August 2022 Classical Record Reviews

Shiva Feshareki, Daphne Oram: Turning World

London Contemporary Orchestra, Shiva Feshareki, James Bulley, Kit Downes

NMC Recordings NMC D266 (CD, download). 2022. Jonathan Manners, Ellie Mant, prods., Gilly Chauhan, Andy Garratt, Ross Sanders, engs.

Performance *****

Sonics *****

For her first proper full-length, British-born Iranian composer/performer Shiva Feshareki set her ambitions high, reaching up into the ether and backward into the early days of electronic music.

Feshareki has garnered acclaim for her live mixing of electronic and acoustic sounds. On the strength of her live performances and two limited-edition EPs, she was invited to the BBC Proms in 2021, where she employed the BBC Singers, the London Contemporary Orchestra, organ, and electronics to realize a 1950 score by Daphne Oram and premiere a work of her own.

There’s a lot in the mix, but Feshareki builds her Aetherworld into an organic whole. She mirrors the choir with a recording of an ancient motet, morphing it and spinning it around the soundfield. It must have been aurally stunning in Royal Albert Hall, and it’s rich and warm on record, with just enough room sound to give a sense of place. It’s abstract, too engrossing to be called “ambient” but never jarring or abrupt. It floats through its own thick haze.

The second half is given to Oram’s Still Point. Feshareki’s interest isn’t hard to understand; Oram wrote the piece to reflect her experience working in that same hall as a radio sound engineer when London was bombed during World War II. The score, thought lost until 2016, mixes prerecorded material into the orchestra, adding simple effects such as reverb and altered speed. It was Oram’s last symphonic work and was never performed. The orchestration is of its time.

Eight years before cofounding the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she was already imagining new and altered sound worlds. It’s an important piece of history and, from Feshareki, a beautiful tribute.—Kurt Gottschalk


Mari Samuelsen: Lys

Mari Samuelsen, violin; Scoring Berlin; various soloists and electronics; American Contemporary Music Ensemble

Deutsche Grammophon 02894862096 (CD, reviewed as 24/96 MQA), 2022. Sundry producers and engineers.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

When a long-time audiophile distributor waxes rhapsodic about a recording, I take notice. So, when an unusually starry-eyed Jay Rein of Bluebird Music told me, in the hallways of the MOC at the High End Munich show, that the 52 minutes he’d just spent listening to Mari Samuelson’s new recording, Lys, was an unforgettable experience and that I shouldn’t miss it, I resolved to check it out post-show.

Samuelsen’s Lys presents one of many distinct trends in modern classical music. Where Nicolas Altstaedt’s Creation is filled with dissonance, challenges, and a host of new ideas, Samuelsen presents a far more harmonious, pop-meets–New Age, one-idea-suffices approach to classical composition. Fascinated by the way “subtle shifts in light and shade can move us like some great mystical force of nature,” Samuelsen assembled a light-filled soundscape from 13 short compositions, many written expressly for the project by women composers, including Carolyn Shaw, Lera Auerbach, and Beyoncé. The outlier is Hildegard von Bingen, whose very different and unquestionably inspired “O vis eternitatis,” arranged by Tormod Tvete Vik for solo violin and strings, provides a welcome three-minute, 25-second side trip to an entirely different sound world.

Long lines, luscious strings, lavish arpeggios, and Philip Glass–like repetition are the order of the day. But, instead of Glass’s frequently depressive take on things, Samuelsen’s composers celebrate the beauty that resides in the natural world and the human heart.

Lys is like a long, luxurious bubble bath outdoors in the country on a summer day, beginning in the warm afternoon and continuing by candlelight after sunset. Play it as you watch the sun set on the ocean and dream.—Jason Victor Serinus


Maurice Ravel: Concertos Pour Piano, Mélodies

Cédric Tiberghien, piano; Stéphane Degout, baritone; Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth, cond.

Harmonia Mundi HMM902612 (reviewed as 24/96 WAV), 2022. Jiri Heger, prod. and eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****½

The clear-eyed rendition of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is the highlight. From the opening low-string figurations, pianist and conductor produce a musical line that’s always purposeful, with unfailingly clear textures. Tiberghien, at both piano and forte, maintains clean, crisp articulations even when subordinate to the bubbling orchestral cauldron. Roth guides listeners firmly through the episodes.

