April 18, 2013


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 30-32. Beth Levin, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Peter Vukmirovic Stevens: August Ruins; Tempus Edax Rerum; Étude for Raising the Dead; Versatile Hammers; Thunder, Perfect Mind. Paige Stockley, cello. Navona. $14.99.

Perceptions: Chamber Works by Kyle Peter Rotolo, Quinn Dizon, Amelia S. Kaplan, Kevin McCarter, Jason Barabba, and Thomas L. Read. Navona. $16.99.

Dances of Eternity: Orchestral Works by Hans Bakker, Anthony Iannaccone, Michael J. Evans, Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy, and Mark Dal Porto. Navona. $16.99.

     Although Navona Records focuses primarily on music by modern classical composers (with a rather broad definition of “classical”), it has recently begun to issue a few discs of more-traditional classical music – which, far from appearing to “cave in” to mainstream tastes, tend to look at older and better-known music in new ways, and therefore fit quite well into Navona’s overall approach. Beth Levin’s recording of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas is a perfect case in point. This is music at once familiar and ever-new, and Levin has an interpretative approach to it that fully respects the past while having a definite veneer of modernity about it – in, for example, the particularly jaunty rhythms and the strong contrast between sections of emotional depth and those of jagged intensity. Navona calls this disc “A Single Breath,” a reference to Beethoven’s own comment about how he composed these three sonatas; but what is particularly interesting in Levin’s interpretations is that they highlight contrasts among the sonatas as well as within them – this is no single-minded interpretation, but a genuine attempt to see each sonata as an independent unit, communicating very different emotions within the overall context of Beethoven’s later life. The composer’s deafness was surely responsible for some of his willingness to explore forms of dissonance and rhythmic variety far beyond anything ever heard before – just as the same affliction, later in the 19th century, was more a help than a creative impediment to Smetana in his composition of Má vlast.

     What Levin does exceptionally well in her performances is to highlight both the sonatas’ unusual elements and their more-traditional ones – and turn the combination into a fully integrated and highly satisfying whole. No. 30 combines elements of lightness, as close to frivolity as anything in late Beethoven, with extremely innovative third-movement variations filled with complex counterpoint and dense textures that, under Levin’s hands, never become muddy – clarity is a constant in her readings. The soft, questioning end of this sonata has an almost plaintive quality here. No. 31 sounds almost like salon music at the start, with a theme recalling those in earlier Beethoven sonatas, but a set of flickering transformations soon pulls the music hither and yon through nearly arbitrary key changes that, in Levin’s performance, are part of a very clear overall conception. The contrast with the striding second movement is particularly pronounced here, and the expansive third movement contains all those contrasts and more within itself, with Levin balancing its sadness and brightness, its formal complexities and straightforward thematic presentations, to excellent effect. And her No. 32 is simply splendid. This extremely influential two-movement sonata became the basis of many other composers’ works – Prokofiev, for example, based his entire Symphony No. 2 on it – and it is also the work in whose second movement Beethoven essentially invents jazz. Here Levin’s focus on all these sonatas’ contrasts really pays off, as the first movement’s changes of thematic structure and volume consistently surprise, leading into a second movement that starts with deceptive gentleness before spreading into a vastly complex canvas that eventually, almost with a sigh of relief, finds its way to serenity at the end. Levin’s deep understanding of these sonatas is apparent throughout the performances; her technique is unassailable; and Navona’s willingness to release these April 2012 recordings is testimony to its belief that what is modern in classical music appears not only in new compositions but also in new views of truly classic works.

