Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
Alvin Lucier: Orpheus Variations
Charles Curtis, SEM Ensemble
In 2015, after decades of being “haunted” (his word) by the “sonority” (ditto) of a seven-note chord in Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus, Lucier took 103 of the notes’ 5,040 possible permutations and sequenced them into a 31-minute piece “For Cello and Seven Wind Instruments” (the subtitle). Whether such an approach qualifies as “composition” is an interesting if not necessarily fascinating question. Hearing what Curtis (the cellist) and the Petr Kotik–conducted SEM Ensemble (the winds) do with Lucier’s variations makes for fascinating if not necessarily interesting listening.
On the Wings of the Wind
John Hackett & Marco Lo Muscio Duo
This album’s stated raison d’être is to commemorate the Hackett–Lo Muscio Duo’s first decade of concertizing. Its unstated purpose, however, seems to be to lure progressive-rock fans into the classical lair by adding lovely organ-and-flute or piano-and-flute covers of songs by King Crimson, Genesis, and John’s brother Steve to a repertoire mixing Telemann, Gluck, and Ravel with similarly euphonious Hackett or Lo Muscio originals. Cameos by King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator alumni and John’s brother Steve give the game away.
John Casken: The Dream of the Rood
The Hilliard Ensemble
Even condensed (by approximately 70 percent) and “freely adapted” (into modern English from the Anglo-Saxon) as it is on this 2014 recording, The Dream of the Rood (circa A.D. 900) remains a powerfully imaginative meditation on Christ’s crucifixion. And the Hilliard Ensemble (now disbanded) were just the men for the job of reproducing John Casken’s elongated, repeated, and intricately interwoven vocal lines. Listeners will need to follow along to the libretto at first—and maybe at second, third, and fourth. But they’ll be glad that they did.
To a Camia: Piano Music From Romantic Manila
The word “Romantic” in the subtitle has two meanings. One is the mood out of which many of these lilting pieces grew. The other is that many of them were composed between the late 18th and the early 19th century. The Israeli-born Pinkas is sensitive to both connotations as well as to the stylistic requirements of the subgenres. Her outsider’s sense of appreciation and discovery is as evident in the songs of “Civic Pride” as it is in the “Waltzes,” the “Romances,” and the “Danzas Filipinas.”
“Taking into account … her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts …, she is easily … the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” So wrote Mark Twain of Joan of Arc. But if Twain’s 1896 novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc ultimately fails to capture its heroine’s compelling singularity, Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel’s richly variegated 1938 oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) does not.
In a new live recording by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Stéphane Denève, conductor), the Maid of Orleans’ final moments and the plot-advancing flashbacks that she experiences during them take on a vibrant intensity. Every component—the choirs, the soloists, the musicians—acquits itself well. Special credit, however, belongs to Judith Chemla in the lead role. There are few moments in 20th-century musical drama more shattering than Joan’s “Je ne veux pas mourir!” And Chemla nails it. —A.O.