Here is an overview of last weekend’s 2017 Grammy Awards in the classical categories. From opera to chamber music, the list features a heavy dose of American contemporary music:
Best Orchestral Performance
This is the second installment in a series of live-concert Shostakovich recordings by Music Director Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony on the Deutsche Grammophon label. The first recording of the five-part series was honored in the same category at last year’s Grammys. The Suite from Hamlet rounds out this recording.
The haunting mystery of the opening movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony comes across spectacularly in this recording. The movement’s final, trance-like moments are especially powerful:
American composer John Corigliano’s 1991 two-act opera, The Ghosts of Versailles offers a fascinating parody of eighteenth century opera. Imagine yourself coming in and out of consciousness as you doze off during a Mozart opera and you might experience something similar to this. Here is the Act 1 duet, Look at the green here in the glade:
The 82-year-old Krzysztof Penderecki is widely regarded to be Poland’s greatest living composer. This album is a collection of Penderecki’s sacred choral music. It includes a premiere of the Dies Illa, for soloists (Johanna Rusanen, Agnieszka Rehlis and Nikolay Didenko), choir and orchestra, written in 2014 for the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Here is the album’s trailer:
Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble
This album, simply titled Steve Reich, is the sixth release of the Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion. The group specializes in contemporary music with a strong commitment to education and outreach. In addition to numerous commissions, Third Coast Percussion performs its own original music, not unlike a rock band. The album opens with Steve Reich’s 2009 Mallet Quartet. On one level, this music pulsates with a vibrant, but irregular, heartbeat. On a larger level, it unfolds in gradually shifting harmonic waves. Here is the first movement:
Best Instrumental Solo
American composer Michael Daugherty’s 2015 Tales of Hemingway is a four-movement cello concerto which evokes the life and literature of author Ernest Hemingway. Cellist Zuill Bailey is accompanied by Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of accompanying Bailey when he came to perform with the Williamsburg (Virginia) Symphony. (A few years earlier Daugherty came to Williamsburg when we played one of his works).
Tales of Hemingway opens with Big Two-Hearted River (Seney, Michigan, 1925). Here is the composer’s description of this sweeping, cinematic music:
In this story, Nick Adams is an emotionally scarred and disillusioned soldier from World War I who treks to Northern Michigan for a camping-fishing trip to try to regain control of his life. I have composed serene and passionate music that evokes a leitmotif in Hemingway’s writing: his belief that one can be healed by the power of nature through exploring isolated outdoor terrains.
Best Solo Vocal Album
Two albums tied for this award. German soprano Dorothea Röschmann and accompanist Mitsuko Uchida’s disk features songs of Robert Schumann (Liederkreis, Op.39, Frauenliebe und -leben Op.42) and Alban Berg (Sieben frühe Liede). The music of Berg (1885-1935) bridged the late Romanticism of Mahler and the twelve-tone atonality of the Second Viennese School. Interestingly, there are moments in the Schumann which sound almost as “far out.” For example, listen to the way time is stretched in Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan, the eighth song of the Frauenliebe und -leben cycle:
In Shakespeare Songs, English tenor Ian Bostridge and accompanist Sir Antonio Pappano delve into four centuries of music inspired by the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Here is Franz Joseph Haydn’s She Never Told Her Love, based on Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 4:
Best Classical Compendium
This recording was awarded “Best Instrumental Solo” (above). Two additional works by Daugherty round out this album: American Gothic, a concerto for orchestra inspired by Iowa artist Grant Wood and Once Upon a Castle, a tone poem for orchestra and organ inspired by Hearst Castle. Overlooking the Pacific, Hearst Castle was the home of larger-than-life billionaire newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst, the subject of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane. The music conveys the romanticism and eccentricity of the man.
Here is the first movement of Once Upon a Castle. Can you hear a hint of Ravel’s colorful Daphnis and Chloe?