     Of course, many composers wrote single-instrument music after Beethoven – and before. And while it is undeniably unfair to compare other composers’ solo works with those of a transcendent genius, it is also inevitable, particularly when a composer’s music seems as clearly to be influenced by works of the past as does the music of Peter Vukmirovic Stevens. Solo works for cello always exist in the shadow not of Beethoven but of Bach, and Stevens’ actually show Bach’s influence – although often less of it than the influence of other composers whom he himself cites as models, such as Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt. The title work on Navona’s (+++) CD of Stevens’ music, August Ruins, is the most redolent of Bach, and Paige Stockley plays it with some of the same gestures and intonation that cellists bring to Bach’s solo-cello suites. However, this work, like the four others on the CD, seems to be less about exploring musical ideas than about investigating the technical capabilities of the cello, whose wide range of notes and emotions makes it a superb vehicle for multifaceted communication. Stevens’ cello music does in fact try to bring together multiple forms of expressiveness: like many other modern classical composers, he is influenced by non-Western experiences and sounds. His writing for cello is idiomatic and effective, but it is not very well differentiated from piece to piece. There is little reason for each work on Navona’s CD to bear the title it has: they could reasonably be called Piece for Cello No. 1, Piece for Cello No. 2, and so forth. Despite its exploitation of the cello’s wide range, the music is rather monochromatic in nature, with the result that the CD becomes something of a chore to hear from start to finish, even with Stockley’s fine playing throughout.

     Larger ensembles, of course, provide more opportunities for multifaceted musical experiences, and collections of works by multiple composers also offer greater opportunities for differentiation among sounds – albeit with the inherent weakness of anthologies of disparate pieces thought through in different ways. Two new Navona discs follow this label’s typical anthology pattern, with one focusing on chamber works and the other on orchestral productions. As is often the case in releases of this kind, there are interesting elements in various pieces by the 11 composers heard on the two CDs, and the music and performances are of high enough quality to garner the discs (+++) ratings; but it is a bit difficult to see to whom these releases will appeal, other than to existing fans of the specific composers, since there is little uniting the various works presented on either CD. Perceptions includes the New England String Quartet’s adept performance of Kyle Peter Rotolo’s String Quartet No. 1, “Macchiato”; a short piano-quartet work called Awakening by Quinn Dizon, played by violinist Clayton Hoener, violist Peter Sulski, cellist Ron Lowry, and pianist Hannah Shields; an even shorter work for piano and violin, Above the Clouds, by Kevin McCarter, performed by violinist Robert Lehmann and pianist Anastasia Antonacos; a somewhat more interesting violin-and-piano piece called Insolence, written by Amelia S. Kaplan and played by violinist Mary Kamack Kothman and pianist James Helton; the nicely paced and interestingly scored Capricci by Thomas L. Read, in which the New England String Quartet is joined by guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan; and a neat nine-movement piano-and-violin suite, Rhetorical Devices, by Jason Barabba, played by pianist Kevin Kwan Loucks and violinist Iryna Krechkovsky. Six composers, six pieces, four different instrumentations, entirely different performers for every work – this CD is an anthology on many levels, and like other samplers of its type, will attract people interested in, well, sampling these composers’ chamber works; but why listeners should choose this particular grouping of works over others that showcase other modern composers’ chamber pieces is not really clear.

     There are similar attractions and similar questions about Dances of Eternity, which also contains six works, but in this case by five composers – with, again, a mixture of performers. Not all the works really fit into the “dances” description, but the two by Hans Bakker do. They are Canzona L’altra Persona, conducted by Jan Kučera, and Canzona II: Tribute to the Sun, conducted by Petr Vronský, both featuring the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Vronský conducts the same ensemble in Mark Dal Porto’s Song of Eternity, whose relationship to dance is considerably less clear. And Kučera conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players in Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy’s Summer Solstice, which – like Dal Porto’s work – has more of a sense of time extension about it than an involvement with dance forms. Also on this CD are two works played by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande: the intriguingly titled Dancing on Vesuvius by Anthony Iannaccone, and Michael J. Evans’ Into the Woods. In a sense, this CD, like many from Navona, shows the consistent high quality of much modern classical music: all the works are well put together, crafted with a real understanding of instrumentation and of players’ capabilities. All make attempts to extract various colors from their ensembles, and all have a sense of rhythm and harmony that is traceable to earlier classical music but with inflections and harmonies that are decidedly modern. Yet none of the works especially stands out; there is nothing here with a style so recognizable that a listener is likely to identify its composer as someone whose music is worth seeking out repeatedly. Everything on the CD is workmanlike and nicely crafted; nothing has about it a feeling of significant inspiration. The result is a disc showing that classical music, however it may be defined in the 21st century, still has power and some very skillful adherents; and also showing that, just as in earlier centuries, the vast majority of competent composers cannot hold a candle to the admittedly hyper-bright flame of a creator such as Beethoven.

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