Classical music isn’t known for being in-the-moment: Seasons are planned years in advance, and there are people who still refer to “The Rite of Spring” (1913) as “contemporary” music. Even in this deferred environment, however, lockdown albums and works composed in the mindset of social distancing are nothing new. With so much downtime and so few opportunities to work otherwise, countless composers and performers were able to do brisk business in lemonade, coordinating mass Zoom performances of Pauline Oliveros works, live streaming Bach from their living room pianos, and writing albums-upon-albums’ worth of chamber music. 

This year of Stuff I’ve Been Hearing could have just as easily been dedicated to listening exclusively to these albums. There’s Sasha Cooke’s uniformly-moving “How Do I Find You,” an ambitious commissioning project that, in 2020, gave 17 composers (including Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Gabriel Kahane, and Nico Muhly) carte blanche to write songs about their then-current mindset during the first months of an ongoing crisis. Last year’s “Shaping Chopin” was a lyrical demonstration of how Anna Fedorova navigated the isolation of lockdown by connecting to a composer who served as a common thread between the pianist and her close friends and family. Other musicians, like Norwegian guitarist Ole Martin Huser-Olsen with his poetic cabinet of curiosities, “Lockdown Miniatures,” based their first recordings in works shaped by the last three years. 

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Among these standouts, too, is Scott Wollschleger’s “Outside Only Sound,” a work commissioned by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn with the proviso that it be performable under the tighter conditions of 2020 safety measures. The piece requires only a few minutes of rehearsal, and is designed to be performed outside. At first, that second bit of criteria might seem enough to grit the teeth. If you’ve ever spent an evening in Central Park straining to hear the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh eked out over tinpan speakers to compete with picnickers, traffic, and that one street performer whose repertoire solely consists of an off-key rendition of “Hey Jude,” you know how the vagaries of an outdoor setting can dilute a performance from potent to puny. Wollschleger, however, considers the setting to be a feature not a bug, describing his work as one in which “each player is like an insect in a swarm.” The score is marked with timestamps to help musicians keep pace with one another, and the result is akin to one of those elaborate Ocean’s-Whatever–style plans, where a number of seemingly innocuous and unrelated actions coalesce, Rube Goldberg-like, into one elegant motion.

In this configuration, the setting itself becomes a key player. “Outside Only Sound” begins in the shimmering beauty of the ordinary and everyday. Muffled conversations (punctuated by the occasional laugh, whistle, or ecstatic “Oh my God!”), footsteps on gravel, a sharp breeze, and the backing-up signal of a truck are underscored by a drone of bells; hazy, like a memory. Slowly, violins start to edge their way in, their cricket chirps heightening and augmenting the memory, imbuing it with significance. Over the next ten minutes, Wollschleger forms an arc out of the formless and random. It reminded me of one of my own key memories during the first days of lockdown. On my way home from the grocery store one Sunday morning, I found myself crossing Berlin’s Boxhagener Platz roughly six feet behind a woman who in turn was keeping the same distance behind a man walking his dog. The dog stopped, which meant the man stopped. In turn the woman stopped. I stopped. It was like something out of Pina Bausch. I imagine “Outside Only Sound,” as specific as this recording is, will unlock dozens of similar memories, specific but also very much the same—moments of the otherworldly and everyday locked in the amber of the hippocampus.  

Similar to the start of “Outside Only Sound” is the beginning of Ülo Krigul’s “And the Sea Arose,” which begins with the texture of found sound and fervent string instruments. Roughly equal in length to the Wollschleger, “And the Sea Arose” turns more epic with its narrative scope. Rather than a walk in the park, Krigul sets the story of Jesus walking on water, a trip he made to rescue his disciples caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. The ambient sounds of tumultuous waves cede territory to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (joined on this track by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra), whose squallish vocal lines flounder on an unsteady surface. A repeated word, “come,” cycles through a multitude of meanings, pitched between definitions on the stormy tumult of the orchestra. It’s a cry for help, a holy command, a stage direction, an invitation, and—ultimately—an arrival that signals heavenly reprieve. Yet, as the choir sings “​​And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased,” Krigul doesn’t offer calm waters and a glowing horizon. The end, instead, is unsettling in its mystery and divinity.

