December 24, 2015
(+++) SOUNDS OF THE UNEXPECTED
Leo Brouwer: Music for Bandurria and Guitar. Pedro Chamorro, bandurria; Pedro Mateo González, guitar. Naxos. $12.99.
Michael Eckert: Brazilian Dreams—Chamber Music for Piano and for Clarinet and Piano. Unison Piano Duo (Du Huang and Xiao Hu); Amanda McCandless, clarinet, with Polina Khatsko, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Shades of Sound: Chamber Music for Flute and Piano. Lisa Garner Santa, flute; Nataliya Sukhina, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The lute-like bandurria is an instrument little known in North America but quite popular farther south, where it has been in use, in various forms, since the 16th century. Leo Brouwer (born 1939) blends the bandurria with its cousin, the guitar, in some intriguing ways on a new Naxos CD that also shows Brouwer’s ability to write solo works for each of the instruments. The most intriguing pieces here are the two for bandurria and guitar together: Música Incidental Campesina (Music of the Countryside) and Micropiezas (Micropieces) para Bandurria y Guitarra. The first of these dates to 1978 and celebrates the style of folk music popular in Brouwer’s native Cuba, the four short movements (only about a minute each) combining into an attractive mini-suite. The second of the combination works, written in 1957, is rhythmically more varied and slightly more extended, its five movements lasting nine minutes and being less rustic and more classically balanced – the concluding Andante tranquillo is especially engaging. Also here is Sonata para Bandurria (2011), written for Pedro Chamorro, who handles this extended three-movement work with considerable rhythmic attentiveness and impressive virtuosity, especially in the toccata that concludes the final movement. The two guitar-only pieces, which both date to 2007, are Variaciones sobre un tema de Víctor Jara and Sonata del Caminante (The Wanderer’s Sonata). Pedro Mateo González plays both with fine tone and admirable technique. The CD as a whole, though, is a trifle on the pale side: the tones of bandurria and guitar, although different, are not distinct enough to provide major aural variety when the instruments play together for an extended period; and although Brouwer writes well for both instruments, the solo sonatas come across as somewhat monochromatic except in sections where their rhythmic vitality shines forth. Listeners interested in the bandurria will find this CD involving, but others may find an hour of Brouwer’s music for these instruments, whether separate or together, a bit much. In fact, the music gains when pieces are heard individually, coming across to better effect than when the recording is played straight through.
Farther south than Brouwer’s Cuba lies Brazil, whose music has proved intriguing to numerous composers – including some, such as Michael Eckert (born 1950), who have never been there. Brazilian music is well-known for its bossa nova rhythms but much less so for the type of material that interests Eckert: the chôro, a late-19th-century form that meshes elements of formal European dances with Afro-Brazilian rhythms. It sounds something like a combination of early jazz and ragtime – and was largely supplanted by bossa nova when that form became popular in the mid-20th-century, although chôro later regained some popularity. Eckert uses chôro as a jumping-off point, much as Heitor Villa-Lobos did in some of his music, and much as Astor Piazzolla used Argentine tango as the basis of concert works that went well beyond that form’s dance-hall origins. Actually, Eckert works in tango form, too: Three Tangos for Piano Four Hands (2002-06) opens a new MSR Classics CD stylishly, while Three Pieces for Two Pianos (2011-12) concludes the recording in more-expansive vein, with works that draw to a greater extent on European models. Eckert thinks in threes: all six works on this disc are triples. Sandwiched between the piano pieces are four compositions for clarinet and piano that show their Brazilian connections quite clearly. They are Three Chôros (2006-07), Three Pieces in Brazilian Style (2007), Three for the Road (2008), and Three Scenes (2010). Eckert’s writing for the clarinet is assured and idiomatic, tending to sit mostly in a comfortable span within the instrument’s middle range. Virtuosity takes a back seat here to lyricism and rhythmic acuity, and most of the 12 pieces in the four clarinet-and-piano works run about the same amount of time: three minutes or so. One result of this is that Eckert’s style becomes readily apparent from these recordings, all of which are world premières. Another, less fortunate result is that there is a certain sameness to the music, which nicely adopts or adapts its dance models but tends to treat the chôro and other dances in pretty much the same way time after time. Like the Brouwer CD, this one of Eckert’s music comes across better when heard in several sessions rather than straight through – played from start to finish, it has a tendency to blend a bit into the background. However, it is worth mentioning that all the performers clearly find the music involving, and all handle it with the requisite skill and a strong level of commitment.
What sounds unexpected in a new MSR Classics CD featuring flautist Lisa Garner Santa is not the featured instrument (as on the Brouwer disc) and not any particular musical form underlying the works (as on the Eckert CD). Rather, it is the juxtaposition of the particular pieces that Santa and pianist Nataliya Sukhina perform that results in a disc whose overall sound is beyond the usual. This is by design: Santa says the recording is intended to inquire, musically, into elements of shade and light. “Do we require shadow in order to grow into the radiance of our full expression of self?” she asks. A philosophical query, to be sure, but the musical question is whether the works here shine light on what Santa is seeking to explore. The honest answer is that, while the works are well-played and evoke varying emotions within themselves individually and among themselves as a total recital, they are not especially evocative of a light/dark duality to any degree greater than that of other pieces that also offer varying musical sounds. Santa chooses six composers here, from various time periods and with quite different styles. The CD opens with Black Anemones (1980) by Joseph Schwantner (born 1943); next are three short, almost Scarlatti-like flute sonatas – Nos. 14, 13, and 16 (in that order) – by Giuseppe Rabboni (1800-1856); then the much broader and more extended flute sonata of 1946 by Edwin York Bowen (1884-1961); First Sonata for Flute and Piano (1945, although the CD gives its date as 1951) by Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959); a 2007 flute sonata by Matthew Santa (born 1970); and, finally, Soliloquy for Flute and Piano (2011) by Jake Heggie (born 1961). It is interesting to hear, among other things, some flute works by the little-known Rabboni and the way in which Martinů repeatedly brings forth and emphasizes the call of the whippoorwill in the finale of his sonata; and Schwantner’s and Heggie’s works, essentially miniatures, are an effective opening and closing for the more-substantial pieces heard between them. But it is a stretch to suggest that the works chosen here are somehow more reflective of darkness and light, of the human condition, or of other extramusical matters than are other pieces for flute and piano (or for other instruments). The philosophical underpinnings of this disc are weak, no matter how well-meaning; the performances, however, are strong, and listeners interested in these particular pieces – shorn of any unnecessary metaphysical gloss – will find Santa and Sukhina effective advocates for the music as music.