April 20, 2017
(+++) SMALL-SCALE WITH MUCH TO SAY
Franz Reizenstein: Sonata in G-sharp; Geoffrey Bush: Sonata; John Ireland: Sonata No. 2 in A minor. Louisa Stonehill, violin; Nicholas Burns, piano. Lyrita. $18.99.
Martinů: Variations on a Theme of Rossini; Ariette for Cello and Piano; Seven Arabesques; Suite Miniature; Nocturnes for Cello and Piano; Variations on a Slovakian Theme. Meredith Blecha-Wells, cello; Sun Min Kim, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Karl Höller: Fantasie for Violin and Organ; Triptychon for Organ Solo; Improvisation for Cello and Organ. William Preucil, violin; Roy Christensen, cello; Barbara Harbach, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Altius Quartet: Dress Code. Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, violins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello. Navona. $14.99.
Stories for Our Time: Contemporary Music for Trumpet by Women Composers. Thomas Pfotenhauer, trumpet, flugelhorn and E-flat trumpet; Vincent Fuh, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Zhen Chen: Music for Piano and Chinese Folk Instruments. Zhen Chen, piano; Jiaju Shen, pipa; Feifei Yang, erhu; Yixuan Pang, voice. Navona. $14.99.
Three little-known wartime violin-and-piano sonatas from two different wars show just how effectively composers can communicate with a paucity of instruments. Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968) wrote his Sonata in G-sharp in 1945. There is a reason that the sonata is not designated as being in G-sharp major or G-sharp minor: it moves restlessly between the major and minor keys, which the piano establishes at the outset. The uncertainty is a formative element of the work’s first movement. The second movement is a bouncy Scherzo with some obeisance to Shostakovich. The third and last is complex, abrupt and fast-changing, and eventually leads to a juxtaposition of B natural and B-sharp that reinforces the work’s ambiguous tonality. The underlying feeling of being deeply unsettled by a world at war comes through far more clearly than the work’s tonality does. Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns, who call themselves the Steinberg Duo, play the work sure-handedly and with empathetic understanding. They do an equally fine job with the sonata by Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998), who wrote this piece in the same year as Reizenstein’s in G-sharp, 1945. This is the world première recording of the single-movement work, whose thoroughgoing chromatic uncertainty somewhat parallels that of Reizenstein: Bush never allows any key to establish and maintain itself for more than a few measures. The melodies of the work are quite lovely and perhaps reflective of Bush’s hopes for a better postwar world (he was an avowed pacifist); but the setting within which those melodies are heard is that of a world that is at best uncertain of where it stands and where life is going. The second sonata by John Ireland (1879-1962) dates to the previous world war and was first heard in 1917, at which time it caused such a sensation that the first printed edition sold out even before publication. It is an attractive three-movement work whose instant popularity, from the standpoint of a century later, is a bit hard to comprehend. Certainly, though, it has effectively expressed emotional ups and downs: there is clear anguish in parts, balanced by warm lyricism that elicits pity for the horrors of the conflict. The central second movement is the most interesting, evoking the feeling of a death march but containing a beautiful, optimism-filled tune in the center that surely reflected the initial audience’s hopes for the future. The Lyrita recording is technically fine but has bizarre errors in the dates of both Bush and Ireland (the enclosed booklet is correct).
Many of the works of Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) were also influenced by war, but that is not the focus of the new Navona CD on which cellist Meredith Blecha-Wells and pianist Sun Min Kim offer five of his suites of short pieces plus a very brief Ariette. Although one of the four Nocturnes lasts six minutes and another almost four, nothing else on the CD reaches three minutes in length: this is Martinů as miniaturist. The style of the works is generally conservative, but the frequent overlay of Czech folk music gives the works a distinctive touch that is typical of Martinů. The brightness of the Rossini variations contrasts nicely with the flowing, lyrical line of the Ariette. The Arabesques are generally upbeat and pleasant and not very consequential. Suite Miniature, in seven movements, has the delicacy and some of the flippancy of a piece for or about children, although it is neither. The Nocturnes are somewhat more expansive and the only works here with a modicum of depth of feeling, although even here the overall impression is mostly one of gentle play and contemplative relaxation. The Variations on a Slovakian Theme show Martinů’s skill in variation form even better than do those on Rossini’s theme, and they allow the cello a kind of broad folkloric expressiveness that fits the material very well and that Blecha-Wells carries off with considerable skill. The interplay between cellist and pianist and their fine ensemble work are major attractions of this disc of mostly lightweight music.
