energy – and indeed a bit of funk. The ‘good tunes’ are not quite so obvious, with the through-composed nature of the piece masking any obvious hooks, but there is a strong and assertive drive forward, like the relentless surge of traffic along a Californian freeway.

The frenetic activity subsides towards the end of the first movement and we get a closer look at Adams’ soul, glimpsed through luminous string textures and sensitive, nocturnal piano writing. The mechanical grind is temporarily forgotten and a tender, thoughtful mood evolves. This leads to the Gently, Relaxed direction, which effectively becomes the concerto’s slow movement, with music of serenity and beautiful colours. As the movement progresses the lines become a little more angular, the strings and piano working together while complemented by softly spoken wind and brass choirs.

Then the energy returns, and we move into the finale with clumps of percussive chords from Wang, leading the orchestra in a section marked Obsession / Swing. The cross rhythms sway, generating exciting momentum between piano and orchestra, and Wang throws her all at the piano as it issues massive, repetitive statements, the obsession growing ever greater towards the end and the sound of a bell, with which Adams brings an end to the three rounds.

China Gates is a much-needed repose, its meditative thoughts given in an unbroken, fluid stream.

Does it all work?

Yes, and is hard to fault in this performance. The musical language is familiar – recognisably John Adams in its long lines of busy activity – and it could be argued some of these statements are familiar too, closely related to previous large-scale utterances. But the performance is ideal, a white knuckle ride in the faster sections and a cool reverie in the memorable slower parts. China Gates is the ideal foil.

Yuja Wang is brilliant throughout, a whirlwind of energy in the fast music of Must the Devil…and a model of sensitivity in the quieter music.

Is it recommended?

Fans of Adams’ music will not hesitate – and nor should newcomers either, for not only is the music very listenable it is presented in terrific recorded sound. A DG release with all the fireworks for sure, and if there are no recognisably good tunes to hum afterwards there is plenty to enjoy. John Adams’ positive energy wins through once again.

Listen

Buy

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

On record – Adès Conducts Adès: Piano Concerto & Totentanz (Deutsche Grammophon)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo), Mark Stone (baritone), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Adès

Thomas Adès
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)
Totentanz (2013)

Deutsche Grammophon 4837998 [55’58”]

Producer Nick Squire
Engineer Joel Watts

Live performances, recorded November 2016 (Totentanz) & March 2019 (Piano Concerto) at Symphony Hall, Boston

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Thomas Adès has latterly been enjoying a productive association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They appear here in two recent and pointedly contrasted pieces which, between them, make for a viable overview of a compositional ethos as absorbing as it is frustrating.

What’s the music like?

From the outset Adès evidently had in mind a ‘proper’ piano concerto, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is precisely that: three movements, of virtually equal length, unfolding along archetypal designs – sonata, ternary and rondo forms – even if their angle of approach is not what it might have been. The first movement abounds in jazzy inferences, albeit with a more relaxed ‘second subject’ to provide a modicum of contrast, while the central Andante is overlaid with intriguing symmetries that offset what might otherwise seem unremarkable material. The final Allegro duly renews the animated dialogue between soloist and orchestra in what could be termed an equable meeting between Gershwin and Ligeti, with Prokofiev putting-in an unexpected appearance toward the decisive and effervescent close. This is not the radical departure from Adès’s previous concertante pieces as might be supposed, though neither is this merely a triumph of concept over content. Whether it manages to revitalize a genre which has had precious few additions during the past half-century remains to be seen.

Certainly, the Concerto makes a telling foil to Totentanz. This is a setting of an anonymous 15th-century commentary to a frieze (destroyed in wartime) where Death visits a succession of those representing the medieval social strata and their responses thereof. Despite utilising male and female voices, it is not a song-cycle so much as a dramatic scena in which loss is considered in the context of a ‘dance of death’ that motivates the greater discourse. Each of those visited is allotted a specific musical expression, though the initial call-and-response is gradually blurred as vocal parts are overlaid in an intensifying activity towards the seismic orchestral culmination.

Characterisation of the remaining protagonists risk losing focus, yet there could be no mistaking the plaintive sensuousness of the encounter with the Maiden or the disarming naïveté of that with the Child as the music wends a weary Mahlerian way to its close. Each encounter is interpretable from different and even competing perspectives which extend the range of expression, while making it ambivalent to the point of disingenuousness.

Does it all work?

Yes, given that both performances meet the challenges of each work head on. Kirill Gerstein sounds unfazed in this world premiere of the Concerto, aligning himself to the orchestra with well-nigh perfect synchronization. The composer secures a truly virtuosic response from the Boston Symphony here and in Totentanz, during which Christianne Stotijn brings a decidedly fraught pathos while Mark Stone responds with burnished intensity. Adès has been lucky in the exponents of his music throughout his career and both these occasions were no exception.

Is it recommended?

It is – not least because these works, markedly different in themselves, suggest a continued desire to bring the flippant and the earnest into unlikely though productive accord. Whether they constitute a surrender to, or a critique of, the zeitgeist remains part of their fascination.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Víkingur Ólafsson – studying Philip Glass

Víkingur Ólafsson (photo: Ari Magg)

Last year, Arcana defined Víkingur Ólafsson as a true classical music entrepreneur. We explored his introductions to classical music, and talked about the two festivals he helps administer – Sweden’s Vinterfest and the Reykjavik Midsummer Festival. We also covered his friendship with composer Philip Glass, 80 this year. Olafsson professed his admiration for the composer and his creative energy, an admiration he has now transferred to disc in the form of his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Time, then, for chapter two in the interview!

