March 17, 2016
(+++) PLAYLISTS, CLASSICAL STYLE
Vivaldi: Concertos for various instruments. Les Violons du Roy conducted by Mathieu Lussier. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Lullabies for Mila. Alessio Bax, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Imago. Moira Lo Bianco, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Dreamtime: Works by Richard Danielpour, Andrew List and John Mackey. Zodiac Trio (Kliment Krylovsky, clarinet; Vanessa Mollard, violin; Riko Higuma, piano); Ariel Barnes, cello. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.
The whole “playlist” concept of creating your own tune sequence is a little odd when applied to classical rather than popular music. A Wagner playlist, for instance, might include just four entries – the operas in the Ring cycle – and last 16 hours. Playlists are made for snippets, or for pop music that lasts only a few minutes per song, not for more-substantial and more-substantive classical works. Nevertheless, occasional classical releases come across as if they are playlists: personal selections of relatively short pieces designed, in totality, to reflect the thinking of a particular performer or group of performers. One clue that a CD is a “playlist” release often comes in the title, which does not focus on the pieces recorded but on a concept of some sort. Or, in the case of the new ATMA Classique release featuring Les Violons du Roy, a composer. The CD is simply called “Vivaldi,” and it is highly unlikely that any listener will pick it up to hear the specific works presented. The reason is that the pieces – seven of them, a modest list by playlist standards, although they do cover 22 tracks – are all over the place, without any particular musical reason to be offered as a group. Clearly they reflect the interests of Mathieu Lussier and the ensemble. With that understood, the CD is exceptionally well played and quite enjoyable to hear – once, anyway. Whether it has staying power is another matter. The attraction here is the marvelous period-instrument playing of Les Violons du Roy, in a variety of instrumental combinations. The disc includes the concertos RV 569 and RV 574 for violin, two oboes, bassoon and two horns; RV 550 and RV 580 for four violins; RV 577 for violin, two flutes à bec, two oboes and bassoon; RV 537 for two trumpets; and the sinfonia from the opera La verità in cimento, RV 739. Testimony (if more testimony were needed) to Vivaldi’s expert writing for all sorts of instrumental combinations, the disc is a showcase for the solo and ensemble players under Lussier: everything and everyone sounds marvelous, playing idiomatically and enthusiastically and making Vivaldi sound both up-to-date and firmly anchored in his own time. It is a pleasure to hear such fine handling of such disparate but compositionally similar works, but the pleasure is a somewhat evanescent one except for listeners who are fans of this group and want to hear it again and again.
The playlist-style title is more explicit on a new Signum Classics release featuring pianist Alessio Bax. In fact, Bax himself rather charmingly describes Lullabies for Mila as “not only a carefully curated playlist of soothing classics to calm a baby and perhaps make him or her fall asleep quicker” but also “a gift from parents to their children, with the hope that they will share music with their loved ones, not just to entertain them but also to enrich their lives.” Bax himself became a father in 2014, and the Mila of the CD’s title is his daughter, with whom he is enraptured with all the ardor of a new parent: the disc, he says, “is a little gift from me to my daughter that I hope will enable me, one day, to say thank you for everything she has done and will continue to do for us and for this world.” The recording is also a family affair: Bax’s wife, pianist Lucille Chung, joins him on certain tracks. But the highly personal nature of the production is its limitation: everything is played very well, and if the intent is to provide relaxation to the point of being soporific, Bax has certainly succeeded. But in a grouping of snippets, with everything taken out of context, the only question for listeners is whether this bit of classical easy listening makes them feel as pleasantly relaxed as Bax and Mila presumably are by the music. The items Bax chooses range in length from 80 seconds to nearly nine minutes – that being the last work on the CD, the Larghetto from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, in which the pianist is joined by the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Simon Over. The sequence of composers is Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Bach x 3, Brahms x 3, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven (the Allegretto from the “Moonlight” sonata, a thoroughly unsurprising choice), Bach, Brahms, Bach x 2, Scriabin (Prelude for the left hand, Op. 9, No. 1), Rachmaninoff, and Mozart. Each individual piece is nicely handled, but the inevitability of some choices (not only the Beethoven but also Sheep May Safely Graze, for example) makes the whole program sound less than original and tends to relegate it to music to be listened to while doing something else. That may be just fine if the “something else” involves putting a young child to sleep or simply taking some relaxing pre-sleep time for one’s own purposes. Otherwise – well, Lullabies for Mina is definitely a matter of individual taste.
