November 10, 2016
(+++) IN SEARCH OF UNUSUAL SOUNDS
Tartini: Violin Sonata in G minor, “Devil’s Trill”; Locatelli: Capriccio for Solo Violin, “Il Labirinto Armonico”; Paganini: Sonata a preghiera, traditional and unabridged original versions; “Nel cor più non sento”—Introduction and Variations in G; Adagio from Violin Concerto No. 3; “Le Streghe”—Variations on a Theme by Franz Süssmayr. Luca Fanfoni, violin; Luca Ballerini, piano. Dynamic. $19.99.
Shostakovich: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Paul Lustig Dunkel: Quatre Visions pour Quatre Flutistes; Tony Moreno: Episodes for Flute and Percussion; Tamar Muskal: Sof; Mechanofin. Paul Lustig Dunkel, flute; Peter Basquin, piano; with Laura Conwesser, alto flute; Rie Schmidt, flute; Tanya Witek, flute and piccolo; Tony Moreno, drums. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Guy Klucevsek: Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy and Other Works for Accordion. Guy Klucevsek, accordion. Starkland. $14.99.
Vanishing Point: Music for Saxophone and Organ. Allen Harrington, saxophone; Lottie Enns-Braun, organ. Ravello. $14.99.
Romantic Journey: Music for Violin and Piano by Manuel Ponce, Grigoras Dinicu, Massenet, Ysaÿe, Gluck, Paganini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Wieniawski, Fauré and Sarasate. Haoli Lin, violin; Hai Jin, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The presumed devilishness that supposedly gave Paganini his outstanding abilities on the violin was a marketing ploy in a time before “marketing” was a known profession – and it is one that still has power today, as evidenced by a new Dynamic recording titled Of Witches and Devils and featuring, in the main, works by Paganini. The slight frisson of fright associated with super-difficult music predates Paganini, though, as evidenced by Tartini’s sonata “The Devil’s Trill,” to which the composer himself gave that name – he said he wrote it in 1713 in a vain attempt to recapture details of what he heard in a dream in which he sold the Devil his soul. The story is somewhat undermined by scholarship suggesting that the piece was actually written decades later, around 1740, based on its style – but of course, it could simply be that it was really written in 1713 and that Tartini’s style gradually evolved in his other music to the level shown in this sonata. This sort of thing is what makes music scholarship fun, but it is wholly irrelevant to the sonata itself, which continues to impress, some 300 years after it was composed, with the exceptional difficulty of violin writing that is very much in service to the form of the music. This is no mere “display piece” but a serious sonata that genuinely extends the range and capabilities of the violin – or at least stretches them pretty close to their limits as then known. Nor was Tartini alone in creating such a work. His contemporary, Pietro Locatelli, produced in 1733 (there is no doubt of that date) a set of 12 sonatas called L’Arte del Violino, and the last of them is a work of prodigious difficulty. Locatelli nicknamed it “Labyrinth” and gave it a heading, facilus aditus, difficilis exitus, that translates as “easy to enter, difficult to leave.” The written-out cadenzas in these 12 Locatelli sonatas, known as capricci, are all exceptionally difficult, but those in the Labyrinth sonata are surpassingly so, and continue to astonish today with their violinistic flair and sheer complexity. Luca Fanfoni tosses off both the Tartini and Locatelli works with dynamism and enthusiasm – but his tone quality, surprisingly, is variable and often short of beauty, a shortcoming accentuated by the uneven technical quality of the recording. Luca Ballerini provides a solid pianistic foundation that remains suitably unobtrusive except when, rarely, called to the fore; but the balance of piano and violin is not always as good as it could be. Furthermore, the piano is not the best bass accompaniment for music of Tartini’s and Locatelli’s time, although in light of the exceptional degree to which these pieces focus on the violin, the combination works well here, or would if the engineers had done a more-consistent job. This matters especially when it comes to the pieces on the CD that are not by Tartini or Locatelli but by Paganini. Several of these are flat-out remarkable. The Le Streghe variation set is the work that first brought Paganini’s supposed devil-spawned technique to international attention, and the variations on Nel cor più non sento from Paisiello’s 1788 opera, L'amor contrastato, ossia La molinara, are even more extended and every bit as filled with fireworks and self-imposed technical difficulties. Paganini could write gentler, Rossinian music to provide some respite from his usual intensity, and Fanfoni shows that side of the composer by offering a violin-and-piano version of the slow movement from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 3. But the most interesting work here is the Sonata a preghiera, heard in two separate versions, one of which includes recently rediscovered opening sections and is played in Paganini’s own 1743 ‘Cannon’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ violin. The quality of the instrument shines through, and certainly Fanfoni proves again and again that he has the technical prowess needed to impress listeners with the extreme virtuosity of these works. Thus, the CD should have been an out-and-out success both for its programming and for its playing. But the persistently variable tonal quality and the less-than-excellent sound make this a recording of highly interesting material whose execution, both musical and technical, falls somewhat short.
