February 21, 2019
(+++) CHAMBER COMBOS
Carl Vollrath: Souls in Transitions—The Secrets of the Magdalenian Caves; Tombs of Ancient Times; Buddha of the Future. Summa Trio (Maiani Da Silva, violin; Jennifer Bewerse, cello; Karolina Rojahn, piano). Navona. $14.99.
Phil Salathé: Mandarin Ducks; The Heart That Loves but Once; Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North; The Wood Between the Worlds; Expecting the Spring Breeze. Ling-Fei Kang, oboe; Charles Huang, oboe and English horn; Andrew Knebel, viola; Annabelle Taubl, harp; Yu-Chen Shih, piano and celesta; Katie Kennedy, cello; Mohamed Shams, piano; John Birt, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.
Music for Oboe and Bassoon by Margaret Griebling-Haigh, Marc Vallon, Geoffrey Bush, Daniel Baldwin, and Ernst Mahle. The Iowa Ensemble (Andrew Parker, oboe; Benjamin Coelho, bassoon; Alan Huckleberry, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
The three Carl Vollrath piano trios collected under the title Souls in Transitions are intended to express the lives and beliefs in afterlife of people from multiple ages – although the composer says he did not think of the unifying theme until after he had finished writing the pieces. That is just as well, since the spiritual gloss does not really appear to fit the pieces particularly well, individually or together. The first trio, in two movements, was inspired by ancient Peruvian cave paintings, but the music draws on nothing particularly Peruvian: it is for the most part quiet, rather elegant music, generally fairly downbeat, with a series of second-movement flourishes that sound somewhat standardized in a contemporary composition in the way their abruptness contrasts with more-lyrical material. The second trio, in three movements, opens pizzicato in a way that is reminiscent of the “flourish” elements of the first – indeed, there are musical connections among all three trios that unite them more effectively than does their stated philosophical import. Vollrath says that the second trio is mainly about ancient Egypt – a culture that was actually later than that during which the Peruvian cave paintings were made. Again, though, there is nothing particularly Egyptian about any of this music, which ebbs and flows not like the Nile but like many other contemporary chamber works: single instruments are contrasted repeatedly with duets or full-trio elements, the material is largely atonal and often athematic, and the string writing is designed to hold down the tendency of the piano to overpower other instruments in a chamber-music setting. The overall tempo of this trio is, like that of the first one, moderate; there is, in fact, not a great deal of differentiation between the two trios in pacing or use of the instruments. For that matter, the third trio is noticeably similar to the first two as well. Vollrath says the theme of this one is how Buddha, and by extension religion in general, changes over time, as humans evolve and take their spiritual beliefs and quests with them. A quieter, even minimalist palette would seem to be in order here, but Vollrath defies any such expectation by again presenting a three-movement piece that uses the instruments in now-familiar ways and, indeed, varies little from movement to movement. The Summa Trio plays well together and does a good job of contrasting the many solo passages with those featuring two instruments or all three. However, the overall effect of this new Navona CD is of a single eight-movement work in which neither individual movements nor elements of those movements may be said to stand out: sections and whole movements could be swapped with others arbitrarily to much the same effect. The music is knowledgeably put together but ultimately does not seem to have much to say.
