As so often is the case, my reaction to the incredible range of new music on release this month is to wonder why the classical music public remains so fixated on the past. It’s almost as if the whole melting pot of musical history, from Hildegard of Bingen to Boulez (let’s not forget that he’s not really ‘contemporary’ any more), exists in the here and now. The pullulating, bristling, teeming music scene, in which every conceivable style is being explored, venerated, parodied and reinterpreted, has something to offer everyone. It’s only quality that matters, since in taste there are no arguments.
If, for example, you’re not so keen on dissonant music, have a listen to Ian Venables’ new disk of works for baritone, headed by his song cycle The Song of the Severn. The harmonic style springs very much from the pastoral tradition of composers such as Finzi and Vaughan Williams, though with plenty of tonal twists that are completely his own. Like them he also possesses a remarkable knack for balancing the exigencies of words setting with lucid musical structures. Baritone Roderick WIlliams, having recorded plenty of this kind of repertoire before, is splendidly at home.
A work that also wears it antecedents like a rose is Will Todd’s Alice in Wonderland. From the cliched fourths with which it begins, it makes no pretence at originality. There’s a bit of everything: jazz, film music, broadway shows and the occasional bit of contemporary ‘bite’. But the writing is full of such wit and verve, the styles integrated with such tremendous skill, that the result is compellingly good fun. Opera Holland Park perform with gusto.
Arvo Pärt’s static style is, of course, very much his own, though those ethereal vocal textures inevitably conjure up the wonders of renaissance polyphony, despite the relative absence of counterpoint, not to mention his propensity to use crunchier harmonies. Col Legno have just releaseda programme of eight vocal works to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, which falls on 11th September. The boys of the Wiltener Sängerknaben and Wilten choir occasionally struggle with the extremes of register (especially in a more full-blooded work like The Deer’s Cry)but the purity of their singing elsewhere is ample compensation.
Another octogenarian is Terry Riley, whose birthday fell on June 24th. The Kronos Quartet have just released the album Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector together with a five-disc box set to mark both his birthday and their long-term collaboration with him. A bit like Arvo Pärt, Riley hardly needs introduction from me, being a towering figure in contemporary music. If, however, you associate him only with the arch-minimalist In C, this disc is worth hearing, since it shows him to be a composer of much greater flexibility than that mechanistic work implies.
Pärt and Riley represent the popular face of mainstream contemporary music. They are both enormously respected but have forged individual styles that have allowed them to connect with the wider public. If you are looking for something a little more adventurous try a new disc of Piano Trios (and other works) on Naxos by Spanish composer Benet Casablancas. The style is dissonant, angular and challenging. Also on Naxos are two albums of music by composers of Chinese origin: Bright Sheng’s Night at the Chinese Opera (not to be confused with Judith Weir’s opera of the same name), which forms the second work in a larger programme of chamber music; and a programme of music for winds by Yi Chen.
Pēteris Vasks’ style owes much to Lutosławski and other Polish music of the 1960s, but with influences that derive from his native music of Latvia. His new disk on Wergo contains Sala and Credo for orchestra and Musica Appasionata for string orchestra. Also on Wergo, finally, are four works by Swiss composer Michael Pelzel. The most important work of his to date, Sempiternal Lock-in, heads this programme of his ensemble works.