July 03, 2014
Dvořák and America. PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos. $9.99.
James Rhodes: Piano Man. Signum Vision DVD. $17.99.
PROJECT Trio: Instrumental. Harmonyville Records. $13.98.
Ruud van Eeten: Punctus Einz; Jhero; Piano Quintet No. 1. Navona. $14.99.
Metropolis. Harrington/Loewen Duo. Ravello. $14.99.
There are times when it is nearly impossible to say that performers are “only” bringing music to listeners. Indeed, it can be difficult at times to say just what sort of music is being presented, and how the various elements of a concert, recital or CD relate to each other. Music becomes part of a totality of experience in the best combination presentations, in a way somewhat akin to opera (which combines music with theater) but with much less stylization and often with greater focus on the performers. Sometimes the performers may even come to matter as much as the works they are offering. This is not the case in the fascinating PostClassical Ensemble presentation called Dvořák and America: the music itself is what counts here. But the selection of music, and the use of music and words in the form known as melodrama (spoken material delivered as music plays but not actually sung to the music, as opposed to “melodrama” in the sense of exaggerated plot and characters), creates a salutary and highly unusual listening experience. Dvořák’s best-known symphony remains his last, No. 9, which many people persist in calling the “New World.” But that is not what the composer himself called it – he said it was “From the New World.” This is no mere semantic distinction: the work is as clearly Czech in its structure and harmonies as earlier Dvořák symphonies; it is only the themes that are taken from America. And it is this structural reality that Joseph Horowitz and Michael Beckerman bring to the fore in their Hiawatha Melodrama (after Dvořák), arranged by Angel Gil-Ordóñez to be the primary element of a new Naxos CD. Hiawatha Melodrama was created only in 2013 and has not been recorded before, but many of its musical elements will be quite familiar to listeners: they come from the Symphony No. 9 and the American Suite, as well as the Violin Sonatina that also dates to Dvořák’s American sojourn. The words spoken in Hiawatha Melodrama are taken from Longfellow’s very long and tedious poem, The Song of Hiawatha, whose never-ending trochaic tetrameter meter becomes both artificial and dull quite quickly. The excerpts used in Hiawatha Melodrama, however, do not have enough time to grate or become soporific, because they are relatively short, are feelingly delivered by narrator Kevin Deas, and are accompanied by well-chosen music that PostClassical Ensemble plays engagingly.
The point of creating Hiawatha Melodrama is that Dvořák said the poem had inspired him when he was composing his Symphony No. 9 – in some specific ways and some general ones. Listeners to this intriguing CD can judge for themselves the extent to which Longfellow’s words had an impact on Dvořák. And to provide even more context, the disc also presents the entire American Suite, excerpts from Eight Humoresques, and the Larghetto from the Violin Sonatina – all on their own. Nor is this everything offered. To show how Dvořák, influenced by America, himself influenced its music, the CD includes the 1922 work Goin’ Home (in which bass-baritone Deas sings rather than narrates) by William Arms Fisher (1861-1948). And there are also pieces here by Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), whom Dvořák influenced strongly and directly: Navajo War Dance No. 2 (1904) and Pawnee Horses in versions for piano (1905) and chorus (1937). This compendium of music and words provides a genuinely interesting and difficult-to-describe musical experience that provides considerable insight into the ways in which America influenced Dvořák and the way the great Czech composer returned the favor.
However, as already noted, as intimately involved as the performers are in the Dvořák and America presentation, the recording is not about them but about the music. Things are different in James Rhodes: Piano Man, a Signum Vision release in which music that is far better known than Hiawatha Melodrama is presented in an unusual context that requires listeners – and viewers, this being a DVD – to pay as much attention to the performer as to the works themselves. British pianist James Rhodes’ performances are always about him as much as the music: he writes his own program notes and talks to the audience about the works and the difficulties involved in bringing them to life; and even when he does not specifically allude to his own troubled past, the audience surely knows about it. Rhodes was abused as a child by a gym teacher, developed significant mental-health issues, was hospitalized for eight months, became a drug addict, and attempted suicide. It is worth remembering that many, perhaps most, of the great composers of the past were afflicted with significant issues of mental and physical health as well, Schumann’s madness and Schubert’s syphilis being two well-known examples that are quite far from unique. What Rhodes does is tap into his knowledge of the composers’ lives, combine it with his own life experiences, and present the mixture to the audience for its, if not delectation, at least comprehension. The old and unresolvable argument about the extent to which composers’ lives are directly reflected in their music and must be understood for the music to have its full impact is relevant here. Certainly the great and very familiar works that Rhodes plays on this DVD – by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Busoni – are enormously effective even for listeners who know nothing about the circumstances of their composition. But equally certainly, listening to Rhodes’ narrative and also hearing the works provides the music with some unfamiliar trappings that shed new light on the works – while also deflecting some light from them to Rhodes himself. James Rhodes: Piano Man will certainly not appeal to all listeners/viewers, but this (+++) recording offers some fine performances and some contextual information that at least some music lovers will find very involving indeed.
