Ars Nova Copenhagen perform works by Skempton et al

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COMPOSERS: Andriessen,Gordon,Jackson,Lang,Oritz,Reich,Reily,Skempton,Volans
LABELS: Cantaloupe Music
ALBUM TITLE: First Drop
WORKS: Works by Skempton, Gordon, Lang, Volans, Oritz, Andriessen, Jackson, Reich and Reily
PERFORMER: Ars Nova Copenhagen/Paul Hillier
CATALOGUE NO: CA21127

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The choral conductor Paul Hillier has expounded early music and new music – and much in between – with distinction for many decades. But, since the 1990s, the latter period has held sway, and he has forged enduring relationships with some of the most significant composers of our time. This collection of 11 short pieces by nine, mainly American and British, composers is a touching retrospective of Hillier’s association over several years with the 12-strong Ars Nova Copenhagen. Almost all are first recordings, captured between 2006 and 2015.

‘First Drop’ suggests a poignant metaphysical sub-text via Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The men, though young, having tasted the first drop from the cup of thought, are already dissipated…’ None of Hillier’s chosen composers are young (although, coincidentally, they are all male): at 55, Gabriel Jackson is the most junior. Yet their works sound remarkably fresh, thanks in no small part to Ars Nova’s refined naturalness of delivery.

From the exquisite simplicity of Howard Skempton’s Rise up my love to the boppy optimism of Terry Riley’s Kerouac-setting Mexico City Blues, the soundworld is gently post-minimal – and the singing immaculate, alongside the solo organ of Kevin Volans’ Walking Song (Christopher Bowers-Broadbent). While echoes of Messiaen abound in ‘O vos omnes’, from Pablo Ortiz’ Five Motets, the highlight in harmonic terms is Michael Gordon’s Talmud-inspired He saw a skull. Full of ravishing major-minor chords approached by slow glissandos, this is a striking piece from a composer who merits wider attention.

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Steph Power