November 19, 2015
(++++) LARGE-SCALE VARIETY, SMALL-SCALE GROUPS
Bruckner: String Quintet; String Quartet; Intermezzo in D minor. Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Lucy Russell, Jonathan Sparey and Colin Scobie, violins; Alan George, viola; Heather Tuach, cello); James Boyd, viola. Linn Records. $19.99.
Don Gillis: Suites 1-3 for Woodwind Quintet. Madera Wind Quintet (Amy Thiemann, flute; Jason Paschall, oboe; Rachel Yoder, clarinet; Jorge Cruz, Jr., bassoon; Angela Winter, horn). Ravello. $14.99.
Libby Larsen: Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano; Sifting Through the Ruins; Viola Sonata; Up, Where the Air Gets Thin; Four on the Floor. Curtis Macomber, violin; Norman Fischer, cello; Jeanne Kierman Fischer and Craig Rutenberg, piano; Susanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano; James Dunham, viola; Deborah Dunham, bass. Navona. $16.99.
Eleanor Cory: Things Are (2011); String Quartet No. 3 (2009); Epithalamium (1973); Violin Sonata No. 1 (2012); Celebration (2008); Fantasy (1991). Jayn Rosenfeld and Sue Ann Kahn, flute; Stephen Gosling and Blair McMillen, piano; Momenta Quartet (Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler, violins; Stephanie Griffin, viola; Michael Haas, cello); Curtis Macomber, violin; William Anderson, guitar; James Baker, percussion. Naxos. $12.99.
Solitudes: Baltic Reflections. Mr McFall’s Chamber. Delphian. $19.99.
Bruckner’s only mature chamber work, the String Quintet, is a complex piece and a very difficult one to approach as either performer or (to a lesser degree) listener. Written between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, it is a surprisingly sonorous piece, considering its use of only five stringed instruments, and it has remarkable parallels to the symphonies as well as some distinctions wholly its own – including the fact that the first movement is the only opening movement that Bruckner wrote in triple time. An expansive work with some of the Schubertian elements common in the symphonies and some unusual juxtapositions of long-breathed lyricism with earthiness, this is a piece that gains a great deal by being played with close attention to the way it would have been performed in Bruckner’s own time, using gut strings and bowing that was then common but in later years became less so. The Fitzwilliam String Quartet does an extraordinarily fine job with this symphony-length (45-minute) chamber work, with a sensitivity to rhythmic changes and understanding of scale and balance born of 40 years of performances of the piece. The quintet unfolds at a leisurely pace that listeners who know the symphonies will recognize immediately, but it has so many structural and sonic differences from Bruckner’s even more grandly scaled, better-known orchestral music that it takes several hearings to separate the unique elements of the quartet from those carried over from the symphonies – or, in many cases, carried to them from this chamber work. This excellent Linn Records disc is a remarkable showcase for the Fitzwilliam String Quartet’s thoughtfulness and interpretative skill, and the quintet heard here is a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone intrigued by Bruckner as a composer who offered more than symphonies and Masses – but not much more. The quintet is accompanied on the CD by two lesser works. One, an Intermezzo, was written by Bruckner as an alternative scherzo for the quintet after violinist Joseph Hellmesberger, who had commissioned the quintet, expressed reservations about the difficulty of the scherzo; but Bruckner ended up keeping the original movement, leaving this longer and somewhat cozier piece as a standalone work. The other piece here is Bruckner’s String Quartet, a student work whose strongly contrasted moods – now dramatic, now lyrical, now passionate – are more striking than its themes and structure, which are redolent of models including Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and Haydn. It is quite a well-made quartet but is clearly, with hindsight, a piece of juvenilia – worth occasional revivals but not approaching the stature, intensity or seriousness of the five-year-later quintet.
Chamber music need not, of course, be wholly serious to be successful. The three woodwind-quintet suites by Don Gillis (1912-1978) are bright, light and amusing cases in point. They all date from the late 1930s – the first from 1938 and the others from 1939 – and are all cast as three-movement tonal works whose titles, for each entire piece and for each work’s individual movements, are intended to guide listeners to what is being expressed. Thanks to Gillis’ fine sense of woodwind blending and the first-rate playing by the Madera Wind Quintet on a new Ravello CD, this first-ever recording of these three pieces is a delight from start to finish. The first suite, “The Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare,” recounts the famous “slow and steady wins the race” story with a first movement called “They’re Off,” a second in which the over-confident rabbit sleeps and dreams, and a finale in which the lumbering-but-untiring tortoise is heard quite clearly throughout, passing the sleeping rabbit and triumphantly crossing the finish line. The second suite, “Three Sketches,” offers more-personal music with a focus on the letter S, not only in its overall title but also in each individual movement: “Self Portrait,” “Sermonette (Southern Style),” and “Shadows.” Here the music moves from geniality to mild intensity with perhaps a hint of parody, and eventually to a quiet, attractive and somewhat mysterious conclusion. The third suite, “Gone with the Woodwinds,” draws most directly and heavily on jazz, although all three quartets incorporate it in significant ways. All three movements here – the first designated a combo, the second as a blues number, and the third a “frolic” – have a jazz-band and improvisational feel about them, with the individual players given plenty of chances to put their performance abilities on display front-and-center. None of this music is great or profound, and it could certainly be argued that it is backward-looking for its time; furthermore, the entire CD runs just 43 minutes, making it a rather niggardly offering. But the whole recording is so good-humored, the playing so well-balanced and so filled with verve, that the disc is simply a joy to hear and an example of 20th-century compositions that are, yes, in the popular vein, but that are as well-constructed as more-somber works – and all the more enjoyable because the recording does not demand that listeners approach it with deep understanding or intense focus.
