September 05, 2019
(++++) THE WINDS HAVE IT, OR MOST OF IT
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 19. Royal College of Music Wind Orchestra conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.
Paul Reale: Children’s Palace—Sonata for Flute and Piano; Sonata for Oboe and Piano; Transfiguration for Clarinet and Piano; Horn Call for Horn and Piano; Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, “Dies Irae”; Eleven Miniatures for Wind Quintet. Borealis Wind Quintet (Keith Bonner, flute; Tamar Beach Wells, oboe and English horn; JoAnn Sternberg, clarinet; Dan Culpepper, horn; Wayne Hileman, bassoon); Christopher Guzman, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Wolf-Ferrari: Idillio—Concertino for Oboe, Strings and Two Horns; Suite—Concertino for Bassoon, Strings and Two Horns; Serenata for Strings. Fabien Thouand, oboe; Valentino Zucchiatti, bassoon; Nuova Orchestra da Camera “Ferruccio Busoni” conducted by Massimo Belli. Brilliant Classics. $12.99.
Music for Oboe, Piano and Strings by Portuguese Composers. Courtney Miller, oboe; Minji Kwon, piano; Scott Conklin and Katie Wolfe, violins; Christine Rutledge, viola; Anthony Arnone, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Patterns: Chamber Music by James William Stamm, Georges Raillard, Santiago Kodela, Daniel Adams, David Arbury, Bunny Beck, and Jan Järvlepp. Navona. $14.99.
Simonne Draper: Music for Guitar and other instruments. Simonne Draper, guitar and electronic orchestra; Patrik Henel and Helena Slavíková, guitar; Jirí Zmek, percussion. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Whether in large groups or small, wind instruments’ distinctive sounds lend a special character to music – as John Philip Sousa, creator of a form of band that is still the dominant type after more than 125 years, was well aware. Sousa wrote music of symphonic complexity and sometimes of symphonic quality to be played by his band, and he frequently had the band perform his own arrangements of works originally written for full symphony orchestra – to surprisingly good effect, as in his handling of bits of Rossini and Wagner as heard on the 19th entry in Naxos’ excellent Sousa series conducted by Keith Brion. One thing this series does is to show just how good the various bands Brion conducts are, whether they are professional ensembles, military groups or, as in this case, student bands. There is nothing short of professional in the way the Royal College of Music Wind Orchestra handles the material on this disc – and a delightful selection of music it is, too. Five of the eight pieces here are world première recordings, a fact that shows to what extent Sousa has long been undeservedly relegated to the role of “march composer.” He very definitely was that, and a superb one, too, but this series shows how much more Sousa was and how much non-march material his band could play. One never-before recorded work here is the Second Fantasia from “El Capitan” (1896), which is actually the second part of an extended arrangement by Vincent Ragone that has been chopped in two, with Part 1 to be released on a later entry in the Sousa series. This does not seem to make much sense – Second Fantasia lasts less than eight minutes, and if that is half the length of the totality, the whole thing would easily have fit on this CD – but in any case, what is here is virtuosic and tuneful, and concludes with some of the justly famous El Capitan March. Also receiving their première recordings here are an odd work called Non-Committal Declarations (1920), in which three female voices sing solfège; an exceptionally amusing Humoresque called On the 5:15 (1916), in which, among other things, are heard the voices of a husband who has missed his train (Brion himself speaks the part) and his wife waiting at home for him (voice of Linda Ekstrom Stanley); an extended set of selections from Sousa’s musical comedy The Bride Elect (1897); and an instrumental version of a song about World War I, The Fighting Race (1922), featuring a fine trombone solo played by Jonathan Hollick. The other works on the CD are Sousa rarities, even if they are not première recordings: The Band Came Back (1895) is another Humoresque, and a particularly humorous one, too, mixing popular songs of the time with opera excerpts; Sheep and Goat (“Walkin’ to the Pasture”), arranged by Sousa in 1925 from a 1922 song, is a short and pleasant slice of rural life; and the disc concludes with Sousa’s 1921 arrangement of no less than Turkey in the Straw. And lest that seem bizarre, it is worth remembering that Shostakovich wrote an arrangement of Tea for Two in the same decade (1927).
