January 24, 2019
(+++) CLASSICAL WITH A DIFFERENCE
Hakan A. Toker: Arrangements of works by Beethoven, Satie, Henry Mancini, Hubert Giraud, Bach, Paul Desmond, Dvořák, Mozart, and Nat Simon. Hakan A. Toker, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Peter Lieuwen: Music, Volume 3—Sarumba (2015); Chamber Symphony (2013); Quad Concerto (2015); Concerto Alfresco (2013). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Horn and Piano by Sixten Sylvan, Jean-Michel Damase, Leslie Bassett, and York Bowen. Ian Zook, horn; Eric Ruple, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The type of enjoyment associated with classical music is often thought to be so rarefied that it is available only to a small subset of listeners, the remainder needing the more immediately accessible approach of various forms of pop music as their everyday fare. But classical music was everyday “popular” music for a long time – even opera was the equivalent of a multimedia extravaganza – and every once in a while, glimmers of fun peep through in ways that may, just may, garner a new audience for classical works. Sometimes this happens because people hear Carnival of the Animals (which was even made into a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon), or encounter Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, or hear familiar themes by Rossini from William Tell or The Barber of Seville. At other times, it can be attractive to encounter deliberate sendups of the classical-music world, whether through Peter Schickele’s “PDQ Bach” or through the playfulness of Hakan A. Toker – the latter being the subject of a new Navona recording. Toker’s treatment of classic scores ranges from sendup to genuine reinterpretation, and he knows musical approaches – classical, jazz and improvisational – well enough to make most of the works here sound intriguing and some of them genuinely new. Elise’s Got the Blues, based on Beethoven’s piano miniature Für Elise, is fairly straightforward as soon as Toker starts hitting “wrong notes.” And Gnossienne Czardas, after Satie, is mostly a slightly iconoclastic take on a composer who was an iconoclast already. However, Moon River Invention, based on Henry Mancini, is delightful, with “invention” here referring to the musical form so often used by Bach: this is a work that Bach could have written if he had come up with the familiar Mancini theme. Toker next takes to the harpsichord, not for Bach but for Sous le Ciel de Versailles, based on music by Hubert Giraud that will likely be less familiar to listeners than the Mancini tune. For the rest of the CD, Toker combines his own piano playing with contributions from other instruments and performers. He turns directly to Bach for Toccata & Fugue in Blue, which handles Bach along more or less the same lines as Beethoven and which includes drums played by Hakan Çetinkaya. Next is Take Five or More, based on Paul Desmond’s highly catchy, already jazzy tune, and combining piano with tabla, played by Gürkan Özkan. Then comes a trio called When My Ma’ Sings to Me, based on Dvořák and including both double bass (Mehmet Sönmez) and drums (Çetinkaya again). And then Toker expands into three forays into full-fledged chamber music, the first two based on Mozart. Rondo Turchissimo opens with the original Rondo alla turca piano solo and rapidly expands into a colorful mixture with a very definite Turkish flavor, undoubtedly made extra-effective by Toker’s own Turkish ethnicity. Included here are B-flat clarinet (Aykut Sütoğlu), zurna (Vedat Dinletir), kanun (Bilal Kızıllar), ud (Tolga Karaslan), double bass (Sönmez again), and hand percussions (İsmail Darıcı and Çetinkaya). The piano original sneaks in cleverly from time to time. This piece is the high point of the CD. What follows is Rondo alla Latino, which starts from the same Mozart music and gives it the flair of Latin dance – to somewhat less intriguing effect that the prior arrangement. Here the instrumentation is strictly Western, including two trumpets (Ömer Dağaşan and Enes Nalkıran), French horn (Begüm Gökmen), trombone (Burak Dursun), tuba (Ertan Şahin), hand percussion (Darıcı), and drums (Çetinkaya). The final piece is based on Nat Simon’s very familiar Istanbul Not Quite Constantinople, and this arrangement too has a distinct Turkish flavor, combining piano with B-flat clarinet (Sütoğlu), kanun (Kızıllar), ud (Karaslan), double bass (Sönmez), and hand percussion (Darıcı). This piece sounds as if Toker is trying a bit too hard for rather obvious exotic-to-Western-ears sounds, but it has pleasant moments and is very nicely constructed – as are all the works on the disc. The downside to offbeat (sometimes literally off-beat) material like this is that it is unlikely to have much staying power. All these Toker arrangements would be fun to experience in a live performance, but they will likely wear thin fairly rapidly in recorded form: it is hard to imagine most listeners returning to them again and again, as they likely would (and probably already do) to the originals on which Toker builds. The whole CD is certainly fun to hear, but for most people, probably only once or twice.
