September 25, 2014


Music for Harp by J.S. Bach, Elias Parish-Alvars, Michael Kimbell, Joaquín Turina and Henriette Renié. Katrina Szederkényi, harp. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Flute and Piano by Pierre Camus, Charles Koechlin, René-Emmanuel Baton, Albert Roussel, Philippe Gaubert, Mélanie Bonis and Pierre Max Dubois. Francesca Arnone, flute; Terry Lynn Hudson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Bassoon and Piano by Boris Papandopulo, Benzion Eliezer, Tadeusz Baird and Luboš Sluka. Maria Wildhaber, bassoon; Scott Pool, second bassoon; Mia  Elezovic and Tania Tachkova, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Strings and Orchestra by David Kirtley, Robert Burrell, Rain Worthington, Raymond Bokhour, Daniel Burwasser and Marvin Schluger. Navona. $16.99.

Carol Barnett: Choral Works. Navona. $16.99.

     Not all the music on these unusual recent releases is equally involving, but every one of the CDs contains some interesting pieces, and all feature very fine, committed performances that successfully bring out the best qualities that the various composers have to offer in these works. The Katrina Szederkényi disc from MSR Classics is more than a virtuoso showcase: it is a demonstration, if another one is necessary, of just how good Bach’s music can sound even on instruments for which it was not written. The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, translates very well indeed to the harp, whose plucked tone is, after all, not that different in the way it is produced from the tone of the harpsichord, for which this fascinating piece was originally written. Indeed, the transparency of sound that Szederkényi’s playing brings to the music, particularly the fugal portion, provides genuine insights into Bach’s structure – as well as considerable listening pleasure. Szederkényi also does a marvelous job with Joaquín Turina’s Tocata y Fuga—Cicle Pianístico I, Op. 50, a work that harks back to Bach in spirit as well as form and that moves from piano to harp almost as effectively as does Bach’s piece to harp from harpsichord. The three other works on this CD are less impressive musically, although still played with very considerable skill. Grande Fantaisie et Variations de Bravoure sur des Motif Italiens by Elias Parish-Alvars (1808-1849) is something of a find – a sprawling, ambitious piece that is harmonically conservative but that shows considerable skill in the variation form. Parish-Alvars, whom Berlioz described as “the Liszt of the harp” after hearing the Englishman perform, exploits all the subtleties and grand gestures of which the harp is capable in this music, and if the work is more a showpiece than anything else, it is certainly one that gives Szederkényi ample opportunity to display her sheer virtuosity. The remaining two works are of somewhat less interest. Légende d’après les Elfes de Leconte de Lisle by Henriette Renié (1875-1956) is a turn-of-the-20th-century work that is pleasant enough but rather forgettable. And the world première recording of Ballade Arctique (2013) by Michael Kimball (born 1946) offers expressiveness but no especially deep musical thoughts. Despite the unevenness of the selections, this is a highly impressive recital by a first-rate harpist who shows herself adept in music from several different time periods.

     The flute is the focus of another MSR Classics release, this one entitled Dedications and featuring Francesca Arnone with pianist Terry Lynn Hudson. All the music here is French, all the works date to the 20th century, and each piece has a distinctly Gallic flavor. The most interesting are the finely wrought 1913 Sonate pour Piano et Flûte by the still-underrated Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) and the small but elegant and poised Andante et Scherzo (1924) by Albert Roussel (1869-1937). Also here are two very brief and nicely contrasted movements from 1913 in Chanson et Badinerie by Pierre Camus (1885-1948); a short Passacaille (1924) by René-Emmanuel Baton (1 879-1949); and two small, encore-like works by Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937). None of these brief pieces makes a particularly strong impression, but the two remaining works on the CD – both sonatas – do. Deuxième Sonate pour Flûte et Piano (1924) by Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) is directly in the Romantic tradition, giving the flute many opportunities for legato playing and expressiveness. Sonate pour Flûte et Piano (1959) by Pierre Max Dubois (1930-1993) is more aware of 20th-century musical trends but nevertheless harks back to earlier French compositional approaches. The grab-bag nature of this CD is such that flute lovers will be its primary audience: little of the music stands out as exceptional, but all the playing does.

     A new MSR Classics bassoon-and-piano disc focuses farther to the east in Europe, offering world première recordings of music by four composers whose names will almost surely be unknown to listeners – plus four arrangements of Bulgarian folk songs by bassoonist Maria Wildhaber, herself born in Bulgaria. The bassoon has spent some time climbing out of its straitjacket as the comic member of the orchestra: Vivaldi took it seriously, but in later years much music for the instrument was of the bubbly but inconsequential type. Not so the works on this CD, which is called Eastern Discoveries: the composers here treat the bassoon as a woodwind just as capable of multifaceted expressiveness as are other winds, although they still allow a certain level of amusement to come through in more-energetic pieces and movements. The 1969 sonata by Benzion Eliezer (1920-1993), for example, concludes with an Allegro assai e giocoso, and the Four Preludes (1954) by Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981) conclude with one marked Allegro giocoso. The fine performances are the attraction here, but neither Eliezer nor Baird has a great deal to say in these works – indeed, the primary issue with this CD is that it is delightful to hear once but has little staying power, the music being well-crafted but far from compelling. Similarly, the two-movement sonata by Luboš Sluka (born 1928), written in 1954 and arranged for bassoon in 1971, is pleasant enough, and two short movements by Boris Papandopulo (1906-1991), Elegy and Scherzo, are nicely reflective of their respective titles. The most involving works here, though, are the four song arrangements, which were made in 2013 and are for two bassoons – and in which Wildhaber and Scott Pool complement each other beautifully. The CD is mostly a curiosity, but it is one that the musically curious should enjoy