The G Major Concerto is effective, too, though unconventional. Tiberghien takes care to highlight the melodic lines, sometimes overinsistently. The moto perpetuo writing in the outer movements works well, and the first movement’s second theme expands pleasingly. In the central Adagio, the pianist’s angular lyricism makes the climaxes anguished rather than ambivalently bittersweet, setting the brief major-key passage in high relief. Tiberghien’s subdued, restrained side takes over for a flowing, clear, full-bodied Pavane, still with one or two overinsistent points. The final cadence is unexpectedly affirmative.

Harmonia Mundi has mixed in some vocal music among the instrumentals. Stéphane Degout, like most French-trained singers, has a nice immediacy with the text; unlike many of them, he sings strongly and firmly. The Don Quichotte songs are authoritative, but the top and the melismas are a bit pressed and effortful; Degout’s better in the Mallarmé cycle, unrolling long legato lines at heady, medium dynamics. Tiberghien’s playing is marvelous: diaphanous and impressionistic in the first song, crystalline in the third.

In the concerti, the ambience makes for splashy climaxes; most of those peaks just get louder rather than filling out, but the final tutti in the Left-Hand Concerto is resplendent.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Shostakovich: Symphony No.11

San Diego Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Payare, cond.

Platoon PLAT13061 (CD). 2022. Douglas R. Dillon, prod. and eng.

Performance *****

Sonics ****½

The Eleventh, “The Year 1905,” is a program symphony depicting Bloody Sunday, when the Tsar’s guards fired on petitioners at the Winter Palace. It’s easy for conductors to err by “playing the program”; Rafael Payare instead just plays the music and lets the program fall into place.

The conductor sustains tension through a spacious first movement, with quietly menacing timpani and trumpet interjections over eerie string pedals. The second movement depicts the actual conflict: Some renderings (eg, Rostropovich) are deliberate, even lumbering, but Payare correctly plays it at scherzo tempo. The string triplets roll along inexorably, above which the arching phrases make powerful sense. Later, the wind chorale has an organ-like purity. The Adagio‘s burnished string threnody yields to low, pungent wind chords, then to a searching violin theme that builds to a full-throated outpouring. Well-sprung rhythms and taut drive animate a conventional Shostakovich finale; the final, echoing chime suggests that the fight isn’t over.

The San Diego Symphony tiptoed onto the recording lists in the digital era; its playing here is mostly first-rate. The string tone ranges from warm and deep in the Adagio‘s threnody to clear and polished in the “scherzo’s” waltz duet. The first movement’s sustained writing is a bit soft-edged and oozy. Reeds are characterful—note that movement’s plaintive flute duet—and the round, pillowy brasses fill out the open, full-bodied tuttis nicely.

Winds are “present” and focused in the sonic frame. The strings don’t have a comparable spatial depth, but their wide range of timbres and intensities is vividly conveyed. The finale’s crisp climactic gong resonates across the soundstage without masking detail. An edgy treble in tutti is the only mild flaw. Bravi to all.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Various Artists: Creation

Lockenhaus Artists; Nicolas Altstaedt, cello

Alpha 861 (24/96 WAV). 2022. Peter Laenger, prod.; Martin Nagorni, Andreas Ruge, balance engs.

Performance *****

Sonics ****

Adventurous music lovers know that American and European trends in new music differ and that specific regions and festivals often celebrate unique sound worlds. For some very different flavors than those from Adams, Glass, Heggie, Higdon, Muhly, Riley, and Shaw (amongst many others), this fascinating compendium of pieces composed in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Lockenhaus Festival, in Austria, will open ears wide.

For Creation, cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, who assumed leadership of the festival from violinist Gidon Kremer in 2012, called on composers who had come to Lockenhaus or had works performed there in the past 10 years. The recording contains two premieres: Helena Winkelman’s fascinating, must-hear Atlas: Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra with Timpani, which is dedicated to Altstaedt, and Raphaël Merlin’s See: Sea & Seeds. Si! cello concerto. Around them resound a host of short pieces from Matan Porat, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Olli Mustonen, Patkop, Maja S. K. Ratkje, Kurt Schwertsik, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Johannes Julius Fischer (based on the harmonic progression of Tom Waits’s “I’m Still Here”), and Lera Auerbach (a classic Old World Jewish melody with a twist).

Winkelman’s concerto is worth the price of admission. Her brooding sound world is original and compelling, and the last movement’s inexorable force and driving beat, brought home by Fischer’s thrilling percussion, may leave you in awe. Ratkje’s two minutes are as violent and startling as one might expect, Salonen waxes surprisingly romantic, Mustonen harks back to Bach’s cello suites, and Merlin takes his cue from the tensions between ecological catastrophe and the no-longer-mundane lives of classical concert artists. Essential palate-cleansing.—Jason Victor Serinus

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