An advantage of composing symphonies based on pop-cultural icons is that even hoi polloi will get the point. Deus ex Machina is Daugherty's impressive three-movement celebration of the train, from its beginnings as a symbol of unlimited potential to its last days as a soon-to-be superseded relic. But it's in the whirling, swirling, five-movement Metropolis Symphony that Daugherty's gift for rendering iconography in music comes to the fore. The subject is Superman (DC Comics, not Nietzsche), and seldom have truth, justice, and the American way felt so exciting.
With a composer as diverse and prolific as Barbara Harbach, it's hard to know where to start. Vocal Music is only one of three Harbach albums to have come out recently (Chamber Music II and Toccatas, Flourishes & Fugues are the other two), and it would be oversimplifying to say that it's the "best" of the three. But by serving as an exhilaratingly lyrical vehicle for the exhilaratingly lyrical soprano Stella Markou, it presents a hitherto underexposed side of Harbach's prodigious compositional gifts in a most flattering light.
One way to describe this collection of mostly a cappella choral music is by quoting its subtitle: "Liturgical and Secular Jewish Choral Music." Another is by noting that even the secular selections sound liturgical. Sometimes they're practically one and the same. Alexander Olshanetsky's pre-World War II "Vilne," for instance, may have been named after a city in Lithuania, but the reason the city looms large in Jewish memory was its being the site of Talmudic learning. And, of course, the sacred songs are sacred to Christians as well.
Rock 'n' roll fans who first encountered the Irish folk songs "Carrickfergus," "She Moved Through the Fair," and "My Lagan Love" on Van Morrison's Irish Heartbeat will be pleasantly surprised to learn that, coming from this operatic Welsh baritone, not only do those songs hold up but they also acquire extra grandeur. Next, Morrison fans will warm up to the equally grand obscure material (e.g., "Cariad Cyntaf," "Marwnad Yr Ehedydd"). As for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Danny Boy," and the title cut, they merely hold up.
"Writing about music," someone once said, "is like dancing about architecture." If so, then what to make of Madhares (ECM), an album of compositions by the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, the very liner notes of which describe its music in architectural terms? "The 'space' of the piano concerto Böse Zellen (Malign Cells)," writes Friederike Gösweiner, "could be compared to a dark steel construction divided into numerous smaller tonal entities . . . placed next to and above each other like a honeycomb . . . that the listener enters, only ever passing through one at a time. . . ."
For non-architecture majors, it's Gösweiner's pointing out that Böse Zellen was inspired by a Barbara Albert film that may prove most useful. As performed by the Quatuor Diotima, the ECM contractees Till Fellner and Kim Kashkashian, and, on the two-movement Still, Larcher himself, these taut, at times almost violently dramatic pieces evoke nothing so much as Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack music for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and The Birds.