June 02, 2016
(+++) DUAL FOCUSES
Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante; Cello Sonata. Zuill Bailey, cello; North Carolina Symphony Orchestra conducted by Grant Llewellyn; Natasha Paremski, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Janáček: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Stravinsky: Duo Concertante for Violin and Piano; Prokofiev: Five Melodies for Violin and Piano; Ravel: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. Sarita Kwok, violin; Wei-Yi Yang, piano. Genuin. $18.99.
James B. Maxwell: Serere for Cello and Harp; Serere for Cello, Harp and Electroacoustics; Nico Muhly: Clear Music for Cello, Harp and Celeste. Couloir (Ariel Barnes, cello; Heidi Krutzen, harp). Ravello. $9.99.
Carl Vollrath: Concertos Nos. 1-3 for Piano and Orchestra. Karolina Rojahn, piano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
Vincent Persichetti: Songs. Lee Velta, baritone; Sherry Overholt, soprano; Joshua Pierce, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The rich, warm and elegant tone of Zuill Bailey’s 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello is the primary attraction of a new Steinway & Sons recording of major Prokofiev forays into cello composing. The shadow of Mstislav Rostropovich looms large over these works and over any cellist who undertakes them: both the Sinfonia Concertante and the Cello Sonata were created with Rostropovich in mind. Rostropovich had a grand, warm and all-encompassing technique of a very Russian type, and he was prone to large gestures, extended bowing and intense emotional identification with the music he played. Bailey is more reserved, his tone more moderated, his approach to the music somewhat cooler, more cerebral than emotionally intense. Rostropovich sometimes had a tendency to wallow; Bailey will have none of that. In the Sinfonia Concertante, whose orchestral part is more prominent than it would likely be in a full-fledged concerto – so that the cello is at times more an obbligato participant than a full-fledged solo – Bailey has no apparent concern about fading somewhat into the background when the music calls for him to do so. The result is that when he does come forward, his participation is all the stronger and more assured. The structure of the Sinfonia Concertante is unusual, with two Andante movements flanking a central Allegro giusto nearly as long as the other movements put together; and despite the very Russian sound of the music, it is not intended to be heavy-handed or delivered with doom-laden portentousness. Bailey balances the faster and slower sections expertly and maintains throughout a fine balance of reserve and emotive intensity. Unfortunately, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra under Grant Llewellyn is less impressive. It is a perfectly fine regional orchestra, but is rather lacking in the sort of nuance that Bailey possesses in abundance. The accompaniment is at least workmanlike and at best skilled, but there is little fire in the performance and little of the warm string sound and elegant brass that give this music so much of its effect. The result is that when Bailey is not playing or is not doing so in the forefront, listeners will miss him. The balance of performers is somewhat better in the Cello Sonata, where Natasha Paremski gives Bailey his due but also takes the lead as appropriate, resulting in a performance that generally sounds like a genuine musical dialogue. This sonata is late Prokofiev and is one of his attempts, like his Seventh Symphony, to satisfy the Soviet apparatchiks who dictated what was and was not acceptable “socialist realism” in music. It is a very pleasant work, albeit one without the bite and sarcasm to which Prokofiev took naturally but that the musical censors would have found unacceptable. Bailey and Paremski make no attempt to give the sonata a profundity it does not possess, but they effectively mine it for its many beauties and produce a warm and satisfying, if occasionally rather superficial, rendition.
The string instrument is the higher-pitched violin on a new Genuin CD featuring Australia’s Sarita Kwok and Taiwanese pianist Wei-Yi Yang, but the Prokofiev on this disc shares some of the same reserve that the composer’s Cello Sonata possesses. The Five Melodies heard here, originally songs without words in Mendelssohnian mode, are on the cool side, musically a bit distanced and distancing, although they are quite well played by both performers. Likewise, Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante, the composer’s sole original violin-and-piano work, withholds any strong emotional connection by design: Stravinsky here seems deliberately to seek lack of expressiveness, a kind of retreat into formality and formalism (the “sin” of which his countryman Prokofiev was accused). The work is pleasant enough and certainly well-made, but ultimately seems to have little to say. Ravel’s Sonata No. 2, on the other hand, seems to want to say everything. Opening with a moody movement and closing with a perpetuum mobile, the work switches feelings, moods and rhythms nearly constantly, making it a challenge to perform technically and a difficult piece to bring off artistically. Kwok and Yang rely on their substantial technical abilities to communicate the quicksilver changeability of this work, allowing it to flow – or jump – from element to element, and inviting listeners to follow. The approach is exhilarating if at times a trifle standoffish and uninvolving. The real gem of this recording is the Janáček sonata, a work of intense anger and passion that requires both performers to dive into its depths and remain there throughout, pulling listeners into a sound world in which the composer seems to keep trying harder and harder to get through to listeners – to the point that the music often sounds overwrought. Musicians who can deal with this work’s intensity without letting it get out of control produce performances that have a visceral impact on the audience, and that is just what Kwok and Yang manage here. There is a bluntness to this music, an insistence that people (performers and hearers alike) pay close attention to it – it is not an easy work to play or, often, to listen to, but with a fine reading such as this one, it is well worth the effort to make the music’s acquaintance.
