April 21, 2016
(+++) CELLO MOODS AND MORE
Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata; Falla: Siete Canciones Populares Españolas; David Leisner: Twilight Streams; Gluck: Dance of the Blessed Spirits; Saint-Saëns: The Swan; Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5—Aria; Paganini: Variations on One String, on “Moses” by Rossini. Zuill Bailey, cello; David Leisner, guitar. Azica. $16.99.
Sephardic Journey: Music of Alan Thomas, Joseph V. Williams II, Carlos Rafael Rivera, David Leisner and Clarice Assad. Cavatina Duo (Eugenia Moliner, flute; Denis Azabagic, guitar). Cedille. $16.
Yves Ramette: Cello Sonata; Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; String Quartet; Poems of Francis Carco. Carmine Miranda, cello; Karolina Rojahn, piano; Vít Mužík and Igor Kopyt, violins; Dominika Mužíková, viola; Petr Nouzovský, cello; Erik Van Heyningen, baritone; Vanessa Holroyd, flute; Nancy Russo, harp; Jonathan Roberts, piano; Shaw Pong Liu, violin; Emily Dahl, viola; Leo Eguchi, cello. Navona. $14.99.
Blurred Boundaries: Music of Libby Larsen, Florence Beatrice Price, Erberk Eryılmaz, Hajime Komatsu and Marty Regan. Apollo Chamber Players. Navona. $14.99.
ACE Composers: Music by Alan, Christopher, and Eric Schmitz. Ravello. $14.99.
John K. Leupold II: Exasperating Perpetuation; A Slight Angle to the Universe—Waiting for the Barbarians; Charismatic Thaumaturge; Envisaging a Supercluster. Ravello. $14.99.
The outstanding expressiveness and wide range of the cello are not always enough for performers and composers: some feel they have to push the instrument in new directions and use it in new ways in order to increase its communicative ability and its interactions with other instruments. The results are as variable as the reasons musicians undertake the attempts. Zuill Bailey is a first-rate cellist by any measure, and one who is not content with the standard repertoire for his instrument. Hence it is no surprise to find him paired with guitarist/composer David Leisner on a new Azica CD, presenting mostly well-known music that sounds quite different here from the way it does elsewhere. Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, for example, has been played on cello and guitar before – there are many instrumental combinations designed to transfer the unusual range of the arpeggione (essentially a bowed, six-stringed guitar for which only one great work, Schubert’s sonata, was ever written) to other instruments. Bailey and Leisner handle the arrangement with flair and broad emotionalism: the performance is slow but not draggy, expansive without being bloated. The sound of the instruments takes some getting used to, even for those used to hearing this sonata on the cello – the piano is the usual accompanying instrument. But the sonic world soon becomes a pleasing one that makes for an interesting and mostly convincing performance. The seven dances by Manuel de Falla provide considerable contrast: these are miniatures with strong and clear rhythms, and both Bailey and Leisner seem to revel in the chance to play them with outgoing flair. The third major work here is the world première recording of Leisner’s Twilight Streams, which resembles Falla’s piece as a sequence of short movements (five of them in this case) while its emotional compass is closer to that of Schubert’s sonata. The work partakes of a repetitious, minimalist approach, although it has more forward momentum than many pieces of that type. Its first two movements are intended to contrast “empty” and “full” dark, its second two “empty” and “full” light, and its finale, “adrift at twilight,” then meanders or strolls to a conclusion. It is not a major piece, but it is an interesting one in the context of those by Falla and Schubert. The remaining four works here are all essentially encores, from the lyrical/placid to the virtuosic, and all are handled nicely enough; the CD as a whole is pleasant, if scarcely gripping.
