June 25, 2015


Brahms Inspired. Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Poulenc: Complete Music for Winds and Piano. The Iowa Ensemble (Nicole Esposito, flute and piccolo; Mark Weiger, oboe; Maurita Murphy Marx, clarinet; Benjamin Coelho, bassoon; Kristin Thelander French, horn; Alan Huckleberry, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Poetry in Motion: Music by Adrienne Albert, Dan Locklair, Claude Debussy, Manuel Moreno-Buendia, and Sonny Burnette. Fire Pink Trio (Debra Reuter-Pivetta, flute; Sheila Browne, viola; Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Peter Lieuwen: Overland Dream; Sonata for Guitar; Windjammer for Woodwind Quintet; Rhapsody for Violin and Piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

James K. Wright: Letters to the Immortal Beloved; Michael Oesterle: Centennials; Brian Current: These Begin to Catch Fire; Andrew Staniland: Solstice Songs. Julie Nesrallah, mezzo-soprano; Gryphon Trio (Analee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; Jamie Parker, piano). Naxos. $12.99.

     Solo and small-ensemble works, both classics and contemporary, have their own form of communicative expressiveness, inviting listeners into a more intimate relationship with the performers than larger-scale pieces usually do. Orli Shaham’s highly personal Brahms Inspired recording is even more strongly personal than solo recitals usually are. Shaham’s two-CD Canary Classics release explores late Brahms piano music in juxtaposition with works that inspired Brahms and ones – including three world première recordings – that were inspired by him. The way in which Shaham mixes and matches the pieces is noteworthy. The first CD starts with Brahms’ six piano pieces from Op. 118, to which Shaham brings vigor, delicacy and a rather old-fashioned willingness to employ rubato – at times a touch more than needed to make these works fully effective. She does especially well in capturing the ardor of the Intermezzo in F minor, brings nobility to the Romanze in F, and nicely controls the concluding Intermezzo in E-flat minor, with its Dies Irae quotations. Shaham follows this with My Inner Brahms (an intermezzo) by Bruce Adolphe (born 1955), which takes off from Brahms’; Op. 118, No. 6, and gives it a decidedly dissonant slant. Next is Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 3, handled in no-nonsense fashion; then Schumann’s Romanze, Op. 28, No. 2, played reflectively and thoughtfully; and, next, Chopin’s Berceuse, Op. 57, a lullaby here performed very affectingly. Then Shaham turns back to Brahms to conclude the first disc with Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, effectively “bookending” the CD with expansive readings that parallel her handling of Op. 118 at the disc’s beginning. The second CD opens with After Brahms – 3 Intermezzos for Piano by Avner Dorman (born 1975). The first of these turns Brahms’ Op. 118, No. 1 into a more-chromatic work; the second adds a bluesy feel to Brahms’ Op. 119, No. 1; and the third and most interesting is wholly original, starting as simply as Brahms might have and building gradually in complexity and with some distinctly non-Brahmsian dissonance. Shaham follows this with a rather unfortunate reading of Bach’s Partita No. 1, which she handles with Romantic-era rubato that may be intended to show parallels with Brahms but that does not match the music very well. The next piece, though, is as elegant and poised as can be, and very effective as a result: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke by Schoenberg, a great admirer of Brahms. The final work on this disc is actually two interwoven compositions: Brahms’ six-movement Op. 119 pieces with Hommage à Brahms für Klavier by Brett Dean (born 1961), which was specifically written to be performed within Brahms’ Op. 119. This is an audacious move by Dean, leading to a seven-movement dual-composer work in which Dean’s pieces are the second, fourth and sixth. The first and third of Dean’s pieces are called Engelsflügel (“Angel Wings”) 1 and 2, while the second Dean piece is decidedly more earthy and is called Hafenkneipenmusik (“Harbor Pubs Music”). Dean comments on and contrasts with the four Brahms pieces, and the full seven-movement work that results certainly expands upon Brahms’ original and broadens what it has to say. But even in Shaham’s able hands and with her sensitivity to the music, the totality seems more like a gimmick than a fully realized interpretation or reinterpretation of Brahms. Taken as a whole, the disparate yet related pieces on this fascinating release are not all of equal interest, but the material by Brahms himself is very well performed, and Shaham does manage to shed light interestingly on a number of Brahms’ influences and influencers – just as this collection intends to do.

