November 14, 2013


Alkan: Le Festin d’Ésope (No. 12 from Op. 39); Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique; Ouverture (No. 11 from Op. 39); Sonatine, Op. 61. Vincenzo Maltempo, piano. Piano Classics. $13.99.

Rorem: Piano Album I; Six Friends. Carolyn Enger, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Robert Dusek: Piano Music. Bryan Pezzone, piano. Ravello. $16.99.

Yves Ramette: Works for Solo Piano. Eric Himy, piano. Navona. $16.99.

Richard Lavenda: Chamber Music. Ravello. $12.99.

Mark Winges: Chamber Music for Viola. Ravello. $12.99.

The Larksong Trio: Homeward Bound. Peggo Hortsmann Hodes, soprano; Jennifer Yeaton-Parri, flute; Calvin Herst, piano. Big Round Records. $12.99.

Dvořák and Janáček: Music for Men’s Voices. Cantus. Cantus Sings. $17.99.

     Recordings featuring the piano have always been exceptionally plentiful, but the profusion of CDs offering a variety of piano music has never been greater than it is today. Alkan’s enormously difficult, frequently quirky piano music is a source of continuing delight and is thankfully getting far more of its due nowadays than it used to. Vincenzo Maltempo has the big technique and rock-solid rhythmic focus that these works require, and his new Piano Classics disc is therefore a source of considerable pleasure even though the works on it have all been recorded by others in the past – some of them frequently. Le Festin d’Ésope, the last of the dozen pieces in Alkan’s 12 études dans tous les tons mineurs, is a longtime favorite of pianists, a marvelous display piece with considerable subtlety to balance its virtuoso requirements; and Maltempo handles it with aplomb, as he also does the very extended and dramatic Ouverture from the same set – which is quite a “study,” given that it lasts 15 minutes! The smaller Sonatine also gets fine treatment here, while the three highly expressive pieces of Op. 15 (Aime-moi, Le vent and Morte) show just how far Alkan pushed all the bounds he encountered, even those of what would seem to be salon music but became, in Alkan’s hands as both composer and pianist, something far grander, deeper and more unsettling.

     Ned Rorem is far less known for piano works – he is primarily a vocal composer and has said that all his music is conceived vocally, whether it ends up that way or not. Carolyn Enger’s new CD on Naxos shows the result in a very large number of miniatures (33 in all) that Rorem composed over nearly three decades. Piano Album I (1978-2001) contains more than two dozen small-scale works in which Rorem, like Alkan, may be said to push the bounds of salon music – although in truth, these little pieces all have some underlying seriousness of purpose despite their brevity. They are not etudes, exactly, nor are they impressionistic works, but lie somewhere between those two forms and come across in a sonic medium quite recognizable as Rorem’s. Six Friends also contains short works – five written in 2006 and one in 2007 – that Rorem created as gifts for friends and colleagues. Brief and unprepossessing, they are nevertheless closely related to some of Rorem’s larger pieces, both vocal and instrumental, and will be of particular interest to anyone looking for the less-academic, more-expressive side of the composer. Never maudlin but always heartfelt, the pieces are unconnected to each other but share a pleasantly evocative sensibility and a knowing, atmospheric approach to piano writing.

     Robert Dusek’s piano music on a new Ravello CD is a sonic journey of a different kind. The disc begins with Prelude and ends with Postlude, and in between features four works of highly variable length and character: Nightscape (Piano Sonata No. 2), Intermezzo, Awakenings (Piano Sonata No. 3), and Autumn Sky for piano four hands. Dusek’s music is on the stark side, moving from stasis to propulsive writing rather abruptly, and the connections on this CD are in the disc’s structure rather than within the works themselves; the whole production gets a (+++) rating. The one-minute Intermezzo is placed where it is on the disc simply to separate the two sonatas, of which No. 3 – in a single extended movement – is both grander and more grandiose. The impressionistic, but still very modern-sounding, Autumn Sky is the most immediately appealing work here, appearing in three separate parts labeled “After the Rain,” “Cloud Chaser” and “Light” – although listeners will not necessary connect the music with its descriptive labels. Bryan Pezzone plays all the works with skill and sensitivity enough to satisfy anyone who finds Dusek’s music congenial.

     There are also six solo-piano pieces on Navona’s (+++) CD of works by Yves Ramette, a long-lived French composer (1921-2012) whose style, while not especially original, underwent some notable refinements over the decades – as this disc clearly indicates. Eric Himy sensitively plays two pieces from 1943-44 – Quatre Esquisses and Introduction & Scherzo – and then leaps several decades to Variations sur un Thème Original (1983-85), Trois Études (1988-89), Les Elfes (1996-97) and Berceuse (2004). Trois Études has some of the expansiveness of Alkan without the all-consuming virtuosity or overall cleverness, and shares with Rorem three dedications to specific people. Quatre Esquisses includes four short movements nicely assembled as miniatures, of which the first (“Dans les modes anciens”) is the most interesting. The 10 variations in Variations sur un Thème Original are all well-handled – Ramette had some skill as a miniaturist – and the remaining pieces, also short, are suitably expressive and well-constructed, although none is especially redolent of a highly distinctive style.

