In keeping with the reflective time of year, the final Classical Notes column of 2021 takes stock of some of the year’s notable recordings by local artists, composers, and ensembles.
The Christmas programs of The Boston Camerata have long been a highlight of the early music group’s offerings. Its new release, “Hodie Christus Natus Est: A Medieval Christmas” (Harmonia Mundi), has roots in a program debuted by the ensemble in the 1970s. This version, rethought and recast by artistic director Anne Azéma, features stylistically diverse works from sources around the world. In a configuration of just five singers and instrumentalists, the Camerata produces a joyous, tightly defined sound in these chants, songs, and processionals, many familiar from its indelible live performances.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project plugged away in its recordings of new and neglected 20th- and 21st-century repertoire on its BMOP/sound label. Its 83rd release returns to the composer with whom the label began: John Harbison. Bookending “Diotima” are what Harbison calls his first piece for orchestra (the title work, from 1976) and likely his last (the Sixth Symphony, from 2011). Both commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, they share a mysterious, haunted feel and, given the temporal distance from one another, a remarkably consistent language. In between come the plaintive “Milosz Songs” (2006), written for the soprano Dawn Upshaw, who is in as radiant voice as ever.
Their partnership now in its fifth decade, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax play with a joyful, telepathic connection. Their latest is “Hope Amid Tears” (Sony), a collection of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas. You might think the title is a reference to the pandemic; it’s actually a nod to an inscription on the manuscript of the A-major sonata, Op. 69. Ma and Ax first recorded the Beethoven in 1987. But as with Ma’s recent recording of the Bach cello suites, the renditions here reach deeper and feel less forced and more nuanced. Their performances of the two late sonatas in Op. 102 are exemplary — plainspoken yet with two careers’ worth of experience.
Few composers would seem to be as diametrically opposed as György Kurtág and Antonin Dvorak. They nevertheless make for an irresistible pairing in the ECM label debut by the Parker Quartet, now in its seventh year in residence at Harvard University. The quartet captures the condensed power of Kurtág’s fragmentary language in two of his string quartets (the “Six moments musicaux” and “Officium breve”) as effectively as the ineffable lyricism of Dvorak’s String Quintet No. 3, Op. 97. For the latter, they are joined by another Bostonian: violist Kim Kashkashian, a chamber music legend in her own right.
Like most groups, the vocal ensemble Skylark found itself splintered during the pandemic, its members dispersed and largely unable to make music together. “It’s a Long Way” (no label) is a chronicle of that bewildering time. Some of it was recorded communally by a group of performers, all vaccinated, while other pieces were assembled from individual tracks recorded separately by 24 singers, which were then edited together. The contents include a quartet of world premieres, music by 16th-century composer Josquin des Prez and Vincente Lusitano, and a few folk songs. All of it is sequenced to tell the story of the group’s dispersal and (eventual) reunion. It’s a compelling narrative, and the singing is exquisite.
Percussionist Maria Finkelmeier is one of the city’s most creative and entrepreneurial musicians. Still, I was unprepared for the sheer weirdness of “Descended” (Bright Shiny Things), her collaboration with trumpeter Jean Laurenz centered on Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th-century eccentric known for his documentation of Japanese ghost stories. (He’s also Laurenz’s great-great-grand uncle). Finkelmeier and Laurenz create an eerie musical backdrop to explore Hearn’s world, complete with recitations from his writings. It’s ethereal, strange, and hard to get out of your head once you hear it.
Rhythms — driving, repeating, disruptive, snaking around one another — are at the core of “Tulpa” (New Focus Recordings), a compendium of works by Boston Conservatory at Berklee composer Curtis K. Hughes. The pieces here range widely in color and mood, but all of them show Hughes’s deft ability to use rhythm as a structural and expressive device, be it the interlocking lines of the cello duo “merger” or the off-kilter groove in “antechamber,” written for Boston Percussion Group.
The Boston-based cellist Mike Block’s name was new to me, but I spent hours with his album “Planispheres” (Bandcamp). It consists of eight improvised solo pieces, each a self-contained unit that has subtle sonic and structural links to others — like star systems, as Block writes in the notes. Each piece was created as a separate performance for an audience of one at a warehouse in Brooklyn. This lent the music a sense of freshness and discovery for performer and audience member alike, and that spirit carries over fully into the album.
Hub New Music’s recording of Robert Honstein’s “Soul House” was one of the pieces that kept me sane during 2020. Wholly different in character is the group’s recording of Michael Ippolito’s “Capriccio” (Bandcamp), a co-commission with the Peabody Essex Museum. The three-movement work is an homage to the German-born abstract artist Hans Hofmann, and much of the music has a grinding intensity perhaps rooted in the slab-like nature of Hofmann’s later paintings. An unease pervades much of the music, but the wild finale kicks up a ruckus that seems perfectly attuned to the bold colors for which he’s renowned.