The longest work on a new Ravello CD featuring music by Paul Salathé also has a spiritual gloss of sorts. The Wood Between the Worlds, for oboe, English horn, cello, and piano, is a 10-movement suite whose concept recalls the strong Christian symbolism of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories: the work’s title comes from The Magician’s Nephew. The woodland is an entry point to multiple worlds, and the first, sixth and last movements of the suite portray the wood itself. The remaining ones neatly and briefly paint musical pictures of individual worlds: one frozen, one dead beneath a dying sun, one “shrouded in forest,” one where machines rule, one oceanic, one “of fools, enamored of the glory of war,” and one that is “the same world many years later, now transfigured by wisdom.” Each of these little portrayals expertly mixes the four instruments in a different way. The focus is primarily on oboe and English horn throughout, but the cello and piano are used as highlighters to considerable effect, as in the pounding piano’s portrayal of the machine world. Salathé varies themes and tempos constantly to produce his effects, and if some of them are rather obvious (such as those for the world of ocean), others are very engaging indeed (such as the contrast between the warlike world and its later transformation). Salathé’s evocative woodwind writing is as interesting to hear for its own sake as it is to consider in the context of the scenes he is trying to convey. Another suite on the CD, the six-movement Mandarin Ducks, for oboe and English horn, offers even cleverer instrumentation, using the two forms of oboe to wind around each other, intertwine, part and come together, play happily and get angry at each other, and generally do a highly satisfactory and often very amusing imitation of two paired ducks that go through all the same ups and downs that human couples experience. The less-than-a-minute section in which the ducks lead their ducklings along is as much a charmer as the raucous one in which the two ducks are heard “Squabbling over a Slug.” Salathé sticks with an avian theme in Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North, whose three movements – for solo English horn – portray the “Lesser Snow Ostrich,” “Great Northern Wandering Dodo,” and “Sub-Arctic Screech Owl.” This is all done with a notable mixture of grandeur and silliness, the exact elements’ percentage varying from movement to movement. Each movement lasts less than two minutes but manages to encapsulate a nonexistent avian to fine effect. The veneer of amusement present in most of these works disappears, however, in one of them: The Heart That Loves but Once, whose title comes from a letter written by Clara Wieck to her not-yet-husband, Robert Schumann, and whose distinctly unusual instrumentation – oboe, viola, harp, piano and celesta – gives the piece an odd and eerie sound that, far from commenting on or portraying one of the great love affairs of musical history, seems to suggest that the love can never be and will remain at best a distant, unfulfillable desire. The various performers, led by Ling-Fei Kang and Charles Huang, handle all these works by Salathé with exceptional understanding and skill. The music is somewhat on the odd side, especially if listened to straight through: this is one of those discs best heard as individual pieces rather than a sustained concert or recital. The final work on the CD, though, is clearly intended as an encore: it is Expecting the Spring Breeze by Taiwanese composer Teng Yu-Hsien (1906-1944), arranged by Salathé for oboe and guitar and concluding the disc with rather more sweetness and naïveté than is heard anywhere else on the CD. The well-known melody actually sounds a bit like a folk song from the American West in cowboy days, and the guitar part only adds to that impression. This piece makes for an unusual-sounding completion of a recording featuring a variety of unusual sounds throughout.
The sounds are more straightforward and generally quite pleasant on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the three members of the Iowa Ensemble playing, among other things, folk songs. Those are in Five French Folk Songs (2010) by Marc Vallon (born 1955), and are set in a mostly straightforward manner in which the differing timbres of oboe and bassoon blend well, with the piano providing a solid underpinning. Here and in the other four works on the CD, the composers take advantage of the inherently different qualities of oboe and bassoon sound – in contrast to Salathé’s approach, which emphasizes the similarities between oboe and English horn as often as their differences. Andrew Parker, Benjamin Coelho and Alan Huckleberry perform in a manner that always sounds relaxed and informal, as if they are simply gathering in someone’s parlor for a bit of instrumental give-and-take. The approach fits the easygoing Vallon music well, and it is equally effective in the more-intense Awatovi (2012) by Daniel Baldwin (born 1978). This is a work whose direct and rather driven first movement gives way to a declamatory second movement and then a finale that takes full advantage of the bassoon’s ability to bubble and the oboe’s to sing. The performers catch and explore the music’s varying moods very well. They also nicely handle the two-movement Trio (1952) by Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998), although the music here – each movement has a slow section followed by a quick one – seems to give the performers less with which to work: both movements seem to go on and on, even though neither is particularly long. The three movements of Trocadillos (2013) by Margaret Griebling-Haigh (born 1960) also somewhat overstay their welcome, but there is some interesting rhythmic treatment here along with some well-done contrasts between the wind instruments, notably in the concluding Burlesco. The most classically poised work on the CD, and the one giving the musicians the most opportunities for seamless interrelationship, is the Trio by German-born Brazilian composer Ernst Mahle (born 1929). Mahle wrote this piece in 2007, at the age of 78, and it conveys a mature understanding of instrumental capabilities and balance. A compact work that runs 13 minutes, Mahle’s Trio features three movements of nearly equal length that place nearly equal importance on each of the three instruments. Solid and without unnecessary flourishes, the trio is attractive to hear and also gives the performers plenty of opportunities for the collegiality that is the Iowa Ensemble’s most-prominent characteristic. This CD is something of a specialty item – not many people will likely know these composers well, much less these specific pieces, and the oboe/bassoon/piano combination is scarcely an everyday listening experience. However, anyone interested in exploring some well-made chamber works for a wind combination that is infrequently heard will find much to enjoy here.