The three Karl Höller works on a new MSR Classics release focus neither on violin nor on cello, although both are present. The dominant sound here is that of the organ, which is scarcely an instrument usually associated with chamber music. Barbara Harbach, a very fine organist as well as a skilled composer in her own right, clearly finds the music of Höller (1907-1987) congenial. The tonal language here is primarily that of the late Romantic era, but it is blended, generally rather seamlessly, with the neoclassicism of Paul Hindemith and some of the approaches to organ music favored by Max Reger. Indeed, two of the works on this disc have neo-Baroque sensibilities despite their more-modern harmonic structure. Triptychon is a three-movement solo organ work “on the Easter sequence ‘Victimae paschali laudes,’” and Improvisation is a five-movement piece “on the spiritual folksong ‘Schönster Herr Jesus.’” The religious underpinning of both these works ties to the traditional centrality of the church in organ music, yet Höller’s use of a folksong as the basis for Improvisation pulls the instrument our of a strictly ecclesiastical setting and into the wider world. Unlike Martinů, Höller does not seem to take the folk elements of his underlying material deeply to heart, at least in this work, but he writes just as effectively for cello and organ as Martinů does for cello and piano – and in fact Höller’s integration of the stringed and wind instruments is so well done that listeners may wonder why the combination is so rare. As for Triptychon, it is a more conventional piece in its sacred theme and in Höller’s handling of the material, and at nearly half an hour it is somewhat overly expansive, without the tight integration of form that, for example, Widor and Vierne brought to their organ symphonies. Harbach certainly plays the piece very well, though. As for the somewhat slighter Fantasie, here the balance of violin and organ is attractive – and in some ways more immediately appealing than that of the lower, more-resonant cello with the organ in Improvisation. Again, though, the single-movement Fantasie uses the two instruments in such interesting ways that listeners may wish for further examples of this type of strings-and-organ combination, which in skilled hands like Höller’s offers a very intriguing mixture of sounds.
There is nothing unusual in the instrumental combination on a new Navona release featuring the Altius Quartet – but the quartet itself is determined, absolutely determined, to make the recording as unusual as possible. Thus, while the performers do play one of Haydn’s wonderful, balanced, carefully structured quartets (Op. 74, No. 1), they apparently think it would be beneath them to perform the piece as Haydn intended. Oh, no – that would not have sufficient “contemporary chic.” So after the first movement of the quartet, the players perform two other, entirely unrelated works; then they give the quartet’s second movement; then another unrelated piece; then the third movement; then two more pieces having nothing to do with Haydn; and then the finale – followed by something else. The whole approach is reminiscent of the classic Monty Python line, “And now for something completely different” – an indication of a deliberate non sequitur. And that does indeed seem to be what the Altius Quartet here pursues. Among the pieces that interrupt Haydn is William Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags, given here in the order 2-1-3 (for no apparent reason): this work itself suffers from being broken up into component parts. And then there is something called Take It that meshes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” And a medley of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir.” And Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” And, at the CD’s very end, there is “Take on Me” by a-ha (sic). Certainly the disc is intended to be playful and with-it and all that, and certainly there are playful elements both in Haydn’s quartet (1793) and Bolcom’s music (1970). And in everything else here, for that matter. But a juxtaposition of, say, the Haydn (played as a whole) with the Bolcom (played in the order the composer intended) would have made for quite a fine contrast without the necessity of breaking the pieces up into their component parts and tossing in little bits of this and that as well. The Altius Quartet – which, by the way, plays all the music quite well – seems to be trying too hard to be cool and contemporary and cognizant of the extremely short attention span of many listeners today. The longest track on the CD runs less than seven minutes, while the full Haydn quartet would require that people pay attention for (horrors!) 23 minutes. This CD turns out to be testimony to the superficiality of far too much music and far too many listeners in our time.
