May 21, 2015


Gian Francesco Malipiero: Sinfonia degli eroi; Ditirambo tragico; Armenia; Grottesco; Dai sepolcri. Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Amaury du Closel. Naxos. $12.99.

Zhou Long: The Rhyme of Taigu; The Enlightened; Symphony “Humen 1839” (written with Chen Yi). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.

Chiayu: Urban Sketches; Huan; Journey to the West; Twelve Signs; Sparkle; Zhi. Members of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Ciompi Quartet (Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Fred Raimi, cello). Naxos. $12.99.

Sergio Cervetti: Concertino; Exiles; Guitar Music (the bottom of the iceberg); El Río de los Pájaros Pintados; Candombe. Navona. $16.99.

Lionel Sainsbury: Andalusian Fantasy; Nocturne; South American Suite; Twelve Preludes; Esquisse; Cuban Fantasy. Lionel Sainsbury, piano. Navona. $16.99.

Isabel Leonard: Preludios. Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano. Delos. $16.99.

The City of Tomorrow: Nature—works by David Lang, Luciano Berio, Denys Bouliane and Nat Evans. City of Tomorrow Wind Quintet (Elise Blatchford, flute; Stuart Breczinski, oboe; Camila Barrientos Ossio, clarinet; Laura Miller, bassoon; Leander Star, horn). Ravello. $14.99.

     Emotional content that subsumes the formal within itself, or eschews it altogether, is a characteristic of the work of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973). Malipiero had little patience with any formal musical approaches handed down over the centuries, preferring a kind of organic growth of his works in a manner that, when it worked, could be decades ahead of its time. His music grows from motivic rather than thematic elements, and he preferred free-range musical growth to anything that would allow listeners to grasp, through their knowledge of formal structures, the essence of his music. Even in his early and lesser works – including all five on a new Naxos CD – Malipiero was groping toward a later style that actively opposed the German symphonic tradition and attempted to look forward by utilizing such past approaches as Gregorian chant and Italian music of the 18th century. Thus, Sinfonia degli eroi (“Symphony of Heroes”), from 1905, is less a symphony or sinfonia in a classical sense than a tone poem – without, however, having any specific program, since Malipiero also disdained program music. Ditirambo tragico (“Tragic Dithyramb”), from 1917, reflects its wartime composition atmospherically but without specificity. Armenia, also from 1917, stands in strong contrast, using traditional Armenian melodies in a work whose primary characteristics are charm and relaxation. The aptly titled Grottesco (“Grotesque”), from 1918, seems to reflect both the Great War and the musical approaches of Stravinsky in its variety and pungency. And Malipiero’s earliest surviving work, Dai sepolcri (“From Tombs”), which dates to 1904, carries whiffs of death through an extended tone-poem format that, as is the case with Sinfonia degli eroi (the composer’s second-earliest surviving piece), is nevertheless without formal structure or a carefully delineated program. Four of the five works played here by the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra under Amaury du Closel are world première recordings; only Grottesco has been recorded before. Malipiero’s music is not especially approachable, despite its adherence to diatonic principles: its organizational methods take some getting used to, and the effort is not always repaid by the music’s communicative abilities. Yet elements of these works speak effectively of content that cannot easily be captured within traditional forms.

     The forms used by Zhou Long (born 1953) in three world première recordings on a new Naxos CD are more conventional, but the material around which the works are built is not. The Rhyme of Taigu (2003) is, in essence, a symphonic poem, but it is one using traditional Chinese percussion instruments to very good effect in an attempt to pull modern listeners’ ears back to the world of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). An orchestral expansion and reconsideration of an earlier chamber work, this piece includes the dagu (Chinese bass drums) and uses modern winds to evoke the sound of the old double-reed guanzi. Similarly, The Enlightened (2005) ties to an earlier work – in this case, The Immortal, written a year earlier. The Enlightened has a sociopolitical purpose, attempting to assert ways in which music can improve listeners’ relationships with other people and, indeed, the entire planet. Its unusual sounds come from standard orchestral instruments; its tempo is slow throughout; and its texture becomes denser as the piece progresses. It is not an especially easy piece to hear, and goes on rather longer than its purely musical elements justify, but it has moments of effective sonic display and ones that are evocative of unnamed mysteries. Symphony “Humen 1839,” co-created by Zhou Long and his wife, Chen Yi (born 1953), dates to 2009 and is intended to evoke the events leading up to the First Opium War between Great Britain and China. In four movements that roughly approximate the traditional ones of a Western symphony, the piece pays specific tribute to Lin Zexu (1785-1850), the scholar and government official whose opposition to the opium trade is considered largely responsible for the First Opium War (1839-42). The work progresses from a first movement based on traditional melodies through a mournful section expressing the humiliation of China during the war, eventually ending with an assertion of pride, power and an expectation of a better future. Tied so directly to a conflict of which most modern Westerners know little, if anything, the symphony has less resonance for a Western audience than in China, where its referents are clear and its eventual sense of triumph only to be expected. Like the other works here, this is a melding of matters Eastern and Western done with considerable technical skill but without the sort of emotional connection that would successfully bridge a cultural gap that still exists today.

