October 09, 2014


Hummel: Septets, Opp. 74 and 114. Consortium Classicum with Florian Uhlig, piano. Orfeo. $22.99.

Richard Strauss: String Quartet; Puccini: Crisantemi; Three Minuets in A; Verdi: String Quartet. Ensō Quartet. Naxos. $9.99.

Music of the áltaVoz composers: Felipe Lara, José Luis Hurtado, Mauricio Pauly and Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann. JACK Quartet. New Focus. $16.99.

Debra Kaye: And So It Begins and other works. Ravello. $14.99.

     It is not only contemporary composers who have pushed the boundaries of chamber music. Practically since the days in which Haydn regularized and formalized the string quartet, composers have been finding approaches that expand the chamber repertoire by using the traditional quartet in new ways and by creating ensembles that, while still clearly “chamber” in size, are quite different from the traditional grouping of two violins, viola and cello. Hummel was particularly adept at this sort of reconsideration: he was a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic eras in many ways, a fact that led to neglect of his music until its recent rediscovery, and part of the transition involved seeking new sound worlds and new approaches to writing for solos and ensembles alike. Hummel called his Op. 74 work in C Großes Septett, and applied the same designation to his Op. 114 in D minor, but the two pieces are tremendously different in every way except for their use of seven instruments. They do not, in fact, use the same seven instruments: both call for piano, flute, cello and bass, but Op. 74 adds viola, oboe and horn, while Op. 114 includes violin, clarinet and trumpet – the last of these helping explain its “Militaire” title. Hummel’s work combines the poise and balance of Classical times (he studied with both Haydn and Mozart) with the harmonic freedom, emotional involvement and more-freewheeling approach to key structure of early Romanticism (he was a sometime friend of the notoriously prickly Beethoven). The excellent performances of these septets by Consortium Classicum – an ensemble founded by clarinetist Dieter Klöcker, who plays in Op. 114 – not only show Hummel’s considerable skill in handling out-of-the-ordinary instrumentation but also provide insight into a time when many composers created music according to the particular set of players available (Hummel just happened to be especially good at doing so). Pianist Florian Uhlig displays considerable virtuosity – Hummel was himself a famed virtuoso – but always within the context of the roles of the other performers: Kornelia Brandkamp, flute; Andreas Krecher, violin; Minkyu Yoon, oboe; Jan Schroeder, horn; Niklas Schwarz, viola; Armin Fromm, cello; Peter Leiner, trumpet; and Jürgen Normann, bass. The use of trumpet in Op. 114 is especially interesting: it is silent in the slow movement, following a pattern dating back to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, but puts its imprint on the entire work – from the roll-call opening played by all instruments to the fanfare-like intensity of the instrument itself in the finale. As for Op. 74, it is a darker-hued work, not only because of its minor key but also because the viola, not the violin, is the lead string instrument – an unusual and attractive approach that others were to follow later (for instance, Brahms in his Serenade No. 2). There are effective elements aplenty in both septets, from the interplay of instruments throughout to the finely honed use of forms including variations and, in the second movement of Op. 74, “Menuetto o Scherzo” (indicating that in Hummel’s time, these designations were not nearly as differentiated as later commentators made them out to be). The Orfeo CD is very well recorded and provides a most welcome chance to hear Hummel as a skilled innovator, not merely a composer whose position in time doomed him to seem neither of one era nor of another.

