Renaissance choral music heard through modern ears, a new disc from a Flemish composer and a classy piano duo
Erkki-Sven Tüür, Brett Dean: Gesualdo Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tõnu Kaljuste (ECM)
Hearing composers engaging with the music of the past is invariably fascinating. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella prompted me years ago to investigate Pergolesi (though many of the pieces adapted for that ballet weren’t actually by him), and this stunner of a disc invoked shock, wonder and delight, sending me onto Spotify in search of choral music by the quirky Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo. His harmonically adventurous vocal ouput still casts a spell, though he’s chiefly remembered for the bloody murder of his first wife and her lover in 1590. Brett Dean’s Gesulado-inspired Carlo is one of the most viscerally exciting contemporary works you’ll hear on disc. Unadulterated choral fragments dissolve and distort, fusing with the sound of a modern string orchestra. Occasionally nightmarish, it’s also thrilling. Dean’s original conception had the players spookily engaging with prerecorded vocals, but this new recording uses a wonderful Estonian choir.
Erkki-Sven Tüür contributes two pieces. Psalmody is an attractive extended piece of minimalism, its rhythms and melodic shapes inspired by early European art music more than the American West Coast. The track listing says it’s scored for string orchestra. This version isn’t, and Tüür’s idiomatic writing for winds, brass and percussion enhances the work enormously. L’ombra della croce, scored for strings, scales ecstatic heights. You’re reminded of Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia. It’s passionately played by Tõnu Kaljuste’s marvellous Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. They also give us two exquisite string transcriptions of Gesulado choral works, one by Kaljuste and one by Tüür. Fantastic, and already in my Best of 2015 list.