     Chiayu (born 1975), who was born in Taiwan and uses only one name, also tries to bridge gaps with her music, a point she makes quite directly in Journey to the West (2010) for string quartet – one of the six works, all of them world première recordings, on a new Naxos CD. Based on a classic Chinese novel about a trip to India by a monk and his disciple – the monkey king – in search of sacred texts, Journey to the West uses a string quartet to imitate the sound of Chinese instruments (in a manner not unlike that employed by Zhou Long); and it includes techniques ranging from chords made entirely of harmonics to a perpetuum mobile representing a battle with monsters. Writing is also the inspiration for Huan (2006), a work based on a book about the Limberlost swamplands in Indiana and the wildlife found there. Written for a harp competition, this piece uses the harp in some unusual ways, including clusters and scraping effects on the strings. There is a mixture of Impressionism and rather self-conscious tone-painting here, and some of the effects seem overdone, such as the use of a cloth threaded between harp strings in the third and final movement. Even more elaborate is Twelve Signs (2008), whose 12 movements reflect the signs of the traditional Chinese zodiac as grouped into four sections: the first fast and energetic, the second meditative and tonally unsettled, the third fragmented, the fourth slow and lyrical. These four “overviews” are combined with instrumental effects designed to showcase each of the 12 animals of the zodiac – a complex structure that actually works surprisingly well in communicating a sense of the multiplicity of personalities for which the 12 signs of the zodiac stand. Sparkle (2011) for brass quintet is somewhat less successful in its purpose of evoking fireworks imagery – the clicking and popping sounds called for seem both obvious and unclear. Zhi (2005) has a title that refers to weaving or interlacing to form a design. It is a twelvetone work, containing many of the compositional techniques that seem designed to distance the music from those not fully in the know about its creation: three variations on a series of 12 chords, with three principal chords recurring in different transpositions; a repetitive five-note pattern in augmentation and diminution; and so on. This is music as intellectual exercise, not a work likely to or intended to appeal to more than a rarefied audience. Urban Sketches (2013) is more engaging, although it wears thin long before its 11 minutes are over. Written for piano trio and electronic sounds, it is yet another of the innumerable sound portraits of New York City, including the expected whistles, sirens and brakes with the less-expected sounds of salsa music, jazz, and the Chinese bamboo flute. The combination of styles here is quite typical of what many contemporary composers offer. Chiayu handles it well, integrating the electronic elements skillfully, but the piece leaves behind it a certain sense of having heard all this before.

     Electronics also figure in Exiles for piano and electronics, a 1980 minimalist work by Sergio Cervetti that is featured, along with four other pieces, on a new Navona CD. The overall impression left by this disc is that Cervetti has dabbled in multiple styles, has assimilated them (or at least elements of them), but has never quite found an individualized voice that integrates elements of the compositional approaches within his own vision. Exiles basically starts with a slow piano version of a patriotic Uruguayan theme, then has electronic sounds overwhelm the theme and swamp it. Somewhat similarly, Guitar Music (the bottom of the iceberg), from 1975, is also minimalist in construction and also includes a touch of South America (flamenco in this case), using the solo guitar as part of one of those modernist experiments in pitch that seem to be of far more interest to composers than to any potential audience. More interesting is another piece with electronic elements, in this case combined with bandoneon: El Río de los Pájaros Pintados, whose title is the Spanish translation of the native Guarani Indian word “uru-guay,” meaning “River of the Painted Birds.” Relying for its effects on a Uruguayan national dance, this piece is more involving and less self-referential than either Exiles or Guitar Music. And there is another work here that leans on the same dance: Candombe, a 1996 orchestration of a 1984 piece for harpsichord – no electronic elements here, but the orchestration is facile and the piece as a whole nicely crafted. More interesting still, though, and the most effective work on this disc, is Concertino, a 2013 work for piano, woodwinds and timpani that brings South American rhythms to the fore and mixes them, improbably, with a quote from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. It sounds as if the combination cannot possibly work, but it does, thanks in large part to the extreme contrast between the primary sounds of the three movements and the very different aural appearance of Mahler’s music. The orchestration of Concertino helps a great deal, too: it is for four different types of saxophones as well as more-traditional wind instruments, plus piano and timpani.

