Exquisite textures of Bryars

Gavin Bryars: "A Portrait"

Juilian Lloyd Webber, John Harle, Valerie Anderson, Tom Waits, Nexus, English Chamber Orchestra and others. (Philips)

*** 1/2

Gavin Bryars: "I Have Heard It Said That a Spirit Enters: Music of Gavin Bryars"

Holly Cole, Gwen Hoebig, Gavin Bryars, CBC Radio Orchestra. (CBC Records)

*** 1/2

Gavin Bryars' music is so rhapsodically beautiful, so warmly enveloping that you might instinctively distrust its allure. Is it more than tarted up New Age, more than a fashionable Postmodern twist on the sappy British pastorale tradition? It is. Bryars is a serious student of musical states of altered reality. He seduces the senses, lulls the brain, but then controls the dream. We float on gorgeous melody that rarely resolves, ever off on new, fascinating, richly textured paths. You may put a CD on in the background thinking this is pretty nice atmospheric music, but beware. Bryars will steal your active concentration.

The Bryars' portrait is a selection from the composer's works that Philips and Point Music recorded in the 1990s. It includes bits from Tom Waits' version of Bryars' mesmeric "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" -- a series of extended repetitions of a tape of an old man on the street singing a religious song, which became a cult new music hit in the early 1970s and was popularized again by Waits singing the hymn. But turn first to the outstanding cello concerto "Farewell to Philosophy," lovingly played by Julian Lloyd Webber, to see just how subtle and serious Bryars can be.

The new Canadian recording from CBC Radio is an excellent compilation of Bryars more recent work. It includes a superb, bitter-sweet violin concerto, "The Bulls of Bashan"; the gloriously operatic "Three Songs"; and a sinuous work for string orchestra, "The Porazzi Fragment." As a final inducement, there is a performance of "By the Vaar," written in 1987 for jazz bassist Charlie Haden, played here with great expression by Bryars himself.

-- Mark Swed

Lullabies in10 languages

"Ninna Nanna: Lullabies, 1500-2002"

Montserrat Figueras, soprano; Hesperion XXI. (AliaVox)


Notwithstanding excellent, skillful collaborators and as wide-ranging a collection of berceuses-lullabies-nanas-wiegenlieder as one can imagine, these 18 items in 10 languages suffer a sameness of concept and orientation. The most interesting song, Tarquinio Merula's "Canzonetta spirituale sopra la nanna" (1639) is indeed lively, excitable and passionate. Most of the rest, despite admirable contributions from Reger, Part, Milhaud and Byrd, fall in the too-comfortable, drowsy zone of "Sleep, Baby, Sleep."

-- Daniel Cariaga

Out of the past: 'Lucie' in French

Donizetti: "Lucie de Lammermoor"

Natalie Dessay, Roberto Alagna, Ludovic Tezier, Marc Laho. Orchestra and Chorus of the National Opera of Lyon. Evelino Pido, conductor. (Virgin Classics)

*** 1/2

Three years after the Naples premiere of "Lucia di Lammermoor," Donizetti reworked the opera for Paris, making it more concise. The French version, heard here, held its own through the 19th century, then was abandoned. It's been reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts because no conductor's score exists. Differences include a new entrance aria for the heroine (which includes a flute obbligato; surprisingly, the flute is absent in the French "Mad Scene"), a greater role for Sir Arthur, more villainy from Lucie's brother (she is the only female soloist) and other details aficionados will enjoy detecting. If we didn't have "Lucia," we'd fall in love with "Lucie," especially with the passionate singing of Dessay (Lucie), Alagna (Edgard), Tezier (Ashton) and Laho (Arthur), not to mention Pido's sweeping conducting. But we do and there's no reason for it to be supplanted; so this essentially becomes a curiosity for collectors.

--Chris Pasles

New energy from Wolfe

Julia Wolfe: "The String Quartets"

Ethel, Cassatt String Quartet, and Lark Quartet (Cantaloupe Music 21011).

* * * 1/2

Julia Wolfe, co-founder of the new music presenting-and-performing machine Bang on a Can, remains one of the more intriguing and tag-resistant mid-career composers on the scene. This string quartet recording demonstrates her ability to inject new energy into old forms and avoid easy categorization. Like her Minimalist predecessors, Wolfe likes pulse-driven lines but has new uses for them, and she tends to usher particular ideas into each piece. "Dig Deep," performed by Ethel, lives up to its title, with a churning often primal rhythmic insistence and machine-like phrases tending as much toward rock 'n' roll as classical inspiration. Swooping, and almost hallucinatory, portamento is the leitmotif in "Four Marys," performed by the Cassatt String Quartet. Unlike the old school Minimalists, Wolfe's harmonic toolbox isn't clean and simple, or necessarily sweet. Clenched and clustered tones, for instance, are coyly mixed in with frail single-note utterances in "Early That Summer," performed by Lark Quartet. Alternately seductive and pummeling, the piece typifies Wolfe's volatile creative firepower.

-- Josef Woodard

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