March 21, 2013

(+++) EXPRESSIONS, INSTRUMENTAL AND VOCAL


Moto Perpetuo: Works for Cello by Andrew March, Greg Bartholomew, Alan Beeler, Bill Sherrill, Arthur Gottschalk, and Nicholas Anthony Ascioti. Ovidiu Marinescu, cello. Navona. $16.99.

Anthony Piccolo: Imaginary Symphony No. 1; Sonata for Cello Solo; Fever Time—Seven Songs on Words by Susan Kander; Flûtes de suite for Multi-Flute Soloist; Fanfare-Sonatina for Four Horns. Navona. $16.99.

Sophie Dunér and the Callino Quartet: The City of My Soul. Big Round Records. $16.99.

Henry Wolking: Gone Playin’; The Old Gypsy; James Scott Balentine: Dùn Èideann Blogh. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.

Bach: Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199; Brandenburg Concerto No 4. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Kahane. Yarlung Records. $19.99.

     The modern string instrument with the widest range is the cello, and that is true as a range of expressiveness, not just in terms of the notes it can produce. If there is one work that showed beyond a doubt just how much the cello could do, it was Dvořák’s monumental concerto, whose communicative powers remain unmatched more than a century later – but not for lack of trying. Many composers today, including the six on the new Navona CD called Moto Perpetuo, are fully aware of the cello’s capabilities and are determined to plumb them. They do so with varying success. Andrew March’s Three Pieces for Solo Cello is primarily interested in the instrument’s dusky hue and its capabilities of communicating thoughtfulness, especially in the last and longest piece, “To Reflect in a Quiet Spot.” Greg Bartholomew’s brief Beneath the Apple Tree mixes Ovidiu Marinescu’s cello with Kim Trolier’s flute in a pleasant combination of contrasting sonorities. Alan Beeler contributes three works here and shows himself as a miniaturist: Dance Suite for Violin and Cello and One Good Turn Deserves Another each contain four movements, with none of them lasting as much as two minutes and both groupings being more lighthearted than cello music often tends to be. Variations on Re-Do-Mi is equally tied into traditional musical forms and, at three-and-a-half minutes, comparatively substantial. Bill Sherrill’s Divertimento for Strings places the cello in the context of all other modern orchestral string instruments, complementing it with violins (Sylvia Ahramjian and Dana Weiderhold), viola (Scott Wagner) and double bass (Charles J. Muench). Warmth within an overlay of gloom is communicated by Arthur Gottschalk’s Sonata for Cello and Piano: In Memoriam, a substantial work in which Marinescu and pianist Janet Ahlquist explore the depths of their respective instruments. The two are joined by violinist Ahramjian for the final work on the CD, Nicholas Anthony Ascioti’s Adirondack Meditation, which returns the mood to that of the disc’s beginning and reestablishes the cello’s meditative soulfulness as one of its most salient characteristics.

     Anthony Piccolo writes for solo cello, too, and his Sonata for Cello Solo is also a showcase for emotion more than pure virtuosity as performed by Petr Nouzovský. Indeed, Piccolo clearly enjoys exploring the sonic delights offered by various instruments’ timbres and capabilities. Flûtes de suite (a pun on touts de suite, “right now” or “immediately”) features Marta Talábová adapting to four instruments in four movements: flute, alto flute, piccolo and bass flute. The music is on the superficial side, but the contrasting sounds of the instruments are fascinating. And then there is Fanfare-Sonatina for Four Horns, a short two-movement work (played by Zuzana Rzounková, Martin Paulik, Martin Sokol, and Jaroslav Hubek, conducted by Vít Mužík) that is nicely constructed but breaks no new ground – as did, for example, Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra back in 1849.  In fact, the most interesting pieces on this CD are not the three that explore specific instruments but the two that largely rely on the human voice – specifically the voices of children – for their impact. Imaginary Symphony No. 1, in which the Campanella Children’s Chorus and Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra are conducted by Petr Vronský, is an appealingly straightforward work whose three movements (“Lady-Bug’s Rain Song,” “Explore” and “Dream”) neatly encapsulate several elements of a child’s world while being presented in effective orchestral garb. And Fever Time—Seven Songs on Words by Susan Kander combines Piccolo’s skill with voices with his interest in the sound of specific instruments. It features the Hamelin Children’s Chorus conducted by Piccolo himself, with Ladislav Bilan on percussion and Lucie Kaucká on celesta, and provides, in seven short movements, an interesting musical perspective on words that Kander wrote about a real-life fever.

