CD Review: Nadia Sirota: First Things First (New Amsterdam)

Tracklist:

Nico Muhly: Duet no.1 ‘Chorale Pointing Downwards’
Nico Muhly: Étude 1A
Marcos Balter: Ut
Judd Greenstein: Escape
Marcos Balter: Living Water
Nico Muhly: Étude 1
Judd Greenstein: The Night Gatherers

If you haven’t yet bought a record from New Amsterdam, start here. This is the most modern comp thing I’ve heard from the label, and I hope it signals more of the same.

What makes it work so well? By choosing pieces (for solo or almost-solo viola) by just three composers, each occupying similar stylistic territories, the disc gains strength from consistency. But that’s not it. The pieces themselves are pretty: light, rhythmic, tuneful, full of feeling. But that’s not it, either. In fact, that could be the recipe for a much duller, much more grey album than this.

No, what really makes it work are the chinks, the tiny bright points like distant city lights in the January dawn. The shape of Nico Muhly’s Duet no.1 ‘Chorale Pointing Downwards’, a strange spiral form that seems to get lighter as it drags itself earthwards would be one. The almost-not-thereness, as though retreating over and over behind a screen, of Marcos Balter’s Live Water would be another. The emotional trajectories of these pieces – which on the surface are simple trinkets – are really something. It isn’t all perfect: Muhly has an obviously excellent technique but I wish he would take more risks and not stick so close to his influences, and Judd Greenstein’s The Night Gatherers drops focus and starts sounding like other people (here Adams, here Vaughan Williams). Which is a shame, because the fully Greensteiny bits (as on Escape) I like.

And Sirota’s playing is faultless. It’s not easy to pull off a full CD of music like this. There aren’t many virtuoso passages to hide behind, it’s all exposed, all raw. Even more impressive is her willingness to follow the music’s lead and hide a little of herself. Her playing gains in strength from this anti-diva mode.

Greenstein and, of course, Muhly (who was at the Roundhouse this week), have plaudits enough to be known on this side of the Atlantic, but Balter’s music was the surprise for me: beautiful, full of tiny surprises, little bits of grit amongst the comfortable and expected. It’s a perfect encapsulation of everything that is best about this CD. You can get your copy (and free sample tracks) here.

Update: Sirota’s new radio show, ‘Hope Springs Atonal’, launches on Monday 1st February on New York’s WQXR (streamed online at http://www.wqxr.org/Q2):

Each weekday at 1pm/1am ET, Sirota, a classically trained violinist, will present a daily excursion into the high octane world of post-tonal music. From Xenakis to Stockhausen, Messiaen to Mackey, Sirota will provide an accessible entrée into atonal music, serving as a guide and fellow traveler through a still-largely uncharted musical terrain, ripe for exploration.

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