Involvement with the new CD from PROJECT Trio also depends heavily on interest in the performers: Greg Pattillo (flute), Eric Stephenson (cello) and Peter Seymour (bass). Furthermore, it depends on listeners being interested in music that ranges from classical to jazz to Brazilian, sometimes seeming to change genres or arrangements within the same piece. The 11 tracks open and close with classical works: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 and the Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saëns (the male protagonist misspelled as “Sampson” on the CD). The arrangements of these works are moderately interesting and nicely played, but neither they nor the group’s handling of the Brazilian song Andre de Sapato Novo would be a major reason to own this CD. The eight other tracks, all of them original compositions heavily flavored with jazz and sometimes blending in pop, hip hop and other forms, and all played with enthusiasm and a fine sound blend, provide the main rationale for this (+++) disc. Djangish (which pays homage to Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt), 99 Mondays, 2against3, Sloeberry Jam (a nicely intertwining slow piece with gospel elements), Shir, The Anthem, BRB and Now all showcase the skills of PROJECT Trio both in composition and in performance. The blending of the three instruments is handled differently in some pieces than in others, giving the CD from Harmonyville Records (the group’s own label) more variety than is inherent in the works themselves. The music as a whole is rather unchallenging, but it is well crafted and will please listeners who find PROJECT Trio an attractively personable musical group.
The music itself is the attraction on a new (+++) Navona CD featuring works by Dutch composer Ruud van Eeten, but here too listeners receive a combination of material, because two of the three works have specific sources that it helps to know in order to get their full effect. Punctus Einz, a brief work for saxophone quartet, is based on Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge, the unusual use of four ranges of saxophone giving the music surprising textures and sonorities. The piece is played by the Amstel Quartet: Remco Jak on soprano saxophone, Olivier Sliepen on alto sax, Bas Apswoude on tenor sax, and Ties Mellema on baritone sax. A different grouping of four instruments – the more-usual string quartet – presents Jhero, whose inspiration is a well-known painting by Hieronymus Bosch in which the artist portrays Heaven, the Garden of Earthly Delights, and Hell. Here the Matangi Quartet (Maria-Paula Majoor and Daniel Torrico Menacho, violins; Karsten Kleijer, viola; Arno van der Vuurst, cello) offers careful playing of music whose representational aims are rather straightforward: the first section of the music is slow and meditative, the second sensual, the third heavily rhythmic and strongly accented. The Matangi Quartet is joined by pianist Saskia Lankhoorn for the third work on the disc, Piano Quintet No. 1, which is less mannered and more emotive than the other pieces here despite having no obvious extramusical inspiration. Van Eeten’s music is carefully structured, but the pieces here are more craftsmanlike than genuinely inspired.
Van Eeten’s use of saxophones is quite different from that of the Harrington/Loewen Duo, whose (+++) Ravello CD features five saxophone-and-piano works by five different composers. Saxophonist Allen Harrington and pianist Laura Loewen offer contemporary pieces that combine their instruments in a variety of ways and that mingle traditional compositional techniques with ones that use colors and images instead of standard notation to indicate the directions in which the players should go. Diana McIntosh’s Dance for Daedalus gives the performers many opportunities to interact as well as put on individual displays. Gordon Fitzell’s Metropolis uses unconventional compositional techniques that are likely more inspirational to performers than listeners – what is heard here is nothing particularly unusual. Michael Matthews’ The Skin of Night is more interesting in its interplay between the duo, while Robert Lemay’s Oran is attractive in its textural elements and multiple mood changes. Srul Irving Glick’s Sonata for Saxophone and Piano “Adio” is the most straightforward work here in layout and is in some ways the most effective piece, using its three-movement form to guide performers and listeners alike through a multiplicity of emotions, techniques and forms of musical interrelationship. None of the works here is truly outstanding as music, but in combination with the attraction of hearing fine playing and an unusual instrumental mixture, the CD provides a more-than-satisfying listening experience.