March 24, 2011


Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2; Webern: Six Bagatelles; Berg: Lyric Suite, for String Quartet. Quatuor Diotima (Yun-Peng Zhao and Naaman Sluchin, violins; Franck Chevalier, viola; Pierre Morlet, cello); Sandrine Piau, soprano; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto. Naïve. $16.99.

George Antheil: Sonatas for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Violin Solo. Mark Fewer, violin; John Novacek, piano. Azica. $16.99.

Rodolfo Halffter: Chamber Music, Volume 1. Soloists of the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid (Cinta Varea, flute; Francisco José Segovia, piano; Víctor Arriola, violin; Vicente Fernández, oboe; María Elena Barrientos, piano). Naxos. $8.99.

Gavin Bryars: Piano Concerto (The Solway Canal); After Handel’s Vesper; Ramble on Cortona. Ralph van Raat, piano; Cappella Amsterdam and Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic conducted by Otto Tausk. Naxos. $8.99.

Gavin Bryars: Sub Rosa; Philip Glass: Façades. Sentieri Salvaggi conducted by Carlo Boccadoro. Cantaloupe Music. $9.99.

Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen: Uniko. Kronos Quartet (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello); Kimmo Pohjonen, accordion and voice; Samuli Kosminen, string & accordion samples, programming. Ondine. $16.99.

For Your Safety. Zach Miskin, cello, featuring the Books, Bryce Dessner & Padma Newsome, Todd Reynolds, Phil Kline. Naïve. $16.99.

     It may be difficult to pin down a precise definition of what “modern classical music” is, but it is certainly possible to get an idea of the breadth of the new concepts and forms that began to emerge in the early 20th century – and continue to be changed and refined today – by listening to a wide selection of pieces by different composers from different countries and different times. The German tradition, which Arnold Schoenberg believed he was carrying on and expanding by creating music based on the 12-tone row, is well represented in finely played performances of three semi-well-known works by Schoenberg himself and by Webern and Berg. The 1907-08 String Quartet No. 2 by Schoenberg shows him moving decidedly into new territory despite the fact that the quartet has a noticeable key (F-sharp minor). The third and fourth movements of the work include a soprano, who sings the words of poems by Stefan George. And the fourth movement has no key signature – it is the composer’s first foray into atonality. Webern’s Six Bagatelles were written only a few years later (1913) but already represent a significant step beyond Schoenberg’s early compositional forays. The new Naïve recording also includes a seventh, unpublished bagatelle – which, like the Schoenberg quartet, uses a voice. Later still is Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925-26), which quotes from the Lyric Symphony by Alexander Zemlinsky – and which, as performed here, includes “De Profundis Clamavi” by Baudelaire as part of the final movement. Thus, this CD presents what may be considered “mainstream” modern German compositions – all works that, in the versions heard on this disc, pull the voice into forms that were strictly instrumental in earlier times.

     George Antheil (1900-1959) had German roots – his birth name was Georg Carl Johann Antheil – but is always identified as an American composer; in fact, his musical experimentation tended to appall European listeners. He wrote two violin sonatas in 1923, a third (not heard on the new Azica CD) a year later, and a fourth in 1948. The first two date from a time when Antheil was experimenting with technology-based music, but they are relatively straightforward in form and approach, if not in tonality (and No. 2 contains only a single short movement). No. 4 supposedly harks back to Baroque models – it contains a passacaglia and a toccata – but its sound is very distinctly modern, although more in Prokofiev/Shostakovich mode than in that of a self-conscious “bad boy of music.” An interesting addition to this CD is the first-ever recording of the unfinished Sonata for Violin Solo, which contains one complete movement and two minutes of a second – and shows Antheil reaching even beyond the expressiveness and techniques he requires of the violin when it is paired with piano.

     Among the moderns in Spain and Mexico was Rodolfo Halffter – full name Rodolfo Halffter Escriche (1900-1987) – whose birth in the same year as Antheil did not mean his music went in a remotely similar direction. Nor did the fact that Halffter, like Antheil, had German roots: Halffter’s father was German. Halffter moved to Mexico after the Spanish Civil War and lived there from then on despite occasional trips back to Spain. His music – although it certainly uses many 20th-century techniques – is filled with Romantic-era gestures and Latin (both Spanish and Mexican) rhythms and tunes, and is more polytonal than atonal. Naxos’ first CD of Halffter’s chamber music includes all three piano sonatas (1947, 1951, 1967), which offer an attractive mixture of playfulness along with more serious moments. There are also three other works on the CD, which appealingly pair the piano with flute or violin: Pastorale (1940), …Huésped de las nieblas… (Rimas sin palarbras) (1981), and Égloga (1982).

