September 26, 2013


Allusions: Evocative Chamber Works—Music of Sarah Wallin Huff, Kjell Magne Andersen, Vera Ivanova, Christopher Dietz and Timothy Dwight Edwards. Navona. $16.99.

Howard Quilling: Sonatas Nos. I and II for Violin and Piano; Suite for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra; Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Navona. $16.99.

Ayala Asherov: Yizkor (Remember); Memories of a Homeland; Tomorrow Never Came; Pauses Notes and Rhythm; A Prelude to a Kiss and a Dance; Cycles of the Moon; Single Voice. Navona. $14.99.

Couloir: Wine Dark Sea—Music of Jocelyn Morlock, Baljinder Sekhon and Glenn Buhr. Ravello. $9.99.

     Chamber music has changed considerably over the centuries, but even today it remains a way for composers to use the interaction of a small number of instruments to communicate with a level of conversational subtlety that can be difficult to achieve with larger instrumental groups. Contemporary composers continue searching for new ways to use chamber forces, creating some works that are interestingly evocative even though, like today’s music in general, they will not be to all tastes. The six pieces by five composers on the Navona CD called Allusions have little in common except for their use of chamber-size forces, and even listeners who like one or two of the works may not care for all of them. The composers’ approaches do show considerable variety, though. Vera Ivanova’s Three Studies in Uneven Meters directly acknowledges earlier composers’ influence, although it does not slavishly imitate the approaches of Stravinsky, Piazzolla or Scriabin, toward whom its three movements point. Sarah Wallin Huff’s Anima Mechanicae: Soul of the Machine is intended to interpret a modern trope, that of the computer program with a human soul, although  its expressiveness does not specifically point in that direction. The expression of Kjell Magne Andersen’s six-movement Suite for Oboe and Piano is more traditionally classical in orientation, as are the contrasting moods of Timothy Dwight Edwards’ The Conjecture. The two remaining works are by Christopher Dietz: Le Fleur du Ciel, a string trio inspired by Camus' The Stranger, and Quintet No. 2, a two-movement study in contrasts. The works are distinctive enough, but none is  especially gripping – like anthology discs in general, this one comes across more as a sampler than as any sort of in-depth consideration of today’s chamber-music approaches.

     There is an in-depth feeling to Navona’s new Howard Quilling release, which offers an hour of the composer’s music. Three of the four pieces are outright chamber works – the two violin-and-piano sonatas and the violin-cello-piano trio. The sonatas are intended to be expressive in specific ways, bearing the subtitles “The Dahl” and “Shapiro” respectively, but in fact they simply showcase Quilling’s understanding of the differing roles and capabilities of the two instruments and of ways to play the two off against each other – and bring them together. Although not traditionally classical in sound, both sonatas are more-or-less classical in their three-movement design and overall structure. The four-movement Trio shows its classical roots clearly, too, having more the feeling of a suite than of a closely integrated and carefully argued work. Its four movements are all around the same length, but they offer a variety of moods and forms of expressiveness, and the whole has a pleasant if not especially memorable feel to it. Suite for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra stays more firmly with the listener. This is overtly a suite in design, and it is not exactly chamber music, using a full wind complement, but it is sufficiently small-scale to fit a “chamber” designation – and sufficiently varied in mood and instrumentation to be worth hearing more than once. Smooth, melodic and energetic by turns, with fine use of the alto saxophone in more of an obbligato than concerto-like role, the suite is one of Quilling’s better-constructed and more-winning compositions.

     Israeli composer Ayala Asherov tries to construct her works according to the emotions she wants them to explore, at least on the basis of the seven pieces on Navona’s new Asherov CD. Three of the works here are quite short and are for single instruments: Yizkor (Remember) for cello, Pauses Notes and Rhythm for clarinet, and Single Voice for flute. Asherov is wise to keep each work’s movements short – and the totality of each piece as well – since the musical ideas are not grand or broad enough to sustain effectively over a more-extended period. But within their brief compass, all the pieces sound well on the solo instruments and are expressive in structures that are essentially tonal, if not traditionally Romantic. Two works here have the flavor of suites, a form much favored by contemporary composers even when their works do not formally receive that label. They are the four-movement Cycles of the Moon, for viola and strings, and three-movement A Prelude to a Kiss and a Dance, for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone and piano – an intriguing instrumental combination that gives the latter work an even mellower and darker sound than the solo viola gives to the former one. The remaining two pieces are darker still, to the point of solemnity. Both are inspired by poetry written by children from the Terezin ghetto: Memories of a Homeland for flute, bassoon and piano manages to express the young people’s grief and longing without use of voice, while Tomorrow Never Came takes a more-traditional approach by using a mezzo-soprano as well as violin, viola and cello. These pieces, especially the latter, will perhaps have more emotional impact for those familiar with Terezin and the effects of the Holocaust than for people in general, but Asherov certainly strives to reach out to listeners in general through her use of gripping (if not always very distinctive) melodies.

     What is distinctive on the new Ravello CD called Wine Dark Sea is not so much the music as the instrumental combination: cello (Ariel Barnes) and harp (Heidi Kurten). The focus here is really on the performers, who play very well together and truly turn the three works they offer into traditional “conversational” chamber pieces, even though none of the three is traditional in structure or sound. The cello-harp combination wears a bit thin after a while, despite the fact that this is only a 48-minute-long disc, but until it does, it is unusual and interesting enough to overshadow the specifics of the works being performed (all in world première recordings). There is something evanescent in the harp and something earthy and grounded in the cello, and all the composers of this impressionistic music seem well aware of this, creating works with something of a New Age flavor despite their use of classical compositional techniques. Jocelyn Moorcock’s Three Meditations on Light shows this particularly clearly, through three frequently appealing movements entitled “The birds breathe the morning light,” “Bioluminescence (wine-dark sea),” and “Absence of light – gradual reawakening.” Although there are many similarities among the three movements, there are also enough differences among them to keep the piece aurally interesting. The extended single-movement works by Baljinder Sekhon (Drifting Seeds) and Glenn Buhr (A monk, dancing) keep listeners’ attention less well: despite tempo and rhythm changes, they both start to pale after a while, seeming more repetitive and overextended than they need to be for their relative paucity of ideas. The main attraction of this disc is really the chance to hear an extended presentation of an unusual instrumentation, one that takes the “conversational” element of chamber music into regions where listeners will not often have had the chance to experience it.

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