June 09, 2016


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 2; An die ferne Geliebte (transcribed by Liszt); Czerny: Erste fantasie auf motive aus Beethovens werken; Nocturne in E-flat; Mendelssohn: Variations Sérieuses. Gwendolyn Mok, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Kate Moore: Stories for Ocean Shells. Ashley Bathgate, cello. Cantaloupe Music. $15.

Copland: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Two Pieces for Violin and Piano; Korngold: Much Ado about Nothing—Suite from the Incidental Music; Marietta’s Lied and Tanzlied from “Die Tote Stadt.” Yuriy Bekker, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Scene Rustique: Twentieth-Century Oboe Works by Hedwige Chrétien, Mary Chandler, Marina Dranishnikova, Gloria Wilson Swisher, and Madeline Dring. Leslie Odom, oboe; Soomee Yoon, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Steven Winteregg: Journeymen’s Songs. Navona. $14.99.

     It is a particularly salutary experience to hear composers’ music on the instruments for which they wrote it – not only music of the Baroque era, which is where “historically informed” performances began, but also music of much later times, right into the 20th century, when gut strings remained the norm and there was much more portamento than is now customary. And when a performer is as good as pianist Gwendolyn Mok on a new MSR Classics release, there is pleasure both from the readings themselves and from the context in which they are presented. Mok’s disc is called “The Spirit of Beethoven,” and for once, this is an “overview” title that actually fits the music and does not feel forced. Mok first offers a very early Beethoven piano sonata, played on a 1985 reproduction of a 1795 Louis Dulcken fortepiano, and Mok’s rendition shows quite clearly how deeply rooted Beethoven was in the Classical era before beginning to move music into new directions. The fortepiano itself – decidedly worth hearing in, among other music, all the Beethoven piano concertos – has a sound quite different from that of a modern concert grand, as well as a much smaller compass of notes. Beethoven used it to its fullest extent, but that is nowhere near what modern pianos can bring to bear – and this music sounds all the better, all the more realistic in a strange time-traveling way, when performed on the sort of instrument for which Beethoven wrote it. This is equally true for Liszt’s transcription of the song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, played here on an 1823 Broadwood & Sons instrument that by that time was called a pianoforte rather than a fortepiano. Liszt himself used even-more-substantial instruments than this one, but the Broadwood & Sons sound has clear transitional elements to it, being fuller than that of earlier fortepianos but without the scope or resonance of instruments that were yet to come. Mok uses the same pianoforte for Beethoven pupil Carl Czerny’s Erste fantasie auf motive aus Beethovens werken, a rather slight work that nevertheless deserves to be better known for its pleasantries as well as its effective use of Beethoven’s thematic material as its basis. Mok then moves to a third instrument for another Czerny work, Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 547 (Czerny was amazingly prolific). Switching to an 1868 Érard for this piece is a particularly happy decision, even though this pianoforte was built 11 years after Czerny’s death. The reason this works so well is that it gives listeners a chance to hear the music of this close Beethoven associate on two very different-sounding instruments, thus emphasizing both the transitional nature of Czerny’s own works and the influence Beethoven had over succeeding generations. The CD concludes, still on the Érard, with Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54, a work with a more-tenuous connection to Beethoven than Czerny’s variations, but one showing quite clearly how Mendelssohn, like other composers of Beethoven’s time and immediately thereafter, adapted elements of Beethoven’s pianistic thinking and made it their own. Mendelssohn was 18 when Beethoven died and had already produced a considerable body of work, much of it influenced more by Haydn and Mozart than by Beethoven – but these variations show him reaching for greater intensity in the Beethoven mode, while filtering  Beethoven’s influence through his own, already well-developed piano style.

     The Cantaloupe Music CD of music by Kate Moore is as determinedly up-to-date as Mok’s is decidedly focused on Beethoven’s time. Here the solo instrument is the cello, with Ashley Bathgate performing an hour-long, six-piece sequence that composer Kate Moore calls Stories for Ocean Shells. Written over a 20-year period, the individual elements sometimes have the cello playing alone and in relatively straightforward mode, sometimes stretch the instrument in fairly typical contemporary ways, and sometimes combine the cello’s warm and rich sound with electronic elements that are intended to supplement the instrument but have a tendency to detract from its tonal beauty. For example, the work’s overall title is taken from its second, eponymous element, in which the cello line climbs above thick and rather eerie-sounding electronics that aurally get in the way of Bathgate’s impassioned playing. The pieces within Stories for Ocean Shells are of varying interest as well as varying structure: “Velvet,” for instance, is a moderately effective mixture of cello with electronic sounds, while “Homage to My Boots” is less interesting – and requires an audience to know that the work connects with Moore’s travels for it to have any significant connection with listeners. This is a (+++) CD featuring some fine cello playing and some good writing for the instrument: Moore herself plays the cello. The musical material, however, is on the thin side and is often rather ordinary in its insistence on mixing elements that do not go together particularly well.