There are no technical shortcomings on a new MSR Classics CD featuring flutist Paul Lustig Dunkel, and there are some very interesting sounds to be found here. This is, however, something of a specialty release for fans of Dunkel and fans and players of the flute, since the musical material, with one exception, is not likely to bear up well on repeated hearings. The exception is Dunkel’s own Quatre Visions pour Quatre Flutistes, a world première recording that is genuinely fascinating. The work definitely gives the lie to the notion that all flutes sound similar and all music for them has a similar character. Dunkel and three colleagues take their flutes through so many sounds, so many techniques, so many emotional ups and downs – from the deeply lyrical to the flat-out funny – that the work needs repeated hearings simply to ferret out all (or at least most) of what it contains and figure out (or try to figure out) how Dunkel obtains the effects that flow with such charm from one measure to the next. Certainly difficult to play, the work is by no means difficult to hear: it has complexities aplenty, but they lie naturally on the instruments and flow with equal naturalness into listeners’ ears. Unfortunately, the rest of the disc, while equally well-performed, is of considerably less interest. Dunkel’s transcription of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata is filled with rapid tonguing, trills and other techniques that are natural to the flute but deeply at variance with the cello and thus with the sonic environment that the composer created here. The extreme difference between the flute’s high and comparatively limited range and the cello’s deeper, richer and far wider one comes through again and again, and not to the flute’s advantage. It is certainly understandable that a flutist as skilled as Dunkel would like a Shostakovich sonata to play, and it is a shame that there isn’t one, especially in light of the composer’s fine handling of flute passages in his symphonies. But this transcription, although interesting to hear for those who already know the cello sonata, has little staying power and is not really in keeping with the heft of the music. The contemporary music that fills out the disc is not particularly engaging, either. Episodes for Flute and Percussion by Tony Moreno (born 1956), despite some intriguing matching and contrast in the instrumentation, is mostly a sequence of tired modernistic compositional techniques, ranging from an extended drum solo to a section based on the Fibonacci Sequence. Sof by Tamar Muskal (born 1965) is an arrangement of a song about tragedy leading to hope – the title means “End” in Hebrew – but offers nothing very compelling musically or emotionally. And Muskal’s Mechanofin, whose title combines “mechanical” with “end,” goes on and on and on, often in a metronomic way, for longer than Dunkel’s own four-movement suite and to much less interesting effect. Everything here is played very well, but only Dunkel’s piece is likely to stay with listeners and encourage them to return to the disc repeatedly.
In contrast, a new Starkland release featuring the music and playing of Guy Klucevsek is fascinating in almost every possible way. Klucevsek is an accordionist, and while that may be an immediate turnoff to some listeners, it shouldn’t be in this case. This CD is pretty much everything that “crossover” releases ought to be but rarely are. Klucevsek’s music moves effortlessly among genres, never figuratively hitting listeners over their heads by announcing that it is now doing one thing and now another – it simply flows from genre to genre in combinatorial ways that, again and again, sustain and heighten interest. That includes emotional interest: Klucevsek’s accordion is an emotive instrument about as far removed from a producer of beer-barrel polkas as it is possible to get. Klucevsek makes the accordion sing, and if the unanticipated beauties of its voice do not always sustain especially well over an entire piece, they manage to emerge again and again in often-unexpected ways, to the point of producing sounds that it is hard to believe are coming from an accordion. Only four of the 18 pieces here are accordion solos; seven are for accordion and violin (Todd Reynolds); two are for piano (Alan Bern); and the other five are for varied groups, from accordion-and-piano to quartet size. Klucevsek’s compositional style is equal to all the combinations, and has an unforced wit that occasionally turns into outright humor but is also just a step or two away from tenderness much of the time – several works here are dedicated to friends who have died in recent years. The names of the pieces show just how variegated and wide-ranging Klucevsek’s imagination is: Moose Mouth Mirror, Hungarian Hummingbird, Hymnopedie No. 2 (for Erik Satie), Roundabout Now, Haywire Rag (for Joseph Franklin, on his birthday), The Day the Snow Fell Upwards, Song of Remembrance, Shimmer (in memory of William Duckworth), Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels, Little Big Top (in memory of Nino Rota), Three Quarter Moon (in memory of Kurt Weill), The Swan and the Vulture, Ice Flowers, Riding the Wild Tangaroo, The Asphalt Orchid (in memory of Astor Piazzolla),Waltzing at the Edge of Dawn, and For Lars, Again (for Lars Hollmer) – plus the title track. The “remembrance” pieces tend to be slow and tender, and those reflective of other composers show a solid understanding of those composers’ music and a readiness to adapt it to Klucevsek’s way of thinking and the way he uses his instrument. It is true that more than an hour of accordion music, even when mixed with music from other instruments and even when the material is as intriguing as it is here, is rather a lot; and some listeners may simply be unable to get past the traditional-accordion sounds on which Klucevsek calls from time to time, with the result that the unusual aspects of his playing may not come through clearly. But even those who do not love accordions ought to consider hearing this accordion as played by this musician in this music. The experience is a salutary one, unexpected and bracing.
