Michael Matthews: 14 Preludes; Bagatelles Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 10; Postlude. Daan Vandewalle, piano. Ravello. $12.99.
Allen Bonde: Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra; Three Elizabethan Songs; Three Elizabethan Songs Revisited; Symphony No. 1; Rose Window; Sonus; Four Shakespeare Songs; You Were the One; Encore Blues. Allen Bonde, piano; Mara Bonde, soprano; Maria Bonde, piano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada. Navona. $16.99.
The Oscuro Quintet: Music for Tango Ensemble. Alban Bailly, guitar; Thomas Lee, piano; Shinjoo Cho, accordion; June Bender, violin; Ben Blazer, bass. Big Round Records. $12.99.
Benjamin Yusupov: Viola Tango Rock Concerto. Anibal Dos Santos, viola and electric viola; Venanzio Cipolliti, accordion; Carlos Posada, guitar; Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá. Navona DVD. $18.99.
A piano need not be “prepared” (as pianos famously were by John Cage and less famously by many others) to accommodate the needs of today’s composers – certainly not the needs of Canada’s Michael Matthews (born 1950), whose output extends into tape and other forms beloved of moderns but also includes a number of pieces written for traditional ensembles and expressing comparatively traditional feelings and emotions. Under the hands of Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle, Matthews’ 14 Preludes come across as an impressive set of varied emotions and techniques, not in the more typically flashy way of etudes but with greater expressiveness – although still requiring considerable virtuosity. Ranging in length from one minute to almost eight and written between 1994 and 2006, the pieces explore emotional nooks and crannies and also give the pianist a workout in terms of both versatility and musicality. Vandewalle also includes half a dozen of Matthews’ Bagatelles, which date from 1997 to 2006 and on the whole are lighter and somewhat more readily accessible than the Preludes. The final work on this CD, Postlude, was originally going to be one of the Bagatelles, but outgrew that role and turned into a standalone piece. Vague, unsettling and without definitive opening or closing, it makes an interesting conclusion to a well-played CD that shows both Matthews’ skill in piano composition and Vandewalle’s interpretative ability.
The piano is also a major presence on a new CD featuring music of Allen Bonde – in fact, the composer is the primary pianist here, although in one piece, the impressionistic Rose Window, he shares pianistic duties with his wife, Maria. Actually, this whole CD is a family affair, since the vocal portions are sung by the composer’s daughter, soprano Mara Bonde. It would be impossible not to consider this disc definitive – but what does it actually define? This is a better overview of Bonde’s music than is the Matthews CD, which focuses on only one element of that composer’s oeuvre. Bonde tries on and discards styles as some people try on and discard clothes – the well-wrought Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra is a short and harmonically quite traditional work, for example, while Bonde’s Symphony No. 1 (which is also short, for a symphony) is more coloristic than concerned with structural niceties. The remaining pieces here are more intimate. The most interesting are Three Elizabethan Songs and Three Elizabethan Songs Revisited, which are settings of the same three songs in two intriguingly different ways. Four Shakespeare Songs is cut from much the same cloth, although with a 1920s overlay; but You Were the One (which sets poetry by Mary Jo Salter) has a more modern feeling and one of greater intimacy. The solo piano works interspersed among the vocal ones provide effective contrasts for music whose many styles are all, in their own ways, stylish.
The piano is but one of the five instruments played by members of the Oscuro Quintet on their first, eponymous CD. Promoted as “Philadelphia’s First Tango Ensemble,” which sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, the quintet offers instrumental skill and passionate involvement in music that is not always worthy of this level of intensity. It seems that no CD focusing on the modern tango can be without works by Astor Piazzolla; but the ones here, Rio Sena and Escualo, last only three and two-and-a-half minutes, respectively – more Piazzolla would have served the overall CD better. The longest and most recent work here, Five Procrastinations (2010) by Alban Bailly, is less interesting, but several other pieces have some snap, rhythmic bite or good flow to them – notably A fuego lento by Horacio Salgán, which opens the disc, and Recuerdo by Osvaldo Pugliese, which closes it. Only listeners who enjoy the unusual instrumental combination offered by the Oscuro Quintet – and also enjoy the tango as an art form – will likely find this CD congenial: however well-played it may be, this is scarcely a mass-market product.
The tango is front and center in Benjamin Yusupov’s Viola Tango Rock Concerto, too; and although this work has been issued as a DVD that runs just 52 minutes rather than as a CD, it is a rare example of a piece that really gains by being presented in video form. Yusupov’s concerto is very much a matter of taste; indeed, the combination of viola and electric viola will scarcely be to all listeners’ liking, and the multiple rock passages that continually appear in the concerto may well come across as intrusive rather than integral. The video elements here are a major point of interest, though, not so much because of the chance to watch Anibal Dos Santos (although his performance is certainly impressive) but because of Gina Medina, a fine tango dancer whose performance – which includes dancing with Dos Santos – is at least as engrossing as Yusupov’s music. It has become commonplace for modern composers to mix rock, heavy metal and other musical forms with recognizably classical structure and instrumentation, as Yusupov does here. Whether the combination works or not will be very much a matter of individual opinion: it is easy to appreciate what Yusupov, Dos Santos, Medina and the others involved in this production are doing without necessarily being captivated by the whole thing. Interesting and unusual this work certainly is, but memorable it really is not – except for Medina’s involvement, which creates visual vibrancy that outdistances the purely musical parts of the overall performance.