A British rarity, experimental voices and a Beethoven quartet are among the highlights of recent releases.
‘The British Project’ — Walton: ‘Troilus and Cressida’
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)
Whether the cause is Brexit, or the coronavirus, or the rearranging of priorities that has arrived in their wake, there has been a small but significant recent exodus of musicians from Britain’s shores. The most-talked-about defector has been Simon Rattle, but perhaps the most heartbreaking is another conductor, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, 34, who announced in January that she will leave the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2022, after six years as its music director.
It’s a pity: The partnership was thriving both in concert and on record, with a 2019 release of Mieczyslaw Weinberg symphonies drawing admiration. There’s more to admire on this new album, the second in a project devoted to British music — and unusual British music at that. William Walton’s opera “Troilus and Cressida” has been mostly ignored since its debut in London in 1954, and the suite (arranged by Christopher Palmer) heard here has fared little better.
But Grazinyte-Tyla and the orchestra demonstrate, in this live recording, that it deserves a listen: a sumptuous, dramatic and harmonically adventurous piece of post-post-Romanticism that brings Strauss, Schreker and Korngold to mind while remaining distinctively English. What playing! And what a shame. DAVID ALLEN
The three works for piano and orchestra on this exceptional recording, covering a century of musical Romanticism, were written in response to very different sources. Chopin, in his late teens, was inspired by the duet “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to compose an elegant, playfully inventive, ornately virtuosic set of variations, which became his calling-card showcase as a young pianist.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s moody, impetuous and beautiful Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor (completed in 1883) is drawn from a wistful Russian melody. And at 25, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was inspired by the tragedy of the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm as a soldier in World War I, to write a teeming, episodic, single-movement Concerto in C-sharp requiring just the left hand. First performed in 1924, the music shifts from passages of dense, chromatic intensity to bursts of pulsing burlesque energy. All the performances on this album, featuring the brilliant pianist Orion Weiss, are excellent. ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Danish String Quartet (ECM)
I had thought that after a year of concentrated Beethoven celebration, I was in need of a break. Then came the Danish String Quartet’s latest album — a reminder, like any great Beethoven performance, that there is still so much to learn from and listen for in this music.
“Prism III” is the third installment in what this quartet describes as a beam of music through a prism, tracing connections across centuries by juxtaposing Bach fugues, late Beethoven and works of the 20th century. Minor keys color this album with a darker beauty than its predecessors, the tone set by the slow, mournful fugue at the start of Beethoven’s Opus 131. This recording isn’t eager to please. For all the mood swings of the work’s seven uninterrupted movements, the Danes are judicious about the emotions. The stark fugue thus aches more naturally than in other readings; pizzicatos, without added sweetness, ring with irony.
Bartok’s First Quartet begins like a continuation of the Beethoven, yet by its finale brings the genre firmly into the 20th century. The two previous “Prism” albums opened with Bach, but this one closes with the Fugue in C-sharp minor (BWV 849), from Book I of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The group treats it as a searching, sorrowful colloquy, both an echo and an ancestor of the Beethoven and Bartok, ending with an exhalation of harmonious resolution. JOSHUA BARONE
(New Focus Recordings)
This assemblage of joyful sound is also a requiem. It celebrates and mourns the Resonant Bodies Festival, which from 2013 to 2019 represented the unofficial start of the New York fall arts season in early September with a burst of experimental vocal music.
Its founder, Lucy Dhegrae, chose the singers, then delegated to them programming control. The audience tended heavy on fellow musicians, but the mood wasn’t insular. You felt openness, rather — the freedom to unveil works still in progress.
A new album includes a baker’s dozen of those works, mostly solos written by their performers. The use of electronics — as canvas for, and distortion of, the voices — is widespread. Texts are far rarer than squawks, moans, clicks and wails. The prevailing style is agile expressionism.
On offer are Charmaine Lee’s fierce plosives; Pamela Z’s ethereal, hovering tone, disintegrating into birdsong babble; Julia Bullock’s velvety command; Caroline Shaw’s slippery humming; Arooj Aftab’s mellow voice unfolding, unhurried, over nearly 14 minutes; Anaïs Maviel accompanying herself with the gentle burble of the n’goni, a West African harp; Kamala Sankaram’s painfully close harmonies; the veteran Lucy Shelton, whimsical as she manipulates bells and chimes; Sofia Jernberg, her keening breaking into incredible warbles, sometimes jeweled, sometimes parched.
The panoply is a stirring tribute to Resonant Bodies, already missed. May it rest in noise. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg
Daniele Pollini, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)
Lineage unavoidably looms over Daniele Pollini’s new recording of piano music by Schumann, Brahms and Schoenberg. Pollini is the son of Maurizio Pollini, one of the most eminent pianists of our time, and doesn’t shy away from composers crucial to his father’s career, such as Chopin and Stockhausen, the centerpieces of Daniele Pollini’s 2018 solo album.
His latest itinerary also includes stops at some favorite family haunts. But he has his own identity in repertoire like Schoenberg’s Opus 11. While his father was so spotless and efficient in this work that he verged on the clinical, Daniele Pollini makes some of chordal work sound dreamy, as though this were familiar balladry being played in a nightclub. That lush approach also helps connect his Schoenberg with his interpretation of Brahms’s Op. 119 pieces. The album opens with Schumann’s “Carnaval,” in a performance that channels explosive, youthful ingenuity.
Both Schumann and Schoenberg looked to Brahms, from the dramatically distinct vantages of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Yet neither musical history nor family legacy hangs like a millstone around Pollini’s neck. He plays these works like they’re all in the family. SETH COLTER WALLS