August 20, 2015
(+++) IT’S INSTRUMENTAL
Bach: Goldberg Variations. Lars Vogt, piano. Ondine. $16.99.
American Intersections—Music by Samuel Barber, William Bolcom, Aaron Copland, Frederic Rzewski, and John Adams. Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães, pianos. Two Pianists Records. $16.99.
Orbit: Music for Solo Cello, 1945-2014. Matt Haimovitz, cello. PentaTone. $39.99 (3 SACDs).
Andrew Staniland: Talking Down the Tiger (2010); Dreaded Sea Voyage (2013); Flute vs Tape (2012); Still Turning (2011); True North (2007). Andrew Staniland, electronics. Naxos. $12.99.
What is wonderful about Bach’s Goldberg Variations of 1741 is the way the composer uses a strict, rigid framework as the foundation of some gorgeous and emotionally trenchant musical material. The rigidity of the underlying structure should not be under-emphasized: there are 32 movements, each variation is made up of 32 bars, each is derived from the same bass line, and every third movement is a canon. This seems like a recipe for dullness, and a wag might comment that of course this is why the music was so successful in its intent: Bach wrote it for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who often played music for Count Kaiserling, the Russian ambassador to the Saxony court, as a cure for the count’s insomnia. Waggish or not, though, this statement entirely misses the point of the Goldberg Variations, whose extraordinary beauty starts with the aria from which the whole work is derived and comes to the fore with special grace and tenderness in variations 14 and 19 – and approaches haunting despair in variation 25, whose harmonic writing is downright strange and whose expressive intensity looks many years, if not centuries, into the future. The awe-inspiring power of the Goldberg Variations is intimately bound up with the harpsichord, for which the work was written, and brings us to the usual debate about what happens to Bach’s keyboard music when it is played on a modern piano. The answer, in the case of Lars Vogt’s new recording on Ondine, is that a very fine performance with considerable emotional punch in the inward-looking variations is considerably less effective in the more-straightforward variations that depend on clarity of line and contrapuntal effects. Vogt is certainly aware of the fact that he is performing this lengthy work on something other than the intended instrument, and he does not really go overboard in using the piano’s essentially harmonic and chordal (rather than contrapuntal) nature to pull out the variations’ emotional core. On the other hand, Bach knew quite well how to turn an hour and a quarter of harpsichord music into a highly varied and very insightful emotional experience, and his methods of doing so do not lie particularly well on the piano, whose emotive strengths are quite different from those of the harpsichord. Listeners who believe the piano’s strengths are superior will find a great deal to like in Vogt’s well-paced, sensitive performance. Those who prefer to hear the music in the way Bach intended will inevitably find something lacking in piano versions, including Vogt’s.
The two-piano versions of 20th-century American music played by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães on the Two Pianists label are mostly arrangements, too, but they are more effective and interesting in two-piano form than Bach’s harpsichord works tend to be when heard on modern pianos. The works here have varying provenance. Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, Op. 28 was arranged by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale from the original version for piano four hands – a change that may seem to have more meaning to pianists than to listeners, although it actually alters the work’s sound in some significant ways, with Schumann and Magalhães taking full advantage of the combinatorial possibilities inherent in using two separate instruments. William Bolcom wrote Recuerdos (“Reminiscences”) for two pianos in the first place, and the three pieces in the suite – “Three Traditional Latin-American Dances,” as Bolcom put it – actually are a melding of multiple styles. The first, Chôro, mixes Latin American rhythms with ragtime and was written in homage to Brazilian composer and pianist Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), from whose tangos’ spirit the music emerges. The second piece, Paseo, again includes Latin rhythms but this time combines them in the style of Louis-Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), to whose memory this dance is dedicated. The third piece drifts furthest from its roots. Valse Venezolano is said to be in memory of Venezuelan composer Pedro Palacios (1739-1799), but the harmony is definitely not of the 18th century and the brilliant pianism is very much in 20th-century style. Schumann and Magalhães take particularly well to this work, embracing its contradictions as well as the ways in which Bolcom’s style creates overall unity. The three other pieces on the CD are all equally well-played, but not quite as interesting. Aaron Copland’s El Salón Mexico, arranged by Leonard Bernstein, comes across more or less as modern salon music. Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, one of Rzewski’s most frequently played works, sounds good in this arrangement by the composer, but it is less compelling than in its very difficult solo-piano incarnation. And John Adams’ extended Hallelujah Junction, originally composed for two pianos, seems to go on longer than the material really justifies: this is a work whose main rhythms are based on the pronunciation of the word “hallelujah” but whose approach focuses on the pianos echoing each other, and while this is effective enough for a while, it wears thin as the piece continues. The performances here are fine throughout, with the CD likely to appeal primarily to fans of duo-piano performance in general, to Schumann and Magalhães in particular, and to those already familiar with the 20th-century American works heard here.
