Friday, February 26, 2016
2L Recordings' Under the Wing of the Rock
Of all the new albums I received from 2L Recordings right before the Consumer Electronic Show, this was the one title I knew I could stick in the CD player, push play and let it run all the way through without chasing too many attendees out of the room. That's certainly not a slam on 2L and their penchant for taking on adventurous musical projects. It's more of a general feeling I have that classical music is indeed dying in the United States, and has been for quite some time. (I first mentioned this almost exactly nine years ago, here.) Every time I exhibit at a trade show and start playing classical music, the crowd gets restless. Sometimes they leave the room and look for someone who's playing Krall or Barber of something more audiophile-approved.
Which is crazy, of course. Remember when J. Gordon Holt proclaimed that the only type of music that audiophiles should use to evaluate a hi-fi system's merits was classical? That wasn't too long ago, was it? But now it seems that every time I play classical music at a trade show for an extended amount of time, I eventually find myself in an empty room. So why, you might ask, would even even bring a classical recording to an audio show? Well, if I don't, someone will eventually come into my room and ask to hear a classical piece and if I don't have it, I look kinda stupid.
So what makes 2L Recordings' new SACD/CD hybrid disc, Under the Wing of the Rock, so special and so impervious to these aforementioned trends? I can't really come up with a strong, cogent reason. All I can do is hit play and allow you to hear deep, deep into the sound of a small string orchestra and, in particular, know what it would sound like if a viola was played right in front of you by a real live human being. The first few minutes of Under the Wing of the Rock should make you stop talking. It should make you sit down in a chair in front of the speakers. It should make you forget about all those female singers that somehow have replaced the sound of a classical ensemble as THE way to judge an audio system's strengths.
This collection of British and Norwegian music for an assortment of small string ensembles, all composed within the last 70 years, immediately captures the listener's attention on several fronts. First, there's that unmistakable feeling that this is what it sounded like in that old Norwegian church when 2L's Morten Lindberg was scrambling around trying to capture the essence of this intriguing music. Second, the variety and scope and the dynamic power of these sounds will surprise you--this is a far cry from your parents' massed string Shaded Dogs. Finally, and I may not have delivered this impression thoroughly yet, this music sounds absolutely gorgeous and melodic and unusually keen when it comes to evoking specific imagery and letting you trail off into vivid daydreams.
Even though I started off by saying that I could throw this CD in the player and just let it run, I may have to abridge that somewhat. The middle four pieces, composed by contemporary Norwegian composers Henning Kraggerud, Arne Nordheim and Olav Anton Thommessen, all possess that angular modern sensibility you find in classical music composed since 1950, the date of the oldest piece in this album. Dissonance in classical pieces can be a real litmus test for how deeply you're interested in how music has evolved historically.
But the pieces that mark the beginning and end of this CD, Sally Beamish' title piece and Benjamin Britten's Lachrymae are beautiful bookends, thrilling pieces that really dig deep into the way musicians interact with both their instruments and the other performers that share the stage. (That is especially true of featured violist Soon-Mi Chung, whose exquisite playing clearly defines the tonal differences between violas and violins.) In other words, Under the Wing of the Rock is the answer when the question is "Can you play a really nice recording of string instruments?" I'd be far more excited to honor that request than to put on yet another female voice. Under the Wing of the Rock is now a permanent fixture for me at trade shows.