December 30, 2010


Saint-Saëns: Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano; Clarinet Sonata; Oboe Sonata; Bassoon Sonata; Romance in E major, arranged for horn and piano; Tarantella for Flute, Clarinet and Piano. Canada’s National Arts Centre Wind Quintet (Joanna G’froerer, flute; Charles Hamann, oboe; Christopher Millard, bassoon; Kimball Sykes, clarinet; Lawrence Vine, horn); Stéphane Lemelin, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

David L. Post: String Quartet No. 2 (2001); Fantasia on a Virtual Choral (2003); String Quartet No. 4, “Three Photographs of Abelardo Morell” (2005); String Quartet No. 3 (2003). Hawthorne String Quartet (Ronan Lefkowitz and Si-Jing Huang, violins; Mark Ludwig, viola; Sato Knudsen, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

     Chamber music is music of compression: with a limited number of instruments, a composer’s ability to communicate must be less diffuse, more focused than in works written for orchestra or large ensembles. Over time, though, composers have evolved a wide variety of ways of coping with chamber-style works and giving them an individual stamp – and those ways differ considerably today (not surprisingly) from what they were in the 19th century. In the case of Camille Saint-Saëns, there is a certain Gallic charm and easy flow to all his music, orchestral or chamber – even The Carnival of the Animals, it is easy to forget, was written as a chamber work. But Saint-Saëns’ chamber music for winds is not very well known, so a new CD from Canadian players, featuring six chamber pieces for winds, is quite welcome. The three sonatas – for clarinet, oboe and bassoon – are the real finds here. All date from 1921, the last year of the composer’s life, and all are quite different from Saint-Saëns’ earlier music. The easy charm, the romantic flourishes, have quite disappeared: these are works of comparative austerity, with rather light piano accompaniment, and they have a distinctly French sound to them – albeit not the sort of sound being created by Debussy, Ravel and Roussel, whose more-modern music had largely supplanted that of Saint-Saëns in public favor. The bassoon sonata is especially interesting, starting with two quick movements (the second faster than the first) and concluding with a Molto adagio. This is quite out of keeping with the style listeners are used to in Saint-Saëns (and indeed, this is the only one of the three late sonatas with this structure); but it indicates that, even at the end of life, when modernism had taken over the musical world, Saint-Saëns was seeking new ways to express himself through his own tonal language. As for the other works here: the Caprice and Romance actually date to the time of Carnival of the Animals (mid-1880s) and are filled with singing lines, lovely melodies and plenty of fanfare-like passages. The Tarantella, offered at the end of this CD as a kind of encore, is the earliest work on the disc, dating to 1857 – when the composer was 22. Originally written for flute, clarinet and string orchestra, it sounds just fine with piano accompaniment: forthright, self-assured and ebullient, and filled with virtuosity – a light type of chamber music that remained quite popular throughout the Romantic era.

     But for David L. Post (born 1949), chamber works are altogether more serious – even though this American composer (who is also a practicing clinical psychologist) writes music that is as approachable in his time as the music of Saint-Saëns was in his. A new recording of three of Post’s four string quartets actually includes, as a fourth work, a piece tied firmly to the Romantic era: Fantasia on a Virtual Chorale, which takes off from Meditation on the Saint Wenceslas Chorale, written in Romantic style in 1914 by Josef Suk (1874-1935). Post’s Fantasia is respectful of the earlier work and exists mainly in the same tonal idiom, making it quite easy to listen to for a work written in the 21st century. The three quartets here are somewhat tougher going for listeners, but nowhere near as difficult as those of, say, Béla Bartók or Elliott Carter. Although Post studied with Lucas Foss (among others), his music communicates more directly than the often-difficult pieces of Foss and many other American moderns. In particular, Post’s fourth string quartet – called “Three Photographs of Abelardo Morell” and inspired by that Massachusetts photographer’s work – effectively paints, in musical sounds, three scenes that Morell captured with his camera, bringing the work of a visual medium into interesting display in an aural one. Although this quartet was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, it is no better constructed than the second and third quartets (although it is differently constructed). The Hawthorne String Quartet has made Post’s music something of a specialty, and these performances are full of conviction, intensity and, where appropriate, warmth. Like other modern music, Post’s will not be to all tastes, but it is convincing throughout on its own terms, showing that for moderns as well as Romantics (and, indeed, for Classical-era composers back to Haydn), the string quartet can be a highly effective communication medium despite its small ensemble size and the similar tone of its component instruments.

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