March 10, 2016


Poulenc: Sextuor; Martinů: Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments; Janáček: Mládí (Youth); Sándor Veress: Sonatina for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon. Emily Beynon, flute; Lucas Macías Navarro, oboe; Olivier Patey, clarinet; Davide Lattuada, bass clarinet; Gustavo Núñez and Jos de Lange, bassoons; Fons Verspaandonk, horn; Jeroen Bal, piano. RCO Live. $21.99 (SACD).

Leo Brouwer: Music for Two Guitars. Brasil Guitar Duo (João Luiz and Douglas Lora). Naxos. $12.99.

Mohammed Fairouz: No Orpheus; Jeder Mensch; Three Fragments of Ibn Khafajah; Refugee Blues; German Romantic Song; The Stolen Child; After the Revels; We Are Seven; Annabel Lee. Kiera Duffy, soprano; Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano; Christopher Burchett, baritone; David Moody, David Kaplan and Russell Miller, piano; Adrian Daurov and Ashley Bathgate, cello; Margaret Lancaster, flute; Emily Ondracek-Peterson, violin; Rupert Boyd, guitar. Naxos. $12.99.

In Search of Chopin—A Film by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art DVD. $27.99.

     Some of the excellent woodwind players of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra show in a new recording on the orchestra’s own RCO Live label that there are pleasures aplenty in music whose care of construction and effectiveness of musical balance are primary characteristics. There is nothing heaven-storming or highly intense in the 20th-century works heard here, but every one of the four brings forth the winds’ sounds effectively and offers a pleasant, if not especially profound, listening experience. Poulenc’s Sextuor for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano (1931-32; revised 1939) has a somewhat meandering structure that, if it never comes apart, never really coalesces either. Its pleasures are those of the fine writing for all the instruments and the effective contrast of the three movements, including the particular bounciness of the final rondo, marked Prestissimo and certainly a challenge to play – one to which these performers rise with skill. Martinů’s 1929 Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments uses a different instrumental complement, and an unusual one: flute, oboe, clarinet, two bassoons and piano. This is a work heavily influenced by jazz and, because the horn is omitted from the ensemble, a piece whose sound is out of the ordinary. Its structure is, too, with a finale that accelerates again and again until it almost becomes frenetic, and a short moto perpetuo for flute and piano that has encore-like bounce to it. Janáček’s Mládí lacks not a horn but a piano – it was written in 1924 for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and bass clarinet. The four-movement work comes across as something more of a technical exercise than a fully effective communication, but it does contain a number of interesting musical ideas that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performers bring out to good effect. The least-known piece on this SACD is the 1931 Sonatina for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon by Sándor Veress (1907-1992). The shortest work here, this Sonatina sets forth an aura of joyfulness and uses the three instruments in entertaining ways – indeed, at times it sounds as if there are more than three players. This is scarcely a major work, but it is a very pleasant one and a nice discovery to make alongside the other, better-known pieces presented here.

     There is discovery of a different sort on a new Naxos CD of two-guitar music by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer (born 1939). This is a disc of five works whose essentially chronological arrangement is unusually effective, since Brouwer’s music changed rather dramatically over the decades during which these works were composed. Tríptico (1958) is intriguing, intricate and still largely tonal, although atonality emerges from time to time. Brouwer was in a transitional, experimental phase during this period just before Castro’s Revolution, as is shown in the intricate virtuosity required at the end of Tríptico – in contrast to the attention to details of sonority in Micro piezas (Hommage à Darius Milhaud), which dates to 1957. The first part of this work comes right out of Schoenberg, while its conclusion is a set of variations on Frère Jacques that is quite distinctly different from Mahler’s use of the tune in his Symphony No. 1. Skipping the 1960s, the CD next presents the brief Música Incidental Campesina (1978) and more-substantial Per suonare a due (1973), which is entirely atonal, bespeaks a rather studied approach to musical trends (and fads) of its time, and pushes the guitar sound beyond where the instrument really wants to go (much as John Cage, one of Brouwer’s influences, did with the piano). Neither of these 1970s works is especially appealing, and Per suonare a due comes across as one of those pieces intended more to show other composers that one is a club member than to reach out to an audience in any meaningful way. The last piece here, however, is a different matter. Sonata de Los Viajeros is quite recent (2009) but considerably more audience-friendly than Brouwer’s works of 30 years earlier. Its four movements turn listeners into musical travelers, taking them to four parts of the world and landing them at the end in Cuba, whose dance rhythms are here infectiously entertaining. This is not to say that this work represents a retreat from Brouwer’s involvement in dodecaphonic, atonal and aleatoric music – rather, it indicates that he has absorbed elements of those compositional approaches and integrated them effectively into his own style. Certainly not all the music here will be generally appealing to listeners, but those who admire fine guitar playing will definitely be impressed with the way the Brasil Guitar Duo handles this material: João Luiz and Douglas Lora throw themselves into these very different works with enthusiasm throughout, and their high level of skill and fine instrumental interplay are evident in all five of these pieces.