Deviations from classical-music traditions are far more modest and handled with far more seriousness in the third volume of the MSR Classics series devoted to music of Peter Lieuwen (born 1953). Lieuwen is a skilled orchestrator who is not afraid to create works that are defiantly tonal and pleasantly melodic. His style is filled with syncopation and rhythmic variety, and if his more-lyrical material is somewhat straightforward and unconvincing, at least he is not afraid to try to pack some emotion even into 21st-century music. Two of the four works on this CD take classical models in somewhat new directions. Sarumba, a mostly dancelike work with a vaguely Latin beat (or series of beats) combined with underlying ostinato passages, is written for two violins and chamber orchestra – a combination that can be found as far back as Vivaldi but has scarcely been in favor in more-recent classical works. It gets an enthusiastic performance from violinists Emeline Pierre and Lavard Skou Larsen; Larsen also conducts the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss. The other work here that somewhat pushes boundaries is the Quad Concerto, which, as its name states, is for four instruments – in a combination that not even Vivaldi tried. They are clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, along with orchestra; here, Larsen conducts the SOLI Chamber Ensemble and Moores Symphony Orchestra. Lieuwen uses the varying sonorities of the four soloists well, and there is some attractive percussion writing here, too, although this single-movement work never sounds quite as interesting or intricate as its combination of solo parts would seem to imply. The two other Lieuwen pieces here are more straightforward. Chamber Symphony is a pleasant but not very involving three-movement work portraying, as its movements say, “Nature,” “Love,” and “Cosmos.” The evocative titles notwithstanding, the music meanders pleasantly without striking emotional chords as strongly as Lieuwen sometimes does in other works. Part of the issue here may lie with the performance by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under Franz Anton Krager: the ensemble plays adequately but without any strong sense of involvement in the material. The fourth work on the disc, Concerto Alfresco for trumpet and orchestra, comes across better: as the title implies, this is outdoorsy music with a considerable amount of flair, performed enthusiastically by trumpet soloist Allen Vizzutti – and here, Krager’s direction (of the Moores ensemble) seems better-attuned to the music, although the orchestral material in this case is somewhat bland. Lieuwen’s music, whether created within traditional classical bounds or a bit beyond them, is easy to listen to and shows the hand of a skilled craftsman throughout; but it does tend to be superficial rather than deep.
Compositional skill is also in evidence in the four three-movement horn-and-piano sonatas performed by Ian Zook and Eric Ruple on another new MSR Classics release. The CD bears the title “Musica Incognita” in deference to these works being so little known. Indeed, the sonata by Leslie Bassett (1923-2016) has never been recorded before, even though it dates back to 1954. To some extent, the neglect of these works is understandable: the horn-piano combination is not often heard in recitals, and neither these pieces nor their composers could be said to be among the best-known of the 20th century – although works by York Bowen (1884-1961) have been cropping up with increasing frequency on recent recordings. Bowen’s work here, composed in 1937, is impressive in its warmth and its careful use of the horn, which by and large partners the piano rather than dominating it. The first two of Bowen’s sonata’s three movements are deliberate in pace, the third being much brighter. Zook and Ruple, who play off each other admirably in addition to playing well together in unison passages, produce a convincingly expressive performance. The Bassett sonata is less immediately appealing. Its dissonances seem contrived, and Bassett does not use the horn’s capabilities to as good effect as does Bowen. The instruments tend to sound as if they are playing separate pieces in isolation rather than as if they are making music together. The sonata by Swedish composer Sixten Sylvan (1914-2001), which dates to 1963, is better-proportioned. The first movement’s horn part recalls the instrument’s longtime hunting associations; the second gives Zook plenty of opportunity for warmth; and the finale, which also has considerable feeling of hunting calls, nicely balances the horn and piano while allowing the character of each instrument to come through. The latest sonata here, by Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013), dates to 1996 and shares with Bassett’s work some of the tendency to present very different material in the two instruments. But Damase does so more convincingly, juxtaposing sections in which horn and piano go off in different directions with ones in which they respond to and complement each other. Damase’s sonata has a rather deliberate feeling throughout, even in the finale, despite that movement being marked Allegro vivo. This is music that horn players may take to heart more readily than everyday listeners will. Indeed, that is true of the entire CD except for the Bowen sonata, which will be the work of greatest interest to the many listeners who will be unfamiliar with this “Musica Incognita.”