July 26, 2012
(+++) BYPASSING BOUNDARIES
Busoni: Eine Lustspielouvertüre; Gesang vom Reigen der Geister; Rondò arlecchinesco; Clarinet Concertino; Divertimento for flute and small orchestra; Tanzwalzer. Giammarco Casani, clarinet; Laura Minguzzi, flute; Gianluca Terranova, tenor; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
Saint-Saëns: Fantasie for Violin and Harp; Martinů: Chamber Music No. 2; Matan Porat: Night Horses; Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Bartók: Contrasts. Israeli Chamber Project (Tibi Cziger, clarinet; Itamar Zorman, violin; Shmuel Katz, viola; Michal Korman, cello; Sivan Megan, harp; Assaff Weisman, piano). Azica. $16.99.
Marty Regan: Selected Works for Japanese Instruments, Volume 2. Navona. $16.99.
Gheorghe Costinescu: Jubilus; Pantomime. Ensemble Sospeso (Lucy Shelton, soprano; Brian McWhorter, trumpet; David Rozenblatt, percussive body sounds; Gheorghe Costinescu and Rand Steiger, conductors). Ravello DVD. $24.99.
Among composers seeking musical sounds beyond the ordinary, Ferruccio Busoni stands out not only because he straddled the Italian/German music divide but also because of his synesthesia – a mixing of senses in which, for example, he could “see” a particular musical note in a specific color. Busoni’s music often seems to reach beyond traditional forms even while using them, and it frequently has a somewhat exotic sound even when employing standard orchestral forces. A pacifist – he refused to perform in countries that participated in World War I – he was also a musical philosopher, predicting a future in which music would be open to more sounds than the conventional ones, and frequently striving in his own works to open listeners’ ears. The unusual treatment that Busoni often provided to supposedly straightforward forms and instruments meant that his works fell into disfavor for decades after his death in 1924, and they are scarcely universally popular even today. But listeners who want to explore Busoni’s worldview, and the music he created within it, will find the new Naxos CD by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia to be a variegated and well-played sampling. Busoni seems to try on different musical personalities in these six works. The earliest, Eine Lustspielouvertüre (“Comedy Overture”), dates to 1897 and has more lightness and instrumental clarity than do many of Busoni’s later works. Gesang vom Reigen der Geister (“Song of the Spirit Dance”), from 1915, is delicate, harmonically forward-looking and redolent of traces of mysticism. Rondò arlecchinesco, also from 1915, is much more straightforward and humorous in a witty rather than broad way, and has unusual scoring that features a vocalise for tenor. The Clarinet Concertino (1918) is carefully organized and adheres fairly closely to classical forms, while the Divertimento for flute and small orchestra (1920) takes formal constraints much less seriously and is, indeed, diverting. So is Tanzwalzer, which also dates to 1920 but which has the flavor of a throwback to the Vienna of the Strauss family – it is actually dedicated to the memory of Johann Strauss Jr., although Busoni’s tunefulness is clearly filtered through a very different sensibility.
The boundaries pushed back by the Israeli Chamber Project are of a different sort. An unusual chamber group in which strings, winds, harp and piano all take part, the ensemble in its first recording offers works as they were written, others in arrangements and one written for it – displaying considerable versatility in repertoire. Saint-Saëns’ lovely Fantasie for Violin and Harp gets eloquent and smooth treatment, only to be followed by the much more angular Chamber Music No. 2 by Bohuslav Martinů – the only work on this Azica CD featuring all six performers. Matan Porat’s Night Horses was written for this ensemble, although only four instruments take part in it: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The work has some dynamism and some interesting treatment of the instruments, although it is not the sort of piece that really stays with a listener long after the performance. Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, though, does have staying power, sounding almost haunting as played here in an arrangement by Sivan Megan for cello and harp – with Megan herself on harp and Michal Korman on cello. The CD concludes with Bartók’s Contrasts, and here the three participating musicians (on clarinet, violin and piano) really go to town, emphasizing the vitality of the music and its frequent rhythmic changes. The overall mixture of music is actually rather odd – the CD is interesting primarily as an introduction to some top-notch young chamber players who may perhaps, in future releases, offer programs in which the works are somewhat better integrated with each other or are contrasted in careful ways rather than, as here, feeling as if they were selected primarily to highlight the musicians rather than the music.
The boundaries breached by Marty Regan are clear ones: those between Western and Japanese music. Regan is deeply imbued with the culture of Japan, has studied with prominent Japanese composer Minoru Miki, and has translated Miki’s book on composing for Japanese instruments. Listening to Regan’s works requires entry into a sound world with which aficionados of Western music generally have little familiarity. The instruments, scales and compositional principles of Japanese music are quite different from those in Western works. The word “exotic” comes to mind, but it is not really the right one, because there is nothing deliberately “exotic” in Regan’s many dozens of compositions for Japanese instruments. Indeed, they are respectful of Japanese musical traditions and appear to have much the same flow as works by composers born and trained in Japan. There are six works on Navona’s new Regan CD: Flamefox (2007) for a quartet of shakuhachi (a Japanese flute traditionally made of bamboo); Dragoneyes (2006) for shakuhachi, shamisen (a three-stringed instrument somewhat resembling a banjo), and 21-string koto (Japan’s national instrument, which has movable bridges and is plucked); In the Night Sky (2010) for shakuhachi, 21-string koto and percussion; Magic Mirror (2008) for shamisen, hichiriki (a double-reed flute), ryūteki (a bamboo transverse flute), shō (a wind instrument made of bamboo pipes), shinobue (a transverse flute with a high-pitched sound), and shakuhachi; Voyage (2008) for shakuhachi and string quartet; and Devil’s Bridge (2008) for shamisen and biwa (a type of lute). In terms of sound, Magic Mirror, with its subtly different wind instruments, and Voyage, with its juxtaposition of Japanese and Western elements, are particularly interesting. In fact, all the music here stretches Western ears, and 70 minutes of it is rather a lot for a single sitting – listeners interested in experimenting with some unfamiliar sonorities may want to hear the pieces one at a time over a couple of days.
The boundary-blurring on a new DVD of works by Gheorghe Costinescu occurs on multiple levels. This is a case in which a DVD definitely puts music across better than a CD would, because the music is only part of Costinescu’s conception. Another part is gestures – used extensively in Pantomime. And another is sound that comes from unexpected places – “percussive body sounds,” not traditional percussion, in Jubilus, which is written for those sounds plus soprano and trumpet (an instrumental combination every bit as unusual as anything in Marty Regan’s music). Pantomime uses a more traditional instrumental mix – a chamber orchestra – but it uses the musicians in unusual ways, having them produce a wide variety of moods that are inspired by or reflected in pantomimed gesturing. Pantomime fits loosely within category of ballet, but Jubilus is hard to characterize. Both works are imaginative, but not compelling enough so most people will believe they warrant repeated viewings and listenings. And the two works together last only 36 minutes – the balance of this 97-minute DVD is a series of discussions of the scores and a lengthy interview with Costinescu from 2005 (three years after these live performances were recorded). So this is really a super-specialized item, the focus far more on the composer than on his compositions (the interview with him lasts longer than the two performances put together). Costinescu is a prominent Romanian-born composer who now, at age 77, has received numerous awards and has something of an international following. But only his strongly committed fans will likely want this particular balance of his music and his words.