Winds are heard individually, rather than grouped into a band, on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the music of Paul Reale (born 1943) – although in one work, Eleven Miniatures for Wind Quintet, the entire Borealis Wind Quintet has a chance to perform together, and the players make the most of the insouciance and sometimes outright silliness of the music (Reale even throws in a quick quotation from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps). The fact that Reale’s 11 little pieces last a total of nine minutes shows the composer’s skill at miniaturization. Reale has other particular concerns as well, such as the Dies Irae theme, appearing on this disc in his Sonata for Bassoon and Piano even though the work as a whole is rather lighthearted, especially in the finale. Also here is an energetic and upbeat work called Horn Call that suffers not at all from being the shortest piece on the disc – indeed, its length of less than five minutes is likely to leave listeners wanting more, which is testimony to the attractive way Reale handles both the horn and the subsidiary-but-still-important piano. Most of the material on this disc has a positive, buoyant feeling about it, making the pieces enjoyable to hear and, from the enthusiasm with which the performers handle them, apparently very enjoyable to play. There is a touch of the Baroque in the last movement of Transfiguration for Clarinet and Piano, which is a three-movement sonata whose movement titles accurately reflect the way they come across: “Introduction,” “Lament,” and “Triumph.” The movements of the Sonata for Oboe and Piano also reflect the musical argument well, and in this case the overall impression left by the piece is very definitely a lighthearted one: the movements are called “Smiling Chimera,” “Aura Lee” (an attractively lyrical movement based on a Civil War song), and “Flea Circus” (which is, yes, jumpily amusing). The two-movement Children’s Palace—Sonata for Flute and Piano is somewhat more serious, despite its distinctly bouncy ending: through most of its 14 minutes, it is limpid and peaceful, uncomplicated and pleasantly restful to hear. All these works are world première recordings, and all will bring considerable enjoyment both to wind players and to listeners who enjoy the sounds of instruments for which Reale certainly knows how to write with skill.
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) wrote skillfully for winds, too, although mostly within his operas – for which he is far better known than for instrumental music. Late in life, however, Wolf-Ferrari almost completely abandoned writing for the stage and turned his attention to instrumental pieces – and the two concertinos from 1933, heard on a new Brilliant Classics CD, show that he did so with more than a modicum of skill. Both these works have the characteristics of suites, although only the second is so marked. The first certainly does have idyllic portions, but they are not defining elements to the extent that the title Idillio would seem to indicate. In fact, Wolf-Ferrari here is at pains to show off all the emotions that the oboe is capable of evoking, not simply its pastoral ones (which dominate only in the second-movement Scherzo). The contrast between the introspective, rather melancholy Adagio, the third of the four movements, and the brightly cheerful finale is handled particularly effectively both in the composition and in this interpretation by Fabien Thouand, ably supported by the Nuova Orchestra da Camera “Ferruccio Busoni” under Massimo Belli. The concertino for bassoon also explores that wind instrument’s many moods and capabilities, but the emphasis here is, somewhat surprisingly, on the bassoon’s ability to sound sweetly lyrical. Certainly the more-common comic aspects of the instrument are present in this concertino – and are managed very well indeed by Valentino Zucchiatti, as is the whole piece – but Wolf-Ferrari clearly wanted to show that the bassoon is not and need not merely be a jovial, clownish, bubbly instrument. These two concertinos were Wolf-Ferrari’s first instrumental pieces in three decades (his prior one, the Kammersymphonie, dates to 1903), and they show him wedding his operatic style to material that is handled, essentially, in neoclassical terms. This CD also includes Wolf-Ferrari’s earliest surviving complete work, the Serenade for Strings of 1893, a remarkably assured piece to have been composed by a 17-year-old – but also one that is quite derivative of Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and even to an extent of Mozart. Although Wolf-Ferrari’s personal style is not yet evident in this work, its lyricism and willingness to embrace the Classical era as well as Romanticism show, in hindsight, that Wolf-Ferrari was already striving as a teenager to find ways to blend the musical styles of the past and of his contemporaries. None of these three works is heard very often, which is a shame, because they not only show the less-known instrumental side of Wolf-Ferrari’s oeuvre but also offer many pleasures strictly on their own merits.
There are pleasures as well on a (+++) MSR Classics release featuring the oboe, played by Courtney Miller, not with an orchestra of strings plus two horns but on its own, or with piano accompaniment by Minji Kwon, or with string quartet. The unifying element of this CD, the Portuguese origin of all the pieces, is not quite enough to make all the works equally interesting. Certainly there is variety among the pieces, and listeners will have favorites among them without likely enjoying them all equally. Três Peças Atlânticas (1999) by Eurico Carrapatoso (born 1962) is a highlight, the opening Chorinho baiano contrasting pleasantly with the following cleverly titled and cleverly written Swinging in the Rain and the almost bagpipe-like sounds of the concluding Balho micaelense. But the other works here, although all are very well played, are less engaging. Os Contos do Oboé (2017) by Ricardo Matosinhos (born 1982) sounds modern enough but rather pointless. The four-movement Sonatina Breve para Oboé e Piano (2016) by Anne Victorino d’Almeida (born 1978) lies better on the oboe and allows more-effective interchange between oboe and piano, along with a smattering of lyricism in its two slow movements. Saudade for Oboe Solo (1999) by Eurico Carrapatoso (born 1962) gives Miller plenty to do in its two movements, both of which are slow, but from a listener’s perspective, it does not sustain its length particularly well. Suite Romantique is by far the oldest piece here: it dates to 1916, was written by António Fragoso (1897-1918), who died of the flu at age 21, and was transcribed for oboe in 2017. It is a pleasant enough early-20th-century work that is not particularly Portuguese or especially distinguished stylistically, although the songful oboe part comes across well. The first half of the four-movement Oboe Quintet (2004/2017) by Sérgio Azevedo (born 1968) is interesting, opening with a march and continuing with a scherzo; but the third and fourth movements, Intermezzo and Disquiet, are not as engaging, although the quintet is quite well played. This is a pleasant enough disc even though the compositions are somewhat uneven in their level of interest.
