September 19, 2013


Ave Maria: Gregorian Chant. Seraphic Fire conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. SFM (Seraphic Fire Media). $16.99.

Robert DeGaetano: Piano Concerto No. 1; Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1. Robert DeGaetano, piano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Yaffé. Navona. $19.99 (CD+DVD).

Sergio Cervetti: Wind Devil & Co.—DancElectronics. Navona. $16.99.
     A famous collection of Robert Heinlein science fiction stories written between 1939 and the early 1960s is called The Past Through Tomorrow, and it presents a kind of “future history” based on imagined events that have not yet happened but that have clear relationships to ones that had happened at the time the stories were written. There is something of a “future history” feel to many contemporary CD releases, too, as composers and performers alike view and reinterpret the music of the past in light of contemporary understanding or in a deliberate attempt to go beyond musical approaches that have been tried before. At one end of the spectrum in observing and interpreting the past is the Seraphic Fire ensemble, which delves into works from as long ago as the 9th century and attempts to present them with understanding, respect and beauty. Founder and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley usually succeeds admirably in the endeavor. Witness the group’s latest CD – on its own label – with its focus on chant and polyphony centered on the Virgin Mary. Views of Mary actually changed in significant ways between the 9th century and the 16th – the span of the music on this disc – so the fact that the works are not presented chronologically is a bit disappointing from a content standpoint. The performances, though, are not disappointing at all, and the way music changed over these many centuries is certainly clear here. The juxtapositions of settings of similar or identical texts are fascinating: Alma redemptoris mater from the 13th century and the 16th; Inviolata, integra et casta es from the 9th century and in a setting by Josquin des Prez (1450-1621); Salve Regina as a 14th-century plainchant and as set by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611); and so on. Those not already fascinated by music of this era – or, more accurately, these eras – may find a certain sameness to the sound, especially if they listen to the entire 55-minute CD straight through. Those who are devoted to this sort of devotional music, on the other hand, will hear exemplary performances with fine vocal balance and subtle interpretative emphases that make the CD a very impressive release.

     Pianist/composer Robert DeGaetano (born 1952) also reaches into the past, although not quite that distant a past – and he then brings listeners right into the present, albeit a present with significant influence from earlier times. In an unusual coupling of works, DeGaetano, who was a pianist before he was a composer, couples his performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with his rendition of his own Piano Concerto No. 1. This is not quite as sacrilegious as it may seem – there have actually been a number of recent attempts to pair well-known repertoire works with less-known and/or modern ones, for a variety of reasons. In this case, the results are quite interesting, since DeGaetano’s reading of the Chopin is an impressive one. Both of Chopin’s piano concertos are very early works, created by him more out of necessity (to get his music before the public) than because he had any significant skill in orchestration or intense desire to develop some. The E minor concerto is large-scale, lasting more than 40 minutes, and mixes impressive and beautifully formed passages with some, particularly for the orchestra, that are rather mundane. DeGaetano says he first played the work when he was about 18 – the age at which Chopin wrote it – and certainly his interpretation on this disc bespeaks decades of familiarity with and love of the music. It is not a groundbreaking or particularly revelatory performance, but it is solid, thoughtful and very well played. DeGaetano’s own concerto pairs rather intriguingly with the Chopin. A stronger, less lyrical, more angular and less flowing work than Chopin’s, it is in four movements rather than three but is still a few minutes shorter than the older concerto. And not surprisingly, it is significantly more dissonant and rhythmically intense – although some of the dissonance, as DeGaetano himself points out, is the sound of apparent atonality caused by multiple tonal passages played together (in the mode of Charles Ives, although this work sounds nothing like Ives’). DeGaetano’s concerto is well put together and of course very well performed by the composer, who gets fine backup from the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under John Yaffé throughout the CD. Like his performance of the Chopin, DeGaetano’s creation of this concerto is effective without being particularly innovative – the work sounds good while it lasts but does not really stay with listeners afterwards, although it tends to reveal more subtleties with repeated hearings. Navona’s CD+DVD set includes one of those “making of” documentaries that enthusiasts alone will find worthwhile. Indeed, the whole production has the feeling of “for enthusiasts” about it. Hopefully those who are enthusiastic about DeGaetano as a pianist will use this opportunity to explore his compositional work.

     If DeGaetano’s Navona CD represents both the past and the present, the latest one from Sergio Cervetti is completely of today. There is some traditionally composed music here, but not much of it: these seven pieces scream “contemporary” in every way from their sound to their titles (which include In Closed Time, Night Trippers and 40 Second/42nd Variations – although, to be fair, Cervetti also offers Requiem and Cantata No. 84, neither of which sounds anything like its title). The overall name that Cervetti gives the pieces, “DancElectronics,” also bespeaks an entirely up-to-the-minute orientation for these works, all of which were created for modern-dance companies. The “danceability” of the music varies quite a bit, with Wind Devil and Out of the Rolling Ocean being somewhat more clearly stageable than some of the other pieces. Without the visual element of the dancers, this music is something of a chore to hear – although in fairness, even some of the great Romantic ballets are also far less effective when the dancing is missing. There are some attractive rhythms here, some interesting sounds, and some sense of playfulness in a few of the works, but the totality here is more than an hour of music intended for a specific purpose and stripped of its reason for being when heard on a CD. Fanciers of electronic music – more than fanciers of modern dance – will find the disc appealing, although even they may well decide that the shorter pieces are more congenial than the longer ones.

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