MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

St. Matthew Passion from Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion

I reviewed the new Raphaël Pichon/Pygmalion recording of the St. Matthew Passion for Early Music America:

Perhaps the best way to adequately describe the extremely intense, 3-D quality of motion that Raphäel Pichon and the Pygmalion ensemble achieve in the St. Matthew Passion’s opening chorus is by way of comparison with another art: say, Stendhal’s description of the young Fabrizio caught up in the fog of Napoleonic battle in The Charterhouse of Parma (which Balzac praised as a marvel that “often contains a whole book in a single page”)….

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Filed under: Bach, CD review, Early Music America

Lowell Liebermann’s Frankenstein

My latest CD review for Gramophone is of the recording by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra of Lowell Liebermann’s lengthy ballet score Frankenstein:

Within just five years of its publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel inspired a stage play that became a hit – the first of a seemingly endless stream of adaptations for other media that has flowed ever since. While the most popular of these are associated with the screen (going back to a 1910 short silent film from Edison Studios), Frankenstein has additionally spawned operas, musicals and this full-length ballet, premiered by the Royal Ballet in 2016….

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Filed under: ballet, CD review, Gramophone

Christian Baldini’s New CD

The talented young conductor Christian Baldini conducts the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra on this newly released album — a challenging and fascinating collection of music by Lutosławski, Ligeti, Varèse, and Baldini himself. I was delighted to review it for the November issue of Gramophone:

Having proved himself an engaging Mozartian with his previous release (a collection of arias and overtures with Elizabeth Watts and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – Linn, 7/15), Christian Baldini here displays his expertise in modernist and contemporary fare…

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Filed under: CD review, conductors, Gramophone

Paul Lansky’s Angles

I review Paul Lansky’s latest release in the August issue of Gramophone:

After more than three decades as a computer music pioneer, Paul Lansky made a dramatic change of tack and began composing exclusively for acoustic instruments. This release is Vol 17 in the extensive series from the Bridge label …

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone

Lavena: in your hands

My review of the cellist Lavena is in the July issue of Gramophone:

An enigmatic soundscape shivers into being in Gemma Peacocke’s Amygdala for solo cello and fixed electronics. The cellist wends her way, tentatively, towards acoustic clarity, playing richly expressive double-stops as if coming up for air….

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone

Yuri McCoy, Symphonic Roar

My latest review for Gramophone, in the May issue, is of organist Yuri McCoy’s debut album, Symphonic Roar:

The impetus for this debut album by Yuri McCoy was to celebrate the French Romantic organ and the gloriously rich, ‘symphonic’ sonority associated with it. But the American organist has set about doing so with a bracingly original programme of pieces…

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone, organ

Robert Carl: White Heron

My review of this marvelous BMOP anthology of Robert Carl’s music for Gramophone has now been posted here.

Aficionados of contemporary music will already be familiar with the name Robert Carl as a writer. He has authored extensive reviews for Fanfare and a recent, thought-provoking collection of essays on the challenges faced by 21st-century composers…

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Filed under: American music, CD review, Gramophone

Bruits from Imani Winds

I reviewed the latest release from Imani Winds for Gramophone:

Musicians have felt an increasing urgency over the past year to become engaged with issues of social justice. Imani Winds were already there well before most, having devoted themselves to giving a platform to marginalised voices since they started out in 1997. So the moral focus of their new album, which addresses the effects of systemic racism, reflects much more than a current trend.

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone

Golijov’s Falling Out of Time

Here’s my review for Gramophone of Osvaldo Golijov’s remarkable new collaboration with Silkroad Ensemble, Falling Out of Time.

Though conceived and created well before the pandemic, Osvaldo Golijov’s latest collaboration with Silkroad Ensemble seems uncannily well suited to the era of corona.

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Filed under: CD review, Gramophone, Osvaldo Golijov, Silk Road Project

A Remarkable Solo Debut from Shanna Pranaitis

Here’s a new release of contemporary music I’m very glad to have discovered: Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf Flute Music from the NEOS label, now available in the US and Canada on most of the common platforms (Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Naxos, Qobuz).

Mahnkopf is usually identified (or, tbh, pigeonholed) with the so-called New Complexity aesthetic — a catch-all label for composers like Brian Ferneyhough, who, as Christopher Fox puts it in Grove Online, have “sought to achieve in their work a complex, multi-layered interplay of evolutionary processes occurring simultaneously within every dimension of the musical material.”

