October 23, 2014


Sauro Berti: Solo Non Solo. Sauro Berti, bass clarinet. Ravello. $14.99.

David Liptak: The Eye That Directs a Needle; Freight; Preludes; Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon: yo no / tú sí / yo tú / sí no; Daphne; Flores del Viento III. Ravello. $14.99.

Alan Beeler: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4; Clarinet Concerto; Violin Concerto; Marimba Concerto in Sixths; Marimba Concerto da Chiesa; Mad Song after William Blake; Homage to Roger Sessions. Navona. $14.99.

Jeff Jacobs: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (“Death and Transfiguration”); String Quartet No. 2; Elegy; Adagietto Misterioso. Navona. $16.99.

     Sauro Berti, bass clarinetist of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, is the focus of a performer-oriented Ravello CD of modern clarinet music that, like many other examples of contemporary music, straddles the line between classical and other forms (in this case, primarily jazz). The works here are not so much undistinguished as they are largely indistinguishable: there are no fewer than 13 composers represented, in 14 pieces, but no one here shows a style so distinguished that it would lead listeners to be sure that a given work is by that specific composer rather than someone with a different name. A full hour-and-a-quarter of solo-clarinet music would in any case be a bit much, but most of the works here are for more than a single instrument. Ultraclarinet by Achille Succi is for two clarinets (played by Berti and Succi); Sintesi by Thomas Briccetti is for clarinet and metronome; Peans Giga by Stefano Nanni is for clarinet and bass clarinet (both played by Berti); Oh, More or Less is for tenor saxophone and bass clarinet (Mario Ciaccio and Berti); Due Pezzi Brasiliani by Silvio Zalambani, one of the more interesting works here, is for basset horn and pandeiro, a type of hand-frame drum that looks a bit like a tambourine (Berti and Davide Bernaro); Cosmic Turtles Sidekick by Brad Baumgardner is for two bass clarinets (Berti plays both); Broken Mirror by Carlo Boccadoro is for drums and clarinet (Gianluca Nanni and Berti); Blue Buk by Luca Velotti is for two clarinets (Berti and Velotti); Spasm by Michael Lowenstern is for bass clarinet and electronics; and Weirdo-Funk by Bob Mintzer is for clarinet and drums (Berti and Nanni). Every piece on the CD is essentially an encore: the works run from one minute to five. This means that nothing ever establishes itself and develops to any significant extent, and whatever involvement listeners may start to feel – whether because of the playing or the instrumentation – evaporates soon. This applies to the single-instrument works as well as the others: Walk for bass clarinet by Boccadoro; Prayers from the Ark, another piece of above-average interest, by John Manduell; Adagio e Allegro for basset horn by Teresa Procaccini; and Concerto “Carte Fiorentine N. 2” for clarinet by Valentino Bucchi. The disc is simply a showcase for short-form contemporary works for clarinet and related instruments; wind players will likely find it more congenial than will casual listeners.

     Another Ravello CD features two different solo instruments: marimba in Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon’s Daphne and guitar in David Liptak’s Freight. Three works by each composer are combined to produce a disc with the somewhat overdone title of Stars. Stories. Song. These composers’ approaches actually have little in common, so the title is presumably intended as a unifying device, although it is not especially clear or effective on that basis. Nor are the works themselves related particularly closely to each other. Of the works by Zohn-Muldoon, Daphne is about the mythic woman’s flight from Apollo; yo no / tú sí / yo tú / sí no, for soprano, flute, guitar, violin, bass and percussion, sets four poems by Raúl Aceves; and Flores del Viento III, for soprano, flute, violin and percussion, sets seven by Laura Zohn. Of the pieces by Liptak, Freight is a tribute to folk guitarist Elizabeth Cotton; The Eye That Directs a Needle, for soprano, violin and percussion, refers to early professional astronomer Maria Mitchell; and Preludes, for alto saxophone and marimba, proves the most involving work on the disc, its seven movements offering interesting and purely musical contrasts that do not depend on the literary references incorporated into the music. The audience for this CD is hard to pin down: existing fans of the two composers will want it, but neither the individual works nor the theme imposed on the totality by the disc’s title will reach out in a significant way anyone not already interested in Zohn-Muldoon or Liptak.

     At least the Navona CD of symphonic music by Alan Beeler has clear appeal – to listeners who want to hear modern applications of the now somewhat old-fashioned practice of creating and developing tone rows and using them as the germs of extended works. Beeler here shows his command of orchestral forces as well as solo instruments within the concerto format – not hesitating to produce works in a standard number of movements and with traditional tempo indications, but communicating through the pieces in ways designed to bring listeners into an atonal universe. The two symphonies here, played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský, are both quite short (13 minutes apiece); both are in four movements and both use traditional forms. Symphony No. 1 (2003, five years before No. 4) even spells out the forms it includes: sonata for the first movement, song for the second, Scherzo with Trio for the third, and rondo for the finale. Nevertheless, the choice of themes and the persistent atonality make these works, each around the length of Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony, sound anything but traditionally classical. The same orchestra and conductor offer the 11-minute Violin Concerto (2003), with soloist Vít Mužík, and 10-minute Marimba Concerto in Sixths (2004), featuring Ladislav Bilan. Bilan is also soloist for the seven-minute Marimba Concerto da Chiesa (2007), here accompanied by the Moravian Philharmonic Strings. The Clarinet Concerto (1997-2000), which runs 13 minutes, features Richard Stoltzman with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. And two short concluding pieces written in 1986, which close the CD and function as encores, are played by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimír Válek. Beeler clearly finds short forms attractive, apparently feeling that all he has to say can be expressed in a very compact manner; and since the music is abstract and not especially emotionally involving, listeners are likely to agree. The performances are quite good – Stoltzman and Vronský, in particular, are strong advocates of contemporary music and handle these works very well. Beeler’s pieces are more workmanlike than inspired: carefully wrought and thoughtfully assembled, making their points in short order and leaving it to audiences to decide afterwards whether those points were well taken.

     Jeffrey Jacob also writes in traditional forms and also gravitates to shorter movements and comparatively brief complete works, but the pieces on a Navona CD show him reaching out for a greater emotional connection with listeners than Beeler seems to seek. The two-movement Symphony No. 1, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Toshiyuki Shimada and featuring Jacob himself as pianist, draws on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in an attempt to depict timelessness through contrasting moderate and quick movements. Symphony No. 3, played by the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Spalding and with Jacob himself again at the piano, is intended as a contemporary view or update of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, its three movements progressing from darkness through delicacy to eventual exaltation – although less effectively than does the Strauss original. String Quartet No. 2, played by the New England String Quartet (violinists Julia Okrusko and Klaudia Szlachta, violist Lilit Muradyan and cellist Ming-Hui Lin), follows a similar pattern in more-compressed form, each of the two movements starting in something akin to despair and ending with affirmation. Elegy, played by the Hradec Králové Philharmonic under Jon Mitchell, is a somewhat thornier piece, working toward resolution through largely contrapuntal means. It stands in contrast to Adagietto Misterioso, performed by the Moscow Symphony under Joel Spiegelman, which is nostalgic and lyrical and the most approachable work on the entire CD. Jacob’s music has sufficient emotive power to draw listeners in, although it does not always repay their involvement with any strongly stirring resolution. It is nevertheless music that reaches out to the audience more forthrightly than do many of the works produced by contemporary composers.

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