CD Review: American composer Nico Muhly goes all Elizabethan on his latest album, Seeing is Believing
Nico Muhly, Seeing is Believing (Decca)
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
American composer Nico Muhly is getting some time in the spotlight for his new opera, Two Boys, which is about to have its premiere at the hands of English National Opera.
Last week, Muhly and his English collaborators, the Aurora Orchestra, released a new album, which is equally noteworthy.
The album, named after its title piece, Seeing is Believing, is brilliant -- and totally Elizabethan.
Muhly has interwoven his own works (Elizabeth II) with instrumental arrangements (enriched with the young composer's own embellishments) of works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons (Elizabeth I).
The aesthetics are, of course, vastly different, but they share the trait of pre-dating and post-dating J.S. Bach's conventions of harmony and counterpoint. As "new" alternates with "old" on the disc, it quickly became apparent to me how much devotion and love Muhly has for the Renaissance masters. His composerly interventions (an extra shimmer of piano or celeste here, an embroidery of clarinet or oboe or English horn there) are elegant and respectful while making the music sound fresh and beguiling. The vast majority of listeners will have no idea that these pieces started off as motets -- and, in the case of Muhly's arrangements, it hardly matters.
The four new pieces by Muhly deftly mix orchestral colours and pulse with lively rhythms and overlays of melodic textures. The most humorous is the closing "Step Team," which sounds like something by a member of Les Six that's been snipped into short bits and then pasted together in a different order. "By all Means" and "Motion" rest on expertly built-up sets of overlaid note patterns.
"Seeing is Believing" is feels like an elaborate call to prayer -- in this case rendered as a sort of extended opening cadenza in a concerto for six-stringed electric violin performed by Thomas Gould -- that starts off powerfully, but then gets scattered in a sea of competing ideas and colours. It has to be intentional, structurally, but comes across as a bit unfocussed in the middle.
Overall, though, I think the mix, and the musical message, are brilliant. Young Brits, conductor Thomas Collon and Gould's Aurora Orchestra, are positively electric in their assurance and clarity from beginning to end.
Here is a bit more on the album: