July 14, 2016


Purple Classics Presents: The Classical Music Collection. Naxos. $9.99 (2 CDs).

Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin; Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Marianna Prjevalskaya, piano. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—Ten Pieces for Piano (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8); Schumann/Liszt: Widmung; Wagner/Liszt: Ballade of the Flying Dutchman; Isoldes Liebestod; Judith Shatin: To Keep the Dark Away; Fantasy on St. Cecilia. Gayle Martin, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

Haskell Small: A Journey of Silence—Reflections on the Book of Hours; Lullaby of War. Haskell Small, piano; Robin Weigert and Martin Rayner, narrators. MSR Classics. $12.95.

David Braid: Joya Variations; Chauvet; Semi; Spirit Dance; Epilogue. David Braid, piano; Epoque String Quartet (David Pokorný and Vladimír Klánský, violins, Vladimír Kroupa, viola; Vít Petrášek, cello). Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Jeffrey Stadelman: Seraphita (Canons); Eastland; String Quartet No. 2. New England String Quartet (Julia Okrusko and Nelli Jabotinsky, violins; Sam Kelder, viola; Ming-Hui Lin, cello). Navona. $14.99.

     There is a long if not particularly glorious history of releasing brief excerpts from major classical works in an attempt to reach out beyond those works’ core audience and hopefully broaden interest in classical music in general. The assumption underlying such releases is that people not already committed to classical music simply cannot handle the length and complexity of even better-known pieces and must be given bite-sized bits of them to (presumably) entice them into listening at greater length. Ten new Naxos Purple Classics releases fit this pattern, with a difference: they also serve as a small boost for the work of the Alzheimer’s Foundation. Naxos has pledged to donate 50 cents from each Purple Classics CD sale to that organization, with a minimum donation of $25,000 – not nearly enough to do much good in Alzheimer’s research, but nevertheless a fine gesture, and one that it would be nice to see other music labels emulate. Music cannot actually stave off Alzheimer’s, and the evidence that music can boost brain power in general is mixed at best. But certainly listening to music cannot hurt, and it is non-addictive – or rather it can be addictive in a positive, involving way. And Naxos has so deep and broad a catalogue that finding short works, or pieces of works, to include in the Purple Classics series is scarcely a challenge. Whether the specific pieces offered on Purple Classics Presents: The Classical Music Collection are good choices or bad is wholly a matter of opinion – if the release sells well, then by definition these picks were good ones. Several are movements from more-extended works: the second (not the famous first) from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the first from Grieg’s Piano Concerto, the second from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 (BWV 1006), the second (the famous one) from Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 (“Surprise”), and the second from Smetana’s Má vlast (this is Vltava or Die Moldau, which was actually written as a separate symphonic  poem but nowadays is considered part of the six-movement set). To these are added complete works from various time periods: Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3 and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube Waltz, Ravel’s Boléro, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Sibelius’ Finlandia, Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture, and (for a bang-up finish) Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. There is no reason to critique as a mishmash a release that is one by design: this is simply a thrown-together set of popular classics designed to find enough of an audience to spread the word (or rather the sound) of classical music and do some good for Alzheimer’s research as well. Whatever its musical merits, it deserves to be wished well.

     Missing from the Naxos release, except in the Grieg excerpt, is the sound of the piano, an otherwise ubiquitous element of classical music ever since the early fortepianos of Haydn’s time. One of the great pianist/composers of the modern era was Rachmaninoff, and Marianna Prjevalskaya offers two of his virtuosic and elegant sets of variations – one fairly well-known, one very rarely played – on a new Fanfare Cincinnati CD. Variations on a Theme of Corelli dates to 1931 and was Rachmaninoff’s final composition for solo piano. The theme Rachmaninoff uses, known as “La folia,” was not actually by Corelli – it predates Corelli’s use of it in 1700. But Corelli himself based a set of 23 variations on it in a sonata for violin and continuo, and Rachmaninoff’s 20 variations (plus an intermezzo after No. 13) partake of similar spirit despite being very different in style and harmonization. By Rachmaninoff’s standards, the Corelli variations are comparatively compact and harmonically advanced, if scarcely forward-looking for their time. Prjevalskaya plays them with relish, nicely contrasting the ones with more-straightforward moods with those marked agitato (Nos. 13 and 19) or misterioso (No. 8). Prjevalskaya also takes the measure of the much earlier, much less frequently performed Variations on a Theme of Chopin, a sprawling 33-minute work created 30 years before the Corelli variations. This was Rachmaninoff’s first large-scale work for solo piano, so the variation sets on this CD stand as brackets around the composer’s other solo piano music. The 22 Chopin variations meander and are at times quite self-indulgent, varying very considerably in length (from eight bars to 108). They essentially encapsulate Rachmaninoff’s knowledge of and feelings about Romantic music at the time he wrote them (1902-03), and compare very intriguingly with the Corelli set for listeners with a strong interest in Rachmaninoff’s piano music. For a more-general audience, the Chopin variations may seem rather turgid despite Prjevalskaya’s determined attempt to keep them flowing with sensitive phrasing and committed technique.

