The best recordings of works by Nico Muhly

A round-up of some of the best recordings of works by the American contemporary composer and arranger Nico Muhly, who has worked across both classical and pop genres

Credit: Getty Images

Bloch/Muhly
Muhly: Cello Concerto; Bloch, Schelomo – Hebraic Rhapsody; Three Jewish Poems
Zuill Bailey (cello); Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
Steinway & Sons 30049

This may at first sight seem like an odd coupling – the high Romanticism of Bloch’s rhapsody Schelomo with on-trend Nico Muhly’s lithe new concerto. But after several listens musical links float to the surface. Like Schelomo, and like the colourful Three Jewish Poems, Muhly’s Cello Concerto starts with a heart-stopping high A, which, in Bailey’s hands, announces a voice of authority and soulful eloquence. But while Bloch’s Song of Solomon grows organically into an utterance of sustained grandeur, Muhly’s Concerto presents a smorgasbord
of slick ideas, enticingly presented, occasionally lacking in substance.

The first movement is the strongest, with a bright, angular lyricism, vigorously delivered by Zuill Bailey. The soloist’s toccata soon melts into a sheerly vocalise-like movement, bathed in Barberesque radiance. Scurrying scales gradually move out of the halo to be pitted against persistent woodwind and menacing brass.

The finale has a mischievous, Minimalist glitter reminiscent of early Adams, a sassy syncopated solo line etched against a high stream of tingling repeated figures, powered by punchy brass. Muhly creates an exciting sonic theatre full of unpredictable explosions and high-wire filigree, which lapses disappointingly into commonplace sequences before ending with a dark twist. It was written for British cellist Oliver Coates, whose performance I heard. While Bailey brings greater heft and definition, he perhaps misses Coates’s mercurial imagination. Jun Märkl and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra provide sensitive and well-balanced support throughout.

Flow my Tears
Works by Johnson, Dowland, Danyel, Campion, Muhly and Hume Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Thomas Dunford (lute), Jonathan Manson (viol)
Wigmore Hall Live WHLive 0074

The centrepiece of the programme is a new Wigmore Hall commission: the premiere recording of American composer Nico Muhly’s Old Bones, a haunting and eloquent work, with faint echoes of Benjamin Britten, setting a montage of texts around the recent discovery of the skeleton of Richard III.

Music of the Spheres
Adès: Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’; Bowie: Life on Mars? (arr. J Barber); Dowland/Muhly: Time Stands Still*; Mozart: Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’; Max Richter: Journey (CP1919)

*Iestyn Davies (countertenor); Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Sam Swallow (voice, piano); Aurora Orchestra/ Nicholas Collon
DG 483 8229

You will also need to channel the thrill of seeing Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony No. 41, which is the springboard for the whole, played by memory – which it was here – although there’s much vigorous enjoyment in the listening. In between, Iestyn Davies sings Nico Muhly’s arrangement of Dowland’s ‘Time Stands Still’ before we hear Thomas Adès’ stratospheric Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’, always questioning, played here with brilliance by Pekka Kuusisto.

Ars Longa – Old and New Music for Theorbo
Works by Kapsperger, MacMillan, Muhly, Benjamin Oliver, Piccinini & de Visée

Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo) 
LinnCKD603

‘Art is long, life is short.’ The history of the theorbo, the long-necked bass member of the lute family, is indeed short, spanning the period of the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque. But the art of music for the instrument has survived centuries up to the present day, thanks to the dedication of performers such as Elizabeth Kenny, and to her enterprise in working with composers to bring new theorbo works into being.

The shadowed eloquence of Robert de Visée’s Suite in C minor proves an ideal introduction to Nico Muhly’s Berceuse with seven variations, which ingeniously combines suite form and variation technique.

Muhly/Helbig/Long • Shostakovich
Nico Muhly, Sven Helbig & Zhou Long: Cello Concerto ‘Three Continents’*; Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No.2 in Gminor

Jan Vogler (cello); *WDR Symphony Orchestra/Cristian Măcelaru; Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Sony Classical 19439774942

‘Three Continents’ is a fascinating multi-authored cello concerto, each of its three movements written by a composer from contrasting cultural backgrounds. Commissioned by cellist Jan Vogler and premiered at last year’s Dresden Festival, it opens with the vibrant and often frantic ‘Cello Cycles’ by American Nico Muhly – effectively a set of variations on a sequence of repeating chords which covers an astonishingly wide range of moods and pits the cello against some highly imaginative and colourful orchestration.

Bach to Parker
Works by Bach, Muhly, Meredith, Borenstein, Campbell et al
Thomas Gould (violin)

Champs Hill Records CHRCD 078 

In Nico Muhly’s seductive A Long Line the solo line gradually intensifies over electronic chord drones.

In Nomine II
Works by J Baldwin, Bull, Gavin Bryars, Ferrabosco, Nico Muhly, R Parsons, Purcell, Tye and J Ward

Fretwork
Signum SIGCD576

Over three decades have elapsed since the consort made its disc debut with a collection of In Nomines, and only now does it belatedly release an intended sequel, leavening glorious seven-part specimens by Robert Parsons and Purcell (not to mention three more-modestly-scored exhibits by the inexhaustibly inventive Christopher Tye) with 20th- and 21st-century examples by Nico Muhly and Gavin Bryars – Muhly’s energised take on the genre seemingly out to hitch a ride with Steve Reich’s Different Trains. So suggests the frenzied agitation that subsequently seethes subterraneously when a surface calm threatens to prevail.

Fretwork takes everything in its expertly burnished stride. Muhly’s provocative vigour is answered by the soulful musings of the Bryars.

Glass
Etudes – selection; Koyaanisqatsi; Suite for harp; Lift Off; plus works by Dessner, Muhly, Arnalds, Frahm and Ludwig-Leone
Lavinia Meijer (harp)
Sony 88985351432

Meijer explores works by five composers inspired by Glass. Nico Muhly is often linked with his American compatriot (the former spent time working as a typesetter in the latter’s studio), and two of his early works are featured here: Quiet Music and A Hudson Cycle, both exquisitely performed by Meijer.

Sixteen Contemporary Love Songs
Works by Frances-Hoad, Zev Gordon, Hellawell, B Hughes, Kats-Chernin, Knotts, Muhly, Skempton, Talbot, et al
William Howard (piano)
Orchid Classics ORC 100083

There’s something for all tastes, from Howard Skempton’s spare Solitary Highland Song to
the expansive gestures of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Love Song for Dusty (Springfield). David Matthews’s A Love Song basks in a post-Romantic glow, while Nico Muhly toys with neighbouring notes in Falling Pairs. Inspirations range from Elena Kats-Chernin’s roses in a box – the flowers, I assume, not the chocolates – to Joby Talbot’s baby daughter in the sparkling Camille.

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