     The personal-friends motif is present as well in Richard Lavenda’s music on a (+++) Ravello CD in which the piano is just one of the featured instruments. It appears in works called Rhapsody (at the center, stillness) and Heat of the Moment, in the former work with viola and in the latter with viola and clarinet. Lavenda is attracted to the depth and subtlety of sound of which mellower instruments such as clarinet and viola are capable, and also enjoys creating sound pictures from instruments not usually heard together. Thus, Chiaroscuro is for alto flute, bassoon, vibraphone and double bass – a curious assemblage that is interesting rather than highly involving. Rhapsody Tropes, on the other hand, is a solo work for tenor saxophone, and Lavenda handles the instrument with considerable sensitivity. The fifth work on this CD is String Quintet: thoughts fly, for two violins, viola and two cellos, and although it goes on somewhat too long for its thematic content, it is another instance in which Lavenda shows his liking for more-sonorous instrumental sounds.

     The warmth of the viola clearly attracts Mark Winges as well: the instrument appears prominently in all five pieces on a new (+++) Ravello CD. These works are a touch too clever for their own good, with Winges relying a little too heavily on unusual and offbeat titles to tell the audience what moods and emotions he is trying to convey. He in fact likes to find different ways to put across the same emotions: Night-Voiced (2011) is both the first and last piece on the disc, in the first instance with violist Ellen Ruth Rose and Winges himself on organ, in the second with Rose and Karen Rosenak on piano. The titles of the other works here, and of their individual movements, pretty much speak for themselves in terms of what Winges hopes to convey: Reciprocal Tapestries (2004) for viola, cello and piano includes “Flighty – aggressively bustling,” “Wary – gliding, ghostly,” and “Plodding – questing dreamily,” for example, while San Francisco Stopover (2006) for viola, cello and guitar, contains “Here (marginally buoyant),” “& (leisurely),” and “There (aggressively unhurried).” The cuteness is a bit overdone, especially since it does not always reflect the character of the music. The most interesting work here is Diverted Vignettes (2012), a seven-movement piece for solo viola in which Winges thoroughly explores the instrument’s range and the effects of which it is capable. Again, though, the titles within the piece are a bit much: “Children of a Pale Blue Hope,” “Melted Red, Frozen Black,” “A Small Galaxy on the Corner” and others. But the music is interesting enough on its own to make the title excesses less than important.

     There is nothing excessive in the Larksong Trio’s new (+++) CD for Big Round Records – the rather unusual vocal-and-instrumental ensemble (soprano with flute and piano) offers a fairly straightforward crossover disc whose contents range from Aaron Copland’s arrangements of “Simple Gifts” and two other songs to William Fletcher’s arrangements of New Old American Songs such as “Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” There is room here for a little Simon & Garfunkel (“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”), a touch of Ireland (three folksong arrangements by John Corigliano), and a couple of love songs (including an arrangement of the Lennon-McCartney “In My Life”). Everything is pleasant enough, nicely sung and nicely played, somewhat on the superficial side, and enjoyable without ever becoming really enthralling.

     The language is quite different and the sound much more striking in the (++++) CD from the nine-member male vocal ensemble Cantus, on the group’s own label, featuring rarely heard works by Dvořák and Janáček. Although Janáček is known as a vocal composer because of his operas, Dvořák is not – despite his operas. So this disc is something of a revelation – and especially so because most of the works on it were specifically written for male voices rather than transcribed for them. This is simply not a form of vocal writing heard very often in recitals or concert halls nowadays, or on recordings. Yet it can be quite striking, and often beautiful, in the hands of composers influenced by the folk heritage of their country without being slavishly devoted to it. There are short pieces here: from Janáček, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, a nicely set Ave Maria, and a song called True Love; from Dvořák, Song of a Czech. Most of the CD, though, is taken up with multi-song cycles that give the two composers the opportunity to showcase the male voices both individually and in ensemble. These offerings include Dvořák’s Choral Songs for Male Voices, Three Male Choruses with Piano (with pianists Timothy Cheek and Sonja Kaye Thompson), and Five Male Choruses, and Janáček’s Four Male Partsongs and Three Male Choruses. The singers handle the Czech language very well, with pronunciation that seems to have been carefully coached to sound as natural as possible. And although the subjects of the songs are scarcely anything unexpected – love, parting, grief, promises and similar matters – the vocal writing is assured and quite interesting, and the disc provides an unusual opportunity to hear music that will never rival the operas of Janáček or the symphonies of Dvořák in popularity, but that shows a side of both composers with which listeners who like their other works will surely enjoy becoming more familiar.

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