Carolina Eyck and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) are releasing Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet on Butterscotch Records. Right from the opening track, Eyck makes the theremin sing in ways I haven’t heard before.
These six Eyck compositions include firmly rhythmic works as well as some with that spacey, eerie sound often associated with the theremin – that venerable electronic instrument played by moving the hands around it without touching it.
Eyck constructed the music by first recording the string quartet scores, then overdubbing her theremin improvisations. She uses the instrument’s full range to create a variety of textures, while maintaining impressively precise intonation. (If you’ve heard a theremin in concert, you’re probably aware of how hard that can be.)
Knowing that Eyck conceived and recorded the album for 12″ vinyl made even my digital listening experience feel somehow richer – as if I were in the presence not just of new avant-garde music but of the whole weird history of the theremin.
At the same time, Eyck’s string writing is interesting in itself: modernistic, calling for unorthodox techniques, but accessible to a casual listener – eccentric rather than esoteric.
Eyck and ACME will give the works their world premiere performance on Nov. 4 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City.
Ensemble Pygmalion‘s new release on Harmonia Mundi, Rheinmädchen, is a sort of concept album on the theme of the Rhinemaidens and other German legends. A mix of music by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner, much of it choral, it weaves the disparate composers’ visions together by juxtaposing works that relate to German mythology and are also linked by the ancient tradition of the canon.
The album begins with the dark grandeur of Wagner’s “Auf dem Grunde des Rheines.” But while Wagner may have been the avatar of the 19th-century revival of Teutonic mythology, Raphaël Pichon’s ensemble places the composer in context in an innovative way. The program progresses in mini-suites that create enlightening dialogue among the composers. For example, Brahms’s tiny, intense canon for female voices “Wille, wille will der Mann ist kommen!” is sandwiched between the “Horn Call” from Wagner’s opera Siegfried and Schubert’s “Ständchen” for mezzo-soprano, women’s choir, and harp.
The voices sound live and echoey, as if heard in a large church. The effect becomes haunting in works like Schubert’s canon “Lacrimosa son io” (part of a “Mourning Women” suite) and two selections from Brahms’s 13 Canons for Women’s Voices opus 113.
Along the way there’s a good deal of impressive instrumental work, including on the difficult-to-play natural (valveless) horns of the period. Hunting calls and harp arpeggios echo from one piece to another, suggesting surprising affinities between, for example, Wagner’s triumphalism and Brahms’s romanticism.
Given its program, the album can’t sound like a contiguous whole, but it certainly can please the ear and engage the brain.
Schubert: Piano Trios, Op. 99 & 100, a new Harmonia Mundi album by pianist Andreas Staier, violinist Daniel Sepec, and cellist Roel Dieltiens that also includes a Nocturne by Schubert, misses much of the Romantic spirit of the pieces. Precise cohesiveness and technical precision don’t make up for accents harshly attacked, rhythms and pauses that feel mechanical instead of organic and breathy, and, in the case of the Nocturne, a flirtation with schmaltz.
The musicians aren’t helped by the ill-balanced studio production, which results in one instrument or another getting lost behind the others, and harsh notes when Sepec’s bow strikes his strings hard. It’s true they’re using period instruments, including a copy of an 1827 Viennese fortepiano, but modern recording techniques can capture the delicate character of such instruments in the studio better than this.
Some of the lyrical beauty and brilliance of Schubert’s music comes through, particularly in parts of the slow movements. But overall it feels as if in combination these skilled musicians treat the music like a puzzle to be solved, rather than works of art to be interpreted and conveyed with all the soulful energy the performers can muster.