For all the advances in technology, all the ideas that have been thrown music’s way, the compositional techniques, the twelve note technique and the never ending one note drone, the drum machine, the synth and the DAW’s, classical music will always have a certain power that will (in my humble opinion) remain forever untouchable. SOLI Chamber Ensemble’s Portraits is an ode to that. In a year when some of my most anticipated contemporary classical albums have proved disappointing, this came out of nowhere to end the year with a flourish.
Featuring four pieces commissioned by four different composers, Portraits covers a vast ground. Everything is on show here; the whimsical, the pastoral, the dark and the often disturbing, yet all works so well together and gels to form an hour of very solid music.
Diego Vega’s “Divertimento” is four movements worth of unpredictable twists and turns. The piano at the heart of it all with the clarinet and violin taking turns in providing the narrative and emphasising what the piano has to say. It’s fun, fast and does a wondrous job keeping the listeners on their toes. Mood swings occur within the space of one note, greys turn into beautiful warm yellows in a split second. “Toccata” and “Danza-Lullaby” are emotionally worlds apart yet the only thing separating them are a couple of extremely well thought out chord changes.
Footage of the roaring twenties, speakeasies and jazz orchestras is conjured up in Peter Farmer’s “Rag Out”. It is what America sounds like to someone like myself, who grew up with Disney’s Fantasia and adults describing it as the be all and end all of the world. It is purposeful yet filled with daydreams, accomplished and hard working but always having time for a drink or two. In many ways it’s a throwback to the great composers of the modern era, you can hear Ives, Joplin with hints of Debussy alongside each other. The precision of the ensemble carries it through perfectly and it’s that proficiency combined with their spirited performance that brings all these images to mind.
Erich Stem’s “Moving On” is exactly what the name implies. Whereas Vega’s and Farmer’s suites were deeply rooted in the classical, Stem takes that to the avant-garde, the concrète. Here we get hints of Schaeffer and Olivier Messiaen (whose “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” was the reason SOLI started making music together) and it works brilliantly to balance the more straight forward compositions that preceded. It’s a relief, yet an extremely disturbing one. It’s darker, more tense yet essential in making Portraits successful as an album rather than a collection of disparate pieces of music.
We end up with Elliott Miles McKinley’s “Three Portraits”, the most varied of the lot. July is somber under the scorching heat, August adapts to the heat and finds refuge under the shade and September wraps it all up in the confusion of summer turning to fall. Here the album suffers the most, amidst said confusion comes an electronic beat that while fitting to the groove of the piano and cello lines doesn’t fit the mix all too well; it feels imposed. It succeeds when it fades in again two thirds of the way through the last piece but when introduced, it sounds like an Ableton Live preset that entered as an afterthought. That hardly hinders the album as a whole, but it acts like an outside factor forcing it’s way into something that was perfectly good otherwise. That said, “Three Portraits” as a whole works wonderfully to bookend the album.
The album, and I will call it such because as aforementioned it transcends being four disparate suites but rather works as one cohesive piece for start to finish, is a success mainly because of the ordering of the suites; the flow is near perfect and the recording, also done by Erich Stem, serves the music immensely. At points, one can visualise where each musician is standing in the room and everything sounds crisp, everything sounds beautiful. Portraits is a job very well done and it’s a great gift to have at the end of the year. (Mohammed Ashraf)