     There is expressiveness of a different sort, more straightforward and in some ways more immediately appealing, on a new MSR Classics recording of the complete wind-and-piano music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). This is witty and well-written music, more effective in the main than are Poulenc’s chamber works for strings, for which he did not write particularly well. These seven pieces span much of Poulenc’s career and provide some fascinating stylistic contrasts. Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano dates to 1926 and is rather mischievous.  Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn and Piano is from 1932 (revised 1939-40) and is similarly lighthearted, although there is greater expansiveness here – especially in the first movement – and some very effective contrasting writing for individual instruments as well as the ensemble. The other major works on this very well-played CD are considerably later: Sonata for Flute and Piano dates to 1956-57, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano to 1962, and Sonata for Oboe and Piano also to 1962. There is more beauty, more sense of looking inward, and a greater exploration of the technical capabilities of the wind instruments in these works than in the earlier ones. They retain the fluidity and fluency of Poulenc’s earlier compositions for winds, but they expand it into new realms of expressiveness and technical challenge. Also on this CD are a very short Villanelle for Piccolo and Piano, a kind of miniature intermezzo, and a moving Elegy for French Horn and Piano that was written in 1957 in memory of justly famous horn player Dennis Brain (1921-1957), who had recently died in a car crash. A distinguishing feature of this heartfelt work is that it contains a rare-for-Poulenc use of a Schoenbergian tone row. The Iowa Ensemble makes all this music highly attractive, and the contrasts among the pieces themselves make the disc as a whole a fascinating one to which to listen.

     The Fire Pink Trio plays exceptionally well, too, on a new MSR Classics CD entitled Poetry in Motion, but most of the music here is of somewhat less interest – although the CD still deserves a high rating for its sheer exuberance, its willingness to juxtapose interestingly related pieces, and the delightful and infrequently heard sound of an hour of music for the unusual combination of flute, viola and harp. Debussy’s 1913 Sonata is, not surprisingly, the highlight of the disc, its three movements showing the composer’s ever-present sensitivity and its patterns being typical of his late style. It flows now sinuously, now resolutely, and gives the players many opportunities to showcase themselves individually while producing expressive ensemble sections. Two five-movement suites by contemporary composers bracket the Debussy, which has the central position on the CD. These works are less fully integrated then Debussy’s, but they feature nicely contrasted movements and mostly successful forays into music outside the traditional classical realm. Dream Steps – A Dance Suite (1993) by Dan Locklair (born 1949) has a bluesy central movement and opening and closing movements that both include barcaroles. The scoring is attractive and the pacing winning. Suite Popular Española (1985) by Manuel Moreno-Buendia (born 1932) is a more old-fashioned collection of short dancelike movements that have enough Spanish flair to provide both performers and listeners with considerable enjoyment of their rhythmic features. The CD opens and closes with shorter contemporary works that are pleasant but less immediately appealing than those by Locklair and Moreno-Buendia – although each of them has engaging moments and uses the instruments cleverly. Doppler Effect (1998) by Adrienne Albert (born 1941) is the curtain-raiser here, while Cruisin’ with the Top Down (2000) by Sonny Burnette (born 1952) provides a suitably enjoyable conclusion to an off-the-beaten-track recording that hits a number of high points and more than a few high notes.