The second instrument featured on a new Ravello CD of the music of James B. Maxwell and Nico Muhly is not the piano but the harp: this is material for the unusual cello-and-harp duo called Couloir. The target audience here is people who really, really want to hear Maxwell’s Serere, a 20-minute-plus, largely static soundscape that is presented twice, once with electroacoustic elements and once without. This is “music of the spheres” background music along the lines of innumerable New Age pieces and film scores depicting infinite cosmic spaces. It is intended in part to deliver the sound of pencil on paper, because in concept it is a piece about forms of writing, including handwriting and calligraphy. It is all very abstruse and minimalist and self-consciously contemporary; it is exactly the sort of modern music that either expands a listener’s ears or comes across as self-parody, depending on each individual’s interests and expectations. Between the two lengthy versions of Maxwell’s work (20 and 26 minutes respectively) is Muhly’s Clear Music, whose point of origin explains why it has an easier time making at least a basic connection with listeners who are not automatically enamored of all things new: this is a new look at something quite old. Muhly chose a single measure from the motet Mater Christi Sanctissima by John Taverner (1490-1545) as the basis of a 10-minute meditative contemplation using cello, harp and celeste. Although scarcely tonal, the music dips periodically into tonality and then exits to realms that are sonically interesting even if they are of no particular revelatory depth. The Muhly work is nevertheless significantly more involving than the double dose of Serere, although that does not mean it is sufficient in itself to encourage most listeners to buy this recording.
If the dual focus of the Couloir disc may be said to involve cello and harp or, alternatively, instruments and electroacoustic sounds, that of a new Navona release of the music of Carl Vollrath is much easier to pin down: the two focuses here are the piano and the orchestra. But although these three works are labeled piano concertos and are essentially structured that way, each being in three movements simply designated Movement I, Movement II and Movement III, the treatment of the two focuses is non-traditional for works of this type. There is little flash to the piano part and little intensity to the relationship between soloist and orchestra. Instead, there is cooperation of almost a chamber-music sort in the service of vaguely Impressionistic music that Vollrath intends to use to evoke mild colors: the concertos are titled “Pastel I,” “Pastel II,” and “Pastel III.” Imprecisely programmatic, the three works evoke no particular scenes but are instead a series of musical brush strokes in which pitch, rhythm, harmony and volume are all applied with considerable gentleness and, often, a vaguely Oriental sound. The influence of folk music and jazz is also clearly present in some parts of these works, which meander pleasantly from unspecified scene to unspecified scene; where they eventually end up is more for listeners to decide than for the composer to determine. Karolina Rojahn and Petr Vronský make a particularly good pair for this music, in which soloist and conductor have to cooperate most of the time and hand off the music only on occasion: there is no sense here of competition, and while that reduces the concertos’ drama, it heightens their evocative elements. Like pastel colors, whose softness and delicacy can be highly pleasant in moderation but may become cloying when overdone, these concertos offer enjoyable moments within the movements but are blander and less distinctive when considered as a whole. Listeners will likely find it more pleasurable to listen to the works one at a time than to hear the whole CD from start to finish.
The listening situation is somewhat the same, albeit for different reasons, when it comes to a new MSR Classics release of 41 songs by Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). There are 24 songs here for baritone (Lee Velta) and 17 for soprano (Sherry Overholt), all of them with accompaniment on the piano (Joshua Pierce, who studied and collaborated with Persichetti); the two focuses are thus voice and piano. But they are also, in a more general sense, words and music – and the different ways those two forms of communication come through to an audience. These songs, all of them world première recordings, are in 10 groups, written to words from a wide variety of sources: Carl Sandburg, Sara Teasdale, e.e. cummings, James Joyce, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Hilaire Belloc and more. Most of the songs are quite short, with the song cycle A Net of Fireflies presenting 17 of them in less than 17 minutes. The settings are also quite varied: Persichetti shows considerable sensitivity to the lyrics and weaves differing piano lines according to the emotions expressed in the words and the sounds of the words themselves. As a practical matter, what this means is that the CD is difficult to listen to straight through, because so many elements of the music change so often. The song groupings are arranged chronologically, which is very helpful for following the development of Persichetti’s style from 1945 (the cummings songs) to 1970 (A Net of Fireflies). However, the arrangement means that Chinese songs are juxtaposed with English ones, Carl Sandburg’s plain-spokenness with James Joyce’s abstruse thinking, and so forth. There is something salutary in all this: hearing words and thoughts in a sequence that would not normally be one that readers or listeners would encounter stretches the ear and mind in intriguing ways. But to get the full flavor of the individual groupings and the songs within them, it is better to listen to the disc a bit at a time than to try to absorb it all at once. Velta and Overholt both handle the music skillfully and with careful control and considerable sensitivity, and Pierce’s pianism is exemplary throughout. Listening to 41 short songs by a still-underrated 20th-century American composer will not be an experience that will appeal to all listeners, but those willing to try it will find many pleasures here.