Complete familiarity with the music played by cellist Matt Haimovitz on a new and very lengthy three-CD set from PentaTone is less than likely. There is an extraordinary amount of cello material here, all of it dating (as the set’s title indicates) from the years 1945 to 2014. Most of these tracks have been released before, on five releases on the Oxingale label that appeared from 2003 to 2011. But there are two new recordings here, of Philip Glass’ Orbit and an arrangement of the Beatles’ (Lennon-McCartney) Helter Skelter by Luna Pearl Woolf – who is Haimovitz’ partner and is also represented here by a work of her own. Also here are some major figures in contemporary music: Berio, Ligeti, Carter, Rorem. Haimovitz himself contributes a Jimi Hendrix arrangement. There is a lot of music here, three hours and 45 minutes of it, and there are a lot of different approaches, from the ultra-modern to the tonal (or nearly tonal), from classical in orientation to the pop/rock world. There is really nothing connecting all this material except the playing of Haimovitz, which is quite good on every track. But not even the six Bach cello suites take as long to perform as the material here – Haimovitz has recorded them, too, in a highly nontraditional and not particularly successful way. Haimovitz actually seems far more at home with contemporary music than with Bach, and certainly he moves with ease from works by today’s classical composers to ones from the fields of pop and rock. Indeed, he seems to relish both the similarities and the differences that these distinct types of music produce, and the very different performance techniques they require. So this recording – which, despite being essentially one of re-releases, is being offered at full price, which seems high – is basically for aficionados of Haimovitz rather than for listeners particularly interested in any specific one or two of these 20-plus pieces. There is fine cello playing to be heard here in a program whose musical material is extremely uneven (apparently by design). It is the instrument that is the focus, and the person performing on it, more than the works performed, that will be most likely to be found attractive.
It is less the traditional instruments than the electronics with which they are combined that will draw people to a new Naxos CD of music by Andrew Staniland (born 1977). The Canadian composer lies firmly in the now-established tradition of electronic composition, which often seems hopelessly outdated, as do so many once-trendy approaches to music. Staniland has something of a new wrinkle in the field, though: his focus is the way in which electronics interact with traditional instruments, with each of the five works on this disc using a different combination. Electronic sounds are, after all, electronic, which means they tend to pale after a while; therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, the most-effective work on this disc full of world premières is the shortest, Flute vs Tape. It is helped by the fact that it does not seem to take itself as seriously as the other pieces on the disc or to be as self-important: Camille Watts plays it with a sense of fun and enjoyment, and the whole work seems light enough to capture an audience that may be suspicious of electronic music or to have overdosed on it. True North, with Wallace Halladay on soprano saxophone, is also an interesting piece, taking the saxophone through its entire range (from the deep to the screechy) while contrasting and blending it with the electronics. And there are some moments of enjoyment in Talking Down the Tiger, too: this work features percussion (Ryan Scott), which goes rather well with electronics even though the piece wears out its welcome quite some time before it is over. The other works here are of less interest. Dreaded Sea Voyage features guitar (Rob MacDonald), an instrument not very well-suited to extended dialogue and/or competition with electronics. And Still Turning, the longest piece here, mixes electronics with cello (Frances Marie Utti), an even more unfortunate combination: the richness of the cello’s sound, when allowed to emerge, simply shows how comparatively uninteresting the electronics are, while the straining at times to pull from the cello a series of sounds beyond those it normally produces simply makes the instrument sound, well, strained. Each piece here has at least a few elements that make it interesting, but none of them, except Flute vs Tape, really justifies listener involvement from start to finish, and none of them shows convincingly that electronics are more than a byway within music, to the extent that they can be described as music at all.