June 18, 2015
(+++) JOURNEYS VIA EAR
Bach: Goldberg Variations—arranged for string quartet; Glenn Gould: String Quartet. Catalyst Quartet (Karla Donehew-Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violins; Paul Laraia, viola; Karlos Rodriguez, cello). Azica. $16.99.
Pierre Schroeder: Voyage. Navona. $14.99.
Michael Calvert: Rhapsody on a Riff (1994); Gaston Amoureux (2008); Lascivious Pleasing (1995); Eight Studies (1992); Fantasia in August (2011); Suma (1989). Matthew Marshall, guitar. Ravello. $16.99.
The Monks of Norcia: Benedicta—Marian Chant. Decca. $16.99.
All music is a journey – an internal one, a spiritual one if you like. And some music takes listeners on travels in a different way, whether to a geographical location (say, Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides overture) or an inward-focused one (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and many other works). Composers and performers alike are always seeking new places to which to take audiences, and nowadays that can mean exploring unfamiliar repertoire or looking at well-known music in new and different ways. Thus, the Catalyst Quartet combines its arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a performance of Glenn Gould’s sole string quartet (Op. 1, his only composition with an opus number). There is some historical significance to this mixture: Gould, who had previously written an atonal bassoon sonata, an unfinished piano sonata, and not much else, finished the ambitious quartet in 1955, just a few months before recording the Goldberg Variations – which promptly turned him into a piano sensation. The quartet is in no direct way related to Bach’s work, however. It is very chromatic, with severe intonation challenges occasioned by Gould’s lack of familiarity with string playing. There are lots of octave passages and an overall feeling of Schoenberg-like dimensions – the quartet is not particularly idiomatic, and is certainly uneven, and it goes on rather too long (more than 35 minutes). But it has sections of undeniable power, notably in its fugues, and is of considerable interest for string players – although rather less so for listeners, whom the work does not take on a journey as effectively as it escorts the performers through and into Gould’s mind. The quartet has been recorded a number of times, as far back as 1960, with its difficulties of balance and complexities of structure allowing each ensemble to make it sound quite different. The Catalyst Quartet’s reading is intense, dramatic and generally convincing, although the work itself never quite hangs together strongly – if it were not by Gould, it would likely be significantly more obscure than it already is. The string-quartet version of the Goldberg Variations is also very well-played on this Azica recording, but the arrangement itself will be entirely a matter of taste. Listeners well-versed in the music will find the handling of the material, especially the canons, quite interesting in string-quartet form, but the variations themselves are not served especially well when translated to four separate voices – their interweaving here does not seem very “Bachian,” although the playing itself is quite fine. Like many journeys, this one will be enjoyable based largely on what travelers – in this case, listeners – choose to bring along.
The journey in Voyage by Pierre Schroeder is a much more overt one. This is a Navona release offering an 11-movement suite whose elements range from the piano solos Vertigo and Mountain Veil to three ensemble pieces requiring a conductor to keep everything together: Late Harvest, Lowland and Snow. Like many modern compositions, this one uses elements of classical music but is primarily a blend of other forms, here including folk and, especially, jazz and blues. Bleu Nuit, for instance, with its alto flute above piano and double bass, is very jazz-like in its intended portrayal of a nighttime scene, while the longing expressed by mezzo-soprano and piano in Shores seems straight out of nightclub or lounge singing. There are some interesting instrumental combinations here, and the use of percussion is well-considered and effective in providing a foundation for many of the pieces. And there is some attractive lyricism and even yearning from time to time, as in Gypsy – a journey in itself – for violin, clarinet, piano and cello. But although Highway I opens the suite and Highway II appears halfway through, with Hourglass near the end symbolizing the passage of time during this particular instance of musical travel, there is not really any sense of development or progress as Voyage moves from piece to piece. The works are largely of the same type, many in very similar slow-to-moderate tempo, and for all the differences of instrumentation, the overall mood varies little from element to element. So there is some sort of travel, yes, but little feeling that one has arrived anywhere in particular when the nearly hour-long work has concluded.
Jazz dominates much of a Ravello CD of Michael Calvert’s music as well, but here it is blended with even more influences than those used by Schroeder. Among those are rock, pop, Japanese music, serialism, and some very specific classical elements: Lascivious Pleasing draws on John Dowland (as well as the Beatles), Gaston Amoureux on Debussy, Fantasia in August on Britten, and Eight Studies on Messiaen. Calvert himself is a guitarist, and his writing for the instrument is intelligent, well-considered and well-adapted to guitar players’ capabilities. It is not always, however, very interesting. Eight Studies sustains well, with none of its pieces lasting more than two-and-a-half minutes, but the longer works – including Rhapsody on a Riff and Suma, each in the seven-and-a-half-minute range – simply do not have enough variation of sound to keep non-guitar-playing listeners involved throughout. The travel here is through various forms of music, to various classical composers’ sensibilities, and to some extent geographically to New Zealand, on whose culture Calvert consciously draws in an attempt to create guitar music that is not European in focus or sound. Whatever the value of this nationalistic impulse, it does not, from the standpoint of listeners encountering the music without preconceptions and without personal performance capability on the guitar, make the works heard here particularly compelling or distinctive, despite the very fine performances they receive from Matthew Marshall. Guitar players will likely find the CD far more intriguing than will listeners who play other instruments or none.
The journey on a new Decca CD featuring chants by the monks of Norcia is emphatically an inward one as well as one to the monks’ monastery in Italy. This disc samples and reproduces the music that the 18 members of this monastic order sing day in and day out as they go about their devotions and their secular activities (they operate a craft brewery). This particular community is unusually young for a cloistered group, with average age of just 33. As a result, there is a freshness to the sound of the voices here, and there is certainly strong devotional feeling that comes through in the disc’s 33 tracks – many of them lasting a minute or less. Certainly there is historical interest in Norcia, the birthplace of Saint Benedict, and in these monks’ resumption of singing of Gregorian chant after such devotionals had been absent from the town for nearly two centuries. And yes, there is purity of sound and a kind of mystical beauty to the music. Yet there is little that is distinctive from piece to piece, with the result that the CD does indeed have a kind of timeless feeling – but it is one akin to that created by New Age recordings that are intended to lull listeners into a kind of peace, harmony and attunement to a form of spirituality greater than themselves. To be sure, the monks themselves would undoubtedly welcome the notion that their singing – here focused on the life of the Virgin Mary – transports listeners outside their humdrum lives and connects them spiritually with the greater and, to them, divine world limned by Gregorian chant. And the hypnotic quality of these pieces – including one, an antiphon called Nos qui Christi iugum, composed by the monks themselves – is pervasive. Listeners who come to the disc with the desire and intent to clear their minds of distractions and focus on the chants, whether or not they follow or understand the specific words, will find themselves absorbed and elevated. Ones seeking a more worldly sort of enjoyment in music, on the other hand, are more likely to find so extended a performance of this material to be as austere and monochromatic as a monk’s habit.