Jeremy Beck, By Moonlight
The album By Moonlight amounts to a career retrospective for composer Jeremy Beck.
His Concertino for two cellos and orchestra sounds both familiar and new – the 21st century speaking to the 20th. Stark, Copland-esque harmonic movement is one of the distinctively American strands that weave through the two-movement piece.
But if Beck uses recognizable language, the poetics of his construction is his own. Original and accessible, the selections on the album span orchestral, chamber, and vocal works. The accelerating dance rave-up that finishes the Concertino sets the table perfectly.
Dreams and Echoes comprises quirky but rather staid a capella choral settings of poems about the longing for connection, one by Sao Nan and one by Beck himself. I was more taken with the exquisite “Two Pieces for Guitar.” Though Beck wrote these brief gems 40 years ago (and revised them in 2007), they sound timeless – and global. In Todd Seelye’s beautiful performances, one hears echoes of Spanish guitar as well as, perhaps, of the improvisations of Jorma Kaukonen.
Similarly, Paul York delivers a clean, driven performance of Beck’s Prelude and Toccata for solo cello. Written for the cellist, this more studied modern-classical composition cuts finely through space, sharp as a knife, with controlled passion especially evident in the Toccata’s slow interlude.
My favorite piece is the Adagio and Allegro, an early work presented here in a 2001 revision for violin and two violas. Freshness and excitement run through both the slow and the brisk movements. Beck marries a flowery melodicism to a contrapuntal inventiveness, producing a feeling of possibility and hopeful magic – an American optimism especially evident in the “Allegro.”
That sense of joy carries into the more lighthearted “Of Summers Past, or Passing,” a charming yet substantial three-movement dialogue for clarinet and piano. Displaying gifts for both melodic conversation and rhythmic creativity, it carries whiffs of pop music and musical theater.
The miniature “Third Delphic Hymn” for solo violin injects a dose of angst, revealing that the composer can draw on a feeling for the bleak when he wishes. Its hymnal quality primes us well for the Three Pieces for Orchestra. This work closes the album by showing us the full flowering of Beck’s method: using familiar musical language in ways that delight, soothe, and surprise, with equal appeal to the casual listener and the musical sophisticate. The final “Serenade” with its swooping downward theme evokes the rolling expanses of a new land – a classically American feeling indeed.
By Moonlight is out now on Innova.
Anna Clyne, Mythologies
Keep your volume moderate for the opening strike of Anna Clyne‘s “Masquerade.” This short piece launches the Mythologies album with a bang. Then be sure to crank it back up as whirlwinds of sound support snatches of dances and cinematic melodies in a concise epitomization of Clyne’s method: “to disentangle older styles in order to spin new stories out of their raw materials,” as the liner notes describe it.
The album collects orchestral works composed over the past decade and recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with four different conductors. “This Midnight Hour” gallops by in separate dramatic chunks that leave little time for contemplation – this music is all about grabbing you and twisting you this way and that. Moods and styles follow hard one upon the next. Romantic melody and harmony emerge from chaos. At the end, a gentle chorale and a trumpet theme resolve with an unexpected full-stop bang like the one at the start of “Masquerade.” Anna Clyne has no fear of punctuation.
“The Seamstress,” a kind of one-movement violin concerto featuring soloist Jennifer Koh, threads needlework imagery through textures that evolve from a mournful folk-like fiddle theme. The composer’s roots in electro-acoustic music show in the delicate sheen of a quiet section defined by sustained high notes and speckled with plucked strings. A dramatic eight-note theme (which sounds borrowed but I couldn’t place it) develops through a section punctuated by what sound like tense human breaths, followed by another fast, wriggling theme.
A recording is quietly heard of Irene Buckley reciting a poem (“The Coat”) by Yeats (not Keats as misprinted in the liner notes). This is a lovely touch, and in tune with the “Seamstress” theme. But the power in this recording belongs to Koh’s intrepidity (Clyne has written a great deal for the violin) and to the orchestra, conducted with assurance by Sakari Oramo.
Skittering scales and hawkish accents churn through “Night Ferry,” whose title comes from a Seamus Heaney poem about Robert Lowell. The poem references the extreme mood swings that used to be called manic depression, and the music indeed suggests unpredictably changeable weather. A quizzical five-note theme dances through deep undulations amid slow looming bass gestures and sharp stings from the brass. Even in the becalmed stretches the dangers of a sea voyage feel everpresent.
A second theme based on a skewed descending scale echoes the whirling scales that provide an atmospheric base not just for this piece but for the album. In the last five minutes the mood finally turns pastoral as Clyne returns to the first theme while somehow making chromatic scales sound intriguing and new.
A jolting rhythmic irregularity defines the final piece, “<<rewind<<.” Intended to evoke a glitchy video image played in reverse, to me it actually suggests a tense moment frozen in time. Dissonant clusters and repeated notes and chords replace scales in this intense shorter work. An anxious heartbeat in the closing minute seems to threaten disaster, and little is resolved. One thing is for sure, though: Whoever’s conducting, the BBC Symphony has a firm grip on Anna Clyne’s supercharged, intricately crafted music.
Mythologies is out now on Avie Records.