A veteran conductor’s Bach, a young conductor’s Sibelius, and works by Tom Johnson, Gyorgy Kurtag and Kate Soper are among recent highlights.
Bach: ‘St. John Passion’
Nick Pritchard, tenor; William Thomas, bass; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)
John Eliot Gardiner has been recording the “St. John Passion” for so long that the countertenor from his first taping of the work, Michael Chance, has been replaced on this new version — Gardiner’s third — by Chance’s son, Alexander. Despite the glimpse of familiarity, Gardiner’s view of this Passion, the one that best suits his operatic flair for drama, has sharpened in the 35 years since his first take. From the stabbing bass line of the opening chorus to the soaring final chorale, there is an unsparing directness to this latest account, which was set down live in Oxford, England, on Good Friday last year.
Not for Gardiner the pietistically devotional approach that can stultify. His “John” is now a parable about the ferocity of the mob — one he connects in promotional materials to what were, at the time of recording, “recent events in Washington” — and it is one he tells with the disturbingly ruthless violence that his formidable control of his forces allows. If the vocal soloists are not quite the stars Gardiner assembled for his 1986 and 2003 accounts, they serve the grittiness of the interpretation perfectly; so, too, does the nastily serrated edge to some of the instrumental playing. Pleasant it is not, but neither is the story — and the moments of seraphic beauty become all the more redemptive. DAVID ALLEN
Quatuor Bozzini (Dame)
As a pioneering critic for the Village Voice in the 1970s, Tom Johnson was an eyewitness to Minimalism in all its early variety. Lessons from that immersion have always been apparent in his own compositions. But though his music can invite comparison with the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Johnson has his own gift for making you feel each change in a field of patterns as it happens. And he has a fine sense of humor, too — as in pieces like “Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass.”
The quiet clarity of his mathematically rigorous approach has also endeared him in recent years to the Wandelweiser school of composers and performers. A new album devoted to his work, performed by the Quatuor Bozzini, shows off this dreamier side of Johnson, as in the fifth and final movement of “Combinations for String Quartet.” Unlike earlier sections of that work, the finale manages to balance didactic clarity with transporting gracefulness. That equilibrium is heard throughout the recording — particularly in a piece from his “Tilework” series and in the gorgeous “Four-Note Chords in Four Voices.” SETH COLTER WALLS
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Florentin Ginot, double bass; Benjamin Kobler and Ulrich Löffler, keyboards (Ensemble Musikfabrik)
The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag can deliberate over a piece for decades — as with his long-gestating operatic adaptation of Beckett’s “Endgame.” But that slow, piecemeal caution often results in a strong final product. That’s the case once again with “Rückblick” (“Look Back”), a compendium of short works from throughout Kurtag’s body of work — arranged into nine movements in this new recording.
The hourlong piece carries the subtitle “Old and New for Four Instruments — Hommage à Stockhausen.” And, yes, the first movement’s vaulting trumpet does recall the music for that instrument that Stockhausen threaded through his early opera “Donnerstag aus Licht.” But as is typical with Kurtag’s dedicatory works, he’s able to tip his hat to another composer while sounding like himself. Throughout the piece, he’s more consistently wry than Stockhausen, even when pushing into stark extremes of timbre.
After a gloomy opening, the short second movement concludes in a comparative rush, with strangely strutting passages for double bass, harpsichord, harmonium and trumpet. In the hands of Ensemble Musikfabrik’s players — Marco Blaauw, Florentin Ginot, Benjamin Kobler and Ulrich Löffler — each twist registers as delightful, if in a muted way. And the sixth movement works as a highlight reel from Kurtag’s career, since it incorporates both themes heard earlier in “Rückblick” as well as deep-cut pieces from his catalog, like “Les Adieux in Janaceks Manier.” It all serves as a grand introduction to Kurtag’s art of the miniature. SETH COLTER WALLS
Oslo Philharmonic; Klaus Makela, conductor (Decca)
If you haven’t yet heard the name Klaus Makela, surely you soon will: The podium’s latest hotshot is already the chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and the music director of the Orchestra de Paris, and he appears in Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco in April.
He is 26.
Go through the slickly produced clips that are available of him leading the communicative Oslo ensemble, and you find a conductor with plenty of ideas and the talent to pull at least some of them off. Purcell cleverly prefaces his Haydn, and Dowland his Schumann, and if his Brahms Fourth is misguided, his Beethoven Ninth is bracingly straightforward.
This Sibelius set has its ups and downs, too, though it is sensationally played throughout. This is not the taut, icy Sibelius of Osmo Vanska, nor quite the grand Sibelius of yore. Makela has a broad imagination for sound, but he applies with it such lavish flattery for details that the results can be a little too impulsive, although never vain. The Seventh Symphony and “Tapiola” sag, and the First needs more snap. But the Second is impressive and the Fourth is inspired — an excellent account of a difficult work that suggests Makela is well worth following. DAVID ALLEN
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Soper: ‘The Understanding of All Things’
Kate Soper, voice and piano; Sam Pluta, live electronics (New Focus Recordings)
“It probably isn’t very logical or efficient to use music to investigate the true nature of being and the human condition,” Kate Soper writes in the notes for her loftily titled new album. “But it sure is fun to try.”
As a composer and performer, Soper has made an art of that fun, and of interrogating the impossible. Her masterly “Ipsa Dixit” began with the question “What is art?” And in this new recording, of works and improvisations spanning years yet gaining the cohesion of a cyclic suite, she seems to be asking “What is reality?”
Soper has some thoughts in essayistic texts performed in the elevated speaking style of Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson. The Kafka story of the title track is recounted in stunted fragments over the sound of a spinning top, arriving at “Once the smallest thing is truly known, are all things known,” a sentence made mysterious by having the intonation of a statement but the syntax of a question.
The subsequent works are no more resolved: two recent improvisations with Sam Pluta on electronics, the first a text-heavy journey from the lucid to unruly, the second a wordless dialogue that could go on forever; and, later, “So Dawn Chromatically Descends the Day” (2018), a searching blend of declamation and art song.
At the center is “The Fragments of Parmenides” (2018-19), a rhapsodic colloquy of disarming elegance: Yeats set with moving lyricism, interrupted with cabaret-like asides; piano deployed for tone painting and clustery punctuation; provocative questions answered with more questions. The inquiry is its own conclusion, she concludes. Why care about day and night, life and death and love, if “everything we see and hear and taste and touch and feel is nothing but empirical noise”?
Soper offers: “Because it’s beautiful? Because it’s all we have?” JOSHUA BARONE