     The appeal of a Navona anthology called Luminescence is a bit more difficult to pin down: several of these orchestral pieces have interesting elements, but none is so outstanding as to make purchase of the CD for it alone worthwhile – and the six composers represented are heard for only seven to 20 minutes apiece, so even listeners familiar with a particular composer will not get enough material by him or her to make the disc an attractive buy. Still, the performances are all dedicated, and listeners who want to sample recent orchestral music may find the CD of interest. The longest work here, Serenade for Strings by Robert Burrell, inevitably calls up comparisons with similarly titled works by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, with which it does not compare. Based loosely on the sounds of Australian birds, the work is pleasant and flows well, and it is nicely played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský. The same conductor and orchestra perform Within a Dance—A Tone Poem of Love by Rain Worthington, a work that more-or-less recalls Weber’s Invitation to the Dance – but with less formality and more of a focus on the budding of a relationship that begins during the dance itself. Leaves Falling from the Holy Tree is David Kirtley’s exploration of Oglala Sioux holy man Nicholas Black Elk, although the tone poem – played by the Kiev Philharmonic under Robert Ian Winston – does not seem especially evocative of anything more than a general mystical experience. New York, 2013 by Raymond Bokhour (played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavrinek) and Manhattan Suite by Marvin Schluger (performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra under John Yaffé) are both tributes to and personal experiences of New York City, and while both are fine, neither seems particularly adventurous or unusual in the type of focus it brings to the area. A smaller matter, and one portrayed with greater grace and a welcome light touch, is the innocence of childhood fun as heard in Catching Fireflies by Daniel Burwasser, played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz. Disparate subjects, different compositional styles, multiple orchestras – this is a CD for listeners who want a sampling of contemporary music and the people who  create it.

     Another Navona CD, entitled Treasures from the Archives, includes only the work of a single composer, Carol Barnett (born 1949). It is a short CD at only 44 minutes and is exclusively dedicated to vocal music, both original and arranged. Most of the pieces here are performed by the Dale Warland Singers, but other choirs also contribute, and all are fine and offer the music with feeling. The 11 pieces are primarily but not exclusively religious in orientation, with Barnett’s setting of the 12th-century Veni Sanctus Spiritus blending nicely with her handling of spirituals such as By and By and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. There is one interesting sacred-and-secular blend here in Children of the Heavenly Father, a Swedish folk song to which hymn text has been added, and there is a nicely arranged Greek folk song called Dance of Zálongo as well. One of the more intriguing concepts is a short piece called Remember the Ladies, which pays homage to the 1776 correspondence of future president John Adams’ wife, Abigail, in which that well-known phrase appears. Musically, no specific piece here stands out – all are well done and handle the voices nicely – and the CD will likely be of interest primarily to people who have themselves sung music by Barnett or who have heard it in the past. Those who may have heard of Barnett’s vocal works and want a sampling of them will also find the disc attractive; it is a specialty item for those who want to hear this composer’s music for voices or who are particularly interested in contemporary choral music.

1 comment:

  1. Since the reviewer of my piece, "Leaves falling from the Holy Tree", obviously was not taken with it and dismissed it with one fell sentence (; September 25, 2014; Intriguing Mixtures; Music for Strings and Orchestra…), I would like to offer more background information about the piece, which should provide the reviewer and the reviewer’s readers with some broader and deeper insights into its nature.

    Leaves falling from the Holy Tree was composed in 2001 in memoriam Nicholas Black Elk, holy man of the Oglala Sioux. As a teenager, I first read the book, Black Elk Speaks, an autobiography in which Black Elk recounts his spiritual journey from young boy to old man. This man’s life story had an enduring effect on my own spiritual quest and awareness of the world. The power and force of his great vision; the thrust and travels of his life; the melancholy that seemed to invade his later years, when as an old man he felt he had failed his people as a spiritual leader––all of these aspects are interwoven into the various textures, musical imagery, and emotions of this orchestral piece. Following is an excerpt from Black Elk’s account of his great vision.

    “When we came to the end of the first ascent we camped in the sacred circle as before, and in the center stood the holy tree, and still the land about us was all green. Then we started on the second ascent, marching as before, and still the land was green, but it was getting steeper. And as I looked ahead, the people changed into elks and bison and all four-footed beings and even into fowls, all walking in a sacred manner on the good red road together. And I myself was a spotted eagle soaring over them. But just before we stopped to camp at the end of that ascent, all the marching animals grew restless and afraid that they were not what they had been, and began sending forth voices of trouble, calling to their chiefs. And when they camped at the end of that ascent, I looked down and saw that leaves were falling from the holy tree.”
    Black Elk Speaks (Ch. 3, The Great Vision)
    From Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux / Nicholas Black Elk, as told through John G. Neihardt. Published by the University of Nebraska Press.

    Please keep in mind, that my piece, was humbly written with much love and respect for an American Indian holy man and American Indian cultures. Creating the piece involved much reading, research, and many years of listening to both traditional and modern American Indian music, as well as attending powwows where traditional dance and music can be observed firsthand and up-close. The piece is very specifically my reaction to, and impressions of, the mystical experiences and life of Nicholas Black Elk. If I had chosen to compose a work based on the mystical experiences of Wovoka, or Crazy Horse, or Saint Paul, or Saint Theresa, or Rumi, or Paramahansa Yogananda, the resulting composition would have been quite different and specific to my impressions of that individual’s mystical experiences. In the review the reviewer wrote, that my piece “does not seem especially evocative of anything more than a general mystical experience.” Pace, dear reviewer, I feel that you have done a great disservice to "Leaves falling from the Holy Tree".