February 11, 2016


Beethoven: Sonata in A, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”), transcribed for cello and piano; Artur Schnabel: Sonata for Solo Cello; Emánuel Moór: Ballade in E. Samuel Magill, cello; Beth Levin, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Violin Futura: 21st Century Solo Violin Project. Piotr Szewczyk, violin. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Alex Lubet: Aria; Ein Keiloheinu; Slow Blues; Eliyahu Hanavi; Ma Yafeh Hayom; Maja Radovanlija: Macedonian Dream; Los Biblicos; Semi-Improvised Nostalgic Study. Alex Lubet and Maja Radovanlija, guitars. Big Round Records. $14.99.

     Whether bowed, strummed or plucked, stringed instruments provide a wide variety of opportunities for expressiveness, and composers have found a wide variety of ways to exploit strings’ potential. It has become something of a tradition to perform works written for one stringed instrument on another, sometimes to widen the repertoire for a neglected instrument such as the viola and sometimes simply to give performers a chance to play music that they find meaningful but that happens to have been created for a different musical range. The latter case explains the performance of the 1803 Beethoven “Kreutzer” sonata not on violin but on cello – but it should not be thought that Samuel Magill came up with this version for his own purposes. It was actually created in 1822 by famed pianist and Beethoven pupil Carl Czerny; as performed here, it incorporates material from first-rate Romantic-era cellist August Franchomme (1808-1884) and includes some passages restored from the work’s original manuscript. Whatever the provenance of this version, it proves highly convincing as Magill and pianist Beth Levin perform it. There is certainly no compromise in virtuosity, and the cello sound proves more suitable to Beethoven’s thematic material for violin than might be expected: the broad opening Adagio sostenuto and the second-movement variations both gain from the richer tone of the larger instrument, and the concluding Presto skips along with a winning combination of brightness and warmth. Magill follows this sonata with one for solo cello by pianist (and Beethoven specialist) Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), but the juxtaposition is rather unfortunate. Schnabel’s four-movement sonata does not sustain for 27 minutes and comes across as a potpourri of 20th-century compositional techniques rather than a unified and fully thought-through work. It stops and starts repeatedly, recalls Schoenberg periodically, ventures into extreme chromaticism and atonality, and wears out its welcome long, long before its conclusion. A highly respected pianist, Schnabel shows in this sonata that he had little sense of how to sustain a solo sonata for a stringed instrument other than the piano (which uses strings but is really a percussion instrument). Techniques, themes and rhythms here become repetitious to the point of boredom, and there is little of the warmth – even in the Larghetto – for which the cello is so noted. On the other hand, the final work on this Navona CD, by another pianist, is an undiscovered gem – truly undiscovered, this being its world première recording. This is a Ballade by Hungarian composer, pianist and instrument maker Emánuel Moór, best known for creating a two-keyboard piano and for writing music that was often performed by cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals. This unpublished Ballade dates to 1913 and was dedicated to Casals; it was written for cello and orchestra and subsequently arranged by the composer for cello and piano, as heard here. Strictly Romantic in temperament and tonality, it is a work that appreciates and makes use of the cello’s unique sonic capabilities in all the ways that the Schnabel sonata does not. The instrument sings, emotes, pleads and celebrates, finding ever-new forms of expressiveness that enthrall the listener and carry through from start to finish of a rather extended (14-minute) work that proceeds at a deliberate pace but never seems to drag. Magill and Levin handle it with plenty of warmth and sensitivity, and while it would be overstating to call this a great piece – it is basically salon music with touches of additional depth – it is nevertheless a “find,” and a work that cellists seeking something different and captivating would do well to consider presenting.

     Neither length nor depth characterizes the 33 miniature solo-violin pieces collected and performed by Piotr Szewczyk on a two-CD Navona release called Violin Futura. The title of the release explains everything here: Violin Futura was a project created by Szewczyk in 2005, and all these works were written for him from 2006 to 2010. The works range in length from one to seven minutes and are designed simply to give composers – one of them being Szewczyk himself, who contributes First Coast Groove – a chance to show what they can do with short-form solo-violin music. The answer, not surprisingly, is that they can do pretty much whatever they wish, offering tonality and atonality, fairly rigid and very free-form composition, material that lies well on the instrument and material that extends and even strains it, pieces distinguished by lyricism and ones that sound harsh, items with classical poise and others with roots clearly in pop music, works that focus on the violin’s ability and ones that supplement the instrument by introducing poetry or even news articles. This is not so much a violin-future collection as it is a violin-present-day one, and it is very hard to imagine that any single piece from this (+++) release will even have much of a future. As Gertrude Stein once said in another context, there is no there there: these trifles impress neither individually nor collectively. If Szewczyk was seeking to assemble a collection of almost three dozen solo works that would collectively offer a portrait of contemporary composers’ handling of the violin, then it is possible to say that Violin Futura was a success. But it is not a musical success, at least in terms of involving listeners. There is nearly two hours of music here, and it is well-nigh impossible to listen to the material straight through – or to pick any particular sequence that makes more sense for these miniatures than any other. A few may suffice as encores from time to time, and some may work as études for violinists looking for technique-honing material beyond the traditional. But unless you are one of the composers represented here, an advocate or funder of Szewczyk’s project, or a fan of the violinist’s playing – which, it must be said, is strong and committed – there is simply no reason to give this recording as much time and attention as it calls for.

     The strings employed by Alex Lubet and Maja Radovanlija for a new recording on Big Round Records are those of the guitar – or rather guitars. The most interesting thing about this release is the variety of instruments it showcases. Lubet’s Aria and Slow Blues are for acoustic guitar; Ein Keiloheinu is for National Reso-Phonic Guitar (yes, there is such a thing) and classical guitar; Eliyahu Hanavi is for soprano ukulele (!) and prepared classical guitar; and Ma Yafeh Hayom is for acoustic guitar and classical guitar. Among the works by Radovanlija, Macedonian Dream is for acoustic guitar and classical guitar; Los Biblicos and Semi-Improvised Nostalgic Study are for classical guitar. There is a lot that is interesting in this music and a lot that comes across as trying too hard – the result being a (+++) rating for the CD. There are bits of blues here and bits of jazz – not surprising in any modern compositions – and there are elements of Jewish (Sephardic) traditional music in the Lubet works with Hebrew titles, although the composer’s sonic environment for those works takes them well outside tradition. There are elements of traditional Balkan and other Eastern European music here, and there is even a direct tie to older classical music in Lubet’s Aria, which is loosely based on Puccini’s O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi. The improvisational sound of many of these pieces is quite deliberate: several of them, not only the one that Radovanlija describes as “semi-improvised,” mix written-down material with improvised elements. The sonic variety here is impressive, and the cleverness with which both composer/performers handle it is interesting, at least for a time. But although the disc lasts only 42 minutes, it seems longer, because for all the instrumental variety that Lubet and Radovanlija seek, for all their attempts to enliven the material through improvising and combining various forms and types of music, there is eventually a sameness to the sound and a repetitiveness to the compositional techniques that make the recording less than fully convincing. More interesting when heard singly than when listened to as part of a full CD, these works show the many ways in which guitars can be combined for sonic variety, but they also indicate the aural and stylistic limitations of doing so.

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