March 2021 Classical Record Reviews

Dame Ethyl Smyth: The Prison
Sarah Brailey, soprano; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, James Blachly, cond.
Chandos CHSA 5279 (CD). 2020. Blanton Alspaugh, prod.; Brandon Johnson, John Newton, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Dame Ethel Smyth didn't call The Prison an oratorio, but it resembles Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. Her musical idiom suggests the more advanced side of Vaughan Williams—think of the late cantatas and oratorios—although the opening of Part Two is pure Mendelssohn. Despite the somber subject matter, the piece is appealing.

The music is melodious, but Smyth's gift wasn't for actual tunes; rather, she adeptly plays off contrasts within the orchestra and between it and the voices, using divided men's and women's parts as additional "instruments."

James Blatchly, leading the New York–based Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, has a fine feel for the score's ebb and flow, reveling in the panoply of sounds, conveying its broad structural arcs buoyantly without sacrificing drama. The choral unisons are perfectly blended, the divisis transparent and impeccably tuned; oddly, an individual voice or two emerges among the women. The words are mostly unintelligible without the libretto.

The soloists understand the required narrative immediacy, though here, too, intelligibility varies. Baritone Dashon Burton sings out well and firmly, especially in the rhetoric of Part Two; at softer dynamics, he can warble, with moments of iffy tuning. That last also applies to Sarah Brailey: Sometimes her clear, round sound blossoms; sometimes she pressures it upward.

Chandos offers clear, warm sound, projecting the composer's range of textures vividly. Two or three of the biggest climaxes suffer from a hard edge, but the characterful reeds are delicious against silence.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Tristan Perich: Drift Multiply
New Amsterdam/Nonesuch NWAM146 (CD, download). 2020. Douglas Perkins, Tristan Perich, prods.; Han De Jonge, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Tristan Perich might have a bit of a gimmick, but it's a good one. More importantly, he's good at executing it. Over the course of seven albums and many more performances, Perich has devised taut and intricate interminglings of acoustic instruments and 1-bit electronics. Cutting the digital sound to the single-bit quick—considerably more limited than the eight bits employed by Gameboy glitchers and their ilk—Perich is left with only tone, which can be switched on or off but with no color or dynamic control. He builds tightly metered patterns around electronic pulses and sculpts instrumental accompaniment around those. This could easily be considered mere novelty; if Perich weren't such a good composer, that's all it'd be.

Drift Multiply—scored for 50 violins and 50 small speakers delivering digital counterpoint—is Perich's most ambitious and emotionally charged work to date. It received its premiere in 2018 at Manhattan's St. John the Divine, a massively resonant space. This release was recorded at De Doelen concert hall in Rotterdam the following year, and the sound is much crisper. From quick counts to soft washes of white noise, it's surprisingly warm in conception and execution.

Perich was born in New York City the year Steve Reich premiered Vermont Counterpoint and a year before Philip Glass became a household name with his soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi; Perich owes much to their minimalism. It would be unfair to reduce Perich to merely following in their footsteps, but the debt is clear. Fans of the elder composers may be challenged by this work, but they're unlikely to be disappointed.—Kurt Gottschalk


David Greilsammer: Labyrinth
Greilsammer, piano
Naïve V7084 (CD, auditioned in 24/96). 2020. Philipp Nedel, prod. and eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

If you have not yet encountered the astounding imagination of David Greilsammer, this recording could put him on your map. Raised in Israel, the Juilliard-trained pianist/conductor bases this recital on a dream that has haunted him since age 15. As he recounts, Greilsammer discovered himself trapped in an infinite labyrinth. After an unquantifiable period of confusion and terror, he allowed "fragments of numerous sonorities that were staring at each other, like stars in a galaxy," to accompany him to the center of the maze.

Greilsammer has managed to find his way out via this eclectic 19-selection journey that begins with Janácek's solitude-filled "The Owl Has Not Flown Away!" from On an Overgrown Path and ends with a breathtaking performance of Scriabin's astounding Vers la flamme, Op.72. The path is seamless, the disorientation intentional. Before you get your bearings, Beethoven's lovely, civil Bagatelles, Op.126, Nos.4 & 5 have been pushed apart by Crumb's radically different "The Magic Circle of Infinity" from Makrokosmos, Book 1; the precision of Bach's Contrapunctus 1 from The Art of Fugue has been disrupted and mimicked by Ligeti êtudes. Expectations are confounded, as when Satie's Pièce Froides Nos.2 & 3 are crashed by C.P.E. Bach's far more radical-sounding Fantasia in D Minor, Wq 117/4. There's nowhere to hide, as the premier of a new work by Ofer Pelz pauses for the civility of Marais before Rebel's disruptive Le Chaos from Les Éléments finds a perfect bedfellow in Scriabin. As an inexorably driven Greilsammer bounces back and forth from order to the inexplicable, the mind spins.—Jason Victor Serinus


Violins of Hope: Live at Kohl Mansion
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Hope, violin; Kay Stern, Dawn Harms, Sean Mori, violins; Patricia Heller, viola; Emil Miland, cello
Pentatone PTC5186879 (CD, auditioned as 24/96 WAV). 2021. Steve Barnett, prod.; Preston Smith, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope headlines this extraordinary concert, performed entirely on instruments owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust. The cycle, which tells the stories of instruments revivified by the Violins of Hope Project, begins with "Ashes," about a violin whose case was filled with the ashes of those burned in the ovens, and ends with "Liberation," inspired by the Liberation of Auschwitz. One of the most moving songs, "Motele," recounts the tale of 12-year-old violin prodigy Mordechai "Motele" Schlein. With excerpts from Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto weaving through the accompaniment, we learn that Schlein, who did not survive the war, smuggled gunpowder in his violin case to create a bomb he detonated in the basement of a Nazi Officer's Club.

Sasha Cook's warm, emotionally direct voice is perfect for these songs, and the heart-touching theme Heggie fashions for the final song is reminiscent of great tunes of the romantic era. How perfect, then, to conclude with Schubert's Quartettsatz in C Minor and Mendelssohn's last String Quartet, completed months before his death.

"The violin I used...was like an old friend, sharing the history of the people who played and listened to it," San Francisco Opera Concertmaster Kay Stern shared post-concert. "The Violins of Hope brought us very close history through these instruments and striving to join them and our hearts' voices together for so many people and reasons." You will feel it.—Jason Victor Serinus

volvic's picture

Nice to finally see Dame Smyth mentioned as a composer. Her Mass in D is superb and highly recommended to anyone wanting to discover this interesting and talented composer.

AaronGarrett's picture

Thanks for the suggestion. Astonishing piece.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The recording of Dame Ethyl Smith's The Prison received a 2021 Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. The choice of category is curious, since it isn't a solo vocal album, and instead involves two soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Nonetheless, it won. Which is great.

I reviewed two of the other nominated albums, Cecilia Bartoli's Farinelli for Stereophile, and Brian Giebler's A Lad's Love for San Francisco Classical Voice. Both are equally deserving of your attention.

You can find the complete list of Grammy winners here: