December 12, 2012
(+++) STRINGS AND BEYOND
Wolfgang Rihm: Complete Works for Violin and Piano. Tianwa Yang, violin; Nicholas Rimmer, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Dimensions: Works for String Orchestra by Gregory Hutter, Louis Babin, Reynard Burns, Andrew March, Claude Debussy, Rudy Kronfuss and Daniel Burwasser. Navona. $14.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Nyadina; She; Chrysalis at Mardi Gras; Gastein Masterwork. Navona. $12.99.
McCormick Percussion Group: Concerti for Piano with Percussion Orchestra by Igor Santos, Mel Mobley, David Gillingham and David Noon. Ravello. $12.99.
The Greatest Video Game Music 2. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Skeet. X5. $16.99.
Ever since the prepared piano – whose spiritual ancestor is the scordatura violin, well known since the Baroque era but made especially famous by Paganini’s first violin concerto – composers have not hesitated to adapt instruments to change their sonic compass, or even turn them into something they were not originally intended to be. This trend is especially noticeable among contemporary composers, but not all of them feel obliged to follow it. Wolfgang Rihm (born 1952), for example, tends to accept instruments as they are, but change their sound according to variations in his own compositional style – or styles, since he has several. The Naxos recording of his complete (to date) music for violin and piano actually traces Rihm’s compositional development, although it would have done so more effectively if the works had been presented in the order in which they were composed. The earliest here is Hekton (1972), a short piece that showcases the interplay between the instruments. Eine Violinsonate (1971/75) takes a well-known chamber form and, while keeping that form recognizable, gives it a contemporary sound. Antlitz—“Zeichnung” (“Face—‘Drawing’”) dates to 1992/93 and is essentially an extended fantasy, while Phantom und Eskapade—“Stückphantasien” (1993/94) is, as its title implies, a series of fantasy pieces rather than a single one heard at length. The latest work here, Über die Linie VII (2006), is for solo violin and explores the instrument’s virtuosity and tone colors; this is the piece’s world première recording. Rihm’s music shows a wide variety of influences, from folk tunes to the works of earlier composers (he is fond of embedding occasional quotations from others’ music). Tianwa Yang and Nicholas Rimmer are effective advocates for these pieces, which have interesting elements (and some highly virtuosic ones) even though, as a whole, they do not amount to a significant stylistic statement.
The Navona CD entitled Dimensions goes beyond a single stringed instrument to a group of them, offering eight works for string ensemble, by seven composers. There is some worthwhile material here in a rather scattered presentation. Debussy’s Maid with the Flaxen Hair, a three-minute bit of impressionism arranged by Richard Stoltzman for clarinet and orchestra and played by him as soloist, pops up between a suite (La Suite du Promeneur) by Louis Babin and the brief River of Time by Rudy Kronfuss; the Babin work is one of two by him heard here, the other having its own impressionistic roots and simply called Couleurs. Then there are Deploration by Gregory Hutter, Revolutions by Reynard Burns, Sanguis Venenatus by Andrew March, and Flux by Daniel Burwasser, all featuring evocative titles whose connection to their actual sounds is at best a matter of opinion. Add in the facts that the works are performed by four different orchestras under four different conductors – the most frequent being the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronský, the most involving the Concordia Orchestra under Marin Alsop (for the Burwasser) – and you have an intermittently engaging but rather confusingly presented sampling of modern works for string groups. The disc is filled with evocative moments, but none of the works really stands out as a totality on its own.