When did you first encounter Philip Glass’s music?

It’s quite a specific memory. I was 13 years old, sitting with my two sisters in the back seat of our car on a family vacation. Dad was driving on the highway, heading from France to Switzerland and as we were bored and quarrelling in the back seat, he handed us this recording of Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.1 with Gidon Kremer (on DG as it happens) which we listened to on our Sony Discman players. It was unbelievable to discover this new sound world while passing by the French landscapes on 150 KM per hour.

Some of the Etudes on this album feel like extended meditations. Do you get into a kind of trance when you play them?

Not really, I’d rather have my audience in a trance… I just try to listen intensely and explore the possibilities of the instrument and acoustics, looking for the right proportions of sound and time.

Do you think the Etudes are actually much more emotional than the titles suggest they should be?

What is emotional for one person can be completely impersonal to the next. To me there is a nostalgia to the slow ones, but it’s emotions revealed through the filter of time. Etude means ‘study’, but one can also write etudes on emotions, just as well as on finger dexterity.

What technical challenges does the music present for you?

It’s relatively easy to learn the etudes and play them at an average level. But what I find difficult – as with any music – is to play them in the most specific way, when it comes to rhythm, texture, sound…

To get the clockwork fine tuned in a piece like Opening is extremely delicate and difficult, to take one example. And of course playing a piece like Etude No.6 is quite difficult, and the repeated notes make me feel as if I’m playing a late-20th century Scarlatti.

Etude No.20 requires intense layering of texture and pedal sensitivity and No 15 demands an orchestral palette on the piano. The etudes can be extraordinary when played well, but, like almost all other music, they can also be rather bland when played in a bland way. But blame the performer in that case.

Are you working closely with Philip on any new material?

We’ve discussed briefly a new work, but it’s too early to say more…

Aside from the piano music, what is your favourite piece by Glass?

I saw Einstein on the Beach in Berlin two years ago. It blew my mind to experience it live. I will also mention his Violin Concerto No.1, as it was the first piece I heard by him. And I have to mention Koyaanisqatsi. It’s actually on Youtube, I recommend spending a Sunday afternoon watching and listening to the great work.

Do you play music by any of the other so-called ‘minimalists’?

Yes, but they’re really not minimalists… at least not since the early 70s! I’m playing John AdamsPiano Concerto in Leipzig in June and I’ve played a bit of Steve Reich as well. I love these composers but I’ve played far more Glass than either of those.

What is it like being signed to Deutsche Grammophon, and do you have any plans for future releases on the label?

We are meeting in Berlin in March to discuss next albums. We have roughly three different ideas on the drawing board and they are all very different from one another – and from the Glass album. I don’t want people to know what to expect too much, I’d love for each of my album to tell its own story, independent from the previous ones.

I love working with Deutsche Grammophon as we have a mutual love of listening to, exploring and discussing music. And of course I’ve listened to so many DG records in my life and gotten to know so much great music and so many great performances through the label. It’s both a privilege and pleasure to work with them.

You can find out more about the Midsummer Music festival in Reykjavik here, while you can also discover Vinterfest here. For more information on Víkingur himself, head to his own artist website

On record: Víkingur Ólafsson – Philip Glass: Piano Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

Summary

Deutsche Grammophon have taken the opportunity to celebrate Philip Glass’s 80th birthday with their new signing, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He has already performed the piano etudes with the composer himself, and has recognised the depth of invention and emotion that sits beneath the surface of what initially seems to be repetitive, mechanical music.

‘My approach to each of the etudes is to enable the listener to create his or her own personal space of reflection’, he says in the DG press release – and we will get more of his thoughts in an interview given to Arcana shortly.

What’s the music like?

Ólafsson is true to his word. The Etudes – even in Glass’s own performances – can seem a bit dry and difficult to approach. Not so with Ólafsson, whose incredible control means he can play with unexpected grace, using the pieces as reflections but also catching the nuances of Glass’s rhythmic writing. The quality of the DG recording helps here too.

The contours of the Opening piece are caressed and beautifully phrased, proving to be much more emotive than if played straight, as Glass so often is. In No.5 he is slow and lost in thought, and in no.14 too, but by contrast the Etude no.9 is quite punchy. Etude no.15 has a powerful surge in D major before adopting a dance-like profile, while the nervous energy of No.3 puts the performance more on edge.

Quite how Ólafsson plays the repetitive notes of the Etude no.6 is a complete mystery! His performance of no.2 brings both sides of Glass together, beginning in sombre and reflective mood but building to something pretty substantial. Here he is joined by a string quartet, an arrangement by Christian Badzura that proves effective at breaking up the sound of the solo piano and introducing some more colours to the mix.

Does it all work?

Yes, thanks to Ólafsson’s sensitivity and Glass’s awareness of the different colours the piano can offer him. Much of the music here is typical Glass, arpeggiated and with subtle but lasting twists to the harmonies – and it works really well in this context.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. So much so that this is probably the best album we are likely to encounter in Glass’s 80th birthday year.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify