December 2020 Classical Record Reviews

Osvaldo Golijov: Falling Out of Time
The Silkroad Ensemble
In a Circle Records ICR 017 (CD). 2020. Jeremy Flower, Jonny Gandelsman, prods.; Jody Elff, Kevin Killen, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

The Silkroad Ensemble represents a specific sort of intermingling. Founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and named for the ancient trading route that for centuries connected Asia, East Africa, and Southern Europe for commercial and cultural exchange, the ensemble seeks to promote global understanding through the blending of artistic traditions.

There may be no more powerful concern than mourning, and perhaps none more poignant than the loss of a child. That is the subject of Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov's Falling Out of Time, written for Silkroad and occupying the full length of this new album. Inspired by David Grossman's poetic novel, the work uses the mixed group to its fullest, creating something less crosscultural than deeply human.

The 11-piece ensemble is comprised of strings (string quartet, guitar, electric and acoustic bass, Japanese biwa, Iranian kamancheh), trumpet, Chinese sheng, percussion, electronics, and three voices. Golijov combines them in endless ways, moving the 12-part suite in surprising but never shocking directions.

Falling Out of Time seems to play on memory, conjuring vague images that carry strong emotion. It's ambitious almost to the point of exhaustion, transcending musical traditions and cultural rituals of mourning and creating its own vocabulary of expression. It comes together in a carefully crafted package, warmly recorded with sparing, deft, almost deceptive use of echo, stereo pan, and other sonic nuances that keep the subject just this side of oriented. It's a striking record, less scream of death, more the quiet that follows.—Kurt Gottschalk


John Luther Adams: The Become Trilogy
Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Merlot, cond.
Cantaloupe Records CA-21161 (auditioned in 24/96 WAV). 2020. Nathaniel Reichman, Dmitry Lipay, prods.; Dmitry and Alexander Lipay, Nathaniel Reichman, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

The Become Trilogy assembles, in one 3-CD set (or, as auditioned, as a download) the Seattle Symphony's three extraordinary nature commissions from John Luther Adams. The shortest, Become River, receives its first release, while two longer works, Become Ocean and Become Desert, are newly remastered for the occasion.

Those are the basic facts. What's anything but basic is the all-immersive music that, in Adams's words, "aspires to the condition of place. The titles are not 'Becoming...'. They're 'Become...'. The invitation enter into the music, to lose yourself, and perhaps to discover oceans, deserts, and rivers of your own." That may sound pretentious until you discover that, instead of presenting narrative, Adams's music places you within the vast natural environments he has called home.

Become River is a steady, ever-flowing expanse whose limited dynamics reflect what I heard sitting beside the Lower Quilcene River in the Olympic National Forest, watching a dB meter measure the same peaks and valleys over and over and over again. Become Ocean includes several swells, initially concordant but soon discordant. If you listen in the dark as the turbulence rises, you can sense the ocean becoming muddier. At one point, it feels as if the Aegir, Norse mythology's watery equivalent of Wagner's Earth Goddess Erda, has risen from the deep. "Feels" is the operative term, because this music invites you to surrender to essence rather than follow narrative. Take it from one who reviewed the premiere of Become Desert: This music is a trip like no other.—Jason Victor Serinus


Alexander Scriabin: Le Poème del'extase
Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard, cond.
Seattle Symphony Media SSM1025 (24/96 WAV), 2020. Dmitry Lipay, prod.; Dmitry and Alexander Lipay, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Having sat in a prime orchestral seat for part of this Seattle Symphony double whammy, I can attest that listening to the hi-rez files of this superb recording on a full-range audiophile system is the closest you may ever get to being a member of Austria's Habsburg Dynasty partaking of a sumptuous meal delivered by dressed-to-the-hilt servants carrying gilded platters.

Only on a compilation of Wagner overtures or "Best Mahler Movements Ever" will you find turn-of-the–20th century orchestral music as full-bodied as this in sound and romance. The bass at the start of Thomas Dausgaard's Also sprach Zarathustra—the music heard in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—is terrific, topped by a bottom-register organ pedal that surpasses the bass on hi-rez remasterings of Fritz Reiner's famed RCA Living Stereo recording. Seattle's strings wax silken romantic thanks to Dausgaard's coaching but never spill over into excess. Concertmaster Noah Geller could have been a shade more indulgent—think Schokoladendessert without the last dollop of Schlagsahne—but any audiophile who can fantasize waltzing the night away to Viennese music will find themselves in heaven by Strauss's final notes.

Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy, on the other hand, is by nature ultra-indulgent. It's decadent enough for those who love emerging from Maseratis sporting $500,000 of Tiffany jewelry on each wrist. Save for a final swell that could be even bigger, this performance is sufficiently over-the-top to leave you either soaring to the moon or longing for a cool shower.—Jason Victor Serinus


Honegger/Schoeck/Mitropoulos: Buried Alive
Michael Nagy, baritone; The Bard Festival Chorale; The Orchestra NOW/Leon Botstein
Bridge 9540 (CD). 2020. Marian Barry, prod. and eng.
Performance **½
Sonics ***

Leon Botstein's intrepid programming unearths a Concerto grosso by former New York Philharmonic director Dimitri Mitropoulos. Save for some sectional glissandi and dissonant violin slithers in the final Allegro, the idiom is that of postwar America, with demonstrative gestures succeeded by inward, brooding ones. There aren't any real tunes, but the sonorities hold interest, and the music moves with a sure sense of purpose. The sonics strike a balance between blend and clarity, with the wind groups clearly "placed" and a nice resonance in the low strings.

I was less taken with Othmar Schoeck's song cycle Lebendig begraben (Buried Alive). The title describes the situation of the baritone, who is also the first-person narrator. The cycle begins in an Expressionist style, anguished and dissonant. As the protagonist reflects on his life and faces his destiny, the textures becomes more open and expansive. Michael Nagy begins unpromisingly, with curdled vowels, barked emphases, iffy pitches, and a wobble on any slightly sustained note. He does rise to the proclamatory affirmations later on, though the vocal production remains tight. Botstein keeps reasonably good order, although he lets such details as the winding clarinet obbligato get buried.

Honegger's Rugby begins with bright, alert flourishes, but I'd have liked less-opaque tuttis, and the contrasts between the broad legato lines and the busy accompaniments are flattened. Throughout the program, in fact, tentative coordination among such elements suggests some lack of baton clarity.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

After weeks of work, triggered by an email from reader Ned Kuehn who informed me that the 24/96 stereo files of this recording were not available for download or streaming, some broken connections in the supply chain have been repaired. You should be able to find the hi-rez files online by December 15. I hope. Some services and sites will take longer than others to make them available.