Apollo Chamber Players: Blurred Boundaries
Navona Records

Couloir: Maxwell Muhly & Couloir
Ravello Records

Many young classical instrumentalists keep the traditional repertoire alive by dedicating themselves to new performances of established pieces; the bolder and arguably riskier move is to advance the repertoire by commissioning and recording works by new composers. That's precisely what these two chamber outfits do on their respective releases: on Blurred Boundaries, Apollo Chamber Players (violinists Matthew Detrick and Anabel Ramirez, violist Whitney Bullock, cellist Matthew Dudzik) includes three commissions marking the inauguration of 20x2020, a project initiated by the group designed to witness the creation of twenty new folk music-inspired works by the end of the decade; and on Maxwell Muhly & Couloir, cellist Ariel Barnes and harpist Heidi Krutzen (aka Couloir) not only perform recent works by James B. Maxwell and Nico Muhly, they supplement the Maxwell setting with a bold electro-acoustic treatment.

Blurred Boundaries' three commissions, which come from American composer Libby Larsen (Sorrow Song and Jubilee, 2014), Marty Regan (Splash of Indigo, 2014), and Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz (Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan, 2015), appear alongside premiere recordings of works by Henry T. Burleigh (Plantation Melodies, Old and New, 1901), Florence Beatrice Price (Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, 1951), and Hajime Komatsu (Four Japanese Folksongs, 1996). As the titles indicate, the set-list is heavily centered on folk material from different cultures, which in turn makes for an engaging recording rich in melody and variety. Enhancing the accessibility of the release are Price's affectionate renderings of the familiar songs “Clementine,” “Shortnin' Bread,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and the emotional dimension of the recording is also understandably boosted by the incorporation of ballads and spirituals.

On Sorrow Song and Jubilee, Larsen deftly draws a connecting line between African-American spirituals, traces of which recognizably emerge within the compositional framework, and Antonin Dvorák. The plaintive character of Burleigh's Plantation Melodies, Old and New makes it one of the recording's most endearing pieces; it would be a cold heart indeed, for example, that could remain untouched by its opening part “Negro Lullaby” or, for that matter, Price's “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” Venturing overseas, the recording travels from the American South to the Balkans for Eryilmaz's dance-driven Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan, on which the quartet is joined by clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski, bassist Timothy Pitts, and percussionist Matthew McClung, and to the Far East for Komatsu's Four Japanese Folk Songs. At album's end, one might be reminded of Debussy's and Ravel's string quartets as Regan's rhapsodic tone poem fills the air for an aromatic twelve minutes. Without any compromise to its classical bona fides, Apollo Chamber Players accomplishes something rather special on the seventy-minute collection: Blurred Boundaries not only promotes the value in the creation of new works, it does so forcefully by featuring melody-rich pieces that provide ample listening pleasure.

Whereas the Apollo Chamber Players set features a large number of composers and works, Maxwell Muhly & Couloir features works by James B. Maxwell and Nico Muhly only. Further to that, the generally concise character of the pieces on Blurred Boundaries stands in stark contrast to those performed by cellist Ariel Barnes and harpist Heidi Krutzen, with Muhly's ten-minute Clear Music (2003) framed by twenty- and twenty-six minute versions of Serere (2012) on this follow-up to the duo's Couloir debut Wine Dark Sea (also on on Ravello Records).

That the opening acoustic version of Serere extends for twenty minutes has certain implications, one of which is that repeated listenings are necessary for its shape to come into focus, especially when the material possesses the kind of free-flowing, dream-like quality that it does in this world premiere recording. Maxwell composed the piece for the Canadian company Ballet Kelowna (more on that in a moment), and it's easy to visualize bodies moving gracefully alongside sinuous music that unfurls with elegance. And with only two instruments in play, the duo's performance is distinguished by clarity and spaciousness.

In his Clear Music, Muhly uses a single measure from John Taverner's (1490-1545) motet Mater Christi Sanctissima as a springboard for his own creation. With celeste player Maryliz Smith adding sparkle to Couloir's cello-harp combination, the setting formally unfolds as a series of peaks whereby the uppermost voice is pitched two octaves above the next voice below, and once again the material, Muhly's as elegant as Maxwell's, is given an exquisite reading by the musicians.

At album's end, Serere returns, though this time in a wide-ranging electro-acoustic version that more directly references the writing-related themes of the balletDouble Variations by incorporating sounds suggestive of a pencil on paper. The core elements of the acoustic version remain very much in place but are given a bold new dimension by the augmentation of electronic treatments and textures, and even an unexpected rhythm-charged episode at the fifteen-minute mark and a percolating electronic intervention five minutes later; such electro-acoustic additions enrich the acoustic version without in any way compromising on its essence. Admittedly Maxwell Muhly & Couloir isn't as immediately accessible a recording as Blurred Boundaries, but both projects are equally laudable for promoting the advancement of classical chamber music in fresh, new ways.

August 2016