Recent listening – quick takes

A few items, new and old, that I have enjoyed recently:

Thomas Adès: Tevot, Violin Concerto, Three Studies from Couperin, Dances from Powder Her Face. The first two pieces are major statements. Tevot – the name means “ark” or a musical measure – is a big single movement orchestra piece, thickly layered, recalling Ligeti in its density; the concerto is of necessity more lightly scored. Both pieces share some of the same interests in repeated, layered cycles – both have memorable slowly descending quasi-tonal chord progressions – not unlike the infinitely unfolding slow music in Adès’ Asyla. The “non-tonal” or “quasi-tonal” successions of tonal chords recall some of the modal effects of Vaughan Williams, of all people, as well as some of John Adams’s preferred harmonies. Probably the neo-Riemannian harmonic analysis that has been in vogue for a bit (identifying compositional strategies that change just a note or two when moving from chord to chord) would work well on these passages in Adès.

Miles Davis: “Four” and More. Classic live material from 1964, with George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams (only 18 at the time). Davis and his colleagues were done a disservice by whoever compiled so many insanely fast pieces into a single album. It is pretty hard to take straight through, but in smaller doses it is astonishing. I especially liked the energetic and constantly varied work of Williams. He is a very active player, but there is an airborne quality to the sound he gets from his set that keeps his playing from being overwhelming.

George Crumb: The Ghosts of the Alhambra, Voices From a Forgotten World. Volume 15 in the Complete Crumb Edition being issued by Bridge Records offers two vocal pieces. Alhambra returns to Crumb’s beloved Lorca, in settings for baritone, guitar and percussion, while Forgotten World is the fifth in Crumb’s cycle of American Songbooks, arrangements of traditional American tunes for voice (in this case, baritone Patrick Mason and mezzo Jamie Van Eyck) and a percussion orchestra manned by four players, plus amplified piano. Members of Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, are old hands at Crumb’s music, and the performances are superb. In the last stanza of the last song, “The Demon Lover”, the mezzo sings “And what hills, what hills are those, my love, Those hills so dark and low? and the baritone replies, “Those are the hills of Hell my love, Where you and I must go.” Crumb’s setting is appropriately disturbing and profoundly creepy.

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