     The instrumentation is scarcely unusual on a new Naxos CD of string-quartet music, but the disc is nevertheless an expansion of the standard chamber-music repertoire –because it contains the only works for quartet written by three composers known for opera rather than chamber music. To be sure, Richard Strauss composed a great deal of instrumental music as well as works for the stage, but his only quartet is a student piece, written when he was 17, in 1881. The work is in A major and is thoroughly classical in proportion, its four movements progressing through expected shapes and modulations and its finale paying tribute in spirit, if not through direct quotation, to Haydn. It is not an especially creative work, certainly not an innovative one, but it does show that even as a teenager, Strauss had fine command of instrumentation and a strong sense of how classical form worked – meaning that his many later departures from it represented knowing alteration and expansion of musical possibilities and were based on a firm foundation. The short Puccini pieces here are an elegy called Crisantemi (“Chrysanthemums”) from 1890 and three minuets, all in A, from 1884, each dedicated to a different member of Luccan society. The minuets are slight works that hew closely to expected form, but Crisantemi is more substantial, calling forth the sort of emotional intensity for which Puccini’s operas were to become known (the first to have significant success, Manon Lescaut, dates to 1893, three years after Crisantemi). The most interesting piece on this CD is Verdi’s quartet in E minor, written when the composer was 60 years old (1873) and already an enormous success. Listeners might expect Verdi to push the boundaries of the form in a way akin to what he did with his Requiem, which is far less liturgical than operatically dramatic. But not so: this is a well-structured, carefully crafted quartet that balances the four instruments with considerable skill and concludes with a finale steeped in contrapuntal writing, at which Verdi was more expert than he got credit for until he blew the critics out of the water with the final perfect fugue in his last opera, Falstaff. All this music is very well handled, with subtlety and a fine sense of style, by the Ensō Quartet (Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; Richard Belcher, cello), and presented in sound that is clear, pure and bright.

     The JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Kevin McFarland, cello) gives itself a very different sort of mission: the commissioning and performance of quartet music by modern composers, who in turn can use the group’s considerable virtuosity to make the strings do pretty much whatever the composers desire. It is therefore something of a shame that composers, at least those on a recent New Focus release, do not ask more of the players than that they prove themselves able to handle atonality, inconsistent and constantly changing rhythms, frequent glissandi, and general formlessness. The four composers who collectively call themselves áltaVoz are Latin American by birth but now live in North America and Europe. They are Felipe Lara (Brazil), José-Luis Hurtado (Mexico), Mauricio Pauly (Costa Rica) and Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann (Peru). Unfortunately, there is little to distinguish the work of one from that of another – at least in three of the four cases. Lara’s Tran(slate), Hurtado’s L’ardito e quasi stridente gesto (“The bold and almost jarring gesture”), and Pauly’s Every new volition a mercurial swerve use similar techniques, similar too-cute-for-their-own-good titles, and similar modernistic compositional approaches; listeners unfamiliar with the composers will be hard-put to tell which piece is by whom, or to decide whether it matters. The most interesting work here is Grossmann’s Quartet for Strings No. 3, "Música fúnebre y nocturna," which – despite its comparatively traditional title – shows its composer to be just as adept with contemporary techniques as are the other members of áltaVoz. Grossmann, however, accepts the inclusion of emotion in his work, and even a touch of humor in its central Pizzicato ostinato, which no one will ever confuse with the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 but which nevertheless offers a certain amount of insouciance that nicely balances the greater seriousness and length of the quartet’s outer movements. The JACK Quartet certainly plays all this music well, but most of the music on this (+++) CD is simply not that interesting.

     Listeners’ interest in a Ravello CD featuring music of Debra Kaye will depend not only on the extent to which they find contemporary compositions – both chamber and solo – interesting, but also on the degree to which they accept the sound painting that Kaye is trying to do. Like many contemporary composers, Kaye works in a mixed medium that incorporates traditional classical norms along with jazz, pop and so-called “world music.” A New Yorker, she is at her most creative on this disc when portraying her feelings for Taos, New Mexico, which she does in The Beauty Way, for treble, tenor and bass viol, and Visions, for piano solo (which ends with the inevitable reference to Georgia O’Keeffe). Another highlight here is Incidental Ducklings, for violin, cello and piano, which offers a touch of wit and pleasant humor in addition to some effective scene painting (yes, quacking and waddling). The remaining works on the disc are less offbeat and not as appealing. They are Finding Accord, for violin, cello, piano and ankle bell, a typical attempt to have instruments take opposite stances and then more or less reconcile them; Duet after Winter, for two violins, in which the players seem to seek unity without ever quite finding it; Dialogues with the Distant Mountains, for alto saxophone and piano, intended to portray the northern California landscape; The Doppelganger, for trombone solo, which uses four notes from Schubert’s song of that title to explore the instrument’s range; and the CD’s title work, And So It Begins, for tenor saxophone, string quartet and bass, which is intended to trace a path from loss to revival but does not do so particularly inventively. There are some interesting elements scattered throughout this (+++) CD, but none of the works is so compelling as to merit multiple repeated hearings, and although Kaye is sure of her style and the performers handle her music with dedication, the disc is ultimately less than musically or emotionally gripping.

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