April 09, 2015
(+++) LOOKING BACK
New Renaissance. Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (John Dearman, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant and Matthew Greif). LAGQ. $16.99.
Autumn of the Soul: Music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Vicente Asencio, Angelo Gilardino, Alexandre Tansman and Pierre de Breville. Lorenzo Micheli, guitar. Contrastes Records. $18.99.
Little Girl Blue—from Nina Simone. Sonia Wieder-Atherton, cello; Bruno Fontaine, piano; Laurent Kraif, percussion. Naïve. $16.99.
Haydn: Seven Last Words. Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violins; Luke Fleming, viola; Andrew Yee, cello). Azica. $16.99.
Aaron Jay Kernis: Three Flavors (2002/2013); Two Movements (with Bells) (2007); Ballad(e ) out of the Blue(s)—Superstar Etude No. 3 (2007). Andrew Russo, piano; James Ehnes, violin; Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
Kim Maerkl: Stradivari’s Gift. Sir Roger Moore, narration; Key-Thomas Maerkl, violin; string orchestra. Atlantic Crossing Records. $19.99.
Crossover music tends to be polarizing: rather than attracting listeners from the various genres that it samples, it tends to turn off many people who prefer their music to be “purely” of a specific type (and never mind the fact that cross-pollination in music is longstanding, the influence of jazz on 20th-century classical composers being only one example). The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet may be more polarizing than most crossover groups: the players are absolutely first-rate, their understanding of classical guitar (and other forms of guitar playing) is substantial, and their familiarity with classical material dating as far back as the Renaissance is undoubted. But they use all that talent and knowledge to produce sounds and arrangements that are very far from what the original composers intended or, indeed, could have imagined. So the CD called New Renaissance, on the group’s own label, is specifically for those with a rather rarefied taste: listeners who love guitar playing for its own sake and are intrigued and even charmed by the notion of taking some very old music, arranging it in some very modern ways, and performing it with considerable abandon. The main work here is called “Music from the Time of Cervantes,” with the quotation marks as part of the title. This is a 16-movement suite originally created for the guitar ensemble’s theatrical show, which had its première in 2009, with John Cleese of Monty Python notoriety as narrator. The version heard on CD has no narration but plenty of spirit: the elements are arranged by William Kanengiser into a series of dances and vignettes that express a whole set of emotions – reflective of Don Quixote but equally so of modern life. What is so interesting here is that the original music really does date to Cervantes’ time, but the arrangements are decidedly contemporary, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet plays the music in its trademark imitation-of-other-instruments style, sounding sometimes like guitars, sometimes like zithers, sometimes like lutes, and sometimes even percussive. The elements of this suite last an average of only two minutes each, with the result that the half-hour-plus of the total suite simply zips by. The rest of the music on this disc is less intriguing but scarcely uninteresting. Second-longest and second only to the Cervantes suite in its attractiveness is Ian Krouse’s Music in Four Sharps (on Dowland’s “Frog Galliard”). Based on a popular piece by John Dowland, Shakespeare’s nearly exact contemporary (1563-1616), Krouse’s work builds up to the full galliard and then marches away from it, eventually ending with wisps of sound. Its exploration of a full range of guitar effects makes it particularly interesting to hear. Filling out the CD are three other works. Six Ricercars (on a Theme by F.C. da Milano) by Dušan Bogdanović takes a theme from Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543) and expands, contracts, builds, varies and generally disassembles and reassembles it in a wide variety of ways, using everything from jazz and polytonality to African rhythms. The work has the typical pluses and minuses of this sort of accretive technique: it overwhelms the theme and never settles into a discernible style, but will interest listeners through its variegated approach. Mon Pere si ma Marie is by da Milano himself, as arranged by Richard Savino, and provides an extreme contrast to the Bogdanović work. And Three French Chansons, arranged by Scott Tennant, is a pleasantly delicate and emotive treatment of works by Pierre Certon (c. 1510-1572), Pierre Passereau (1509-1553), and Josquin des Prez (c. 1440-1521). The CD as a whole is a real treat for guitar aficionados and for listeners interested in multiple reimaginings of music of four to five centuries ago.
