September 19, 2019
(+++) TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS
Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet; Vivaldi: Concerto in D, RV93; Joaquín Turina: La oración del torero; Boccherini: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D, G448. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). Cedille. $12.
Derek Bermel: Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra; Mar de Setembro; A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace. Luciana Souza, vocals; Ted Nash, saxophone and alto saxophone; Derek Bermel, clarinet; Juilliard Jazz Orchestra; Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
Jimmy López Bellido: Symphony No. 1, “The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda”; Bel Canto—A Symphonic Canvas. Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Excellent playing in the service of some rather oddly assorted repertoire is the hallmark of a new Cedille disc featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet. The sequencing of centuries – 20th, 18th, 20th, 18th – makes for some musical moments that would be jarring if the performances were not so smooth. As is, the individual pieces here are highly attractive and beautifully performed, but the CD as a whole is somewhat strange. The connective tissue is supposed to be the notion of music by Italian composers who have been influenced by Spain – a formulation that, being rather esoteric and also something of a stretch, clarifies pretty much nothing. It is best to hear the disc simply as an example of first-rate playing by a chamber grouping that is less than common. On that basis, it has many delights. The most interesting work on it, and the longest, is Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, a work from 1950 that has far earlier roots. It flows beautifully and has a particularly moving slow movement marked Andante mesto that is more wistful than genuinely sad. The Allegro con fuoco marking of the finale is exactly right, however: with the exception of a contrasting middle section, this is forceful, even fiery music that shows Isbin at her best and the Pacifica players at their most intense. Vivaldi’s well-known lute concerto RV93 – one of only two such pieces that Vivaldi wrote – appears next, in an arrangement by Emilio Pujol, further modified by Isbin. It provides some respite, although Pujol’s recasting of the music is rather far from Vivaldi’s original. Then the disc returns to the 20th century for Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero, a work with an “arrangement” past of its own: Turina originally wrote it for lute quartet and subsequently rescored it in several other forms, including this one for string quartet. It is an emotional, single-movement work intended to reflect a bullfighter’s prayer before entering the bull ring. The CD then moves back a couple of centuries to a Boccherini guitar quintet that is yet another arrangement, in this case Boccherini’s own, for a guitar-playing Spanish nobleman: the first two movements come from one earlier string quintet and the finale from a different one. The pastiche works well even though its two sources were written 17 years apart: the guitar plays a largely subsidiary role in the central movement, giving the whole work interesting balance, and then Isbin comes very much to the fore in the finale, whose slow opening leads to a Fandango that is very vigorous indeed and features castanets and tambourine (played by Eduardo Leandro). This makes a rousing conclusion to a disc that is more of a friends-making-music-together offering than a tightly knit recital – a circumstance that will bother lovers of this instrumental combination not at all.
The notion of visits and vicissitudes is even more prominent on a new Naxos CD offering three works by Derek Bermel (born 1967). Bermel is a fine clarinetist who, in the creation-of-music realm, is one of those “fusion” contemporary composers, his style containing elements of jazz and blues as well as traditional classical approaches. Two of the three works on this CD lie more clearly in the jazz world than the classical one. Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra (2006) is full of standard jazz and blues sounds, all wails and yawps and wah-wah as it reflects the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, painting various tone pictures that quite clearly have their roots in traditional spirituals as well as other elements that are foundational to the jazz/blues world. In fact, much of the piece is bluesy to an extent that wears thin after a while, although the fourth and shortest movement, “Riots and Moon Shines,” brings some musically welcome contrast to the underlying seriousness of purpose. The feeling of the blues carries over into Mar de Setembro as well, although this song cycle from 2011 is built around Brazilian rather than American texts: the words are by Eugénio de Andrade (1923-2005). Jazz singer Luciana Souza, for whom Bermel wrote the work, sings the primarily nostalgic and melancholy music – whose influence, both emotional and musical, is the Brazilian saudade – with strength both vocal and emotional. The latter quality is shown largely through restraint: much of the material is delicate and graceful in sound, in contrast to the emotions the words express. As in Migration Series, though, there is something a bit monochromatic about Mar de Setembro – which, however, is less inclined to overstay its welcome, since its five songs last 12-and-a-half minutes while Migration Series goes on for half an hour. The most interesting work here from a classical-music rather than “blend” standpoint is A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace (2009), although there is blending here as well – of a sort. This piece, whose three movements bear Hungarian titles, is a tribute to and commemoration of the last years of the life of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), who died in exile in New York after completing what would become his most famous work, the Concerto for Orchestra (which Bermel’s piece references musically). Bartók’s last years were creatively rich but otherwise poor – he was financially strapped and in rapidly declining health. It is the positive and negative elements of the end of Bartók’s life that Bermel effectively reflects in A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace, whose musical language – which is, to an extent, that of Bartók’s late works – is skillfully employed, resulting in a piece that sounds recognizably American while still showing some Hungarian roots. This is a sensitively conceived and intelligently written tribute, and the performance by the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller is well-balanced, rhythmically astute and altogether convincing – as are the interpretations of the other Bermel works on this CD.