The focuses of Libby Larsen’s works on a new Navona CD are more varied and altogether more serious. Larsen (born 1950) is very prolific, with more than 500 works to her credit, and any selection of her pieces is bound to reveal only a small amount of her intent and expressiveness. That is certainly the case in this recording, whose elements have little in common beyond their origination within the same composer’s mind. Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano takes some of the same jazz influences that Gillis uses and incorporates them into a more-traditional piece whose movement titles quite clearly express the work’s moods: “Sultry,” “Still” and “Bursts.” Sifting Through the Ruins is one of many composers’ works written in response to the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001. Words and music are more straightforward than in some comparable memorial works; the emotional content is carried more by mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer’s singing than by the music itself. The Viola Sonata is a rather restrained, or constrained, work, focusing more on the instrument’s tonal qualities (as complemented by and contrasted with those of the piano) than on a wide range of expressiveness. Up, Where the Air Gets Thin is a bit of a sonic experiment for cello and bass, requiring the instruments to play high in their ranges and produce a series of sounds quite different from their usual deep, warm ones – a kind of against-the-grain auditory experience that wears thin rather quickly. Four on the Floor, a strongly contrasting work, adds violin and piano to the two lower strings and has dynamism, rhythmic flair and bounce to spare – a very attractive conclusion to a CD that, as a whole, gets a (+++) rating.
A Naxos disc of world première recordings of music by Eleanor Cory (born 1943) is also a (+++) release. Cory’s music mixes many of the same elements that other contemporary composers’ works contain: jazz, tonal and atonal portions, and tributary material – Things Are, for example, is a flute-and-piano tribute to Milton Babbitt. Cory’s String Quartet No. 3 veers from almost-lyrical melancholy to playfulness, often highlighting instruments in pairs as well as in a foursome. Epithalamium for solo flute takes the instrument through its paces well enough but not in any especially surprising way, while Violin Sonata No. 1 – for the traditional violin-and-piano combination – adds modal elements to its mixture of tonality, atonality and jazz influences, emerging as a well-crafted but emotionally rather vapid work. Celebration, basically a four-movement, 12-minute piano sonata, explores the range and emotional extent of the piano much as Epithalamium does that of the flute, but Celebration comes across somewhat more effectively in its contrasting tempos, dynamics and rhythms. The final work here, and one of the most pleasant, is Fantasy, written for the unusual combination of flute, guitar and percussion. The unconventional instrumentation seems to have inspired Cory to produce a work that, although light in mood, hints at some depth of communication in the interplay of the instruments – and has an attractively open, airy sound throughout, with Cory showing particular skill in percussion writing that complements the comparatively light sound of flute and guitar without covering up or overwhelming the instruments.
The determination to be unconventional pervades a new Delphian CD called Solitudes: Baltic Reflections, featuring the chamber group known as Mr McFall’s Chamber – which includes Robert McFall on violin, Brian Schiele on viola, Su-a Lee on cello, Rick Standley on double bass, and various other instrumentalists who join the core group of four on an as-needed basis. The 11 works here are an odd but often intriguing mixture: Olli Mustonen’s Toccata, Zita Bruźaité’s Bangos for solo piano, Aulis Sallinen’s Introduction and Tango Overture, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication for cello and piano, Kalevi Aho’s Lamento for two violas, Pēteris Vasks’ Little Summer Music for violin and piano, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina for solo piano, Toivo Kärki’s Täysikuu, Unto Mononen’s Satumaa, and two short pieces by Sibelius: Einsames Lied (Solitude, from “Belshazzar’s Feast”) and Finlandia Hymn. That last work, which concludes the disc, features Lee on musical saw, plus piano quintet – a fair representation of the way this disc is intended to mix the familiar and unfamiliar, the comfortable and outré. Sibelius, Mustonen, Sallinen, Pärt and Vasks may be known to many listeners, albeit to different degrees, but the other composers likely will not be. Certainly this disc offers some wonderful contrasts – having Pärt’s bleak work immediately followed by Kärki’s, for instance, pulls listeners from desolation to somewhat ambiguous relief (Kärki’s piece is a minor-key tango). The six brief movements of Vasks’ work stand at the center of the CD structurally and emotionally, communicating summer sunshine, yes, but only in veiled fashion. All these pieces offer something of interest: Aho’s is scored for two violas, Sallinen’s uses tango rhythm unusually imaginatively, Mustonen’s includes such neat effects as a pizzicato double bass, and so on. McFall is responsible for many of the arrangements here; they range from intriguing to in-your-face unconventional, to greater or lesser effect. It is hard to tell whether McFall is being capricious or wants to be taken seriously – or is seeking to indicate that the two elements can coexist peacefully. Most of the works here are quite short, and the CD comes across as a showpiece for McFall and the other performers rather than any sort of clear musical statement: much here is fun, much is serious, much seems to be both at once, but the overarching message of the CD – if it is supposed to have one – is somewhat muddled. It is a (+++) recording containing some excellent playing and a highly individualistic choice of material, all of it performed very well; but its overall purpose is less then crystal-clear.