It’s been a good year for Nico Muhly. Following the composer’s move to Decca last fall with two standout albums—I Drink the Air Before Me and A Good Understanding—he came back this summer with Seeing is Believing and saw not one but two world premieres of his first operas: Two Boys in London and Dark Sisters in New York.
Perhaps the most addictive of the manifold Muhly in 2011 is From Here On Out, a three-movement piece written for the American Ballet Theatre and choreographer Benjamin Millepied and recorded here by the ever-adventurous Kitchener Waterloo Symphony under conductor Edwin Outwater. It’s full of trademark Muhlyisms, starting with a kinetic violin pulse that gives way to swells of warm brass and shimmering piano lines, moving with charismatic arabesques into just over 20 minutes of momentum and magic that temper breathless vivaces with contemplative adagios and delicate twinkles with earthy thumps.
The beguiling folly continues with Wish You Were Here, a shorter concert work inspired by gamelan music and illustrators Carl Barks (Donald Duck) and Hergé (Tintin) that concocts an animated dreamscape in pursuit of what Muhly describes as “the most superficial authenticity.” However, what makes this album truly stand out are the pairings of Muhly’s works with pieces by Jonny Greenwood and Richard Reed Parry. Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver explodes with kernels of microtonalism in the tradition of Penderecki. Outwater and his players fearlessly tackle the work’s brambles and hotspots with aplomb, emphasizing the ravishing sound waves and the en-pointe precision of the final movement.
Finishing off this full-course menu of addictive energy is Parry’s For Heart, Breath and Orchestra, which takes music to the basics of breath and heartbeats that goes completely in-depth by allowing the meter to be dictated by the breathing rates of conductor, soloist and orchestra (performers wore stethoscopes while playing). It gives way to a work—and album—that is purely spontaneous, leaving the listener on the edge of their seat waiting for each next note with bated breath.