A single guitar rather than four is the focus of Autumn of the Soul, a Contrastes Records release of performances by Lorenzo Micheli. In strong contrast to the ebullience that marks the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s disc, Micheli’s is mostly quiet, introspective and meditative. Most of the music here – eight of the 17 tracks, four at the disc’s start and four at its conclusion – is from Platero y yo by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). These suite elements are contrasted with Hommage à Chopin and Variations sur un thème de Scriabine by the prolific and long-lived Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986), with some Tansman following the initial Platero material and the rest preceding the concluding tracks. In the middle of the CD are works by three other composers: Suite mistica by Vicente Asencio (1908-1979), Fantasia by Pierre de Breville (1861-1949), and – smack in the middle of the recital – Canzone notturna by Angelo Gilardino (born 1941). This rather odd sandwich design does not in fact work particularly well, especially as regards the separation of elements of Platero, for which there is no really good reason. The intent appears to be to pull listeners into this autumnal world through Castelnuovo-Tedesco, have them explore it through the works by the other composers, and then help them to the exit with more of what brought them in. The theory is interesting, but it is not especially successful from an auditory perspective. Micheli does play all the music very well and with considerable feeling, and there is enough similarity of approach among the composers so that the disc as a whole hangs together thematically – indeed, there may be rather too much sameness for some tastes. This is a CD for lovers of mostly non-avant-garde guitar music (although the Gilardino work has a comparatively contemporary sound) and for lovers of fine, restrained guitar playing.
The playing of cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton is restrained as well, and autumnal and moody and dark-hued, on a Naïve disc entitled Little Girl Blue and built around songs by or associated with Nina Simone. Here the crossover elements are abundantly clear, not only from the use of classical cello and piano performances in pop music but also because two pieces of distinctly classical provenance are included among the 15 tracks. They are the Brahms arrangement of Bach’s Schmücke dich, o liebe seele and the Andante from Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. These slow-paced, atmospheric works are clearly intended to complement the other 13 tracks: Black Swann, Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair, Little Girl Blue, Fodder on My Wings, Hey Buddy Bolden, Images, You Can Have Him, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, That’s All I Want from You, Brown Baby, Stars, Come Ye and Return Home. Simone’s focus was soul music and blues, and there is an overall bluesy feeling to Wieder-Atherton’s disc – the choice of title track is no accident. It is less known that Simone was influenced in part, in some of her standards, by Bachian counterpoint and fugal writing. Wieder-Atherton seems to have made a disc that is not so much a tribute to Simone as a recording inspired by her and showcasing ways in which her music can be adapted to a more overtly classical style and played by classical performers. This is, however, far more a recording for Simone fans than for lovers of classical music and classical cello – although the inclusion of percussion makes for an interesting tie-in between the genres, since percussive instruments are not only important in classical works but also were key to a great number of Simone’s performances and recordings (which often included percussionist Leopoldo Fleming).
While Wieder-Atherton is concerned with rethinking Simone’s music by giving it a classical twist, the Attacca Quartet is interested in looking back at Haydn – whose complete string quartets the ensemble is in the midst of performing in a series of concerts – and reimagining the composer’s Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (usually translated into English as The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross and often simply called Seven Last Words). This is actually a piece that Haydn himself rethought several times: the original orchestral version dates to 1786, Haydn adapted it as an oratorio in 1796, and the composer also approved (but did not compose) a version for piano. However, he did create a version for string quartet (in 1787), which makes the new Attacca Quartet arrangement seem a quixotic undertaking. The members of the quartet say they undertook the new arrangement because Haydn’s own seems unsatisfactory and may have been done hastily – a not entirely believable suggestion, since Haydn created it at the height of his powers and was always quite capable of dashing off a brand-new piece of music (not to mention an arrangement) in short order. On the other hand, it is possible that Haydn did not write the quartet version himself – its authenticity has been called into question for stylistic reasons, and quartets other than the Attacca Quartet have sometimes made versions of their own. In any case, it is certainly true that the Attacca Quartet members wanted something they would prefer to play instead of the quartet form of Seven Last Words that has come down to us as Haydn’s own. To make something new, cellist Andrew Yee – the principal force behind the Attacca Quartet‘s version – started from the oratorio rather than, as Haydn did, from the original orchestral work. Since the oratorio was itself an expansion of the original, this gave Yee and the rest of the quartet a larger canvas from which to develop a new piece. By filling out some parts of the score and recasting orchestral elements for strings, such as L’introduzione II that was originally for 12 wind instruments, the quartet has ended up with a fuller and deeper four-string version than Haydn‘s – although obviously not as authentic a one, assuming Haydn did create his own. The principal structural difference that listeners familiar with Seven Last Words will notice is that six of the seven Sonatas are here prefaced by Haydn’s chorales. More importantly, listeners will find that the Attacca Quartet plays the work with feeling and emotional involvement, emphasizing its consolatory elements (of which there are many) before presenting the final Il Terremoto (earthquake) with striking intensity. Whatever the merits of the new version may be, the performance of the new version is sensitive and well worth experiencing.