The narrative ballets of Michael G. Cunningham, however, do stand well on their own, with effectively danceable moments and a notable degree of musico-dramatic flow. Cunningham (born 1937) has a fine sense of balletic rhythms and is quite comfortable looking to the past while developing his own version of ballet music. She is a particularly felicitous example of Cunningham’s rear-view mirror, being based on H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Cunningham nicely picks up the book’s flavor and its exoticism. He looks backward in a different way with Nyadina, which is based on a Balanchine film ballet, and in a third way in Chrysalis at Mardi Gras, a version of the story of Saint Joseph. Indeed, everything on this CD shows Cunningham’s willingness to look to, learn from, and reinterpret the past, with considerable craftsmanship and often quite attractively. The one non-balletic work on the disc is a look back, too, but of a different kind. Gastein Masterwork is intended as Cunningham’s interpretation of what Schubert’s lost symphony might have been if it had ever existed and had been composed into a finished product – and if it was not simply a mistaken identification of what is now known as the composer’s Symphony No. 9, the “Great C Major.” Here Cunningham really shows his ability to structure and sustain an extended piece: Gastein Masterwork is a full four-movement symphony, its 36-minute length as great as that of the three ballets put together. The Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronský, the most commonly used orchestra in recent Navona releases, handles Gastein Masterwork particularly well, and also does a fine job with She. The other pieces here also get very good performances: Nyadina by the Prague Radio Orchestra under Robert Ian Winstin and Chrysalis at Mardi Gras by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande. This is one of the most interesting recent releases from Navona, showcasing a composer with considerable talent, significant craftsmanship and a firm understanding of the uses of the past when it comes to contemporary classical-music creativity.
The McCormick Percussion Group’s latest Ravello release – its fifth – has many intriguing elements as well. This, however, is less a CD designed to pull people in through the compositions than one whose primary attraction is the performing ensemble. The four works all give the percussion players plenty of chances to showcase both their volume (soft as well as loud) and their rhythmic abilities. David Noon’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is the most extended, most balanced and most classically formed work here, with a strongly structured first movement, a pleasing Notturno semplice in the middle and a finale marked not as a rondo but as a scherzo. Partaking of well-established form but focusing on the piano’s inherently percussive method of sound generation, it is both virtuosic and expressive. And it is very nicely complemented by David Gillingham’s Concerto for Piano and Percussion Orchestra, in which the percussion complement assumes an even larger role and the final movement (“With Much Spirit and Drive”) is a real tour de force. The other two pieces here are, by comparison, lesser works, although both use the percussion instruments skillfully. Moppet by Igor Santos is somewhat more straightforward than Mel Mobley’s piece, whose title would bedevil any old-fashioned typesetter: [Pleez], (Plēz), /Pliz/. All kidding aside – a difficult concept with a title like that – some contemporary composers do seem to devote more creativity to their works’ titles than to the pieces themselves. But both Santos and Mobley handle the ensemble well.
Now, for anyone who thinks contemporary music is inevitably acerbic and somewhat on the dry side – an unfair characterization, but one that persists in some quarters – The Greatest Video Game Music 2 provides a highly effective counter-argument. Like the first of these CDs on the X5 label, this one uses symphonic arrangements – played with aplomb and considerable respect by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Skeet. Video game music exists to enhance a visual and participatory experience, much as ballet music (Cunningham’s, for example) is written to complement choreography rather than to stand on its own. A lot of the music for video games, like much of the music for films and a fair amount of that for ballet, is of the “background” type, functioning effectively in context but not being particularly attractive when heard in a concert setting. Once in a while, though, composers rise above their medium and create something of greater value than, strictly speaking, is really necessary. Different listeners will have different favorites and preferences on this CD. The main theme from Assassin’s Creed—Revelations is impressive, as are themes from Legend of Zelda—The Windwaker and Final Fantasy VII. But for real fun, the symphonic suite Sonic the Hedgehog is a delight, and Luigi’s Mansion (from the Super Mario Brothers sequence) is enjoyable, too. The symphonic poem based on Super Metroid and the overture to Diablo III are other highlights – but really, there are enough surprises among the 17 tracks on this CD to please many different listeners. And titles such as Dragon Roost Island and The Cosmic Imagisphere are, if anything, more straightforward and comprehensible than, say, [Pleez], (Plēz), /Pliz/.