What gripped the two members of the Cavatina Duo and led to their Cedille CD called Sephardic Journey was the discovery that both had roots in Old Spain’s Sephardic Jewish community. The discovery of a previously unknown genealogical background is scarcely unusual, but what Eugenia Moliner and Denis Azabagic did with it is. The cello here, played by David Cunliffe, appears in Trio Sefardi by Alan Thomas (born 1967), a work whose title speaks clearly to the concept of the entire recording. The idea was to use Sephardic folk melodies as the basis for new music, something each of the five composers on the CD took to heart in a different way. Thomas produced a three-movement work, the first movement as long as the others put together, that attempts to balance the Spanish idiom with folkloric elements drawn from Sephardic history. The approach is similar to that of Love Dreams of the Exile by David Leisner (born 1953), a meditative work for flute, guitar and string quartet (here, the Avalon String Quartet) whose stylistic resemblance to Twilight Streams on Leisner’s disc with Bailey is readily apparent. Also in a similar vein is Sephardic Suite by Clarice Assad (born 1978), written for the same forces as Leisner’s piece but offering greater contrasts among its movements as it seeks to portray romance and everyday family life. Nearly as long as the three three-movement pieces, but cast as a single movement, Plegaria y Canto (al Bodre de la Mar) by Carlos Rafael Rivera (born 1970) is also a work of contrasts: written for flute, guitar and violin (Desirée Ruhstrat), it evokes alternating images of hope and despair. The shortest piece here, Isabel by Joseph V. Williams (born 1979), is only for flute and guitar and is in some ways the most affecting work on the CD in the way it memorializes one of the many victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Because of this disc’s subject matter, the newness of its music and the unusual instrumentation, this recording will scarcely be to all listeners’ tastes, but it certainly represents an intriguing way to acknowledge and pay tribute to the primary performers’ previously unknown ancestry.
The works on a new Navona CD of the music of Yves Ramette (1921-2012) are tributes of a different sort: all were written in Paris during World War II, between 1941 and 1944, and all were influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the conflict. That includes the Cello Sonata, a generally meditative work whose three movements are all in similar tempos and whose emotional content seems designed to counter the upheavals in the world through a kind of rather forced-sounding calm. The piano’s interjections in the short finale hint at the difficulty of finding the placidity that the cello seems to be seeking. There is a stop-and-start quality to Violin Sonata No. 1, especially in the first movement; the wistfulness of the second movement leads to an unresolved piano “question” at the end, after which the finale sets the instruments more against each other than in any cooperative form. Violin Sonata No. 2 opens with an uneasiness that it never quite escapes. There is a rather dismal quality to the second movement, especially when it seems to struggle, midway through, to produce dance rhythms. The finale abruptly runs into a slow passage toward its conclusion, as if its Allegro moderato tempo has simply been too much to sustain, with the result that the speedup at the conclusion ends up sounding rather forced. The single-movement String Quartet is, for much of its length, an extended lamentation, although scurrying violin figurations eventually pick up the pace even if they do not dispel a sense of gloom. The work’s concluding fadeout is scarcely a surprise. The three short songs in 3 Poems of Francis Carco lighten the mood to only a limited extent, with “Madrigal” and “Amour” proceeding with suitable lyricism and “Berceuse” being a melodrama – the words spoken through music – rather than a traditional song. The overall mood of all this music is very similar, with the result that the disc seems somewhat mired in the same feelings, but that is perhaps not surprising in light of the years when these pieces were created. Certainly all the performances are well-done and involving.
The performances by the Apollo Chamber Players on a new Navona release called Blurred Boundaries are quite fine as well. Here the cello, played by Matthew Dudzik, is the anchor instrument of an ensemble that is basically a string quartet (with Matthew J. Detrick and Anabel Ramirez on violins and Whitney Bullock on viola), supplemented as needed by clarinet (Ismail Lumanovski), bass (Timothy Pitts) and percussion (Matthew McClung). The underpinning of this CD is somewhat like that of Sephardic Journey. Here the intent is to commission 20 new works inspired by folk music by the end of this decade – the initiative is called “20x2020.” Three of those pieces are heard here: Sorrow Song and Jubilee (2014) by Libby Larsen, Splash of Indigo (2014) by Marty Regan, and Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan (2015) by Erberk Eryilmaz. The first of these recalls Dvořák’s interest in African-American spirituals; the second rather oddly combines elements of Japanese folk music with French impressionism; the third effectively mixes music of the Roma (gypsies) with Balkan tunes. Also here are three older works, the oldest being Plantation Melodies, Old and New (1901) by Henry Thacker Burleigh, arranged by the Apollo Chamber Players and sounding more emotionally convincing than most of the newer, more-intellectual pieces. The CD also includes Five Folksongs in Counterpoint (1951) by Florence Beatrice Price, whose arrangements are more than enough to show all five of the familiar tunes in a new light: “Calvary,” “Clementine,” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” “Shortnin’ Bread” (featuring some fine fiddling) and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (where the songful cello is a highlight). Finally, there is Four Japanese Folk Songs (Suite No. 2) (1996) by Hajime Komatsu, a work that shows both what is similar in folk music from different parts of the world and what is different. This CD will be of special interest to devotees of folk music in a classical setting – perhaps not a large group, but one that will find much to enjoy here.
