July 17, 2014


Gershwin: Music for Violin and Piano. Opus Two (William Terwilliger, violin; Andrew Cooperstock, piano); Ashley Brown, soprano. Azica. $16.99.

Jake Heggie: Three Song Cycles—Natural Selection (1997); Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999); Eve-Song (1996). Regina Zona, soprano; Kathleen Tagg, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

William Susman: Camille (2010); Scatter My Ashes (2009); Piano Concerto (2011); Moving In to an Empty Space (1992/2010). Octet Ensemble (Alan Ferber, trombone; Mellissa Hughes, vocals; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; William Susman, electric piano; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Elaine Kwon, piano; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums & percussion). Belarca Records. $16.99.

From This Point Forward. Julien Labro, bandoneon, accordion and accordina; Spektral Quartet (Austin Wulliman and Aurelien Pederzoli, violins; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rolen, cello). Azica. $16.99.

     The give-and-take of chamber music continues to attract both modern composers and contemporary performers, and leads to some interesting handling both of recently composed music and of older works. William Terwilliger and Andrew Cooperstock take a fresh look at some very well-known Gershwin pieces in transcriptions principally by Jascha Heifetz, Eric Stern and Samuel Dushkin on a new Azica CD. Most of the tunes in these seven works are well-known in other contexts, but the violin-and-piano arrangements give them a pleasant freshness even if they also make some of the material sound rather thin. Four of the seven pieces here are world première recordings, an added attraction of the disc: Girl Crazy suite arranged by Stern (1930/2012), excerpts from An American in Paris arranged by Heifetz and Ayke Agus (1928/2000), “Love Walked In” arranged by Stern (1938/2012), and “Nice Work if You Can Get It” arranged by Stern (1937/2012). Also here are the Three Preludes for Piano (1926) arranged by Heifetz, Short Story (1925) arranged by Dushkin, and selections from Porgy and Bess (1935) arranged by Heifetz. In all the pieces, the arrangements give prominence to the violin and relegate the piano mostly to a supporting role, although often an important one. The Jazz Age material generally works well in these versions, and certainly the performers throw themselves into it with enthusiasm and apparent enjoyment. The recently published Heifetz arrangement of An American in Paris is a particular treat because of the familiarity of the music – although here as in several other pieces, the works as arranged sound more like curiosities than full-fledged and individuated music. Ashley Brown’s handling of the two Stern song arrangements is another plus for the recording. On balance, this is the sort of disc to which a listener may turn from time to time for a new perspective on attractive music, but it will scarcely replace the original versions of these pieces, to which Gershwin lovers will undoubtedly return much more frequently.

     The Naxos voice-and-piano CD featuring soprano Regina Zona in music by Jake Heggie (born 1961) offers newly composed, small-scale music that seeks to reach out to listeners through a combination – typical for contemporary composers – of art-song, jazz, theatrical and folk music. Gershwin was a pioneer of combining popular and classical forms; Heggie has absorbed the combination thoroughly and uses it regularly, notably in his operas. This CD is called Connection: Three Song Cycles, and connecting with listeners is clearly its purpose – Heggie, unlike some modern composers, does want to write music that will be accessible to audiences in general, not only to specialists or fellow composers. The three cycles here all have effective moments, and the four movements of Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia also offer some particularly affecting ones, which Zona brings out movingly and with very fine support from pianist Kathleen Tagg. The five-song Natural Selection is a somewhat more distanced and less involving work, and the eight-movement Eve-Song, which lasts nearly half an hour, somewhat overwhelms the material and tries a bit too hard to involve hearers. All three cycles are intended to reflect, in the variety of their musical influences and the words of the songs, multiple aspects of the women portrayed. The extent of the “connection” among the cycles, though, is not particularly large; each cycle stands well enough on its own. Heggie does write accessible music, sometimes to the point of superficiality. These cycles are among his earlier works and show him, to some extent, still groping for a satisfactory fusion of various musical influences. They are certainly worth hearing from time to time, but more so as individual cycles than in the full-hour sequence of this CD.

     The chamber music of William Susman (born 1960) also shows the multifarious influences on which contemporary composers so frequently draw. Susman is as well known for his film music as Heggie is for his operas; not surprisingly, given his theatrical orientation, Susman is at least as eager as Heggie for audience involvement. Susman’s works are most interesting for their explorations of unusual rhythms, which range from traditional classical ones to those of medieval and Afro-Cuban music. Susman’s movement titles are determinedly popular rather than classical, and the instrumentation featured on his new CD for Belarca Records – a label he founded for recordings by the Octet Ensemble, in which he himself performs – shows his interest in working with unusual tonal combinations and perking up listeners’ ears through strongly jazz-inflected rhythms that tend to turn in unexpected directions. However, Susman is more interested in abstruse and rather academic compositional techniques than is Heggie; whether listeners will enjoy Susman works involving Fibonacci numbers or numerology – or even be able to hear the way these elements are incorporated – is uncertain. The four pieces on Susman’s new CD are all aggregations of short items; even the one-movement, 12-minute piano concerto has six identified sections (“Glide,” “Spin,” “Jagged,” and so forth) plus a cadenza. This is music that is clever and aurally interesting rather than emotionally involving; indeed, there is an overall coolness to Susman’s works here that stands them in stark contrast to other composers’ neo-Romantic, more emotionally involving pieces.

     Julien Labro and the Spektral Quartet, on the other hand, reach for emotional connection through what is essentially a jazz-and-classical sensibility on their new Azica release. Labro plays the accordion, the somewhat similar bandoneon, and the accordina – a sort of cross between accordion and harmonica. He says it was Astor Piazzolla who inspired him to learn the bandoneon, and a Piazzolla work, Milonga Loca, is the final offering on this disc:. There are also arrangements of two pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos from A Floresta de Amazonas, with the two – Melodia Sentimental and Veleiro – separated by music by less-known figures: the other composers heard here are Agustín Barrios, Dino Saluzzi, Miguel Zenón, Hermeto Pascoal, Fernando Otero, Diego Schissi and Ernesto Grenet. The pieces, all of them short, tend to blend together to an extent because of the arrangements, although Labro’s use of different instruments keeps the sound somewhat varied; and two works, Zenón’s El Club de la Serpiente and Villa-Lobos’ Veleiro – include a guest appearance by Zenón himself, playing alto saxophone. The classical tone and balance of a string quartet fit rather oddly into some of these pieces, which might sound more idiomatic with folk instruments or a jazz ensemble. Indeed, the combination of Labro’s essentially folk-music instruments with the classical makeup of the quartet creates some unease, as if the music is not entirely sure which way to go. This may, however, be exactly the intention of Labro and the Spektral Quartet – an exploration beyond usual boundaries and a stretching of listeners’ ears. Certainly the music is well performed; 50-plus minutes of it, though, may be a bit too much of a stretch for listeners unfamiliar with the sort of blended chamber-music style that this CD represents.

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