March 09, 2017
(+++) BEYOND BRASSY
Perspectives. American Brass Quintet (John D. Rojak, bass trombone; Michael Powell, trombone; Eric Reed, horn; Louis Hanzlik and Kevin Cobb, trumpets). Summit Records. $14.99.
The Lightning Fields: New Music for Trumpet and Piano. Jason Bergman, trumpet and flugelhorn; Steven Harlos, piano and celeste. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Flamethrower: New Music for Trumpet, Flugelhorn & Interactive Electroacoustics. Stephen Ruppenthal, trumpet, crotales and flugelhorn. Ravello. $14.99.
Alan Beeler: Sonatas and Soli. Navona. $14.99.
It is commonplace in contemporary music to release CDs with “theme” titles rather than ones naming the composers represented, who may be unknown or at best little-known to potential audiences. This results in a focus on performers rather than works performed, and tends to limit the releases to listeners who are either fans of the specific performers or who are fond of the players’ instruments. This is certainly the case with a new Summit Records release featuring the American Brass Quintet – although listeners who do delve into the CD may well be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the compositions here, whether or not they have heard music by these composers before. The opening suite, Shine, by Robert Paterson (born 1970), offers four movements that can be thought of as the classical version of heavy metal, at least in their titles: “Ringing Brass Bells,” “Quicksilver,” “Veins of Gold” and “Bright Blue Steel.” The titles do not necessarily reflect the music perfectly – for example, “Quicksilver” is not exceptionally fast, although it is quick enough to serve as a kind of scherzo – but all four movements show strength in writing for the instruments, and collectively they present the form of a fairly traditional sonata (opening, scherzo, slow movement, finale). The American Brass Quintet is an exceptionally well-balanced group that handles both the individual parts and the ensembles with real style, keeping the music moving smartly ahead without ever rushing it, and giving its essentially surface-level communication a fine polish. Quintet for Brass by Jay Greenberg (born 1991) brings out a warmer sound from the ensemble but is a less-impressive work, prone to stops and starts that make its single movement seem frequently to drag. Cadence, Fugue, Fade by Sebastian Currier (born 1959) is more interesting, with an impressive chorale opening that leads to an unexpectedly lively fugue – which is impressively constructed and gives the performers quite a workout. The conclusion of the piece is a bit of a letdown, but it does give the players a chance to show just how quietly and gently brass can be played. The final piece on the disc is Canticum Honoris Amicorum by Eric Ewazen (born 1954), and it makes a fine (if rather extended) encore, bright and rhythmic, with themes and accompaniment that lie well on the instruments and have a pleasantly old-fashioned celebratory feel. The CD showcases highly impressive playing in the service of music that mostly repays the obvious care that the American Brass Quintet lavishes on it.
At least one composer represented on a new MSR Classics release may be familiar to listeners who enjoy contemporary music: Michael Daugherty (born 1954) has written in many forms, and his works are heard more frequently than are those of many other modern composers. Here he offers The Lightning Fields, a suite of four movements portraying four locations associated in one way or another with lightning: “Griffith Observatory (Los Angeles, California),” “The Lightning Field (Catron County, New Mexico),” “Marfa Lights (U.S. Route 67, Marfa, Texas),” and “Times Square (New York City).” Daugherty does a good job of using the trumpet to indicate different ways in which lightning (and other lights) may strike or appear, although some repetitiveness both within each piece and in the suite as a whole is inevitable. Jason Bergman has a formidable technique and handles the whole work with apparent ease. This is the piece’s world première recording, and the CD contains three other world premières as well: Catalonia (2003) by Richard Peaslee (1930-2016); Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (1994/2013) by Daniel Schnyder (born 1961); and The Adventures of… (2016), for unaccompanied trumpet, by Kevin McKee (born 1980). This last is a work for solo trumpet that makes a very fine encore, putting the instrument and its player through all sorts of demands and contortions, all of which Bergman handles with aplomb. The other pieces here include another by McKee, Song for a Friend (2015), and Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2009) by Anthony Plog (born 1947) – who, although not as well-known as Daugherty, may be familiar to some listeners, and whose work here shows a strong command of four-movement sonata construction and a good understanding of the capabilities of the trumpet. Bergman switches to flugelhorn – which he also plays very adeptly – for two movements of Daugherty’s work and one of Peaslee’s, the different sound of the instrument helping keep the material interesting. Steven Harlos provides fine piano backup throughout, switching to celeste and creating a particularly unusual sound combination in the third movement of Plog’s sonata. More than anything, this is a recording for fans of fine trumpet playing, which Bergman offers throughout.
