July 09, 2009

(++++) MODERNS

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”) and 5. Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Naxos. $8.99.

Steven R. Gerber: Chamber Music. Kurt Nikkanen, violin and viola; Cho-Liang Lin and Cyrus Beroukhim, violins; Brinton Smith, cello; Sara Davis Buechner, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     Composers’ relationships with tonality were a source of considerable angst and a great deal of experimentation in the early 20th century – and the pull toward a tonal style (or push away from it) continues to affect composers today. Carl Nielsen had a particularly complicated relationship with tonal structures, and that is one thing that makes his six symphonies so fascinating. The ear hears them as tonal but usually cannot quite pin them down – in what key, exactly, are these works, or the movements of which they are made? Nielsen’s tonal fluidity is especially clear in his fourth and fifth symphonies, presented together in the final volume of Michael Schønwandt’s performances with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR. These re-releases of 1999 performances stand up remarkably well a decade later, with Nielsen’s unusual and intense use of drums (including two timpanists in No. 4) being brought forth especially well. Schønwandt sees these as unified works with strong parallels. Certainly both are rooted in World War I: No. 4 was composed during it and No. 5 not long afterwards. Schønwandt emphasizes the flow of No. 4, whose four movements are played without pause, and he follows Nielsen’s tempo indications carefully. This produces a closely argued work whose famous fourth-movement timpani duel still comes as a surprise when first heard, but turns out by the end to fit closely into the work’s overarching theme – that there exists an inextinguishable life-force through which all beings are connected. Schønwandt also effectively integrates the snare-drum tattoos of No. 5 (Nielsen’s only mature symphony without a title) into the larger canvas of the work. These dramatic entries, which prefigure Shostakovich’s implacable Nazi march in the first movement of his Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”), present a distinct and sinister challenge to the rest of the orchestra; indeed, at one point Nielsen says the drummer must play in his own tempo, as if determined to send the music off track. This is a work in which tonality, form and expression are all fluid, containing in its two movements half a dozen distinct sections, a fugue, contrasts between the unsettling and the tranquil, and more. Interestingly, the symphony resolves clearly into a key that is not only positive but also, since Beethoven’s Third Symphony, positively heroic: E-flat major. Schønwandt’s knowing handling of the work’s complexities, and the excellent and idiomatic playing of the orchestra in both symphonies, make this CD a triumphant completion of these performers’ Nielsen cycle.

     Contemporary American composer Steven R. Gerber (born 1948) also has an interesting relationship with tonality, being more willing to embrace it structurally in his more-recent works than he was earlier in his career. The new, very well-played CD of his chamber music spans most of Gerber’s compositional life, including works written over a period of more than 30 years. The earliest pieces here are the least tonal and most derivative: Fantasy for Solo Violin (1967), a virtuoso display piece; Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1968), which harks back to Bartók and requires both technical virtuosity and the performers’ willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves; and Duo for Violin and Cello (1969), in which Gerber consciously adapts Elliott Carter’s technique of making each instrument a separate personality and having them argue or ignore each other before eventually reconciling. All these works are interesting to hear and challenging (sometimes very challenging) to play, but they are less indicative of Gerber’s personal style than the later, shorter and generally more tonal works on this CD. Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitry Shostakovich’ for Solo Viola (1991) is a fascinating exploration that eventually incorporates the earlier composer’s signature “DSCH” motif to fine effect. Notturno for Violin, Cello and Piano (1996) is dark, strong and (as Gerber himself observes) rather Brahmsian – and conveys a real sense of depth. The four remaining pieces offered here are all collections of miniatures: each contains three brief movements, some barely longer than one minute. But Gerber does a great deal in these short forms. Three Songs without Words (1986), a solo-violin arrangement of some Gerber songs with words, is simple and emotionally straightforward. Three Pieces for Two Violins (1997) nicely mixes dissonance with lyricism, eventually subsiding into the latter. Gershwiniana (1999), for three violins, and Three Folksong Transformations for Violin, Cello and Piano (2001) both take skeletal elements of tunes and re-harmonize them while thoroughly changing their moods. The final movement of the Gershwin-based piece, called “Blues-Etude,” is especially compelling. Gerber does not adopt tonality on a wholesale basis in any of these works, but he flirts with it often enough – and uses it frequently enough as a jumping-off or concluding point – to show that he has thought its implications through carefully and found some personal and very effective ways to adapt it to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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