     Another MSR Classics release, featuring the chamber music of Peter Lieuwen, is somewhat less engaging, although here too there are interesting moments within all four works – all receiving world première recordings. Lieuwen’s music tends to have familiar inspirations, including nature and legends, and like that of many other contemporary composers, it reaches beyond traditional classical roots into jazz and non-Western music. Lieuwen is also a fan of minimalism, which at this point is a rather tired technique; but thankfully he does combine it with other compositional approaches rather than employing it in reasonably pure form. Lieuwen has his own approach to the traditional conversational nature of chamber music, expanding that conversation so that it occurs not only among the musicians but also between the players and the audience. He essentially invites listeners to make up their own narrative (or forgo narrative altogether) when hearing his music, while at the same time he challenges the performers’ technical abilities. The result can be intriguing but can also come across as somewhat dry and studied, as it often does in this (+++) recording. Lieuwen does not so much put drama into his music as invite players to find it and listeners to discover it – a reasonable enough position if the music seems to have considerable depth to it. But by and large, the works here are on the straightforward side and do not evoke any particularly deep emotional resonance. The most interesting aspect of the recording is the way in which Lieuwen writes for four different sets of instruments. Sonata for Guitar (2009) is a virtuosic solo work (played here by Isaac Bustos) in the traditional three movements but with decidedly untraditional sound. Rhapsody for Violin and Piano (2013), performed by violinist Andrzej Grabiec and pianist Timothy Hester, is a somewhat over-extended duo that seems to meander rather than head anywhere in particular. Overland Dream (2011) requires four players: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The SOLI Chamber Ensemble handles it nicely, and the clarinet writing, in particular, has some attractive elements. Windjammer (2009) needs the most performers among the works here, being for woodwind quintet. The Cumberland Wind Quintet takes its measure effectively, but here the blending of instruments seems more on the competitive than cooperative side, and the actual sound of the music can be off-putting. Hearing one or two works by Lieuwen on a CD might result in a better listening experience than hearing four – at least these four.

     There are four contemporary composers represented by one work apiece on a new Naxos CD featuring music by Canadian musicians – and here too there are some interesting and attractive elements, but also some that tend to drag or that simply seem to be trying too hard. The Gryphon Trio commissioned all these works, all of which are world première recordings. The most interesting of them is Letters to the Immortal Beloved (2012) by James K. Wright (born 1959). The three pieces, sung by mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah, are attempts to delve emotionally into Beethoven’s relationship with his Immortal Beloved, the still-unknown woman to whom he wrote passionately in 1812. Taking extended excerpts from Beethoven’s prose as its basis, the work explores the composer’s intense longing and becomes a codicil of sorts to the mystery still surrounding the woman to whom Beethoven wrote – although it is a touch odd to have these passionate words sung by a female performer. A tribute of another sort is Centennials (2012) by Michael Oesterle (born 1968). This piece’s three movements mark what would have been the 100th-birthday year of three very different people: chef Julia Child, American composer Conlon Noncarrow, and painter Jackson Pollock. The pieces are best heard as homages rather than direct attempts to reflect the work and lives of the people whose names they bear. Also here is the intriguingly titled These Begin to Catch Fire (2012) by Brian Current (born 1972). This is a sun-focused tone poem inspired by sunlight patterns on Lake Muskoka in Ontario – a kind of miniature version of Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, but written for much more modest forces and accordingly making its impression with greater delicacy and less sense of brilliance and grandeur. The fourth piece here is also sun-related in a way: Solstice Songs (2011) by Andrew Staniland (born 1977). Despite the title, there are no words here – the three-movement work is intended to evoke the passage of time through purely instrumental means, its first and longest movement flowing in almost congealed fashion, its second a brief Interlude, and its third a brighter, almost perky conclusion. The Gryphon Trio members throw themselves into all these works with enthusiasm, and it is fair to say that these performances are as close to definitive as any reading is likely to be. However, the CD is, as a whole, rather uneven and disconnected, with parts of each work more involving than other sections and with the four works themselves having little to tie them together musically except for the fact that the Gryphon Trio commissioned them all. In its totality, this is a (+++) recording that will, however, be of particular interest to listeners who want to familiarize themselves with some of the music of contemporary Canadian composers.

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