James McVinnie's Dazzling 'Cycles' Showcases the Music of Nico Muhly

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One Sunday afternoon in 2011, I heard a Westminster Abbey recital given by Nico Muhly and a few of his friends. Though I already knew and appreciated Muhly’s Etude pieces for viola and electronics (memorably recorded for Nadia Sirota’s album "First Things First"), I was struck on this occasion by the church’s assistant organist—and his facility with the composer’s music. Walking out of Westminster, I knew I wanted a Muhly album from James McVinnie, too.

His debut on the Bedroom Community label offers just that: with material that ranges from standalone prelude-stunners to a cycle of Anglican Common Prayer hymns (with new Muhly interjections), "Cycles" offers up nearly an hour of new organ music by the composer. As a program, it’s well thought out, too. After the whirligig motions of opener Revd Mustard and his Installation Prelude and the second of two Hudson Preludes have been digested, you might be in the mood for music that’s less hyperactively arpeggiated.

Slow Twitchy Organs, which sees Sirota back in action with McVinnie, is a more simple-seeming concoction than others he’s prepared with the violist in mind. But there’s a hint of unresolved mystery in the organ’s low-end part, which in turn fulfills the title’s nervy promise. This is followed by Seven O Antiphon Preludes, recorded with tenor Simon Wall.

Collectively, these pieces carry a striking amount of liturgical weight (at least for a composer who has called himself “a nonbeliever, but with cheating”). The instrumental writing that accompanies O Adonai may be Muhly’s grimmest yet (outside of portions of Two Boys), even if it concludes with a redemptive twinkle. McVinnie’s feel for the many moods in the cycle is as impressive as his technical command of the organ.

Brisk riffing returns on the album’s final two pieces, Fast Cycles and Beaming Music. The first is a solo showcase for McVinnie, while the final work is, in the main, a striking marimba showcase for Alarm Will Sound member Chris Thompson. Though it may seem a focused, service-music-style album on the surface, "Cycles" winds up containing ambition and technique to spare.

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