     The piano music of Haskell Small (born 1948) contrasts strongly with that of Rachmaninoff but is as likely to be a specialized interest as the older composer’s Chopin variations. Small’s interest is the place where music meets silence – a crucial element of classical-music construction, to be sure, but one that in Small’s hands tends to produce works that perpetually sound as if they are about to fade away. Small has created several works under the title Journeys in Silence, the most recent of which (composed in 2015) is Reflections on the Book of Hours, a contemplation of a Middle Ages devotional book. Used as the basis of the day’s prayers in monasteries, the book was intended to measure out the religious life through periods of quiet prayer, quiet contemplation and quietness. It fits Small’s esthetic quite precisely, and Small’s performance of it on a new MSR Classics CD – where the work receives its world première recording – certainly captures the notions of slight sonic expansion fading into nothingness again and again. There is a sense of monastic chant in Small’s work, a hint of monastery bells, but mostly there is a feeling of “peace that passeth all understanding” – a very calming experience for a certain period of time. But like Rachmaninoff’s Chopin variations, Small’s Reflections on the Book of Hours lasts more than 33 minutes – and unlike Rachmaninoff’s somewhat overdone work, Small’s sets what is essentially a single mood and dwells upon it. And dwells and dwells. This is soporific music, almost a parody of “New Age” works despite its seriousness of purpose. It is very difficult to hear as anything other than background music – preferably a background for meditative contemplation, a modern notion that is not all that different from what medieval monks engaged in. Reflections on the Book of Hours is paired with a reflective work of a different sort, Lullaby of War (2007). Written for two narrators and piano, this is a setting of six poems, one each by Stephen Crane (War Is Kind), Joy Harjo (NO), Yvan Goll (Recitative), Uri Zvi Greenberg (Naming Souls), Walt Whitman (Look Down, Fair Moon), and Paula Tatarunis (Guernica Pantoum). Crane’s bitterness suffuses the work, but it is moderated by Small’s own propensity for enhancing silence and allowing quietness to creep into even deeply disturbing material. Two of the poems date to the Civil War era, one each to World War I and World War II, and the final two are contemporary – the object, rather obviously, being to show that the depredations of war have changed little. The work’s title is ironic but also oddly reflective of Small’s quiet approach to the turmoil of the subject matter. This is emotionally a more-effective work than Reflections on the Book of Hours, but Lullaby of War shares some of the monochromaticism of the piece with which it appears on this disc. And it too goes on longer than is really necessary to make its points (31 minutes), which are emphasized by the Prayer that concludes the work after the presentation of the six poems. Small, a fine pianistic advocate of his own works, clearly has a deep-seated belief in and attraction to the line between sound and quiet; his music speaks most clearly to those who share that predilection.

