August 07, 2014
(+++) SMALL ENSEMBLES, BIG IDEAS
Joseph Achron: Music for Violin and Piano. Michael Ludwig, violin; Alison d’Amato, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Curt Cacioppo: Divertimenti in Italia (String Quartet No. 6); Dalle Dolomiti All’ Etna: Schizzi Pianistici D’Italia; Women at the Cross (Quintetto per Pianoforte ed Archi). Navona. $16.99.
Ursula Mamlok: Chamber Music. Armida Quartet and Spectrum Concerts Berlin. Naxos. $9.99.
Sarah Wallin Huff: Courage Triptych; Gypsy Wanderer; Animae Mechanicae: Soul of the Machine; Counterpoint Invariable; Adoré. Navona. $16.99.
The thoughts and planning that go into chamber music can be every bit as wide-ranging as those that permeate orchestral pieces. Certainly there is plenty of focused ambition in these works by 20th- and 21st-century composers. A new Naxos compendium of short violin-and-piano works by Joseph Achron (1886-1943) not only showcases Achron’s Russian roots but also shows the ways in which he tried for many years to make Jewish elements his harmonic and contrapuntal focus. The works here are presented in somewhat helter-skelter fashion – they are neither chronological nor sequenced by form or mood. This somewhat undercuts the effectiveness of what is otherwise a highly attractive CD with music that is very well played by Michael Ludwig and Alison d’Amato. The pieces here mostly date to the years before World War I, although the short Stempenyu Suite, whose three movements last less than seven minutes, was written in 1930. The other works are Hebrew Melody, Op. 33 (1911); Hebrew Dance, Op. 35, No. 1 (1912); Hebrew Lullaby, Op. 35, No. 2 (1912); Prelude, Op. 13 (1904); Les Sylphides, Op. 18 (1905); Zwei Stimmungen, Op. 32 (“Two Moods,” 1910), and an identically titled piece that is Op. 36 from 1913; Dance Improvisation on a Hebrew Folk Theme, Op. 37 (1914); Suite No. 1 en style ancien, Op. 21 (1906); La Romanesca (1913); and Second Berceuse, Op. 20 (1906). Although some of the works’ titles may put listeners in mind of Bruch or Respighi, Achron has his own way of handling the material, sometimes emphasizing folklike roots, at others focusing on danceable elements, at still others – as in Hebrew Melody, his best-known work – opting for intensity and drama. Everything is relatively small-scale here, although not to the point of being epigrammatic. The works are evocative of many moods and of a specific time and culture.
So are those of Curt Cacioppo (born 1951) on a new Navona CD. Here the time is today and the recent past; the culture, that of Italy. Divertimenti in Italia (String Quartet No. 6) focuses first on the town of Alberobello in Puglia, then on the mountainous northern Italian region, and finally on Catania, Sicily. The piece is performed by Quartetto di Venezia (Andrea Vio and Alberto Battiston, violins; Giancarlo di Vacri, viola; Angelo Zanin, cello). The music is well-made but not especially evocative of particular landscapes or regions. Cacioppo himself is the pianist in the two other works on this disc. Dalle Dolomiti All’ Etna: Schizzi Pianistici D’Italia is an interesting set of seven piano pieces, one of which includes a narrator (Marino Baratello) and refers to Dante, and one of which gently parodies Mozart’s aria Fin ch’ han dal vino from Don Giovanni. Cacioppo and Quartetto di Venezia perform the final piece here together: Women at the Cross (Quintetto per Pianoforte ed Archi) is a seven-movement work intended to evoke images of women who were significant in the life of Christ, from Mary to Salome to Procula, the wife of Pontius Pilate. This is an interesting experiment that does not fully differentiate the women but that does offer some effective string writing and a nicely collaborative performance.
The use of chamber forces by Ursula Mamlok (born 1923) is quite different. Cacioppo’s work tends toward precision and toward attempts to connect music directly with specific scenes (although calling it “program music” would be a stretch). Mamlok instead looks to evoke emotions, and her favorite method of doing so is transformative – not necessarily formal variations, but works that grow from kernels and develop in ways that challenge both performers and listeners as the music expands and becomes ever more elaborate. The new Naxos CD of Mamlok’s chamber music shows her style to be an intricate and sometimes off-putting melding of serial influences with tonal focus: Mamlok clearly knows what she is doing, but seems reluctant to come down fully either on the side of the Second Viennese School or on that of neo-Romanticism. She is a thoughtful composer who communicates well in words: the disc contains an interview in which she speaks forthrightly with Frank Dodge about her music’s influences and intent. To the extent that music ought to speak for itself, though, Mamlok’s does not always do so with clarity. The chamber works here were written over a period of four decades and focus on various instrumental combinations: String Quartet No. 1 (1962) for the traditional quartet; Confluences (2001) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano; 2000 Notes (2000) for piano solo; Polyphony I (1968) for clarinet solo; From My Garden (1983) for viola solo; and Rhapsody (1989) for clarinet, viola and piano. Through all these instrumental combinations, Mamlok clearly is reaching for a connection with listeners; and her expansionist approach lies at the heart of most of the music here. The effectiveness with which she communicates is quite variable, however, with her spoken words clearer in expressing her intent than much of this music is in doing so.
There is no question about the techniques favored by Sarah Wallin Huff (born 1980), whose new Navona CD shows her firmly in the modernist/experimental camp. Gypsy Wanderer, for example, uses violin (Maria Wozniakiewicz) and piano (Karolina Rojahn) to explore patterns and colors through rhythmic and harmonic shadings – it is an intellectual-exercise piece rather than an emotionally involving one. Counterpoint Invariable has much the same sort of effect, despite a different compositional technique and different instrumentation: three violins (Klaudia Szlachta, Julia Okrusko and Wozniakiewicz). The scoring is actually one of the more interesting elements here; the piece itself, which is deliberately mechanical in its progress, seems to have something to prove but is not particularly gripping in doing so. Animae Mechanicae: Soul of the Machine uses a traditional string quartet (The New England String Quartet: Okrusko and Konstantin Rybakov, violins; Lilit Muradyan, viola; Ming-Hui Lin, cello) and traditional minimalist techniques, plus a series of deterministic mathematical ratios, to try to illustrate a story about a computer being given a chance to experience human emotions. The actual sound of the piece differs little from that of other minimalist works, and there is not much clear storytelling here – the music is carefully assembled, just as computers are, but is as emotionally disconnected as non-science-fictional computers tend to be. Courage Triptych is a more interesting work, in part because it pushes beyond chamber music into something larger-scale. The first movement, “A Garden Prayer,” is for two violins (Vit Mužík and Jakub Látal) and piano (Lucie Kaucká); the second and third, “Broken Innocence” and “Valiance,” feature soprano saxophonist Jaroslav Kužela and the Moravian Philharmonic Strings conducted by Petr Vronský. The result is a work with more richness than the all-chamber-size ones here, and one that evokes non-specific images more effectively. The final piece on this CD is orchestral, with Vronský conducting the full Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. It is Adoré, a transformed hymn whose ethereality contrasts with the usual down-to-earth tonic certainty of hymn tunes. Although chamber music can certainly reach for grand themes and strong emotional connections, in the case of this Sarah Wallin Huff disc, it is the works with ampler instrumentation that have a greater effect.