Nothing better sums up the so-called crisis of classical music than the state of so-called classical recording. We lament the end of the recording industry as we knew it — an industry that could once afford to record big orchestras and actually make money — and yet there are more recordings coming out than ever before. As recordings become less a way to generate revenue and more a way to promote an identity, they seem more varied, more personal and generally better, although the institutions that used to propagate them are struggling to survive. I’m not sure this is a problem — except for those of us who would like to be able to listen to a larger proportion of the wealth of recorded music that’s coming out these days. The following are a few of the many recent releases that caught my interest.
“Aerial” represents an attempt on the part of a traditional label to move with the times. It’s devoted to the work of Anna Thorvaldsdottir, an Icelandic composer in her mid-30s, whose last album, “Rhizoma,” came out on Innova records, one of the leading alt-classical labels. I’ve wanted to spend more time with Thorvaldsdottir’s latest music since the American premiere of “In the Light of Air,” an hour-long work commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble and performed at the Atlas last spring, left me disaffected, and indeed, I responded more positively, after some initial resistance, to this recording.
Thorvaldsdottir is an artist who accumulates sounds, piling them up with precision and a kind of economy of gesture; although the overall effect of her works seems similar at first listen, she almost never repeats herself and each piece is quietly distinct. It’s organic music, a kind of ecosystem of sound, with a terrain of long, extended, droning chords acting as a background to small sonic moments: a rattle of stones in a shaker, a thwack of percussion, a clipped phrase from a flute or violin. Her instrumentation is distinct: one work, “Trajectories,” is for piano and electronics; another, “Shades of Silence,” for a quartet of Baroque instruments. But the different voices are used in similar ways: the electronic haze of “Trajectories” is mirrored in throaty extended notes from the period instruments in “Shades of Silence.” And though the work sometimes sounds like the soundtrack to a science-fiction film, moving through its own airless vacuum, it retains, throughout, a sense of the organic, the handmade, in the slight, homespun irregularities and sound-haloes of the pluck of a pizzicato or the clack of a struck piece of wood.
The showpiece is “Aeriality,” performed by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, which I missed when it came to the Kennedy Center as part of the “Nordic Cool” festival in 2013. This is a big spinning planet of a work that, to echo Whitman, contains multitudes of ideas within itself, pregnant with promise from the opening whipcrack of percussion and major-key chord that keeps reasserting itself as tendrils of other sounds curl off it like smoke. When melodies do arrive, they’re couched in an old-fashioned lushness that turns out to be a prominent component of what you’ve already heard; you just didn’t realize it yet.
My admiration for the Trio Mediaeval may well qualify, at this point, as a bias, though it’s based entirely on my encounters with their recordings and performances over the years. Their new album, “Aquilonis,” shows the latest station in their ongoing quest to fashion a new contemporary art out of ancient musical traditions — as well as the first recorded outing with a new member, now that Berit Opheim has permanently replaced Torunn Østrem Ossum, more than 16 years after the group’s founding in 1997.
Neither the group’s balance nor its spirit of adventure appears to have been harmed by the change. The recording is billed as a journey from north to south, with 14th-century music from Iceland and 12th-century works from Italy with some 15th-century English carols on the way. But it also travels from sacred to secular, old and new, seamlessly juxtaposing old works with works by living composers (including arrangements by members of the trio), and religious texts with folk tunes. Given the amount of reconstruction involved in getting performable music out of some of the early manuscripts, the whole album can be seen as a “new” work, the epitome of what the historically informed performance movement has become: that is, a way for talented artists to find their own freedom of expression.
The tension between modernism and the archaic runs through one of the quirkier operatic offerings of recent memory: the first-ever complete recording of Darius Milhaud’s “L’Orestie d’Eschyle.” Milhaud was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, but today is represented in the concert hall chiefly by “Le boeuf sur la toit,” a zany 1919 ballet score that fell rather early in his output. (He died in 1974.) Though billed as a trilogy, this opera does not, in fact, set Aeschylus’s complete “Orestaia”; rather, it offers a single scene from “Agammemnon,” selected music for “The Libation Bearers,” and then a complete operatic version of “The Eumenides,” the latter amounting to two CDs of this three-CD set, which comes courtesy of the University of Michigan — a university arguably being the only kind of institution with the ability to deploy such large instrumental and vocal forces for an odd and unknown work.
Composed over 10 years, the “Orestaia” was in progress at the time “Le boeuf sur la toit” was written — some of it during a two-year sojourn in Brazil as the secretary of Paul Claudel, who wrote and adapted the French libretto. It at once strives to maintain the archaism of the original masterpiece — with a dogged fidelity to the text, set without ornament in unadorned spoken French, and with a sense of the piece’s ritualistic aspects — and a modernist vocabulary. The instrumentation is striking: a 15-piece percussion section for “The Libation Bearers,” quartets of both saxophones and its obscure cousin the saxhorn for “The Eumenides,” which lend a marching-band quality to some of the music.
However innovative, this operatic “Orestaia” stands so in thrall to its source material that it fails entirely to emerge on its own merits. It is, however, an intriguing document — and with a cast including Lori Phillips, Brenda Rae, Tamara Mumford, Sidney Outlaw, and Julianna Di Giacomo, gets, on this lone outing, an impressive performance.