January 26, 2017
(+++) THE EVOCATIVENESS OF TITLES
Of Love of You: A Tribute to Emery W. Harper. Sharon Harris, soprano; Robert Osborne, bass-baritone; Todd Crow, Lowell Liebermann and Yehudi Wyner, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Jane O’Leary: The Passing Sound of Forever and other chamber music. Navona. $14.99.
Hans Bakker and Peter Greve: Lines to Infinity. Navona. $14.99.
Georges Raillard: Butterflies in the Labyrinth of Silence. David William Ross, guitar. Navona. $14.99.
Contemporary composers frequently try to make their points as much through words as through music. And some compositions, although they can stand on their own, have their individuality subsumed under the umbrella of a larger purpose – often, as is the case with Of Love of You, a very insular and inward-directed purpose, whose full meaning will be apparent only to those who are musical intimates of the composers. Very, very few listeners outside the inner circle of Luigi Terruso and Emery W. Harper will get the full effect of the works on a new MSR Classics release; and that is by intent, since Terruso, who lived with Harper for more than 20 years, conceived of this project as a tribute to Harper, who died in 2009, and had the component parts created by composers who were friends of the two men during their two decades together. There are 11 composers represented here, some of them quite prominent among followers of modern classical music: William Bolcom, Joan Morris, David Del Tredici, Steven Stucky, Lowell Liebermann, Bernard Rands, John Eaton, Paul Moravec, Yehudi Wyner, Tania León and Jorge Martín. The works on the CD, all world première recordings, include three for piano solo (Rands’ Impromptu No. 2, Del Tredici’s Bank Street Prelude, and Wyner’s Amoroso) and one for piano four hands (Bolcom’s piquant Sentimental Waltz, a highlight of the disc). The remaining seven pieces are songs, some of which use thoroughly unsurprising words (Emily Dickinson’s in Moravec’s You Left Me, John Milton’s in Eaton’s Lycidas, Percy Shelley’s in Liebermann’s Music, When Soft Voices Die) and some of which go a bit further afield in terms of familiarity (Carlos Pintado’s in León’s Mi Amor Es, and Arnold Weinstein’s in the title track, set by Morris and Bolcom). And there are two songs using words by Walt Whitman: We Two Boys by Martín and Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking by Stucky. Does this mean that Terruso and/or Harper had a particular fondness for Whitman? Does the balance of vocal and instrumental music signify anything? The titles aimed at expressing love are obvious elements of a project such as this, but is there special significance to a place such as “Bank Street”? These and other questions are ones to which the contributors to this project surely know the answers – and for that closely connected group, those answers surely have significance. And a few of the pieces here reach out for meaningfulness beyond their occasional purpose. But really, this is an “in” project for a designated “in-group,” and it is not a musical paean, eulogy or celebration for anyone not already part of those “in the know.” If you were not among the close friends of attorney Emery W. Harper (1936-2009), the works here will have only minimal significance and, in the main, little to communicate beyond the conventional.
The Navona CD called The Passing Sound of Forever would seem, on the basis of its title, to be another encomium for someone or something. Here, though, the title track, which dates to 2015, refers to a specific piece for string quartet, inspired by a Beethoven quartet and expressing, in all three of its movements, a sense of striving or yearning, communicated effectively by the ConTempo Quartet (Bogdan Sofei and Ingrid Nicola, violins; Andreea Banciu, viola; Adrian Mantu, cello). The rest of the music here is simply a sampling of Jane O’Leary’s style in chamber works for various instruments. A Way Through (2013) is for alto flute (Madeleine Staunton), bass clarinet (Paul Roe), and accordion (Dermot Dunne), a particularly intriguing instrumental combination that makes possible some unusual sounds and contrasts – which O’Leary explores with skill. There is also rather unusual, and interesting, sound from concert harp (Andreja Malir) and cello (Martin Johnson) in a work from 2011 called (with ellipses) …From Hand to Hand… The remaining pieces here are more ordinary. They are No. 19 (2012) for violin solo (Elaine Clark); Murmurs and Echoes (2015) for clarinet (Paul Roe) and piano (David Bremner); and A Winter Sketchbook (2015) for alto flute (Staunton) and violin (Clark). O’Leary seems especially interested in the emotional coloration of varying instrumental sounds – she is fond of harmonics, for example – and likes to blend instruments at some times while contrasting them strongly at other times. She also enjoys creating, from time to time, a sense of spatial distance or distortion, as in the final movement of Murmurs and Echoes. All these works have effective moments; those using atypical instrumental combinations are the most engaging.
