Friday, 30 November 2018

Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa

Aequa - Anna Thorvaldsdottir - ICE - Sono Luminus
Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (Thorvaldsdottir) Aequa; Cory Smythe, International Contemporary Ensemble; Sono Luminus Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 November 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Recent instrumental and chamber music from a composer linking Iceland and the USA

Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (Thorvaldsdottir) has music performed regularly in both Europe and the USA, she is composer in residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra but studied at the University of California, San Diego, and her debut recording Rhizoma was released on the American label Innova recordings.

These cross links are aptly demonstrated on this new disc, Aequa, from the American group, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) on Sono Luminus Records, where the ensemble is joined by pianist Cory Smythe to perform seven of  Thorvaldsdottir's recent pieces, Scape (2011), Spectra (2017), Aequilibria (2014), Sequences (2016), Illumine (2016), Reflections (2016) and Fields (2016). The album is the second by ICE to feature music by Thorvaldsdottir, the group's 2015 release In the Light of Air was a portrait album of the composer.

We start with Scape for solo piano, in which Cory Smyth performs in and on the piano. Thorvaldsdottir uses pitches suspended in mid-air alongside flurries of notes to create a pensive examination of timbre and texture, there is less of a sense of development and more the idea of exploring a landscape of the mind.

This is followed by Spectra for string trio, here Thorvaldsdottir uses the three instrumental lines to create some quite serious, rather intent, counterpoint but with eerie moments (using string glissandi and more) which moves the music into Bartokian Night Music territory, again giving us a sense of depicting a landscape, a night one this time.

Aequilibria is for large chamber ensemble (12 players, including wind, strings and piano), and here the textures are fluid with flurries of notes coalescing and then flying away, all over sustained notes. Perhaps there is a sense of the music straining for equilibrium, but equally I felt this might be another landscape, full of textures and timbres.

Sequences is for mixed ensemble of low instruments, bass flute, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone and contrabassoon, a striking mixture. Initially we just have breathing and unpitched sounds, from which the notes gradually emerge, a sense of slow unfolding. The flute floats above a texture created by the low instruments which feels like a monster gradually emerging, heaving itself out of the sea?

Illumine is for eight-piece string ensemble and uses flurries of notes to create a striking combination of timbres and textures. A very atmospheric piece, there is a sense of an impending event and constant movement towards it.

With Reflections we return to string trio, and here Thorvaldsdottir uses a slow moving cantus firmus around which there are flurries of notes, harmonics and phonics. And this technique re-emerges in Fields for mixed ensemble (bass clarinet, percussion, piano, electric guitar, cello and double bass). Here a melancholic cello melody is surround by atmospherics, phonics and flurries of notes to quite a very evocative texture.

The CD booklet does not say a lot about the pieces, instead Thorvaldsdottir talks about the way she constructs music. The result is to place the music in our own minds, asking us to make connections. What fascinated me about the pieces on the disc was the way Thorvaldsdottir seemed to evoke a sense of place in each piece, a landscape whether it be real or in the mind, yet used constructional techniques which meld traditional structures (counterpoint, cantus firmus) with modern performance techniques.

The performances from the members of ICE and Cory Smythe are admirable in the extreme, as each piece is given its own particular chararacter with a sense that the players are profoundly at ease with Thorvaldsdottir's style.

The physical package includes both the CD and Pure Audio Blu-ray.

Aequa
1. Scape for piano (2011) [7:44]
Cory Smythe, piano
2. Spectra for violin, viola & cello (2017) [9:12]
Josh Modney, violin; Wendy Richman, viola; Michael Nicolas, cello
3. Aequilibria for large chamber ensemble (2014) [12:22]
Isabel Gleicher, alto flute; Joshua Rubin, bass clarinet; Nanci Belmont, bassoon; David Byrd-Marrow, horn; Michael Lormand, trombone; Cory Smythe, piano; Josh Modney, violin; Jennifer Curtis, violin; Wendy Richman, viola; Mosa Tsay, cello; Randy Zigler, double bass; Steven Schick, conductor
4. Sequences for bass flute, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone & contrabassoon (2016) [6:09]
Isabel Gleicher, bass flute; Campbell MacDonald, bass clarinet; Ryan Muncy, baritone saxophone; Rebekah Heller, contrabassoon
5. Illumine for 3 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos & 1 double bass (2016) [7:21]
Jennifer Curtis, violin; Josh Modney, violin; Gabriela Diaz, violin; Wendy Richman, viola; Kyle Armbrust, viola; Michael Nicolas, cello; Mosa Tsay, cello; Randy Zigler, double bass; Steven Schick, conductor
6. Reflections for violin, viola & cello (2016) [8:25]
Jennifer Curtis, violin; Kyle Armbrust, viola; Michael Nicolas, cello
7. Fields for bass clarinet, percussion, piano, electric guitar, cello & double bass (2016) [5:51]
Campbell MacDonald, bass clarinet; Ross Karre, percussion; Daniel Lippel, electric guitar; Cory Smythe, piano; Mosa Tsay, cello; Randy Zigler, double bass
Cory Smythe (piano)
International Contemporary Ensemble
Steven Schick (conductor)
SONO LUMINUS 1CD [57:10]
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Antonio Caldara - cantatas for bass and continuo (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Viol music: RCM International Festival of Viols - concert review
  • Naturalism and realism: Puccini's La Boheme with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman (★★★★) - opera review
  • A 20th century monument: Hindemith's five brass sonatas  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Old Bones: Nico Muhly, Iestyn Davies and the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
  • Storytelling in music: Kevin Puts and his opera Silent Night - interview
  • Puccini premiere:  Opera Rara gives the original version of Le Willis a rare outing (★★★★) -  Opera review
  • Long time ago: Samling showcase at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble  - interview
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  • The English Concert in Baroque concertos  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project - interview
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  •  Home

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