“And the Sea Arose” is one of three works on this album that Krigul completed during his stint in 2019 and 2020 as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s composer-in-residence. These dates are as close as we get to any reference of the pandemic in the album’s liner notes (and most of these works would have at least been started before we moved from hearing headlines of a distant virus to living in cramped quarters with the realities of a global pandemic). But given how the last few years have played out, Krigul’s programmatic music—set at the intersection of the exterior, physical world and the interior, philosophical realm—gains added meaning in this new recording. “And the Sea Arose” exists as a sort of triptych with his other two composer-in-residence works, with “But Look Always Up” taking inspiration from the essays of religious philosopher Uku Masing.  

Rendered here as poetic stanzas by Hedi Rosma (who also authored the setting of “And the Sea Arose” via the Gospels of Matthew and John), Masing’s lines sound like lost koans by Czesław Miłosz. “The night is always dark,” the choir sings. “But look up…always up.” Krigul sets these lines with an uneasy wonder. With a discography under Paul Hillier that includes standard-setting recordings of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” and “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (here led by Kaspars Putninš) are an ideal ensemble to bring out both the discomfiting unease and comforts of consistency at play in these works. The mysterious is unsettling, but it’s at least reliably so. 

A bit of curatorial direction: As soon as “Liquid Turns” has run its course, cue up Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony’s new recording of Hans Rott’s Symphony No. 1 to flow from the apprehensive awe of Ülo Krigul to a more settled splendor. A gloaming of violin lines—lines that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place in the sonic world of Scott Wollschleger—gives way to a Mahlerian rush and Wagnerian sense of the supernatural. These references aren’t random; Rott and Mahler were onetime roommates, and he was one of the pilgrims who attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. Mahler called Rott “the founder of the new symphony,” although he tempered this posthumous praise by adding: “To be sure, what he wanted is not quite what he achieved.” 

This seems like the best way of putting it. Rott’s First—and only—Symphony is beautiful. At times, it sounds like the best of his organ teacher, Anton Bruckner (who, despite the derision of his fellow jury members, lobbied for the first movement of the same work when it was submitted for a music prize). At others, it prefigures Mahler’s lush emotional waterfalls and references Wagner’s entrance of the gods into Valhalla. Like many first symphonies, it’s a calling card of what to expect from a young orchestral composer. 

Or, in Rott’s case, what could have been expected. In 1880, the same year that he finished his symphony—which was in turn rejected by Brahms—Rott reportedly had an incident on a train in which he threatened another passenger at gunpoint while convinced that Brahms had packed the locomotive with dynamite. (Insert a joke about the lack of explosiveness in Brahms’s symphonies here). He was committed to a mental institution the following year and died of tuberculosis in 1884 at just 25. Consigned to the marginalia of history, his legacy was, for much of the next century, relegated to his influence on Mahler. However, the First Symphony was rediscovered in the late ’80s and is now one of roughly two dozen works that have been restored from Rott’s manuscripts into works fit for performance. 

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Hrůša’s recording of the piece isn’t the first, but it’s perhaps the most enthusiastic. By Hrůša’s own admission in the liner notes, he sometimes feels too evangelical towards Rott’s merits. However, he still leads a clear-eyed performance of the work, allowing the listener to hear what Rott intended, what he achieved, and even the chasm between these two sides. It’s a testament to the “what ifs” of music history; what we might have been able to hear from a young composer had he lived a longer, fuller life. Perhaps that would have also changed Mahler’s output—would the second movement of his own First Symphony have been as blatantly indebted to the third movement of Rott’s symphony had he still been alive?

Not one to shy from references, Hrůša (who was recently named the Royal Opera House’s next music director) balances out the landscape of Rott with a movement Mahler originally wrote for his First Symphony—before scrapping it as too sentimental—and Bruckner’s Symphonic Prelude, a work whose authorship has been debated (at times even attributed to Mahler). All of these historical threads make for an incredibly smart program. At times it’s hard to figure out whose work you’re listening to; all three pieces are pulled from the same ether. ¶

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