     The varied works on a new Ravello CD surely speak clearly to pianist Gayle Martin, who plays them all with considerable feeling. But the music is something of a potpourri without obvious emotional connection – not as disconnected as the works on the Naxos pastiche, but not connected in any fully satisfying way. Two religion-infused multi-movement works by Judith Shatin (born 1949) dominate the disc: the five-movement To Keep the Dark Away and three-movement Fantasy on St. Cecilia. The first of these pieces primarily offers atonal, stop-and-start music whose tone painting is on the obvious side (notably in “The Auroral Light”); the most-effective movement is the central “An Actual Suffering Strengthens,” which has considerable (if brief) intensity. The St. Cecilia music opens with portentous, pounding chords that practically demand listeners pay attention to something serious in the first movement, “Her Struggle,” moves into evanescent and rather formulaic contemporary expressiveness in “Her Passion,” and concludes in “Her Martyrdom” with a contrast between expected expressions of purity and marchlike material clearly designed to reflect forces of evil. There is an obviousness about this music that renders it only intermittently effective. In between the two Shatin works are five of Prokofiev’s piano arrangements from Romeo and Juliet, whose clarity of expression and easy but not overdone use of 20th-century compositional and piano techniques contrast strongly with Shatin’s music. The Prokofiev, intentionally or not, comes across as the communicative centerpiece of the CD. The disc opens and closes with Liszt arrangements of music that offers forthright Romantic-era expressiveness: at the start, Schumann’s lovely, evocative Widmung; at the end, Wagner’s Ballade of the Flying Dutchman (this is the emotional aria that Senta sings, not the opera’s entire overture), and Wagner’s Isoldes Liebestod (again, the death-and-transfiguration music, not paired with the work’s prelude). Presumably Martin finds emotional connections among all these pieces, and there are some – but the composers’ expressive methods are different enough so that the CD as a whole, especially because of its focus on Shatin, does not hang together very well, although it is certainly very well played.

     Like Rachmaninoff and Haskell Small, David Braid (born 1975) is both composer and pianist, and he is showcased in both roles on a new Steinway & Sons CD. Braid is one of those contemporary musicians readily described as a “crossover artist” with respect to classical music. His pieces are as strongly imbued with jazz sensibilities as with anything traditionally classical. Braid’s attitudinal approach blends rather well with that of the Epoque String Quartet, an ensemble that avowedly intends to mix the beauty of classical strings with jazz performance approaches as well as those of funk and rock. There is more than an improvisational quality to Braid’s music – some of it contains actual improvisation. This is also music with some strong resemblances to film scores (Braid has, indeed, written for the movies): elements of strong contrast appear regularly, short sections of one type give way to others of a very different type without warning, and there is a kind of theatricality to much of the material that would not be out of place in a movie theatre. The longest work on the CD, Chauvet, is in seven movements that Braid calls “parts.” They are intended as his representation of and response to ancient cave paintings found in France; movement titles such as “Homo Spiritualis” and “The Juggler Dreamt of Lions” are intended to evoke in the audience the feelings that the paintings themselves brought forth in Braid. Joya Variations is a two-part piece that sounds more like film music than a traditional theme-and-variations work because of its frequent contrasts and juxtapositions. Semi, an extended and rather meditative work, seems to be reaching for alternating passages of despair and hope, while Spirit Dance is a largely approachable mixture of multiple rhythms and folk-music themes that goes by in something of a whirl. The CD concludes with Epilogue, one of those basically tuneless works that try to be haunting while avoiding melody – although in this case there is some extra interest from Braid’s improvisational piano contributions. Braid’s music is well-made and seems to have an eye on commercial success rather than any significant introspection or deep emotional content.

     Braid is far from alone among today’s composers in seeking methods, whether commercially viable or not, of making contemporary use of the traditional string quartet. On a new Navona CD, three quartets by Jeffrey Stadelman have a more distinctly up-to-date sound than do the quartets of Braid; listeners will need to decide for themselves whether that makes them more intricately interesting or simply more off-putting. To Stadelman, the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and their followers) is merely a jumping-off point for the sounds that can be pulled from stringed instruments. The nine movements of Seraphita (Canons) show this quite clearly: the work starts with a theme from the first song of Schoenberg’s Four Lieder of 1917, then twists, expands, imitates, and taffy-pulls the musical material through a set of changes that are both more and less than classical variations. Eastland, in contrast, is a more immediately accessible work, for all its extreme atonality and often-unpleasant sonic palette. It paints a picture of, and reacts to, a 1915 steamship disaster in which hundreds died. There is little of the emotional turmoil that one might expect in such a piece – Stadelman’s music tends to be dry to the point of aridity – but there are intermittently effective, purely musical elements that suggest a certain banal inevitability to tragedy. Least modernistic in sound and most varied in approach of the works here is String Quartet No. 2, whose three movements open with actual lyricism – a rarity in Stadelman’s music – and then move to a variation element and, in the finale, a complex and generally speedy swirl in which the instruments’ entries seem more arbitrary than they are and in which slower sections here and there serve to accentuate the generally propulsive pace. Stadelman’s music is surely not for all tastes, but those interested in the way a skilled contemporary composer strives to push string writing and performance into the most modern guise possible will find it intellectually, if not emotionally, involving.

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