The peregrinations and influences highlighted on the Cedille and Naxos discs pale beside the inspiration for the main work on a new MSR Classics CD: Jimmy López Bellido’s Symphony No. 1, “The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda.” There is no way this extended symphonic treatment of a literary source will appeal to a wide audience, despite its attentiveness to orchestration and its often-impressive use of rhythm and coloration. The reason is that very few people will know the source, which is the final novel by Cervantes – completed just days before his death. Like the far-better-known Don Quixote, Cervantes’ The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda is a picaresque tale of wandering and meeting a wide variety of oddball characters. The author himself thought his final novel his best – but the work remains very little known outside Spain, and even there (because of its use of language) is not especially popular (although the language of Don Quixote is at least equally complex). In terms of story, The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda is presented as four “books” that take the title characters on a pilgrimage from Scandinavia to Rome, where they are eventually joined in marriage at the feet of the Pope. During their extensive travels, the two pretend to be brothers, and this leads to much of the confusion and off-the-cuff comedy for which Cervantes is known. In interpreting the novel musically, López (born 1978) uses the traditional four-movement form of a symphony to portray events in the four “books” – but because those events will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of listeners (unlike those in, say, Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote), the question is whether the piece hangs together in strictly musical terms even for those who do not understand its references. It does, to an extent, and its impressive use of the orchestra – particularly notably in the third and shortest movement – makes much of it attractive to hear. It is not as tightly knit as a traditional symphony, however, and comes across more as a blend of symphony and suite, no doubt because of its illustrative elements. Still, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya plays the work with skill and enthusiasm in this world première recording. And they do an equally good job with Bel Canto—A Symphonic Canvas, also a world première on disc and, all in all, a more-effective work. This is a 30-minute, three-movement distillation of López’s 2015 opera Bel Canto, one of those works in which murderous guerrillas are deeply sensitive at heart and the Stockholm Syndrome runs rampant. Whatever the merits of the opera, López’s suite from it – which actually has elements of symphony, just as his symphony has elements of suite – is dramatically and emotionally very effective. The story – taken from Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel – revolves around young terrorists taking, as hostages, politicians and business executives; this is based on events at the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996-97. The suite’s first movement sets the scene and builds to a climax associated in the opera with a killing; the second movement highlights the varied and growing relationships among the terrorists and between them and their hostages; and the third uses music from the opera’s final scene, in which commandos break in and kill the terrorists – also killing one hostage who tries to shield the guerrilla with whom he has fallen in love. This does indeed sound like a description of an opera – but what matters in this release is that the music works quite well as pure music, its blending and contrasting of drama and lyricism managed effectively by López and communicated skillfully by Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth ensemble. López’s firm command of the orchestra is evident throughout this CD, and much of the music here is exciting, with all of it being well-crafted.