     The vocal communication is of a different sort, and is decidedly adult, in a CD collaboration between Sophie Dunér and the Callino Quartet called The City of My Soul. Despite the presence of a classical ensemble, this 19-track disc is by no means classical, and does not really pretend to be. Dunér is a jazz singer of the smoky-and-intense sort, writing her own music and delivering it with feeling but without significant differentiation from song to song. The Callino Quartet (Sarah Sexton and Fenella Humphreys, violins; Rebecca Jones, viola; Sarah McMahon, cello) is a good ensemble with a strong commitment to contemporary music, and is clearly comfortable with Dunér’s milieu – having often performed in musical crossover mode before. There is no “title tune” here, although there is a song called “The City of My Dreams,” and there is plenty of bittersweet thinking and emoting in songs such as “Marionettes,” “The Singer from Hell,” “Dizcharmed,” “Captain Crunch” and “You.”  The word “fusion” is much heard in classical-music circles these days, and it is a good noun to describe many composers’ attempts to incorporate elements of jazz, rock, pop, Eastern music and other nontraditional classical elements into their work. The City of My Soul, though, feels less like a case of fusion than like one of old-fashioned jazz (with modern-style and occasionally quirky lyrics) accompanied very nicely by classical musicians whose fine playing does not, however, provide any substantial connection to a world beyond Dunér’s own. It would have been interesting and clever – just to choose one possibility – if Dunér and the quartet had together performed the old Irish air, “Cailin cois tSuir a me” (“The Girl by the River Suir”), from which the quartet takes its name. But the CD is really about Dunér, and the Callino Quartet stays mostly in the background.

     There is a Scottish connection, not an Irish one, in the new Navona CD of music by Henry Wolking and James Scott Balentine: the latter’s Dùn Èideann Blogh is a kind of musical portrait of Edinburgh, the title being the city’s Gaelic name. Featuring Robert Walzel on clarinet, Eric Stomberg on bassoon and the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský, this three-movement suite is nicely scored but does not seem especially evocative of the locale to which it pays tribute, although its primary intent of recalling family and friends from times past is reasonably well communicated. The two works by Wolking – both are also suites – are somewhat more effective. Gone Playin’ is an interesting attempt to make music from epitaphs, a purely instrumental work intended to showcase three forms of connection between life and death: “Gone Fishin’,” “Gone Sleepin’” and “Gone Dancin’.” The movements, which feature Walzel with the Moravian Philharmonic Strings under Vronský, are nicely contrasted, and the second, which is labeled a “jazz lullaby,” is particularly interesting. Wolking’s The Old Gypsy draws on a more-traditional source, the music of Hungary, presenting this influence not orchestrally but through a string quartet (Vit Mužík and Igor Kopyt, violins; Dominika Mužíková, viola; Marian Pavlik, cello). A waltz movement and a finale whose title is the same as that of the entire piece show their provenance particularly clearly, but all four movements manage to bespeak elements of Hungary without ever falling directly into simplistic folksong quotation or otherwise being overly obvious. This CD has a number of appealing elements, but it is short – less than 50 minutes – and will therefore likely be of interest primarily to listeners already familiar with and enamored of Wolking’s and Balentine’s works.

     Listeners’ main interest in a new Bach vocal-and-instrumental CD featuring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is almost sure to be in the singer, whose September 2003 performance of the cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut here becomes an in memoriam presentation: Lieberson died of breast cancer in 2006. This live recording of the cantata, which also features Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra principal oboist Allan Vogel and principal violist Roland Kato, is on another very short CD, lasting not much more than 40 minutes, but listeners enamored of Lieberson’s mellow and expressive mezzo-soprano voice will surely want to have it. The cantata, written for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, is a particularly anguished one: “My heart swims in blood, since the offspring of my sins in God’s holy eyes make me a monster. …For me my sins can be nothing but the hangmen of Hell.”  From this opening, the cantata moves steadily toward redemption and light, and the final aria, “How joyful is my heart, for God is appeased,” truly sounds like a triumph after severe internal struggles. Lieberson’s knowing, well-paced and emotionally telling handling of this mostly dark cantata is revelatory, and even listeners not familiar with Lieberson’s life and her death at age 52 will surely relate to the struggle and eventual triumph that Bach portrayed so movingly in 1714. The cantata is coupled with a nicely handled performance of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in a live recording from 2011. The contrast between the mood of the instrumental work and that of the vocal one is obvious. The two do not go especially well together, but both pieces are very well performed, and listeners seeking some respite from the cantata can easily turn to the concerto – although they will have to program their players to do so, since the Brandenburg appears first on the CD.

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