But even without being aware of the intricate processes Mahnkopf deploys and manipulates, his music coaxes you into new, unaccustomed relationships with sound, each breath and articulation registering an unpredictable discovery — especially in these intensely committed performances by Shanna Pranaitis, here in her solo debut album.

Mahnkopf, who was born in 1962 in Mannheim, studied with Ferneyhough and with Klaus Huber (who also taught Ferneyhough), and he is also deeply committed to philosophy and was mentored by Jürgen Habermas. Along with his impressive musical distinctions — including an Ernst von Siemens Composer’s Prize — Mahnkopf wrote his dissertation on Schoenberg and has published writings on aesthetics and critical theory and a book titled Philosophie des Orgasmus.

The Chicago-based flutist Shanna Pranaitis, who studied with Amy Porter at the University of Michigan and Walfrid Kujala at Northwestern University, sees her mission as intensively experimental. In her own words, she “specializes in expanding the sonic possibility for my instruments.”

A founding member of Dal Niente and Collect Project Ensemble, she “integrates new and historically reimagined works with electronics, movement, and multi-disciplinary elements to create seamless, immersive concert experiences in collaboration with colleagues around the globe.”

One of those colleagues is Mahnkopf, with whom Pranaitis has worked closely over the past decade. This resulting portrait album presents Mahnkopf’s complete works for flute. He has also contributed important pieces to the contemporary oboe repertoire, remarking that both the flute and oboe hold “a special place” in his work. “What draws me to [the flute] is not simply the sound, but also its particular virtuosity, agility, and ease in crossing large sonic spaces,” writes Mahnkopf.

The album’s six pieces range from the composer’s student years to more recent achievements, in which his music has acquired what Pranaitis regards as “a more lyrical approach despite the continued complexity.” Three of the works on this album were written for Pranaitis, specifically taking into account her specially altered open-hole piccolo and open-hole Kingma System bass and alto flutes. These and one other track are all world-premiere recordings (tracks 1, 2, 4, and 6); two other tracks (3 and 5) are additionally the first studio-recorded versions.

Mahnkopf’s web of allusions is far-reaching. What especially fascinates me is his desire to integrate unique formal designs involving rhythmic and motivic processes — “absolute music,” so to speak — with inspirations from such sources as medieval mystical philosophy, the fractal geometry of Benoît Mandelbrot, or the prose of David Foster Wallace (Finite Jest, which also calls for soprano, performed here by Frauke Aulbert).

La terreur d’ange nouveau (1997-99), for example, unfolds from “sonic types” classifiable as “harmonic,” “melodic,” and “rhythmic-motivic” (the composer’s labels). At the same time, it’s part of the cycle comprising Angelus Novus, his music theater work based on Walter Benjamin, which premiered in 2000.

Or take coincidentia oppositorum for alto flute — the earliest piece here, from 1986. Its title refers to the dialectical mysticism of Nicholas of Cusa, a German philosopher/theologian from the transition between medieval and Renaissance thought. Mahnkopf explores this concept of “the unity of opposites” using “two diametrically opposed types of material that alternate abruptly, each following its own laws” but that are eventually “brought together to form a unity.” The process calls for an astonishing array of extended-playing techniques — various kinds of lip pizzicato, tongue clicks, articulating consonants into the instrument, to mention a few.

In these performances by Pranaitis, the resulting palette of sonorities is completely spellbinding, as if inviting us to partake of a rediscovered language and the secret knowledge it encodes. This is my impression above all in Kurtág-Cantus II for piccolo (2013), which closes the album. This is one of the pieces Mahnkopf wrote for Pranaitis (listen to the clip at the top).

Mahnkopf asks her to play sempre volante, quasi privo di gravità (“always flying, as if weightless”). It brings to mind — not musically, but existentially — the tight-rope walk of Der wahre Weg (“The True Path”), that incredible turning-point in Kurtág’s own Kafka Fragments.

List of tracks:
[01] atsiminimas for bass flute (2016) 13:58
[02] coincidentia oppositorum for alto flute (1986) 07:21
[03] La terreur d’ange nouveau for flute (1997-1999) 12:03
[04] Finite Jest for flute and soprano (2014) 10:52
[05] succolarity for flute (1989) 06:20
[06] Kurtág-Cantus II for piccolo (2013) 12:31

Filed under: CD review, flute, New Complexity, new music

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