August 27, 2015
(++++) BEYOND FLASHINESS
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll; Liszt: Funérailles; Nuages Gris; Am Grabe Richard Wagners; Brahms: Capriccios in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2, and C-sharp minor, Op. 76, No. 5; Intermezzos in E-flat, Op. 117, No. 1; A minor, Op. 118, No. 1; A, Op. 118, No. 2; E-flat minor, Op. 118, No. 6; and C, Op. 119, No. 3. David Deveau, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Aires Indios: Piano Music of Bolivia. Walter Aparicio, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Origins: Music of Kevin Volans, Hajime Koumatsu, Igor Stravinsky, and Dan Visconti. Kontras Quartet (Dmitri Pogorelov and François Henkins, violins; Ai Ishida, viola; Jean Hatmaker, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Pilgrimage: New Music for Guitar and Double Bass. Dez Cordas (Craig Butterfield, double bass; Matthew Slotkin, guitar). Summit Records. $12.99.
It often seems that all virtuosos have to offer is flash, with pianists in particular competing among themselves to see who can produce the most grandiose version of one spectacularly difficult work or another. Figuring out the staying power of a first-class virtuoso therefore tends to depend on seeing which hyper-difficult piece he or she chooses to represent himself or herself in early performances or recordings. Will it be, say, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Ravel’s Scarbo, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, or perhaps something by Alkan, and what will the choice say about the pianist’s training, interests and likely future? What tends to get lost in all this is pianism of sensitivity and genuine emotional understanding: the fireworks may overawe, but they do not connect at a deeper level. This makes the debut recording by David Deveau all the more treasurable, for this is not a performance that seeks to pound music or listeners into submission, but one that is genuinely thoughtful and looking for emotive and connective elements of works that would not be many pianists’ choices for first recordings. Foremost among those is the Josef Rubinstein arrangement for solo piano of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a version of this work (which was originally written for 13 instruments) that is very rarely heard. Deveau gives it an involving, poetic performance that gives this very personal music – written by Wagner to celebrate his son’s birth – a sense of reaching out beyond its original occasion to connect warmly with listeners today. There is connection of a different sort in Liszt’s Funérailles, a kind of musical monument to the dead of the 1848 European revolutions – and a piece in which Liszt’s own prodigious pianism was put squarely in the service of political statement. The power of this piece, and its essential underlying sense of mourning those who died fighting for what might have been, comes through with clarity in Deveau’s impressive reading. The rest of this Steinway & Sons CD is not quite as successful, reaching a bit too far for connections that may be apparent to the pianist but will be less so to listeners. The seven late Brahms works are individually and collectively expressive, and Deveau plays them with skill and understanding, but they do not fit particularly well together (they are taken from four different sets of piano pieces) and do not seem to comment upon or enlarge the world of Siegfried Idyll and Funérailles. Nevertheless, they are fascinating in themselves, as all Brahms’ late music is, and Deveau performs them with a lyrical touch and considerable sensitivity – making them almost into anti-display pieces, ones that delve into thought and emotion. Two short, late Liszt works, Nuages Gris and Am Grabe Richard Wagners, date to roughly the same time as the Brahms pieces but reach beyond them harmonically. They make a somewhat curious capstone for the CD, obviously tying into Siegfried Idyll and the Wagner-Liszt relationship but not connecting in any particular thematic or musical way with the Brahms works. Simply heard as encores, though, they are effective and unusual choices. Indeed, the whole CD is something beyond the usual for a pianist’s debut recording, and as a result, it stands out in ways that yet another over-the-top virtuoso recital would not.
Walter Aparicio’s new MSR Classics disc stands out in a different way. Aparicio here tries to encapsulate the spirit of his native country, Bolivia, through performances of works by three of that nation’s composers. From Eduardo Caba (1890-1953) comes Aires Indios de Bolivia; from Simeón Roncal (1870-1953) there are selections from 20 Cuecas para Piano; and from Marvin Sandi (1938-1968) Aparicio offers Siciliana, Ritmos Panteisticos and In Memoriam—Homenaje a Caba, the last of which connects two composers in much the same way as Liszt’s Am Grabe Richard Wagners. In addition, Aparicio emphasizes his own interest in his native land’s folkways by playing Ocho Motivos Folkloricos de los Valles de Bolivia, and this in turn highlights the use of folk and folklike elements within the works by Caba, Roncal and Sandi. These composers are scarcely household names outside Bolivia, but this disc shows all of them to be adept at piano writing and skilled at incorporating the sounds and rhythms of their country’s indigenous people into organized forms that blur the boundaries between classical and folk music and partake of some of the strengths and interest level of both. None of the pieces here especially stands out on its own – there is no grand discovery of a heretofore unacknowledged musical genius – but all the works show fine craftsmanship and genuine sensitivity to the folk traditions on which most of them draw. Aparicio is a strong advocate for this music, playing it with warmth, involvement and conviction, never trying to give it profundity that it does not possess but never trivializing it either. This disc serves well as both an introduction to Bolivian music and a tribute to it.
