December 13, 2018
(+++) SURPRISING SOLOS
Music for Solo Horn. Johanna Lundy, horn; Ellen Chamberlain, violin; Sarah Toy, viola; Robert Chamberlain, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Bassoon Unbounded: 21st Century Music for Bassoon and Piano. Christin Schillinger, bassoon; Jed Moss, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Jean-François Charles: Electroclarinet 1-6; Lina. Jean-François Charles, clarinets. JFC. $15.99.
As showcases for instruments that are not usually thought of as “showcase instruments” – that is, ones heard far less often in a front-and-center role than violin or piano – these two MSR Classics CDs give performers plenty of chances to show the breadth and depth of their instruments and the types of pieces designed to highlight their technique. Not all the works are filled with virtuosity, but some certainly are. The first piece on Johanna Lundy’s CD, Interstellar Call (from Des canyons aux étoiles…) by Messiaen, is intended to reflect some of the natural majesty of the United States but is notable mostly for the extreme demands it places on the performer, from glissandos to passages where the keys must be kept half-closed. Lundy’s ability to surmount the technical issues and make the music sound communicative is quite an accomplishment, even if what the piece communicates is not particularly notable. Next on the disc is Fantasy Pieces by Jay Vosk (born 1948), one of three world première recordings here. In this work, the horn’s sound is considerably more traditional, although Vosk, like Messiaen, tries to use it to express feelings about American natural beauty. Concert Étude by Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958) has some attractively playful melodies and rhythms: it sounds less serious than the Messiaen and Vosk works, although it is scarcely frivolous. Next comes the longest and most interesting work on the disc, as well as the oldest: Bach’s Partita in A minor, BWV 1013, in Lundy’s adaptation of an arrangement by Michel Rondeau. This work was originally designed to display the virtuosity of the transverse flute, and thus might be expected to sit rather uneasily on the horn – certainly the natural horn of Bach’s time could not have managed it. But Lundy handles the piece with sensitivity and skill, and with considerable emotion in the Sarabande – not, perhaps, a particularly historically informed performance, but one that connects emotionally in a way that the horn is particularly capable of doing. Any work following this one would be a bit of a letdown, which is the fate of Night Storm by Dan Coleman (born 1972), another world première recording. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Proud Music of the Storm,” the piece moves in strong bursts alternating with sustained passages, and while the sound and fury are there, what it all signifies is rather modest – although the conclusion, in the horn’s very lowest register, is impressive both in sound and in Lundy’s playing. The Bach might better have been followed by the next work on the CD, Laudatio by Bernhard Kroll (1920-2013), which was inspired by the hymn Te Deum Laudamus and effectively presents a series of emotional touchstones. Kroll’s piece is followed by Sea Eagle by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1944-2016), a tone painting celebrating a bird that was reintroduced to an island off Scotland. The work has a thrilling and exceptionally difficult concluding Molto presto that Lundy takes in a single breath – a genuinely breathtaking achievement. This would have been a wonderful ending for the disc, but there is one more piece, the final world première recording. It is Canyon Songs for horn and strings, by Pamela Decker (born 1955). It is actually this particular arrangement, which dates to 2017, that has not been recorded before; and it is nicely done, with an overall feeling of meditative peace that contrasts in pretty much every way with the conclusion of Davies’ work. In this context, though, it seems rather pale and wan, yet another celebration of natural beauty whose intended expressions about the wonder of creation are comparatively straightforward – although, as with everything here, played with sensitivity and tremendous skill.
