December 18, 2014
(++++) THE LYRICAL PIANO
Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano. Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Orion Weiss, piano. Telos Music. $16.99.
American Lyricism: Piano Music by American Composers Christopher Theofanidis, Richard Danielpour, Monica Houghton, Justin Merritt and Pierre Jalbert. Christopher Atzinger, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
James Adler: Suite Moderne for Strings; Psalm for Michael; Six Little Variations on Noël Ancien; Twisted Tango; 3 Introspections; Kevin Cummines: Three Works for James Adler; Paul Turok: Clarinet Sonata; Seth Bedford: Three Postcards for Piano—Beneath the Moonlight Tower; Pike-Pine March. James Adler, piano; “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jason K. Fettig; Virginia Brewer, oboe; Eugene Moye, Jr., cello; Cain-Oscar Bergeron, flute; Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet; David Babich, tenor saxophone; Malcolm J. Merriweather, baritone. Albany Records. $16.99.
There are many excellent recorded performances of Brahms’ three sonatas for violin and piano, works whose depth and emotional complexity make it possible to focus on and emphasize them in very different ways while still producing effective, affecting, meaningful and involving performances. Arnaud Sussmann and Orion Weiss look to the lyrical beauty of these works for inspiration more than to their drama, intensity and compositional complexity. The result is a warm, involving performance in which, even though some tempos are rather faster than usual, the overall sense of the music is one of expansiveness. Sonata No. 1 benefits to a particularly great degree from this treatment, its manifest beauties at the service of a level of intimate expressiveness that is wholly convincing. The finale’s melancholy, which eventually blends into a conclusion that straddles feelings of resignation and calm, comes across especially well in this very fine reading. Sonata No. 2 has more grace and arguably less depth than No. 1, its inventive second movement (part scherzo, part slow movement) coming across particularly effectively here; the conclusion of this finale, like that of No. 1, is something of an emotional question mark, lying between the pensive and the nostalgic. Sonata No. 3 is a touch less appealing in this performance than the others, but very beautifully played nevertheless. This is a sonata of high drama and almost violent emotions, but Sussmann and Weiss tend to downplay some of the more intensely dramatic elements in favor of an emphasis on the work’s passages of tenderness and contemplation. The result is an unusually lyrical approach to the sonata, an entirely legitimate way of looking at it if perhaps one not quite as satisfying as a rendition that more strongly embraces the divergent, strongly contrasted moods that Brahms displays here. The Telos Music CD’s sound is very fine, emphasizing the careful balance between the instruments and allowing the piano as much lyrical intensity as is heard in the violin.
Lyricism pervades a new MSR Classics disc of recent piano music by American composers, as the CD’s title, American Lyricism, makes clear. There are five piano works here, two of them world première recordings, and like so much contemporary music – American and otherwise – they are something of a mixed bag. In a sense, the very names of the composers constitute a celebration of the inclusiveness that is so characteristic of the United States: Theofanidis, Danielpour, Houghton, Merritt, Jalbert. In another sense, the music itself is evidence of inclusion: styles, approaches and moods vary all over the place, and although the appellation “lyricism” is appropriate enough for some parts of some of the works, it is not descriptive of them as a whole. Christopher Atzinger approaches all these pieces with considerable understanding and finely balanced technique, whether playing the compressed four-movement Sonata for Piano (1998) by Monica Houghton (born 1954) or the slightly longer, more emotionally trenchant four-movement All Dreams Begin with the Horizon (2007) by Christopher Theofanidis (born 1967) – a sonata-like work whose first movement is interestingly designated “lucid, present.” The most extended piece here is The Enchanted Garden: Preludes, Book II (2009) by Richard Danielpour (born 1956), in which the composer skillfully weaves a variety of emotions into a suite-like seven-movement sequence that, like many suites, is somewhat disconnected thematically. The two shorter pieces on the CD are more consistent in expressiveness than the three longer ones: Chaconne: Mercy Endures (2009) by Justin Merritt (born 1975) and Toccata (2001) by Pierre Jalbert (born 1967). The Houghton and Merritt pieces are the world premières. The disc as a whole is the sum of not-very-strongly-related elements, resulting in a (+++) overall rating: the very fact that contemporary American music is so variegated makes it difficult to home in on any specific unifying factor among these works except for the fact that they are American in origin, and this makes the disc an interesting sampling of modern American piano compositions but not a particularly focused one.
There is focus to the contemporary music on another lyricism-oriented (+++) CD, this one from Albany Records and featuring James Adler. The focus comes through Adler himself, who composed five of the eight works here and performs as pianist in seven of the eight. As a display disc for Adler, this is certainly a triumph, but for listeners not already enamored of him as composer and/or pianist, there is less to celebrate. His pianism is fine and sensitive, and his compositions are nicely put together and more than adequately reflective of the emotions they intend to convey. But there is nothing particularly inspirational here, nothing likely to stay with listeners long after the recording has played – except perhaps for admiration of the skill with which Adler creates music for a variety of different instruments and instrumental combinations. The disc opens with the five short movements of Suite Moderne for Strings (1982) as performed by “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Chamber Orchestra under Jason K. Fettig, and this modern update of the Baroque suite has a pleasantly old-fashioned sound. Adler’s other pieces here, even when tonal, are more firmly planted in the 20th and 21st centuries. They include Psalm for Michael (2003) for oboe, cello and piano; Six Little Variations on Noël Ancien (1986) for flute and piano; Twisted Tango (2012) for tenor saxophone and piano; and 3 Introspections (2014) for baritone, oboe and piano, using lyrics by David Cote. Adler knows when to make the piano more prominent in these works and when to let it subside into the background, and his lyrical propensities are pleasantly evident time and again, even if the music comes across as being well-crafted rather than genuinely inspired. The piano writing is particularly intriguing in Kevin Cummines’ Three Works for James Adler (2013-14: “Toccata,” “Torque” and “Termination”), and Adler handles the music with aplomb. Paul Turok’s Clarinet Sonata (2011) and two of Seth Bedford’s Three Postcards for Piano (2011-13) are, like Adler’s own music, well put together but ultimately not especially memorable. However, for fans of Adler as composer, pianist or both, this CD will provide some noteworthy insights into Adler’s thinking while creating music and his expressiveness when performing it.