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Loudspeakers by Charles Amirkhanian: Reviewing Charles Amirkhanian’s Walking Tune 21 years ago, the critic Jack Sullivan made the following observation: “This sort of thing is hard to take very seriously, but also hard to dislike.” What “this sort of thing” is is sound collage at a very high level of inventive playfulness. And what makes it “hard to dislike” is that it’s “hard to take very seriously.” In other words, it’s fun, or at least some people’s idea of fun. To determine whether it’s yours, skip to this two-disc collection’s 35-minute title suite. If Amirkhanian’s intricately meticulous application of Morton Feldman’s own experimental compositional techniques to seven telling excerpts from a 1984 Feldman interview don’t hook you, nothing else in Amirkhanian’s oeuvre will either.
Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar by Maya Beiser, Evan Ziporyn: The positive reviews greeting David Bowie’s Blackstar four years ago owed much to its having appeared two days before Bowie’s death: Speaking ill of the dying is never more impolite than when the dying’s death throes or something like them can be discerned in his singing and lyrics. The advantage of this Blackstar is that it places the lyrics and singing on hold, freeing the cellist Maya Beiser and Evan Ziporyn’s Ambient Orchestra to liberate Bowie’s songs from their original context and thus giving Bowie’s many fans a chance to assess the music objectively. What they’ll notice, among other mini-revelations, is a sound and vision that enliven the spirit of their hero’s “Berlin Trilogy” instrumentals with a palpably rock ’n’ roll heart.
Chang Ping: Oriental Wash Painting by China National Symphony Orchestra feat. Tao Lin: On one level, the four concertos comprised in this monumental orchestral work are showcases for the guzheng (a Chinese zither), the erhu (a Chinese violin), the pipa (a Chinese lute), and the zhudi (a Chinese bamboo flute). In each, the orchestra drops out for long stretches, allowing the featured soloist to demonstrate his or her instrument’s expressive capacity. But on a more important level, the concertos proceed like a slow-motion Big Bang, one to which listeners can trace the genesis of a new East-meets-West musical language. There’s no denying the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s bumblebee on Yu Hongmei’s erhu in The Noble Fragrance. What she and the orchestra achieve on the whole, however, feels more like a butterfly effect.
Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms (1948 Revision) by San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas: This 20-minute, 30-second album is significant for several reasons. First, it represents the inverse of the heretofore dominant practice of reserving digital-only formats for oversized collections whose hard-copy release would be financially unremunerative. Previously, recordings featuring the Symphony of Psalms would’ve also included other Stravinsky fare, pushing their lengths to 40 minutes (vinyl) if not 80 (CD) and their prices into double digits. Now, listeners wanting only the Symphony of Psalms can have it for $2.99. Second, any recording that increases the accessibility of this intensely brooding music and, by extension, the three psalms at its core slows the slouching toward Gomorrah. Third, as anyone familiar with Tilson Thomas’ conductorial standards might expect, this isn’t just any recording.
To the extent that music plays a role in preventing the gates of hell from prevailing against Christ’s Church, Sir Stephen Cleobury did yeoman’s work. For 37 years, he led the all-male, 30-voice Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and in so doing earned a reputation as a champion of sacred music in general and of Christmas music in particular: To anyone within earshot of the BBC, his annual introduction of a newly commissioned carol during his Christmas Eve service was a holiday tradition.
Cancer claimed Cleobury in November. He was 70 years old. Three days later, King’s College Cambridge, the label that he’d established to document and disseminate his choir’s achievements, released A Requiem for Stephen: Into a Greater Light, a four-hour, 55-track compilation drawn from Cleobury’s last seven years of recording. The material ranges from the familiar (three movements from Fauré’s Requiem, two from Mozart’s, one from Bach’s St. John’s Passion) to the not familiar enough (Peter Tranchell’s “If Ye Would Hear the Angels Sing,” two movements from Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Poulenc’s entire Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël), all of it rendered with reverence, grace, and precision.
Somewhat surprisingly, those qualities are on even greater display in the two pieces devoted solely to Cleobury the organist: Simon Preston’s fierce “Alleluyas” and the third movement of Herbert Howells’ Six Pieces for Organ. Together, they suggest that, despite his intimate association with the human voice, Cleobury may actually have brought forth his most powerful “singing” with his hands.