October 29, 2015
(+++) THE OLD AND THE NEW
Hindemith: Sonatas for Viola and Piano. Geraldine Walther, viola; David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Arnold Cooke, Boaz Avni, Verne Reynolds, Edouard Flament, Richard Cioffari, John Boda and Halsey Stevens: Works for Bassoon and Piano. Matthew Morris, bassoon; Christopher Fisher and Youmee Kim, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Amaryllis: Music for Recorder and Percussion. Nina Stern, recorder and chalumeau; Glen Velez, frame drums and percussion. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Monteverdi and Bach did it. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did it. Dvořák did it professionally. Yes, they all played the viola – which makes the paucity of solo works for the instrument all the more puzzling. The viola came into its own soloistically only in the 20th century, thanks in large part to violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), in part to the concertos of Walton and Bartók, and in part to the instrument’s frequent promotion by Hindemith – who, among other things, gave the first performance of the Walton concerto that had been written for Tertis. Hindemith’s music can be on the prickly and somewhat academic side, without easy access for either performers or listeners, but there is no question that his sonatas for viola and piano (and those for solo viola) are foundational for contemporary violists and highly significant for the history of the instrument. Geraldine Walther and David Korevaar give fine accounts of three of the viola-and-piano sonatas on a new MSR Classics CD that will do nothing to dispel the notion of Hindemith as a difficult-to-listen-to composer but that nevertheless presents an excellent opportunity to hear just how skillfully he found ways to make the viola into an important instrument for chamber music. The three sonatas heard here include Hindemith’s first and last for these instruments. Op. 11, No. 4, from 1919, essentially indicates Hindemith’s decision to make the viola his favored performance instrument instead of the violin, which he also played well. The sonata has an odd three-movement structure, with a short opening Fantasie succeeded by two longer theme-and-variation movements that both ring changes on the same theme. Tonality is stretched to and past its limits here, and expressiveness can be on the strange side, as in an outré fugal variation that Hindemith said should sound “bizarre and clumsy.” There is little charm to this sonata, but much of intellectual interest. Op. 25, No. 4, from 1922, is more conventional in some ways, but not in others: the piano rather than viola takes center stage at many points, and the finale’s insistent rhythms sound as if they had been penned by Bartók. The last Hindemith viola-and-piano sonata, which bears no opus number, dates to 1939 and actually shows a somewhat softer side of the composer, to the extent that he has one. This is a four-movement work whose second movement has a fresher, more open sound than is usual for Hindemith and whose third, marked Phantasie, is written in a more-melodic style than would be expected after hearing the other viola-and-piano sonatas on this disc. It is unlikely that Hindemith’s music will become as appealing to mainstream listeners as it is to professional musicians – like Reger, Hindemith had vast knowledge but great reluctance to share any personal emotions or feelings with audiences, with the result that his music, again like Reger’s, tends to come across as distant and cold. But this is a very fine disc for people who do like Hindemith and, in particular, cherish his contribution to the viola literature.
Not that the viola is the only instrument of longstanding use that has had a dearth of solo material. The bassoon long had a similar fate: although Vivaldi wrote more than three dozen concertos for it, and Mozart contributed one, the bassoon was relegated to clown-of-the-orchestra status starting in the early 19th century (despite its lovely presence in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4). Like the viola, the bassoon has flowered as a full-fledged solo instrument in more-recent times, as is evidenced by the seven bassoon-and-piano pieces played by Matthew Morris on a new MSR Classics release. Three of these works – by Arnold Cooke (1906-2005), Boaz Avni (born 1965) and Verne Reynolds (1926-2011) – are full-fledged three-movement sonatas. Two pieces are three-movement sonatinas, one by Richard Cioffari (born 1947) and the other by Halsey Stevens (1908-1989). Edouard Flament (1880-1958) contributes a one-movement Concert Piece, and John Boda (1922-2002) is represented by a two-minute Caprice that would stand as a fine encore were it not placed second-to-last on the disc rather than at the end. Actually, the first and last pieces on the CD, those by Cooke and Stevens, are in many ways the most traditionally constructed and classically balanced, so they make good metaphorical bookends for works that treat the bassoon in some more-contemporary ways, such as Avni’s contrast of a first-movement doloroso with a second-movement festivo and Reynolds’ piece with its “Riffs and Responses” finale. Both pianists give Morris strong support that keeps him front-and-center – Fisher in the works by Cooke, Avni, Cioffari and Stevens, Kim in those by Reynolds, Flament and Boda. None of the works here is really an undiscovered treasure, at least for listeners, although bassoonists unfamiliar with these mostly modern pieces will likely welcome the chance to hear them and perhaps perform at least some of them. The main attraction here is Morris’ playing: he has excellent breath control, a very even sound throughout his instrument’s range, and the ability to make even the often rather squeaky high notes of the bassoon sound as if they are an integral part of its compass rather than an afterthought. There is also some pleasant, old-fashioned fun with the bassoon sound here, in Boda’s work and the fast movements of several others.
Even more old-fashioned than the bassoon is the chalumeau, although both instruments can be traced back to roughly the same time (the four-key bassoon, for which Vivaldi, Bach and Telemann wrote, dates to about 1700, as does the most-advanced chalumeau, before the clarinet began to supplant it). The recorder was also in its heyday – actually toward the end of it – at this time. There has been something of a recorder revival recently, but it takes a musician with the skill and determination of Nina Stern to attempt something similar for the chalumeau. The MSR Classics release called Amaryllis offers a dozen tracks of almost entirely unfamiliar music (although it does conclude with a Telemann Fantasia and, at the very end, Greensleeves) performed by Stern on recorder (actually various recorders) and chalumeau, with percussionist and frame-drum expert Glen Velez providing not so much backup as full partnership. The CD is perhaps too highly personal in its musical selections to reach out to a wide audience – the music is, in truth, all over the place, drawn from various time periods and including both instrumental and originally vocal works, both ones written for the instruments heard here and ones that are transcribed. Certainly Stern’s and Velez’s interests are wide-ranging: they have to be, to offer pieces from 12th-century Armenia as well as Baroque-era Germany. The longest and shortest works here are both by Jacob van Eyck (c. 1590-1657), clearly one of Stern’s favorites: four pieces here are by him. But although individual works here have their own attractions, it is the disc as a whole that is really of aural interest: hearing these woodwind and percussion instruments in these particular combinations in music of such different provenances is, to put it simply, an unusual experience – and a salutary one for ears accustomed to less-varied and more-familiar fare. However, unconventionality does not in and of itself produce staying power: this is not the sort of disc that is likely to bear repeated listenings for most people once its original novelty (which is considerable) wears off. It represents some very personal music-choosing and music-making by both Stern and Velez – a fact that makes it initially attractive but that means it is somewhat too individualized to wear well over time.