One of the works on a new Naxos CD featuring the music of Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960) also looks back, but not as far as Haydn. The piece, like far too many contemporary works, has a rather overdone and over-cute title: Ballad(e ) out of the Blue(s)—Superstar Etude No. 3. The concept, though, is simple enough and is quite effective. This is a nine-minute work for solo piano that pays homage to George Gershwin, jazz (and the Jazz Age), and the blues – not the way Sonia Wieder-Atherton pays homage to Nina Simone, but by absorbing these musical styles and re-presenting them in Kernis’ own context. The work is compressed enough to move along at a smart pace, yet expansive enough to explore its subject matter at some length. Actually, there is blues influence in another work on this CD as well: Two Movements (with Bells), in which piano and violin echo the sort of singing at which Simone excelled in producing a memorial to Kernis’ father. The work is meditative almost throughout, its first movement labeled Poco Adagio and its second, very directly, A Song for My Father; and James Ehnes, for whom the piece was commissioned, plays it very feelingly and with fine interaction with Andrew Russo. Russo is not only soloist but also adapter of the longest work here, Three Flavors, originally written in 2002 as a concerto for toy piano and orchestra (a bit like Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony), then adapted for standard piano by Russo in 2013. The “flavors” here seem to be more than three: this is avowed crossover music, in which traditional classical elements are mixed with Indonesian gamelan, jazz and the lyrical quality of a central movement called Lullaby—Barcarolle (sandwiched between Ostinato and Blue Whirl). Kernis packs a bit too much into this package, whose exotic-sounding portions and piano-virtuoso ones coexist rather uneasily. But Russo and the Albany Symphony Orchestra under David Alan Miller certainly give the work their all, handling it with equal measures of bounce, breadth and enthusiasm.
The way in which Kim Maerkl looks into the past in Stradivari’s Gift is different, for this work is a narrative-with-music intended for young listeners, designed to take 21st-century children back to 17th-century Italy and a place, Cremona, where the greatest violins ever made were produced by the greatest luthiers of all time – paramount among them Antonio Stradivari. This work is in 16 short sections – the whole Atlantic Crossing CD lasts just 37 minutes – with narration by Sir Roger Moore setting the scene and moving the story along as playing by Key-Thomas Maerkl (accompanied by string orchestra) provides musical progress and commentary upon the narrative. In a nice touch, violinist Maerkl was able to use a 1692 Stradivarius to record his solos, giving listeners a chance to hear the sumptuous perfection of warmth and amazing evenness of sound for which Stradivarius violins are renowned (which does not, of course, mean that young listeners will be fully able to appreciate how incomparably better than most others this violin sounds). Stradivari’s Gift is a teaching tool as much as a musical experience, intended to bring children into a different time and help them appreciate a type of music with which they may not be at all familiar. It is actually one of two closely related Kim Maerkl works with this intention, the other being Amati’s Dream. It is rather unfortunate that the two allied pieces were not released on a single CD. The Stradivari’s Gift CD is nicely made and the performance, both narrative and musical, is quite good, but the cost for a short disc is high and may discourage families and schools from buying the recording. That would be too bad, since this is a well-meaning and well-wrought attempt (although scarcely the first one) to help make classical music understandable to young people and hopefully generate enthusiasm for it in a new generation. Music can in fact transport young and old, composer and performer and listener alike, to earlier times and distant places, and it will be wonderful if visions of the past, through works such as Stradivari’s Gift, encourage greater appreciation of the classical-music realm in the future.