There is contemporary flair as well on a new MSR Classics CD that is also trying perhaps a bit too hard to be, well, contemporary. It features the very fine trumpeter Thomas Pfotenhauer in six world première recordings of six pieces by six female composers. It is the combined emphasis on all-new material and all-female material that makes this into something of a “cause” recording – which is actually a shame, since the works here all contain elements of considerable interest independent of their provenance. That simply means they are worthy when judged as music, not as music from a specified era or by someone of a specified gender – that kind of musical “identity politics” is really quite unnecessary here. Jazz Professor Glasses for solo trumpet and flugelhorn (2008) by Anne Guzzo (born 1968) is especially interesting, its three movements exploring some of the outer reaches of both instruments to good effect – and with a strong flavoring of Chinese influence in the first movement and of jazz in the finale. All the other works pair Pfotenhauer with pianist Vincent Fuh, who provides very able backup and accompaniment. The longest piece is Framed (2009) by Cecilia McDowell (born 1951), an interesting seven-movement Pictures at an Exhibition derivative intended to capture the artistic styles of Auguste Renoir, James McNeill Whistler, Alberto Giacometti, Hendrick Avercamp, Andy Warhol, Simon Marmion, and Alexander Rodchenko. Whether it does so or not will depend on each listener’s response and on how well an individual knows the painters – but whether or not the musical portraits are wholly successful, they certainly do show the wide range of colors and emotions of which the trumpet is capable. Two nicely compressed three-movement works here effectively contrast the trumpet’s lyrical capabilities with its martial side: Concertino (1989) by Ida Gotkovsky (born 1933) and Sonata (2002) by Elaine Fine (born 1959). There is also the disc’s three-movement title work by Faye-Ellen Silverman (born 1947), Stories for Our Time (2007), and this piece takes trumpet style further than the others do, through greater dissonance, a wider variety of performance techniques, and stronger contrast among the movements. Silverman’s work follows and stands in strong contrast to the lovely single movement called Look Little Low Heavens (1992) by Hilary Tann (born 1947). Inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Spring, Tann’s work is gentle, serene and lyrical except for a central dramatic section. Tann, interestingly, is another composer who, like Guzzo, has drawn inspiration from the Orient, although in Tann’s case from Japan rather than China.
Neither Guzzo nor Tann has, however, absorbed the influence of Chinese music in the way than Zhen Chen has – as is abundantly clear from a new Navona CD. The 10 works here sound as if they are drawn from Chinese folk music, but in actuality they are not – instead, Chen has studied and analyzed the sounds of the music and brought it into forms that allow some of the material to be played on the piano. The other instruments here are the lute-like pipa and bowed erhu. Two pieces, Jade and Dance Floor Banter, are for piano and pipa; two, Regret and Longing, are for piano and erhu; two, Plum Blossom Chant and Lament, are for piano and voice; two, Springfield and Turpan Tango, are for piano, pipa and erhu; one, Stroll by the Lake, is for piano, pipa and voice; and the final work on the disc, Recollection, is for solo piano. The combinations show clearly that Chen has carefully thought through the ways in which these instruments (including the voice, which is used here primarily as an instrument, whether speaking words or singing a vocalise) can interweave with and complement each other. To ears more accustomed to Western music, the works here have a sameness of sound that makes them seem longer than in fact they are: the CD runs just 42 minutes but seems to stretch out much farther. As background music or music designed to enhance meditation or contemplation, the works come across well; but except for Turpan Tango and Dance Floor Banter, which are more upbeat than the other pieces and have some Western-style dance rhythms at their core, there is little to distinguish the pieces here except for their titles. As a showcase for the ways in which Oriental and Occidental musical thinking can be blended and hybridized, Chen’s creations are interesting. But the hybridization wears thin rather quickly and seems more appropriate for contemplative mood-setting than for any focus on the music as music.