The evocative title of another new Navona chamber-music CD, Lines to Infinity, turns out not to refer to any specific piece by Hans Bakker or Peter Greve: instead, it is supposed to reflect the overall feeling of all five works on the disc, acting as a sort of guidepost for listeners looking to explore the intended emotional landscape of the recording. It does help to have some sort of guide here, because the pieces themselves are not particularly closely related to each other. True, four of the five use flute, but one does not include it and one (Bakker’s Leys/Krachtlijnen) is for a solo flute (played by Cora Greevenbosch). There are three works here by Bakker, the other two being Easy Piece – Petite Pièce for cello (Ludmila Bubeníčková) and piano (Lucie Kaucká), and Trio for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet (respectively, Markéta Soldánová, Gabriela Kummerová, and Aleš Janeček). The two pieces by Greve are Sonata for Flute and Piano (Petr Hladík and Kaucká) and “Dialogues” for Flute, Cello and Piano (Soldánová, Petr Nouzovský and Kaucká). Both the Greve works are representational to some extent, the sonata being primarily modal in construction and strongly influenced by Turkish folk music, and the trio being intended to represent four elements of communication between lovers: “Discussion,” “Dispute,” “Reflection” and “Celebration” – although the finale returns at last to the tempo of the first movement, suggesting a certain repetitive circularity of interplay. Of the three Bakker works, Leys/Krachtlijnen is built around a hymnlike melody, Easy Piece is indeed simple-sounding and rather like film music, and the trio – the most substantial of these three pieces – is structurally and rhythmically complex, giving each instrument a chance to stand out from the others. Whether these five disparate chamber works add up, collectively or in some combination, to Lines to Infinity, is scarcely obvious and, in truth, not especially relevant.
Yet another evocatively titled Navona release, Butterflies in the Labyrinth of Silence, actually draws its name from two of the dozen solo-guitar pieces by Georges Raillard heard on the disc. One is called Butterfly and the other The Labyrinth of Silence. The two works exist together only in the CD’s title – they are not even juxtaposed on the recording. But in this case, the overall disc title, if not taken too literally, does give a fair summation of the moods of the works, from delicate to quiet. There is little of the dramatic here, although He Burst Out Laughing does start with a burst of what could be laughter before it subsides into serenity. These works’ titles are rather good reflections of their sound: in addition to those already mentioned, they include Shells on the Beach, Night Waves, Pacemaker, To Pilar, Summer Evening at the Rhine, Three Child’s Plays for Selina, Dance of the Shadows, Measuring Clouds, and Patio. Raillard does a good job of balancing consonance and dissonance in his guitar writing, and David William Ross skillfully evokes the many capabilities of the instrument even as he brings forth the various emotions that Raillard wants to communicate. For all its multiplicity of approaches to guitar composition, though, Raillard’s music ultimately has a certain sameness of sound that makes an hour and a quarter of it less than fully appealing – after a while, the works tend to recede into the background, although listeners whose attention starts to drift will likely find themselves brought back to attentiveness from time to time by one unusual or striking compositional element or another. These may take the form of unexpected dissonances, for example, or rapping on the guitar’s body for a percussive effect. On the whole, this is an inward-focused CD that will be of particular interest to guitar players – for others, it is on the monochromatic side, although the music is certainly well-suited to the instrument and the performances are well and sensitively done.