August 30, 2018
(+++) CHAMBER DISCOVERIES
Russian Trumpet Sonatas—Music by Yuri Mikhailovich Chichkov, Nikolai Ivanovich Platonov, Yuri Mikhailovich Aleksandrov, Mark Vladimirovich Milman, Leonid Zinovievich Lyubovsky, Gherman Grigorievich Okunev, Alexander Ivanovich Baryshev, and Aida Petrovna Isakova. Iskander Akhmadullin, trumpet; Natalia Bolshakova, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
New Music for Clarinet and Piano by Emily Rutherford, Conor Abbott Brown, David Mullikin, Andrew Halladay, and Greg Simon. Kellan Toohey, clarinet; Suyeon Kim, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Stephen Yip: Chamber Music. Navona. $14.99.
The tremendous abundance of under-explored chamber music, especially from the 20th and 21st centuries, makes it possible for listeners to hear an ever-more-extended series of world première recordings of material that is quite interesting even if perhaps not so distinctive or memorable as to merit regular inclusion in recitals. Performers, though, may find these works especially interesting as possible additions to their own programs: so many unknown or little-known pieces are challenging to play but written to lie well on the instruments for which they were created that anyone playing those instruments may find all sorts of new and previously unexplored repertoire on recordings that explore some of the byways of more-recent chamber composition. That is certainly the case with the MSR Classics release of no fewer than eight well-made, interesting and often genuinely intriguing 20th-century sonatas for trumpet and piano that were composed during the Soviet era. The composers’ names will be largely interchangeable to most listeners and, in truth, so will much of the music, which – certainly in the pieces written until the mid-1960s – seems consciously created to comply with the notorious Zhdanov Doctrine of 1946 and 1948, which demanded adherence to “Socialist realism” in music and in particular forbade “misuse” of dissonance. Although the doctrine officially ended with Stalin’s death in 1953, its effects continued to burble through Soviet society for some time thereafter. They are apparent in the careful construction and the moderation of dissonant elements in Chichkov’s single-movement Sonatina for Trumpet and Piano (1950), heard here in a transposition to G made by trumpeter Iskander Akhmadullin; in Platonov’s and Milman’s sonatas from 1962, the former in three movements and the latter in one; in Aleksandrov’s three-movement sonata from 1964, here recorded for the first time in its original trumpet-and-piano version; and even, to a lesser extent, in the three-movement sonata by Lyubovsky from 1969. By the late 1960s, however, the binding of “Socialist realism” to music had begun to fray, and the willingness to embrace previously anathematized Western influences began to increase. One work here from 1970 offers clear evidence of the transition: Baryshev’s Sonatina in the Russian Style has three movements that, on the one hand, are strongly focused on native Russian material (the titles are “Folk-tunes,” “Long-drawn Song” and “Buffoon Song”) and therefore directly in line with Zhdanov’s and Stalin’s demands, but on the other hand treat the material far more freely and with far greater “Westernization” than would have been tolerated in the 1950 and into the 1960s. The remaining two pieces seem comfortable with being thoroughly Russian but not slavishly so. They are Okunev’s three-movement sonatina from 1970 and Isakova’s three-movement sonata from 1986. Every piece here shows its composer handling the interplay of trumpet and piano with care and a strong sense of the brass instrument’s capabilities, and Akhmadullin and Natalia Bolshakova play all the music idiomatically, stylishly and, indeed, with considerable élan. The CD is a bit much to take in at a single hearing, since its generous hour-and-a-quarter of music makes the similarities among the works clearer than the differences among them. But heard one or two at a time, these very-little-known pieces offer considerable listening enjoyment.
The world-première clarinet-and-piano works on another new MSR Classics CD are more easily heard straight through, possibly just because of the clarinet’s more-mellow-than-the-trumpet sound and possibly because of the five composers’ differing sensibilities. Emily Rutherford (born 1993) offers Three Poems that are truly poetic and warm, despite considerable rhythmic complexity: although written as recently as 2012, this is a work that harks back in its emotional language to much earlier music, although its melodic structure means it would be a stretch to call it neo-Romantic. Early Winter Spires (2013) by Conor Abbott Brown (born 1988) is a portrayal of a Colorado mountain peak – the entire disc is focused on Colorado and titled “Scenes from Home” – and features a clear climbing motif that reaches a summit and then descends rapidly. Suite Antique (2016) by David Mullikin (born 1950) is a deliberate throwback, a five-movement Baroque-style suite whose highlights are a moving penultimate “Lament” and a bright and bouncy finale. Five Scenes from Our Aspen Grove (2008) by Andrew Halladay (born 1982) is a bit of a throwback, too, not so much in form as in content: it is intended as a through-the-seasons musical journey that at the same time reflects human love and loss – a bit too much weight for the rather slight piece to carry effectively, although the scoring for clarinet is particularly attractive. Finally, Two Orchids (2015) by Greg Simon (born 1985) is another attempt to parallel something in nature with something in human experience – here, the transplantation of an orchid with Simon’s own move away from Colorado. The nostalgia in the middle and calm at the end are clear emotional touchstones, but the intensity of other sections is rather overdone – although, again, the writing for clarinet is effective. Kellan Toohey and Suyeon Kim are an excellent performing pair for all the works, playing them with fine attention to the subtleties of the music and a willingness to explore all the emotional highs and lows of every piece on the disc.
The emotions expressed musically by Stephen Yip on a new Navona release are in several instances put across through instrumental combinations or techniques that are unusual by the standards of Western chamber music. Two of the six works on the disc are for solo instruments and show what is unexpected about the CD quite clearly. Whispering Fragrance (2017) is for solo violin (played by Yu-Fang Chen), while Ran (2014) is for the Chinese zither known as the guzheng (played by Jiuan-Reng Yeh). Both the works strain the capabilities of their respective solo instruments in ways that are characteristic of Yip’s style: the violin is required to play high partial natural harmonics and the guzheng’s wood is struck percussively, for example. There is an ethereality to both works and, indeed, to all the music on the CD, whatever its instrumentation. Thus, Ding (2015), for double bass (Henry Chen) and guzheng (Yu-Chen Wang), has nine short sections representing nine ancient rulers, but its sound world is much the same as that of the other pieces here. The three remaining works use exclusively Western instruments but retain Eastern sensibilities – for instance, Tranquility in Consonance (2016) is for flute (Izumi Miyahara), saxophone (Masahito Sugihara), bassoon (Ben Roidl-Ward), and piano (Andrew Schneider), but the instruments are played using some Chinese techniques that are intended to bring forth the same focus on natural sounds that would be evoked by traditional Chinese instruments. Also here are the mostly tranquil In Seventh Heaven (2014) for saxophone (Daniel Gelok), double bass (Rudy Michael Albach), and piano (Schneider); and the deliberately repetitious and partially aleatoric Peace of Mind (2014) for bass and B-flat clarinet (Rik De Geyter), baritone and alto saxophone (Peter Verdonck), and piano (Ward De Vleeschhouwer). The instrumentation and techniques may differ from piece to piece, but the overall effect of all Yip’s music is pretty much the same: it is generally calm and collected, not quite minimalist but certainly not exuberant, contemplative without ever quite becoming profound. Listeners who like any of the pieces on this disc will likely enjoy all of them.