Another (+++) anthology CD, this one from Navona, has one work featuring a wind instrument: the Bassoon Quartet by Jan Järvlepp. This does not mean a quartet for bassoon with three stringed instruments – it is a work for four bassoons (played by Janet Underhill, Meryl Summers, Naho Zhu, and Susie Telsey; Telsey also plays the contrabassoon). The three-movement piece chugs along for a while in the beginning and generally highlights the amusing sounds of which bassoons are capable – it is fun to hear for a while, but it makes its points rather quickly and then belabors them to a greater extent than they can bear. The final movement, Jig, is the shortest and, partly as a result, the most effective. The rest of this CD is a distinct hodgepodge of contemporary chamber music. Even stranger than Bassoon Quartet is a David Arbury piece called Four Snares, featuring Robert McCormick, Nick Bruno, Kyle Spence, and Kevin von Kampen on snare drums. Once the initial surprise of the grouping is established – which happens quickly – the piece continues for almost six minutes as a kind of constant rhythmic presence, interesting as a concept but overstaying its welcome. McCormick also plays the marimba on this disc, along with Lee Hinkle, in a Daniel Adams piece called Road Traversed and Reversed that seems mostly interested in what sorts of sounds the marimba can make, not in what it can convey by doing so. In contrast, the two-movement Suite for Sarro by Bunny Beck, played by the Bama Players (Sarah Dennis, violin; Meredith Treastor, viola; Laura Usiskin, cello), is an emotionally evocative work whose two short movements explore the feeling of loss and one’s response to it. The three other works on this hodgepodge of a disc all feature guitar. Santiago Kodela performs his own Two Lords, a more-or-less-classical three-movement suite based on works by two 21st-century non-classical guitarists. David William Ross plays Georges Raillard’s Disintegration, whose title fits its progress from melody to dissonance and eventual nothingness. And Ross and Adam Levin are the two guitarists in Asymmetry by James William Stamm, one of the most-effective works here in its interesting intermingling of the two instruments in an evenly paced and melodically intricate piece. The exceptional variety of compositional styles and instruments on this CD make it difficult to determine its likely audience: listeners who enjoy the chamber music of today may well find some material they like here, but it is hard to know if anyone will find all these pieces worthwhile.
Enjoyment is also up for grabs on a (+++) MSR Classics guitar CD featuring the compositions and performances of Simonne Draper. The 11 works here are a fairly typical contemporary blend of classical elements with ones drawn directly from pop music. Draper varies the material somewhat by sometimes writing for solo guitar, sometimes for guitar duo and sometimes for guitars with percussion; she is also fond of electronics, which she employs in fairly standard pop-music mode. It is the pieces here that seem to speak the language of the guitar most plainly and straightforwardly that are the most effective. For example, Finesa, one of the longest works on the disc (more than five minutes), is also one of the most affecting, using what is essentially a simple pop/folk melody for continuity as Draper and Patrik Henel weave a variety of harmonies and thematic elements around it. Nostalgitana meanders pleasantly along, while Dolorosa is considerably more wistful than sad – again, its emotions are the surface-level ones of pop music, and Draper seems quite satisfied with that. The remaining works here are Espanola, Canzonetta dell’Aria, Legenda Lila, Canzonetta dell’Alba, Canzonetta del Sonno, La Danza dei Ritmi, Canzonetta dell’Acqua, and La Danza dei Bassi. On the whole, the pieces are pleasant enough to listen to, unchallenging to the ear, without significant emotional depth but with enough underpinning of warm feelings to keep them interesting. The CD is a short one, running less than 40 minutes, and provides comfortable background music rather than anything more demanding. Guitar fanciers will enjoy it and may particularly like the fact that many of the pieces are largely indistinguishable from each other: they tend to blend together to produce a sense of pleasantness that is undemanding of the ears or emotions, certainly being nicely played but being pretty much forgettable after they have once been heard.