Muhly: Seeing is Believing

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Muhly
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Seeing is Believing; Motion; By All Means; Step Team plus Byrd (arr. Muhly): Miserere Mei; Gibbons (arr.Muhly): This is the Record of John; Byrd (arr. Muhly): Bow Thine Ear
PERFORMER: Thomas Gould (violin); Aurora Orchestra/ Nicholas Collon
CATALOGUE NO: 478 2731

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Nico Muhly’s fascination with 16th-century English choral music began when he was a young chorister in Rhode Island. The three transcriptions for chamber orchestra of anthems by Byrd and Gibbons are as colorful and expressive as anything Leopold Stokowski might have done – viol and organ effects decorated by tinkling piano and percussion – but without any trace of Romantic excess. Motion takes ideas from Gibbons’s anthem See, see the Word is Incarnate, transforming them into spiky, percussive fragments out of which Gibbons’s lines emerge. It reminds me of a dish of cardamom ice cream: spicy, cool, and refreshing.

You can hear Stravinsky here – not so much as a direct influence on Muhly, but more as a kindred spirit who drew from the past in order to create a unique contemporary style. According to Muhly, By All Means offers a space where ‘Weelkes and Webern can coexist and collaborate’. Angular lines resolve into modal cadences, a piano bangs out anthem-like fragments over a riot of pointillistic squawks, the whole joyously verging on stylistic meltdown. In Step Team, Mahler (effusively lyrical trombone) triumphs over Steve Reich (angry motoric rhythms).

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Finally, despite being partially inspired by Renaissance astronomical theory, a diagram of which adorns the booklet cover, Seeing is Believing has a more 21st-century sound, thanks largely to the six-string electric violin stunningly played by Thomas Gould. It is hard to imagine performances more assured and expressive than these by Nicholas Collon and the Aurora  Orchestra. One of the most ear-catching discs to come my way in a long time. Howard Goldstein