All seven bassoon-and-piano works performed by Christin Schillinger and Jed Moss are world premières, and the intent of this CD is as much to put the composers in the limelight as to focus on the bassoon’s capabilities in contemporary music. This is not an entirely happy approach, because the works, while pleasant and well-made enough, are by and large not especially distinguished, while Schillinger’s performance abilities are sufficiently impressive to entice listeners into wanting to hear her cut loose in some music that is less self-consciously modern than are many of these pieces. The disc opens with Three Miniatures for Bassoon and Piano by Michael Van Bebber (born 1976): works of about a minute each that are unsurprising harmonically and rhythmically. Next is Double Helix by Jenni Brandon (born 1977), which blends and contrasts bassoon and piano more effectively and to better effect, but has less to say than its five-movement structure would seem to indicate. Diaphonic by Kyle Hovatter (born 1986) is for bassoon and tape and is just one of innumerable pieces in which composers merge acoustic and electronic sounds without really enhancing either. Swing Shift by Adrienne Albert (born 1941) is considerably more interesting, including percussion as well as bassoon and piano and proceeding through a pleasantly jazzy sonic landscape. Three Night Pieces by Damian Montano (born 1976) is the longest work here – its three sections run 17 minutes – and has some moments of effective tone-painting, notably in the second movement (“Mysterious Elixir”). But it overstays its welcome, especially in the outer movements, which initially make their points effectively but insist on returning to them again and again. Victoria Rooms by Geoffrey Burch (born 1979) is designated as being “for improvised bassoon and tape,” and this presumably gives it an extra dose of contemporary flair, but it just sounds overdone and rather silly in a kind of Grade B horror-movie way. The disc ends with Goodbye, Old Paint by John Steinmetz (born 1951), which draws on a cowboy song of the American West and has a suitably folksy and rather old-fashioned feeling about it. Schillinger’s talent is substantial, as is her artistry; and she apparently feels drawn to the works here out of a commitment to bring contemporary composers and their music to a wider audience. That is all well and good, when the music is sufficiently worthy – but by and large, the pieces here are not special enough in sound or structure to tempt listeners to seek out more works by the same people. The audience will, however, likely be interested in hearing more performances by Schillinger, hopefully in repertoire that allows her to display her prowess while it better engages listeners’ interest.
The situation involving a new CD featuring performances by clarinetist Jean-François Charles is somewhat analogous, except that in this case, Charles is both composer and performer. The reaction of listeners who are not already deeply committed to the form and sound of the music here, however, is likely to be similar to that of listeners who hear Schillinger’s excellent playing: it would be good to hear Charles in somewhat more-forgiving and more-engaging repertoire. It is possible to understand the motivation for music composed as Charles has composed the works on this disc, and even to admire the skill with which the material has been created and put together, without necessarily liking the end product very much. The issue of the genuinely unpleasant sound of some of these works is especially acute because the inherent sound of the clarinet is so beautiful. Charles mixes live electronics with his clarinets in such a way as to give the overall impression – to modify a comment made by Hans von Bülow about Brahms’ Violin Concerto – that Charles is composing not for the clarinet but against it. The first Electroclarinet is for B-flat clarinet, the second for contrabass clarinet, the third for basset horn, the fourth for E-flat clarinet, the fifth for clarinet in A, the sixth for bass clarinet, and Lina is for contrabass clarinet (and is the only piece on the CD that does not include live electronics). As in the works of John Cage, these pieces by Charles seem designed to extend the definition of music to include pretty much everything that a listener may hear while attending and ostensibly paying attention to a concert or recital. The physical sound of the clarinets’ keys, the breaths taken by Charles during performances, and of course the multiplicity of the usual electronic yawps and screeches and outbursts – all these are part of the “musical experience” here. So are the quite obvious attempts to push the instruments beyond what could be described as their (not just the audience’s) comfort zone: for example, near the end of Lina, it actually sounds as if the instrument is being strangled by a rather inept executioner (it is interesting to compare the sound here with that at the end of the “March to the Scaffold” in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique). Charles describes several of the Electroclarinet pieces as homages – to Debussy, Weber, Messiaen, and Stravinsky – but whether the audience (as opposed to Charles himself) will pick up any sense of tribute is doubtful. A great deal of focus in contemporary music is to bring listeners sounds that they have not heard before, using nontraditional methods (especially computers and other forms of electronics) to accomplish what Charles Ives said more than a century ago, to create music that should “stretch the ears.” But there is a certain point at which what is being heard is no longer music but a concatenation of sounds. Indeed, some of Ives’ own music was accused of being just that – but Ives was never trying to force an audience to reconsider what “music” is, any more than, say, Edgard Varèse was. It was Cage who insisted on that reconsideration, and composers such as Charles have continued to insist on it. Some audiences will surely thrive on aural experiences along the lines of the one offered on Charles’ disc, but others can surely be forgiven for wishing they could hear Charles’ obviously very considerable performance skill employed in the service of pieces that work with the clarinet’s inherent warmth and melodiousness rather than so very determinedly against them.