The cello is used in two of the nine works on a Ravello release called ACE Composers, but neither it nor any other individual instrument is the point here. The disc’s title refers to the first names of three composers who are members of the same family: Alan Schmitz and his sons, Christopher and Eric. The release is a gimmick, defiantly so, but there are some parallels among the pieces heard here, since all three Schmitzes draw on popular music for inspiration – much as the Blurred Boundaries CD is essentially an outpouring of reconsiderations of folk tunes from various cultures. In the case of Alan Schmitz, the works here are Brass Trio for trumpet (Randy Grabowski), horn (Yu-Ting Su) and trombone (Anthony Williams); Hexachord Fantasy, in which David Gomper conducts an ensemble of flute (Emily Duncan), clarinet (Thiago Ancelmo de Souza), violin (Leonardo Perez), cello (Matthew Laughlin), piano (Korak Lertpibulchai), and percussion (Andrew Thierauf and Wannapha Yannavut); and Tango Fantasy for viola (Julia Bullard) and guitar (Todd Seelye). Of these, Brass Trio tends to plod, Hexachord Fantasy is most interesting for its instrumentation, and Tango Fantasy is most involving, with nice contrast between the instruments and some particularly effective guitar material. Christopher Schmitz is here represented by Five Miniatures for alto saxophone (Monty Cole) and marimba and vibraphone (Marcus Reddick); Rhapsody for Violin and Piano with Amy Schwartz Moretti and Elizabeth Pridgen; and The Playful Lark for flute (Kelly Via) and piano (Pridgen again). Christopher Schmitz is heavily influenced by (and a composer of) film music, and Five Miniatures, which draws most clearly on that source, is the most interesting of his pieces here; the other two are nicely made but rather straightforward. The works here by Eric Schmitz are Reflections for English horn (Charles Pillow), electric drums (Bob Sneider), bass (Jeff Campbell) and drums (Rich Thompson); Trio for flugelhorn (Brian Shaw), English horn (Andrew Blanke) and cello (Hyugrai Kim); and Big Changes Ahead for tenor and bass trombones (Michael Davis). These three works are the most consistently interesting on the disc, partly because of the unusual instrumentation (flugelhorn plus English horn is especially noteworthy) and partly because the pieces’ jazz inflections lead to rhythmically involving music that reaches out effectively to listeners and draws them into Eric Schmitz’s sound world. Certainly this disc is a specialty item, but there is plenty of enjoyment to be had in it.
The four works of John K. Leupold II on a new Ravello CD are somewhat harder to absorb. A percussionist, Leupold is concerned largely with instrumental timbre, and while his works are superficially and initially intriguing, they tend to go on too long for their content. Exasperating Perpetuation, for violin (Sarah D’Angelo), clarinet (Evan Solomon), cello (Natalie Spehar) and piano (R. Timothy McReynolds) is all rhythm, tempo and dynamics, and is filled with the usual atonal bleeps and bloops of much contemporary music; it wears thin in a few minutes but goes on for more than 10. A Slight Angle to the Universe—Waiting for the Barbarians is for solo violin, and it requires the violinist (Francis Liu) to be a narrator as well, of text by C.P. Cavafy that runs from “the barbarians are arriving today” to “they are bored by eloquence” and similar vaguely meaningful statements. “Why should this anxiety and confusion suddenly begin?” is one question here – a good one. Charismatic Thaumaturge is played by Noelle Drewes (oboe and English horn) and Zac Hollister (bass trombone). Its contrast of the instruments’ personalities is effective for a time, but again, the work, which lasts 14 minutes, seems longer because it makes and re-makes the same point. Envisaging a Supercluster bring to the fore the cello (Dan Shomper) in a pairing with piano (Grace Eun Kim) whose objective is to reproduce the feelings of beauty and majesty inspired by the constellations Leo, Monoceros and Taurus. The expansiveness here is appropriate but is not communicated in any distinctive or particularly subtle way, and the cello’s expressive abilities, which could be expected to help produce a feeling of wonder and immensity, are instead employed mainly in the service of angular rhythms and musical lines whose beauty is less than that given to the piano. The notion of working against the cello’s natural expressivity and warmth has a distinctly modernistic feeling to it, but it does not lead to a very convincing musical narrative or to one that seems genuinely to explore its professed cosmic subject. The result is that the titles of these four works are, on the whole, more interesting than their musical content.