     The subtlety with which Brouwer has learned to integrate the sometimes-strong influences of his past is analogous to that of Mohammed Fairouz (born 1985) in his songs, a number of which are featured on a new Naxos recording. Fairouz here blends an understanding of what is essential in the lieder tradition with some American vocal characteristics and the common contemporary compositional interest in using music to comment on world events. There are three song cycles here and six individual songs – although one of those, Refugee Blues (2011), is longer than two of the multi-song cycles and, unfortunately, distinctly prosaic (despite its use of poetry by Auden) as it bemoans the difficulties of the modern world – while requiring mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey to push her voice rather higher than she seems comfortable doing. On the other hand, another 2011 work here, the three-song Jeder Mensch, on texts by Alma Mahler, is an unusually intriguing use of the song cycle and, despite its music-looking-at-music theme, comes across not as navel gazing but as considering the ways in which music’s significance transcends music itself. Lindsey sounds better here, too. She is also tasked with No Orpheus (2009), a thoughtful and well-made trio of songs in which the cello, rather than the piano, accompanies the voice – an intriguing and effective decision on Fairouz’s part, and one that adds to the subtlety of the messages here. The single German Romantic Song (2014) and three-song Three Fragments of Ibn Khafajah (2010) are given to soprano Kiera Duffy. The former clearly shows Fairouz’s indebtedness to classical-song history, while the latter is an attractive – and, again, subtle – set of three love poems, with accompaniment by flute, violin, cello and guitar. There is a quiet intensity in these songs’ arrangement that is a bit studied but nevertheless moving. The four final songs here use a male voice, that of baritone Christopher Burchett. The Stolen Child dates to 2005, After the Revels and We Are Seven to 2009, and Annabel Lee to 2014. The rather over-familiar Wordsworth text of We Are Seven is interestingly juxtaposed with the mellifluous and decidedly gloomy Edgar Allan Poe poem, Annabel Lee, to end the recording on an inward-focused and unusually thoughtful note.

     The subtle nature of much of Chopin’s music is too well-known to need elaboration, but it certainly gets its share of the focus of Phil Grabsky’s film, In Search of Chopin. Grabsky earlier went “in search of” Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, and this film follows much the same pattern as those: excerpts from performances given around the world by first-class musicians; discussions with musicologists and historians about the composer’s life and importance in musical history; and comments made by the composer himself in his letters. Juliet Stevenson’s narration and David Dawson’s voicing of Chopin’s own words are fine, but as usual in biographical films about important figures in music history, it is the music that matters most – and it never really gets as much front-and-center time as it deserves, even though this Seventh Art DVD runs nearly two hours. Of course, Grabsky’s concern here is making a movie, not recording a concert (or several), and it is therefore his narrative of exploring the world to try to “find” Chopin that drives this release’s structure and pacing. The fact, though, is that the comments and partial performances by everyone from Daniel Barenboim to the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Frans Brüggen are what could really connect modern listeners/viewers with Chopin – but nothing goes on long enough to establish that connection firmly. Unlike the subjects of Grabsky’s earlier searches, Chopin was not devoted to orchestral music: his two concertos are very early works, and he was thoroughly dissatisfied with the extent to which they took him away from the instrument that was subsequently to be his sole focus, the piano. What made Chopin in some ways so introverted, in others so outwardly focused, what made him a champion of music in Polish eyes and a champion of the piano everywhere – these matters, like his relationship with George Sand, appear in In Search of Chopin, but scarcely in any revelatory way or with any but the most basic information. The Chopin/Sand relationship alone has more than enough crisis and controversy for a film (such as 1991’s Impromptu); indeed, the whole of Chopin’s short life was fraught with difficulties and drama aplenty. Grabsky’s film gives only a largely surface-level overview of the composer, his music, the times in which he lived, and the relationships he had with those around him. The subtleties of Chopin’s pianism are present only occasionally. The film makes an attractive introduction to Chopin for those who may know little about him, but it offers almost nothing that will be unknown to listeners/viewers who already have a degree of familiarity with the composer and his music.

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