Another MSR Classics release with a similar “return to one’s roots” theme includes pieces that strive for greater meaning, but the CD itself does not hang together as well thematically and therefore gets a (+++) rating in spite of some very fine playing. This disc features the Kontras Quartet, whose name means “contrasts” in Afrikaans, playing four works that the group’s members consider reflective of their different personal and musical backgrounds. This is a pleasant enough intellectual notion, but it leads to the juxtaposition of works that do not go particularly well together and do not, good intentions aside, really illuminate each other (or the performers) in any meaningful way. The world première recording of String Quartet No. 2, “Hunting: Gathering” by Kevin Volans (born 1949) is very well played, as indeed are all the pieces here, but the music itself is less than gripping, the three movements seeming more to meander than to hunt or gather in any meaningful way. The quartet arrangement of Japanese Folk Song Suite No. 2 by Hajime Koumatsu (born 1938) is of somewhat greater interest because of its rhythms and harmonies, many of which are unfamiliar to Western ears; and the music itself has an appealing straightforwardness. Three Pieces for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky (1883-1971) are familiar, piquant, stylistically quite recognizable as coming from their composer, and (in the context of this recording) far too short (six-and-a-half minutes, half the length of Koumatsu’s work). Ramshackle Songs for String Quartet by Dan Visconti (born 1982) matches Volans’ quartet in length (24 minutes) and, like it, has less to say than its duration would imply. Visconti’s piece is actually 11 short works, their harmonic language up-to-date if scarcely exceptional, their rhythms and technical requirements varied, and their overall impression episodic – a kind of dance suite of modern miniatures for string quartet, most of them zipping by before a listener has quite enough time to grasp them. The work as a whole, and indeed the disc as a whole, comes across as more interesting than compelling.
The same may be said of a new Summit Records CD featuring contemporary music for double bass and guitar. Indeed, two of the seven works here are in the same “suite” form as Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs, although the effects of Annette Kruisbrink’s Five Dances and Alec Wilder’s Suite for String Bass and Guitar are quite different because of the very different strings used and the different ways the composers employ them. Like the other composers here, Kruisbrink and Wilder refuse to allow one instrument or the other to take the lead role all the time, preferring to bring one to the fore at certain times and the other to the front elsewhere. Given the sonic disparity between double bass and guitar, this is a wise approach, and it has the added advantage of keeping the listener involved and, to some extent, guessing what is coming next. The Kruisbrink and Wilder pieces are effectively primarily because they do not try to be more than collections of short works, ones in which the two instruments are allowed to meld (to the extent possible) and contrast (to a greater extent) in a variety of guises. Waxwing by John Orfe, a piece whose two movements are also short and highly contrasted, works well in much the same way. The remaining four offerings here come across rather less well, in large part because of their lengths and the demands that those durations put on listeners (not necessarily the performers). Dick Goodwin’s Song and Dance Man, Andrews Walters’ Of Gossamer Webs, and Greg Caffrey’s La Belle et la Bête are all in the six-minute range, and all come close to wearing out their welcome before they conclude. The tone painting by Walters and storytelling by Caffrey give the audience a bit more to hang onto (aurally speaking) than the more-generic material by Goodwin. Unfortunately, the work that gives this (+++) CD its title, Pilgrimage by James Crowley, is the longest on the disc, and it simply does not hold listeners’ attention for its 13-and-a-half-minute duration. Craig Butterfield plays with great skill and excellent tone in this piece and on the disc as a whole, and Matthew Slotkin holds his own throughout – even though the guitar’s inherently lighter sound frequently relegates him to a somewhat secondary role. But the performers often seem to be trying to overcome the built-in awkwardness of their combined instruments. True, they do so with considerable success much of the time, but it is hard, especially in listening to Crowley’s work, to escape the notion that some of this music is well-played despite the inherent limitations of this instrumental combination. That is, instead of taking full advantage of what the double bass and guitar can do individually, several of the pieces sound as if they are trying to capture listeners despite the foundational improbability of doing so with this particular joining of instruments.