Navona Records – Polarities, Vol. 2

Classical music is perhaps the last bastion of the album as an art form: a collection of works that give the impression of belonging together and are placed in a meaningful order. Navona, an imprint of the genre-defying production/promotion house PARMA Recordings, has a catalogue of such ‘classical concept albums’, many of which feature premiere recordings by living composers.

True to its name, Navona’s Polarities, Vol. 2 brings together music that embraces opposites, as well as palindromic structures, Latin-American influences and concertante writing. Between them, the Moravian Philharmonic, Janáček Philharmonic, and Zagreb Festival Orchestras tackle six works, each by a different composer.

Margaret Brandman’s Spirit Visions was originally written after the composer’s encounter with the Sydney Town Hall pipe organ, so it is no surprise that the work is a set of orchestrational variations on a rousing theme. What is surprising is that it was originally written for two pianos! The Moravian Philharmonic under Pavel Šnajdr makes the most of the changes of mood that the wider tonal palette allows. A sudden upsurge into a faster tempo halfway and a change to the tonic minor key signals some development, before the work triumphantly ends as it began.

While the first volume of Polarities had a symphony, the second has Beth Mehocic’s Tango Concerto, a double concerto for piano, accordion/bandoneon and chamber orchestra. The work is written for and performed by pianist Charlene Farrugia, for whom Mehocic wrote her piano concerto, and Farrugia’s husband, the Croatian accordionist Franko Božac. The accordion is slowly making its way into concert halls and conservatories alike; listening to Božac, one understands why. Under Ivan Josip Skender’s baton, the Zagreb Festival Orchestra ensures that the underlying tango rhythm can always be felt even when it can’t always be heard. A highlight is the second movement, a dialogue between the soloists based on a three-note motif not unlike the one that opens J.S. Bach’s Toccata in D Minor. The concerto is also neatly symmetrical, each of its three movements lasting exactly four minutes and a half.

Larry Wallach’s program notes for his Species of Motion give the impression that the piece wrote itself. Through “shifting relations between pulse, meter, and momentum,” Wallach tone-paints the process of dreaming: his dreams move from vague to visual to narrative to, for lack of a better word, real – before playing out in reverse. The work similarly gets progressively more consonant as it reaches its midpoint, culminating in a solo for mariachi trumpet. The Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavřínek gives an excellent impression of perpetual motion.

The next two works deal with loss in their own ways. Kamala Sankaram’s 91919, dedicated to the memory of her sister, is perhaps the most difficult work on the album. It is surprisingly percussive, and punctuated by violist Natalia Anikeeva’s cadenzas. Mel Mobley’s Labored Breathing takes a different approach, its title reflected in its seemingly irregular phrase lengths. This far calmer work depicts the rhythms of breath over the course of a life cycle.

The album closes with Brian Latchem’s Suffolk Variations for Viola and Strings, which gives violist Vladimír Bukač ample opportunity to shine. Of note is the second variation, a waltz, as well as the cyclic nature of the work as a whole. The opening theme gives way to a fugato section; a more formal short fugue towards the end of the work leads to a climax and then quotes the opening again. The work ends as it began: with a pizzicato chord.

As the album wound to an end, it struck me that it was well worth devoting an hour to. If you think contemporary classical music is not your cup of tea, give Polarities, Vol. 2 a chance. It just might change your mind.