     One example of modernism in England – a certain form of modernism, anyway – is the music of Gavin Bryars (born 1943), who is also a bass player. Bryars has produced works in various styles, ranging from jazz and minimalism to improvisation and neoclassicism. The three pieces on a new Naxos CD all look backward to varying degrees. The Piano Concerto, a Dutch public-broadcasting commission, is impressionistic and broad, effective in orchestration and nicely played by Ralph van Raat, to whom it is dedicated. It does not come across as especially original music, but it is well written and worth at least an occasional hearing. Ramble on Cortona, also dedicated to van Raat, looks back much further in time, all the way to the 13th century, and is an intriguing mixture of older musical approaches with a rather non-pianistic use of the piano’s resonance as an important element (somewhat along the lines of certain pieces by John Cage, with whom Bryars studied for a time). After Handel’s Vesper, as the title indicates, is Handelian (more or less) and, interestingly, was written for harpsichord, on which it would have been fascinating to hear (modern compositions for that instrument not being particularly common). In the piano version, it is an effectively structured and well-developed work that partakes of the spirit of Handel’s time without being slavishly bound to it.

     Bryars is also featured – along with Philip Glass (born 1937) – on a very short (17-minute) CD that points the way toward one of the most common approaches now being taken by modern “classical” composers. This involves combining elements of what is traditionally considered classical music with ones from a variety of other fields, creating works that sometimes sound classical (usually in a vague sense), sometimes resemble pop music (but not precisely), and at other times flirt with jazz, rock, New Age and various other aural forms. The Bryars and Glass works on this CD are re-releases of parts of a 1999 disc called Musica Coelestis, and the pieces give the ensemble called Sentieri Selvaggi plenty of chances to display virtuosity and make some interesting sounds. The instruments heard here are recorder, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin, viola, cello and bass, but the combinations of these fairly traditional classical instruments are often handled nontraditionally. And the version of Façades (1981) heard here is the alternative one – not for two saxophones but for flute and clarinet (plus strings).

     The CD called Uniko takes the merger of multiple musical forms even further. Kimmo Pohjonen (born 1964) is a Finnish accordionist who writes music designed as part of a larger experience – hence the involvement of Samuli Kosminen in sampling and programming. Pohjonen combines the accordion – which he uses in decidedly nontraditional ways in terms of its sound and musical scope – with special effects, including a light show, to produce a kind of multimedia experience. Obviously, only some of this can be effectively communicated on a CD, and the 52 minutes of Uniko seem to go on much longer, despite a wide variety of interesting sonic techniques and combinations in the work’s seven movements. Pohjonen is front and center almost throughout – this is not music for those interested in any sort of traditional string-quartet sound – and the whole project is very much an acquired taste. Those who think the accordion deserves a larger role in a greater variety of music will get the most from the CD, while those who find the instrument’s sound rather grating after a while will not enjoy the disc: there is ultimately no disguising of the accordion’s unique capabilities, and no attempt to disguise them – only to expand them in ways that some ears will find intriguing and others will consider unpleasant.

     What Pohjonen is doing for the accordion is analogous to what Zach Miskin is doing for the cello. Some might say “to” the cello. Miskin’s new CD is essentially alt-rock music, in which Miskin and Paul de Jong both play cellos, with Nick Zammuto providing vocals and playing acoustic guitar, and Gene Back performing on electric guitar and violin. There are 11 tracks, vaguely air-travel related (or airline-crash related), with titles such as “But I Grabbed a Branch,” “Crosscheck,” “Idiots” and “I Fell off a Cliff.” Arranging collaborations with members of the National, the Books and the Clogs is a reasonably impressive accomplishment for Miskin, but the music is fairly pedestrian within its field – which is really pretty far from anything that would traditionally be called “classical.” Artist/composers such as Pohjonen and Miskin provide links between the classical-music world and various other types of music, but whether they will attract listeners beyond those already familiar with their work and interested in their style is something between an open question and a moot point.

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