The combination of unusual sonorities is surely the purpose of a new Ravello CD featuring saxophonist Allen Harrington and organist Lottie Enns-Braun. But unexpected sonic combinations can carry a release only so far. The instruments’ combined sound here has much to recommend it – although, as with the accordion, it is a bit much to hear nearly an hour of this mixture – but the quality of the music is as variable as would be expected on an anthology disc. The shortest works here, arrangements of two traditional religious Norwegian folk songs by Frederick Hemke (born 1935), are pleasant enough; two slightly longer pieces that also have religious themes, Angel Tears and Earth Prayers by Augusta Read Thomas (born 1964), also come across effectively. So do a Gregorian-suffused setting called Clémens Rector by Guy de Lioncourt (1885-1961), and a lovely little lullaby called Chanson à bercer by Eugène Bozza (1905-1981). However, the other three pieces here, which are the longest on the disc by virtue of being in multiple movements, fare less well. Partita Breve by Tom Verhiel (born 1956) and Sonate I by Denis Bédard (born 1950) both take forms from Baroque and Classical times (menuet, gigue, barcarolle, etc.) and interpret them in modern terms – but this has been done many times by many composers, and neither of these works shows significant originality in handling the material, apart from both composers’ skillful blending and contrast of the sound of the two wind instruments. The last work on the CD, Vanishing Point by Leonard Ennis (born 1948), is comparatively bold and only loosely tied to structures of the past. It has a mostly speedy opening movement, a slow and peaceful second one (marked, rather obviously, “Slow, :Peaceful”), and an even slower conclusion that ends calmly, presumably at the vanishing point of the title. But here the unusual sound of the instrumental combination works against the effectiveness of the music. The work goes on much too long – 20 minutes, all but three of them slow. There is not enough tonal variety here to sustain a piece this long – a fault of the music, not the instruments, since both organ and saxophone are certainly capable of engaging listeners for considerable periods of time on their own. In this case, the combined instruments’ sound is less attractive than their individual ones. The CD has a number of memorable moments, but not quite enough for its totality to be as appealing as some of its parts.
The sound sought on a new MSR Classics release featuring violinist Haoli Lin and pianist Hai Jin is a frankly Romantic one – and although here, too, not all the individual works are equally successful, the CD as a whole does come off well, thanks to the consistently fine performances by both players and the quality of the two Gagliano violins that Lin uses (one from 1732, the other from 1750). The recital offers pleasantry rather than profundity and never claims to be particularly meaningful – these are just-for-enjoyment pieces, one and all. The disc starts with two Jascha Heifetz arrangements, of Estrellita by Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) and Hora Staccato by Grigoras Dinicu (1889-1949). Then there are short, mostly very familiar pieces by Massenet (Meditation from Thaïs), Ysaÿe (Ballade from Violin Sonata No. 3), Gluck (Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice), Paganini (Caprices Nos. 1 and 21), Rimsky-Korsakov (Song of India from Sadko), Wieniawski (Polonaise de Concert), and Fauré (Après un Rêve). And finally there is Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, just the sort of bang-up ending that virtuoso violinists have long favored for their “display” recitals. There is nothing missing here either technically or sonically, and it is sometimes fun to set aside all notions of profundity and deep expression and listen to music that is, in effect, nothing but encores. Some of this material, heard out of context, comes across as a trifle vapid – the Ysaÿe and Paganini works in particular; also, the opera excerpts have long since lost their connection with the stage for most listeners. But if this is a surface-level recital, it is one whose sound, Romantic sensibility, fine playing and sense of enjoyment – which seeps through the interpretations – add up to considerable pleasure, even though this extended snack of greatest hits will likely make some listeners long for at least a modicum of more-substantial musical fare.