Stephen Ruppenthal handles trumpet and flugelhorn very well, too, but Flamethrower, a new Ravello release, is not really about the instruments’ sound. Nor is it really about Ruppenthal’s virtuosity, even though the works here were written for him. Instead, this is by and large a “sonic exploration” disc, for listeners interested in hearing how acoustic brass instruments come across when stretched to the limit and juxtaposed with a wide variety of electronically generated sounds. There is always a certain dated quality to electronic music, despite the much greater sophistication used nowadays to produce it, because there is a hard-to-disguise sameness to electronic sounds no matter how creatively they are made and manipulated. The five pieces on this CD, all of them world première recordings, include one without accompanying electronics: Velocity Studies V: NGate (2007) by Allen Strange. This work certainly shows Ruppenthal’s ability and the strong jazz influences on his playing. The other pieces here are A Sphere of Air Is Bound (2010) by Bruno Liberda, in which Ruppenthal uses his voice as well as his trumpet and the composer contributes Kyma digital audio processing; November Twilight (2011) by Elainie Lillios, with the composer providing interactive electroacoustics and Ruppenthal again performing with his voice and trumpet – plus, in this case, on crotales (small tuned discs); Misty Magic Land (2004) by Allen Strange, with the composer on digital media and Brian Belet proffering Kyma digital audio processing; and Belet’s own System of Shadows (2007), with Ruppenthal on both trumpet and flugelhorn and Belet again with a Kyma contribution. There is always a certain otherworldliness to electronic and electroacoustic music, long recognized and used to excellent effect by György Ligeti and other giants of the field. Among the composers here, Belet embraces this element most strongly, with his suite’s three movements called “Aurora Borealis,” “Andromeda’s Dream,” and “Zephyr Apparition.” But all the works partake of this sensibility to some degree, and the result is a kind of sameness of sound despite the differences in the manner in which that sound is produced. This is really a CD for electronic-music fanciers to a greater extent than it is one for lovers of fine brass playing.
Brass figures to a considerable extent in the music of Alan Beeler (1939-2016), as heard on a new Navona CD that is essentially a tribute to the late composer – and something of a hodgepodge of works for one or two instruments. Because every movement of every piece here is quite short, it is possible to fit no fewer than 14 works by Beeler comfortably on the disc. Two of the pieces feature brass instruments: Sonata for Bass Trombone and Piano, with Dalibor Procházka and Lucie Kaucká, and The Octatonic Tuba—Sonata for Tuba and Piano, with Jiří Král and Kaucká. Actually, to the extent that this CD has a theme or focus, it is the piano, works for which dominate the recording: Kaucká performs 3 Early Pieces for Solo Piano, while Karolina Rojahn is pianist in My Identity Suite, Multi-Tonal Suite, Beeler’s Fit ’06, Piano Sonata, and 12-Tone Quartal Etude. And then there are works including but not focused on piano: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, with Aleš Janeček and Kaucká; Flute & Piano Sonata, with Petr Hladík and Kaucká; English Horn Sonata and Oboe Sonata, both with Jennifer Slowick and Rojahn; and Sonata da Camera, with bassoonist Jan Dvořák and Kaucká. There is also a rather delicious piece for solo vibraphone (Ladislav Bilan) called Something More Cheerful Suite—Variations on a Well-known Tune. The formal variety is striking here, as is the use of so many different instruments and instrumental combinations – all of which Beeler handles with skill, if not always inspiration. The music fits his chosen means of conveying it well in all cases, and if some pieces are less than enthralling, everything is so short that a listener dissatisfied with one movement or even an entire work has only to wait a minute or two for the next, hopefully more engaging one. This is quite clearly a CD for people already familiar with Beeler and wanting a “memory” recording showcasing, in one place, the extent of his involvement and inventiveness in chamber music. The works show Beeler’s comfort in a variety of styles: some have clear roots in 19th-century and even earlier music, while others partake directly of the musical esthetics of the 20th and 21st centuries. Nothing here will likely capture the interest of someone unfamiliar with Beeler and turn the person into a fan, but those who are fans already will enjoy what will likely be, for many of them, a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, and a pleasant survey highlighting many of the composer’s interests.