andPlay Makes Strong Debut with playlist (New Focus Recordings)

Violin and viola duo andPlay have been exerting their musical prowess on the world since meeting at Oberlin Conservatory in 2012. Together, violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson have commissioned over 32 new works. With a recent tour in Sweden, performances all over the US, and building close working relationships with numerous composers, the pair has garnished an incredible reputation in a short seven-year span. Their debut album playlist from New Focus Recordings is an excellent example of what these musicians are capable of and highlights the intricate and complex music of three thriving composers.

Crescita Plastica by Ashkan Behzadi opens the album and shows off the finesse and virtuosity of andPlay. The piece is jagged and craggly, centering around different crescendo gestures sonically forming waves that rise slowly and crash roughly. Others erupt and flash in a microtonal shouting match like two people in a heated debate. A drone is ever-present throughout most of the work, usually in the form of a sleek and silvery ponticello note or a piercing harmonic. There are brief episodes of silence that help set up new sections, revealing new colors. The technicality demand of this antiphonal battle is extremely high, but Bennardo and Levinson perform with extreme agility and precision.

andPlay--Photo courtesy

andPlay–Photo courtesy

The second track, Bezier by David Bird, goes in the opposite direction, pulling more from silence than from sound. The beginning evokes an aura of being crisp and cold with glints of sunlight. There are short, fragmented clicks, ticks, and scratches that are fleeting and bird-like. Long silences dial in the listeners ears and make this extremely quiet piece speak loudly. The middle section is busy and crowded, quite the opposite of the opening, with the two lines pulsing as the two instruments crash over each other dynamically, pushing their way through. A third, closing section seems to become more exposed, intimate, and fragile. A repeated four-beat gesture of double stop plays like a broken record with sparse plucks, squeaks, and whispers swirling around it. As the repeated gesture fades to the end, the listener is left in suspense, expecting and wanting one more repeat of that haunting motive.

Clara Iannotta’s Limun has a similar style to the preceding two works, but her writing requires the two instruments rely on and support each other rather than putting them musically at odds. Delicate trills and sustained harmonic overtones are juxtaposed with harsh attacks and fast glissandos up and down the strings. In the middle of the piece, brilliantly high harmonics form a drone over a small, quietly moving motive, and there is a sense of being let out of a dark room into the blazing sun. There is no return to the material from the first half, and yet it feels right. There is a feeling of leaving with the intention of not coming back for a while. Iannotta has created a sonic landscape listeners could get lost in, and andPlay’s sensitivity to texture and technical precision help pull the listener into this world with ease.

Clara Iannotta--Photo by Andrew Alfred Watts

Clara Iannotta–Photo by Andrew Alfred Watts

The album finishes with a departure from the previous three tracks. Apocrypha by David Bird adds electronics to the ensemble and does a beautiful job of blurring the lines between acoustic and electronic sounds. The opening has a slow pace and feels as if it is hardly moving. There is a lot of dark space as single harmonics hang in the air straining against each other. The piece builds quickly, and the frenzy that occurs is dizzying. The electronic element starts to take over as the strings lurk underneath it all creaking and groaning. The sensation is eerie and full of tension. Sudden lurches happen out of nowhere, shifting the piece into spiraling motives creeping further and further up the fingerboards until forced into a long, slow slide back down. The mental and physical stamina demanded is incredible, but Levinson and Bennardo deliver throughout this long and intense piece.

Hands down, playlist is a strong album debut for andPlay. The nuance and technicality these two players possess is impressive, and their dedication to bringing these compositions to life is hard to miss. Behzadi, Bird, and Iannotta have written works that are demanding, intricate, and rich with color, and they help highlight what andPlay is capable of. New music fans should look forward to more performances and hopefully more albums by this incredible duo.