The playlist that is Moira Lo Bianco’s Steinway & Sons CD called Imago seems designed entirely for the individual taste of the pianist herself. Lo Bianco, herself a composer, seems to turn to classical works for inspiration alongside what she picks up from other musical forms – a fairly typical profile for a contemporary composer and/or performer. A five-minute Couperin Prelude in D and Satie’s Véritables preludes flasques (pour un chien) – three miniatures in less than three minutes – open the disc, and Arvo Pärt’s rather well-known Für Alina, with its mixture of tranquil and disturbing elements, closes it. But the recording’s primary focus is the rather self-indulgent Lo Bianco herself: her playlist plays her own works. Knowing pop music is necessary to get those works’ effects: Toxic/Come as You Are mixes material from Britney Spears and Nirvana, while Lady Gaga Dada is based on the song Bad Romance. Listeners who find the underlying music inconsequential or simply uninteresting may admire Lo Bianco’s handling of the material without necessarily getting more than a soupçon of intellectual enjoyment from her creations. And there are six other Lo Bianco pieces here, ones that are entirely hers rather than interpretations or reinterpretations of pop tunes and the personalities behind them. Two of the six are based on Satie’s music, and one of those two is a set of improvisations on the Satie preludes heard earlier on the disc – whose quiet irony and modest nose-thumbing at the musical establishment sound all the more effective after hearing Lo Bianco’s rather overdone expansion of the material. Actually, Lo Bianco herself has some talent as a miniaturist, shown here primarily in a work called Sketchbook that is a set of six very short etudes in six-and-a-half minutes. She is also a fine pianist and a forthright advocate of her own music – all well and good if a listener’s playlist mirrors hers. If not, it is possible to admire Lo Bianco's technical skill without getting much in the way of emotional impact from the skillfully presented material.
The considerable skill of the Zodiac Trio is lavished on five 21st-century works, four of them world premières, on a new Blue Griffin Recordings CD. A five-item playlist sounds rather skimpy, but in fact there are 19 tracks here, so the presentation of mostly short items fits the concept well. In fact, the most interesting work on the CD, Zodiac: Across the Universe (2013), is a playlist of its own: it includes 12 pieces of just about a minute each that are intended collectively to represent the signs of the zodiac. It is a true playlist in the sense that each of the 12 is by a different composer, so there really is a mixture here, and it is quite a pleasant one, even if most of the compositional styles are not particularly distinctive. And like the three other world premières, this piece was composed for the Zodiac Trio – so, not surprisingly at all, it is played with understanding, sensitivity and more than a little flair. The biggest and most-serious work on the CD is a bit of a disappointment: Richard Danielpour’s Lamentations (2013) is intended as a tribute to the Iranian people and, in particular, to Iranian women, whose role in the conservative theocracy is severely straitened. The work is nicely made and suitably intense, but at 11 minutes, it outlasts its welcome and simply seems to dwell too much on its subject matter – not because a once-over-lightly is called for, but because there is a difference between a tribute and a tendency to wallow and to belabor a point. An interesting contrast is John Mackey’s Breakdown Tango (2000), the only work here not written for these performers and the only one that has been recorded before. Lasting nine minutes, it approaches the Danielpour work in length, but listeners may well wish Mackey’s piece went on longer: it is fascinating to hear and sounds as if it must be highly intriguing, if difficult, to perform. The Zodiac Trio gives it a rendition that deserves to be called rousing. The remaining two works here are by Andrew List. They are Klezmer Fantazye (2014), in which the clarinet features prominently in an old Jewish musical style that influenced composers as different as Mahler and Weill; and Visions from the Aboriginal Dreamtime (2011), whose four movements are intended to evoke Australian aboriginal creation myths. The movements are not especially evocative of those particular tales, but they have a certain spiritual quality about them that, if ill-defined, does makes them seem effective echoes of a dim past. Kliment Krylovsky, Vanessa Mollard, and Riko Higuma, joined by cellist Ariel Barnes in Danielpour’s piece, play very well both separately and together, and the works here are appealing additions to the 21st-century repertoire for clarinet, violin and piano – of interest primarily to listeners with a strong attraction to playlists from that particular niche.