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RECORDING OF THE MONTH  

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Beyond
Daníel BJARNASON (b. 1979)
Qui Tollis (2013) [9:48]
Anna THORVALDSDÓTTIR (b. 1977)
Aura (2011, rev. 2015) [6:13]
Christopher CERRONE (b. 1984)
Memory Palace (2012)
Harriman [3:19]
Power Lines [4:51]
Foxhurst [5:04]
L.I.E. [4:23]
Claremont [3:58]
Ellen REID (b. 1983)
Fear | Release (2015/16) [8:47]
Andrew MCINTOSH (b. 1985)
I Hold The Lion’s Paw (2014) [39:31]
Los Angeles Percussion Quartet (Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Nick Terry, Cory Hills)
rec. 2016, Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia
Reviewed as a stereo DXD download (24-bit 352.8kHz) from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
Also available as a box set (Pure Audio Blu-ray & 2 CDs)
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92214 [85:53]

In a market where the majors rely so heavily on their back catalogue and churn out umpteen versions of ‘safe’ repertoire, it’s a relief to know that smaller labels, such as Sono Luminus, are still dedicated to original programming and fine sonics. Take pianist Lara Downes’s splendid recital, America Again, whose all-round excellence made it one of my top picks for 2016. More recently, I was much impressed by Recurrence, a ‘quietly spectacular’ album of contemporary Icelandic music; as it happens, two of the composers featured there – Daniel Bjarnason and Anna Thorvaldsdóttir – are also featured here.

Like the Norwegian label 2L, Sono Luminus have adopted the Pure Audio Blu-ray format, which has more features than standard Blu-ray Audio discs. These include the very latest surround options, 5.1 and 9.1 Auro-3D. Sensibly, though, they take a multi-platform approach, which means that their physical product includes Red Book CDs as well. Admittedly, these boxes command a hefty premium – the DSD and DXD downloads aren’t cheap, either – but then audiophiles and adventurous listeners have always been prepared to pay for challenging repertoire and class-leading sound.

As for the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet (LAPQ), the group was set up in 2009 to champion the music of 20th-century composers from the West Coast; but, as Christopher Rountree points out in his entertaining booklet essay, the LAPQ have diversified, embracing music from the East Coast and far beyond. Factor in what Rountree calls the presence of ‘blazingly brilliant creatives’ Dan Merceruio and Daniel Shores, whose technical wizardry makes these Sono Luminus releases so special, and we should be in for a treat. Incidentally, the LAPQ have recorded two other albums for SL: The Year Before Yesterday (DSL-92180) and Rupa-khanda (DSL-92150). I hope to review these in due course,

Composer Daníel Bjarnason, who conducts the Iceland SO in Recurrence ­ – recorded six months after Beyond, but released first – is also that orchestra’s artist in residence. I described his three-movement piece,Emergence, as ‘emphatic and angular’, but at the outset Qui Tollis seems rather more fragile. One might assume the title has its origins in the Catholic liturgy, Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world), but it’s the ‘taking away’ parts – which frame a big, rhythmically robust central section – that matter here. It’s a striking score, superbly played and recorded.

I deliberately chose the DXD download of Beyond in order to hear the music as captured in the studio. The sound is exceptionally vivid, spatially arresting and very faithful in the way it renders individual timbres, overtones and decay; indeed, I’d say this album raises the bar for percussion recordings by several notches. Not since Kroumata Encores, one of BIS’s very finest SACDs, have I been so immersed in an album of this kind. Even more captivating is Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Aura, whose mystic plashes, plosions and temple-like gong are both light and liberating. I described her orchestral Dreaming as ‘a subtle, beautifully shaped and sustained piece’; that’s true of Aura, too.

The remaining composers – all American – are new to me. According to his artist bio, Brooklyn-based Christopher Cerrone is a Pulitzer finalist and winner of the Samuel Barber Rome Prize for 2015-16. His five-movement Memory Palace, for solo percussion and electronics, is a real find; seamless and searching, bold and breathtaking, the piece also has a pleasing sense of coherence and purpose. Moreover, it’s exceedingly diverse in terms of rhythm, timbre and mood; Power Lines fair crackles with energy – there’s some magnificent marimba playing here – the often bell-like Foxhurst is crisp and clear, L.I.E is alive with alarm(s), and Claremont offers a calm, somewhat haunting, coda.

Next up is Fear | Release, by the LA-based composer and sound artist Ellen Reid. Powerful and nervily intense – cue heroic drumming – it’s also a highly individual piece that contrasts nicely with all that’s gone before. As ever, the commitment and skill of these players –  for whom it was written – is beyond doubt. The album concludes with Nevada-born composer/violinist/violist Andrew McIntosh’s multi-movement I Hold The Lion’s Paw; at just under forty minutes, the work has a strong, well-maintained narrative that belies its length. McIntosh’s musical imagination ranges far and wide, from barely audible skeins of sound to unsettling rolls/susurrations and Kodō-like drumming. Goodness, if there’s a more complete compendium of the percussionist’s art, I’ve yet to hear it.

Beyond excels in every sphere: this well-chosen programme brims with fine music and impassioned musicianship, all presented in sound that will delight audiophiles, percussionistas and music lovers everywhere. Of course, such repertoire presents as much of a challenge to one’s audio system as it does to the engineers. I’m pleased to report that my hypercritical Beyerdynamic T1 Gen 2s have never sounded so fearless, transparent and truthful. Rountree’s enthusiastic essay and lengthy artist bios –  composer/composition dates would help – complete a most desirable package.

Jaw-dropping; the best thing I’ve heard all year.

Dan Morgan

 

 




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