song cycle

  • Chamber Music from Edward Smaldone


    Once and Again
    Tony Arnold, soprano. Tara Helen O’Connor, flute. June Han, harp.
    Charles Neidich, clarinet/bass clarinet. Daniel Phillips, violin. Marcy Rosen, cello.
    Susan Narucki, soprano. Judith Mendenhall, flute/piccolo.
    Morey Ritt, piano.
    Brno Philharmonic Strings/Mikel Toms
    New Focus FCR258
    Total Time:  67:14
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Composer Edward Smaldone (b. 1956) explores a number of chamber music expressions in this new collection from New Focus.  From song cycles (Cantare di Amore; Letters From Home) to wind solos (Duke/Monk) and duets (Double Duo) to a concluding string Sinfonia that reveal the composer’s style and approaches in works written between 1986-2009.

    The first work on the album is the song cycle Cantare di Amore (2009) and represents Smaldone’s most recent work.  The texts are borrowed from the fourth and sixth book of Madrigals by Monteverdi.  There are three settings, the first opening with an almost Asian-sounding inflection from the flute and harp.  The voice and flute tend to interweave and feed off one another with the harp providing flourishes to add harmonic signposts.  There are sometimes subtle shifts to more traditional harmony, though these are hints that quickly dissipate.  At the center is a darker love song exploring contemporary effects for the accompanying instruments and a freer rhythmic feel.  The final song has more of these free-flowing soprano lines.  The piece is a bit reminiscent of Dallapiccola (perhaps it is just the way the instruments are applied and the florid vocal writing).  The performance is quite exquisite.  The second song cycle is based on some letters the composer discovered in his home (hence the title, Letters from Home 2000/2007/2014).  The actual letters are interspersed with the composer’s own texts to add context to the material.  Here it is Susan Narucki’s performance that entrances the listener.

    The song cycles are separated by a Double Duo (1987/2006) that pits two woodwind instruments (flute and clarinet) against two string instruments (violin and cello).  This earlier composition, here in a revised form, Smaldone cites as being influenced by George Perle.  It expresses that economy of material with opening ideas being the primary pitch and motivic ideas that form the basis of the tightly-constructed 8-minute work.  There is still a sense of improvisational approaches that allow each instrument to come to the foreground briefly.  An outward-reaching gesture helps further move things along as more angular, and jagged outlines add an additional intensity.  More careful listening helps discern that these ideas are placed within a sonata form.  The more rhythmic material opens the work with a slower, harmonically ambiguous, second idea providing contrast.  A development section further unpacks these ideas before a somewhat interesting recapitulation where these two ideas occur simultaneously.  The penultimate track is a two-movement work, originally for flute, that is performed on clarinet.  Duke/Monk (2011) reveals another of Smaldone’s “influences”, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk.  The musical material is derived form a work of each of these classic jazz musicians and composers.  The new transcription was made for its soloist here, Charles Niedich.  It piano allows Smaldone to stretch and manipulate jazz harmonies while the soloist has a more improvisational feel exploring the melodic lines of the quotations.

    The final work here is an early piece for strings adapted from the composer’s 1986 second string quartet.  The Sinfonia (2010) features a beautiful viola opening with extended harmonic punctuations before shifting into a dancing scherzo.  The work encapsulates the composer’s exploration of small cells of material and repeated pitch constructions.  After a more reflective opening, the dance-like rhythms of Smaldone’s interests also align.

    The music here is especially marked by some beautiful lyric writing, though couched often in more astringent harmony.  It is almost as if sometimes a line will follow a traditional harmonic arc but the accompaniment pulls into closer intervallic constructions towards dissonance.  That can be quite fascinating to hear and Smaldone is quite fortunate to have secured such fine performances of these pieces.


  • On Timbres and Sounds: New Music by Maija Hynninen


    Dawn Breaks
    Jaana Karkkainen, piano.  Mirka Malmi, violin. Kyle Bruckmann, oboe.
    Maija Hynninen, electronics.
    Tuuli Lindberg, soprano. Hanna Kinnunen, flute.
    Lily-Marlene Puusepp, electric harp.
    Mikko Raasakka, clarinet/bass clarinet.
    Anna Kuvaja, piano.
    Ravello Records 8021
    Total Time:  62:37
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Finnish electro-acoustic composer Maija Hynninen (b. 1977) presents four of her unique explorations of sound and electronics on this new release.  The album features recordings made over the past nine years.  Hynninen explores how the sound, or timbre, of a particular instrument can provide a touchpoint for further elaboration an electronic manipulation.  Three pieces feature different solo instruments paired with intriguing soundscapes that tend to further dissolve and evolve the musical material in her work.

    Jaana Karkkainen begins the album with winnowing (2010), a work for piano and electronics.  The piano material itself is cast in a more modern vein and for the first third of the piece we are hearing mostly this, but soon more contemporary effects begin to appear both made acoustically (such as strumming piano strings) and then more electronically.  Here Hynninen uses the sounds of flying birds and bird chirps that are floated between the channels of sound here.  The effect is quite striking.  In sicut aurora procedit: as the dawn breaks (2015), the solo instrument is violin.  The violin line incorporates an antiphon by Hildegard of Bingen as its source material which is then further expanded by a prerecorded vocal line (reminiscent of Crumb in the way these elements are combined).  Other recorded sounds also become part of the musical picture created here.  The music explores a slow appearance of motives and sounds in further demonstration of Hynnenin’s dramatic writing in a quite haunting piece.  For the final solo work, Freedom from Fear (2019), the oboe gives Hynnenin more opportunities to explore sound from incorporating additional key clicks and other sound material that can add to the rhythmic and expressive aspects of the music.  The line itself is shaped by a the Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi in a work that dramatically connects to the events of Burmese chaos in that country.

    The five-movement Orlando-Fragments (2010) has a slightly expanded instrumental palette adding flute, electric harp, clarinet/bass clarinet, and piano in addition to the piano and electronic components.  The texts are by Henrikka Tavi and are based on scenes from Virgina Wolff’s novel Orlando.  Here Hynninen explores text setting in ways that allow the vocal line to be manipulated in ways that help also parallel the dramatic changes over time that are the focus of these texts.  The pure vocal tone created by Lindeberg is quite stunning and the sounds that surround it further enhance this quality.  The addition of solo instrumental lines are also another interesting touch as they mimic and interact with the voice.  The music here lies in similar avant-garde song cycles of Schoenberg and later Crumb, of which this is a natural successor to those types of approaches.

    Throughout this release, one is struck by the almost cinematic dramatic shaping of this music.  Hynninen’s contemporary style allows for the music itself to often feel far more tonal which first draws the listener in before it then begins to spiral toward a more modern and atonal sense, often further enhanced by the addition of unusual performance techniques and the electronic integration of her material.  It is a rather fascinating journey for those intrigued by the way composers are exploring electronics and concert music.  Here, the music is aided by a sense of programmatic inspiration that helps guide the listener.