     Piano stands alone on a new CD of music by Lionel Sainsbury, performed by the composer. South American rhythms, in particular those of the flamenco, loom as large here as on the Cervetti disc, if not larger. But other elements are even more evident in these pieces – specifically, jazz and blues, with classical sensibilities making themselves felt as well. Two well-made fantasies, Andalusian and Cuban, are the bookends of this release, both of them showing Sainsbury’s attentiveness to the dance rhythms of the regions he is profiling and both of them straddling the line between more-serious music and what used to be called salon pieces. The seven-movement South American Suite steps over that line: it is highly blues-inflected and sounds, in the composer’s somewhat over-the-top performance, like a work designed for a nightclub. Sainsbury’s Twelve Preludes, on the other hand, make his command of classical forms quite clear, although oftentimes in an overdone way: Maestoso (No. 1) sounds more like pomposo, for example, while Allegro non troppo (No. 4) is more like allegro gershwiniana, and Lento sostenuto (no. 5) is closer to lento quasi lugubrioso. As for Con malinconia (No. 11), it sounds more as if someone has a chill and fever than a melancholy temperament or episode. On the other hand, Nocturne does sound suitably nocturnal, which in this case means Chopinesque; but it does not have a great deal of individuality or much that is unexpected in its expressiveness. The shortest work on this CD, Esquisse, is one of the more effective pieces here, neither over-ambitious nor over-extended, with a pleasant lilt despite some rather halting rhythms. Listeners who have enjoyed other works by Sainsbury on Navona, for which he records regularly, are a natural target audience for this CD of six world premières.

     Sometimes a South American and/or Spanish focus is clearer and stronger in vocal works than in ones that are entirely instrumental – for example, on a new Delos disc featuring Argentinian mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard performing works by Mompou, de Falla, Lorca, Sanjuán, Granados and Montsalvatge. Two folk-based and dark-hued songs by Lorca come across particularly well here, as do Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciónes negras, whose varied moods both Leonard and pianist Brian Zeger seem to understand intuitively and thus handle with a strong sense of empathy. Leonard seems particularly at home with works that are a touch unsettling and ones filled with pathos, if not exactly tragedy. Part of her effectiveness comes from the rich timbre of her voice, which often imbues the mezzo-soprano range with fullness almost worthy of a contralto. More comes from her sensitivity to rhythm, the suppleness of her vocal delivery, her attentiveness to phrasing both verbal and musical. Joaquín "Quinito" Valverde Sanjuán’s song Clavelitos (“Little Carnations”), for example, is a favorite of many sopranos, but Leonard makes it her own and shows how her lower-range voice can add piquancy and emotional intensity to the song. For that matter, even the Spanish folk lullaby that serves as an encore on this CD has a warmth and level of emotional connection that are unusual in so simple and straightforward a song. This CD is called Preludios, referring to de Falla’s Op. 16, but in fact the disc may be a prelude to something else: increasing listener interest not only in these songs but also in Leonard, whose warmth and involvement in this largely less-than-familiar repertoire are winning.

     Sometimes the impressions that contemporary composers seek to showcase are entirely extra-musical ones, despite being evoked through music. The four works on a new Ravello CD featuring the City of Tomorrow Wind Quintet are of this type. The most interesting of the pieces is Ricorrenze by Luciano Berio, in which a single unison note is used to “grow” a variety of virtuosic display elements that test the players’ mettle significantly. The title means “Celebrations,” and although the celebratory nature of the material is less than obvious, the sheer virtuosity the work calls for – and this ensemble’s delivery of it – are impressive. At something of the opposite extreme is David Lang’s Breathless, one of those works in which instruments play and replay the same phrase, falling all over each other in overlapping lines intended to add up to something more than cacophony but sounding much like other works of similar structure. More interesting in its complexity, although somewhat pretentious in its attempt to comment upon art while being art, is a work by Denys Bouliane whose title includes the quotation marks and ellipses that some composers seem to believe lend their music an air of authority: “…A Certain Chinese Cyclopaedia…”  Finally, there is a work by Nat Evans – also with pretensions to philosophical profundity – called Music for Breathing and intended to reflect varying aspects of biological events. There is actually a certain pleasing balance in opening the CD with Breathless and concluding it with Music for Breathing, but all four works here somewhat overreach in their attempts to be about matters of importance, as if music itself were not important enough. Berio’s seems most comfortable with what it is and is therefore of greatest impact – although the sound of all these pieces, Berio’s included, will not likely please listeners used to a more-mellow, gentler use of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn.

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