The classical music world endures in a state of suspension, with the occasional live music event providing the occasional feint toward normalcy. Even though fully fledged concert life seems dispiritingly far away, excellent recordings of every stripe continue to appear. Here are a few recent releases of local interest that will hopefully ameliorate our ongoing isolation, and compensate for the persistent silence in our concert venues.
ROBERT HONSTEIN: SOUL HOUSE (Hub New Music) (New Amsterdam)
Presumably without knowing it in advance, Robert Honstein has crafted the perfect music for our quarantine moment. How many of us have spent the spring and summer holed up at home, growing ever more impatient with our confinement? If you need a cure for the feeling of being trapped in your domicile, here is “Soul House,” an ingenious and unequivocally gorgeous love letter by Honstein, a former Boston composer, to his childhood home in New Jersey. Each of the piece’s nine movements conjures a particular part of the house, and while there’s an audible sense of nostalgia, “Soul House” is no exercise in simple sentimentality. Instead, Honstein uses long-breathed melodies, refined textures, and irrepressible energy to create mini-tone poems that evoke wistful memories (“Bay Window”) or a carefree childhood (“Backyard”). The openness of Honstein’s musical language makes the episodes of biting dissonance all the more striking. The players in Hub New Music render all of it with effervescence and transparency. Listen, and see if you can’t rediscover the magic of your own dwelling.
HAROLD SHAPERO: ORCHESTRAL WORKS (Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose) (BMOP/sound)
The 72nd entry in BMOP’s indispensable series documenting modern and contemporary American music brings it to Harold Shapero, a Bostonian and a member of the group of midcentury composers that artistic director Gil Rose has made it a mission to rescue from obscurity. “The most gifted and the most baffling composer of his generation” was Copland’s backhanded compliment about Shapero, citing his prodigious musical skills on the one hand and his puzzling need to hew close to his musical models on the other. You can hear both sides in this terrific collection of orchestral music. The Sinfonia in C minor calls to mind Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, while the Credo for Orchestra has a Coplandesque warmth and breadth of expression. Much harder to classify is the Serenade in D for String Orchestra, whose harmonic cast is more ambiguous than the presence of a key signature might suggest. Regardless of the influence, though, the craft of Shapero’s writing is impeccable, as are BMOP’s crisp, confident performances.
WALLY GUNN: THE ASCENDANT and MICHAEL HARRISON: JUST CONSTELLATIONS (Roomful of Teeth) (New Amsterdam)
The omnivorous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth usually takes up residence at Mass MoCA each summer. To compensate for its absence this year, here are two EPs containing works that could hardly sound more different. Gunn’s “The Ascendant” is a song cycle on poems by Maria Zajkowski, in which close harmonies are anchored by driving rhythmic grooves. The hypnotic, interlacing patterns get some subtle reinforcement from Jason Treuting’s drumming. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is Michael Harrison’s “Just Constellations,” a softly incandescent exercise in just (or pure) tuning, in which intervals follow the harmonic series and have a different resonance than the more familiar equal temperament. The music is largely made up of ecstatically slow, miasmatic chords, suspended in space like a suggestive but unfamiliar cloud pattern. Adding to the unearthly feel of the music is the resonance of the TANK Center for Sonic Arts in Rangely, Colo., a 65-foot-tall former water tower where “Just Constellations” was recorded.
PETER SERKIN: THE COMPLETE RCA ALBUM COLLECTION (Sony) and PETER SERKIN: CONCERTOS IN CONCERT (Verdant World Records)
Serkin, a pianist who was a fixture with the BSO and at Tanglewood throughout his career, died in February, during the preparation of a 35-CD set of his recordings for the RCA label, which forms the core of his recorded output. The son of Rudolf Serkin, one of the 20th century’s preeminent pianists, the younger Serkin fought to separate his own identity from his illustrious family legacy. The result was an embrace of new music and an approach to the canon that deftly navigated the twin shoals of tradition and individuality. The deeply personal nature of that journey is audible everywhere in this set, from an unusually graceful account of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations to hypnotically slow Schubert to sparkling Mozart concertos. Of special note: a landmark recording of Messiaen’s piano cycle “Vingt Régards sur l’Enfant Jésus” and an account of the same composer’s “Quartet for the End of Time” with the chamber group Tashi that remains unmatched in insight.
A more spontaneous picture of this great artist is offered by “Concertos in Concert,” which captures two live collaborations between Serkin and the illustrious composer and conductor Leon Kirchner. A 1984 account of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Kirchner-led Harvard Chamber Orchestra offers a fascinating mix of impulsivity and exploratory detail, with an exceptionally broad opening movement. Sparks fly in Berg’s knotty Chamber Concerto for piano, violin, and winds, recorded at the 1971 Marlboro Music Festival, with the violinist Pina Carmirelli. Kirchner’s immersion in the Second Vienna gives this difficult music a wonderful sense of swing, and Serkin and Carmirelli follow him step for step. The sound isn’t terrific, but these are fascinating documents of the work of two sympathetic and committed artists.
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