     Aaron Copland and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, on the other hand, came up with well-joined elements of various sorts in their music for violin and piano, with the works on a new (++++) Navona CD played with verve and style by Yuriy Bekker and Andrew Armstrong. These pieces are rarely performed, and the violin used by Bekker is rarer still: it is a 1656 Stradivarius (called the “ex-Nachez”) that has not been recorded before. The violin’s wonderful tone is scarcely a surprise, given its provenance, but the contrasts built into the music are enough to make listeners sit up and take notice. Copland’s Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, for instance, dates to 1926 and is redolent of the influences that make earlier Copland music so attractive: folk tunes, blues and jazz. The pieces themselves offer a strong contrast between the Nocturne and the Ukulele Serenade. But both are tonal and pleasant to hear, which gives them a strong contrast with the Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1943. This work seems almost to play against the wonderful tone of the Stradivarius, much as Moore’s music at times seems at war with the cello’s warmth. And Copland’s piano part here is decidedly modern and technique-oriented, making extended use of parallel chords made of stacked perfect fourths – creating a foundation for the three movements that is quite different from what most listeners associate with Copland’s more-popular works (and perhaps explaining this sonata’s comparative obscurity). Copland’s music is paired interestingly with works by Korngold that are even earlier than Copland’s Two Pieces. The suite from Much Ado about Nothing dates to 1921 and offers four attractively structured, if rather straightforward, excerpts from Korngold’s incidental music to Shakespeare’s play. Here the violin and piano merge and discuss as frequently as they take on the roles of dominant and subsidiary instrument – although when they do assume those roles, the violin is clearly in charge. There are also two transcriptions here of songs from Korngold’s 1920 opera, Die tote Stadt, and they offer attractive and often-warm moments in which the violin sings as a substitute for the missing human voice. The CD is intriguing both for its repertoire and for the sound of the violin, and the playing by Bekker and Armstrong is very fine throughout.

     Twentieth-century duos of a different sort are presented on a Ravello release called Scene Rustique and featuring Leslie Odom and Soomee Yoon. Here too there are some interesting pieces, all of them written by woman composers and all of them receiving world première recordings. The works vary considerably in style and mood. Hedwige Chrétien’s Scene Rustique, which gives the disc its title, is a series of variations on a pastoral, four-note theme with a slight Mozartean flavor – the composer has a penchant for ornamentation and uses it to dress the theme up in a variety of ways. Mary Chandler’s Three Dance Studies for Oboe and Piano offers a trio of very short movements (the concluding Magyar lasts barely half a minute) with clear rhythms. Marina Dranishnikova’s Poème contains many neo-Romantic elements, such as strong emotional expression and frequent metrical changes, that bely its date of 1953 – it is intended to express the feelings of a tragic love affair, which it does through a generally dark mood and disturbed-sounding syncopated sections. Gloria Wilson Swisher’s Salutations is lighter music, along the lines of Chandler’s work, with three brief movements giving the oboe more chances than usual to offer proclamations and even, per the title of the second movement, Fanfares. The CD concludes with two works by Madeleine Dring, Danza Gaya and Italian Dance, which are both fairly straightforward dance tunes that invite the oboe to bubble along above pleasant piano accompaniment.  This (+++) CD will be of interest to oboists looking to extend their repertoire and to listeners who fancy a chance to hear less-known 20th-century oboe music, but even those who really enjoy the rather slight works and the very fine playing will likely be disappointed to find that the disc lasts only 30 minutes – a genuinely paltry length for a full-priced CD.

     At 54 minutes, the new Navona CD of music by Steven Winteregg is more reasonable in duration; and this disc too seems directed in large part at instrumentalists who want to expand their repertoire. In this case, however, non-performers will also find much to enjoy. The CD features trumpeter Daniel Zehringer on B-flat and C trumpets and flugelhorn, and the works call for instrumental forces ranging from solo C trumpet (African Fanfare) to solos on all three instruments (the five-movement Reflections of Quoheleth) to C trumpet and piano (The City, with pianist Steve Aldredge) and flugelhorn and cello (Two Souvenirs, the cello here played by Franklin Cox). The album title does not come from any specific work but from the overall notion of travel both geographic (with references to places ranging from Chicago to several Chinese cities) and musical (through use of the various trumpets and different accompanying forces). The geographical references of African Fanfare and the two movements of Two Souvenirs (first Postcard from Narbonne, then Train to Nowhere) are at least reasonably clear from the titles, and The City is supposed to be a musical reflection on Chicago. The name Quoheleth sounds like something out of H.P. Lovecraft but is actually biblical (the reference is to Ecclesiastes); this is the piece on the CD that most clearly shows the differing colors of which trumpets of various types are capable, making it especially intriguing for performers. There are also two works here with more-extensive accompaniment. One is China Crossing, whose four movements are Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong; here the writing is for a brass quintet including Zehringer and Eric Knorr, trumpets; Jonas Thomas, horn; Gretchen McNamara, trombone; and Thomas Lukowicz, tuba. The referents to the specific cities are not particular evident, but the ensemble writing is attractive and the four movements are short enough not to wear out their welcome. Finally there is the intriguing, if somewhat overly cute, Popular Variations on a Classical Theme, in which Zehringer plays C trumpet and flugelhorn and is accompanied by Jerry Nobel on percussion and Don Compton on bass. The six movements are built around the well-known theme from the Largo of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” and the idea is to compare and contrast that theme with ones from specific later decades: the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea is fun, and hearing Dvořák varied in multiple tempos and juxtaposed with Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing, the Marcels’ Blue Moon, TV’s Green Acres, the Village People’s Macho Man, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is just outlandish enough to be intriguing. But the piece is essentially a “one-trick pony,” and even though none of the movements is very long (the six combined last 13 minutes), what Winteregg is doing is obvious enough so it wears rather thin after a while. Still, as a whole, listeners, especially but not only trombonists, will consider this a (++++) CD for its cleverness, the number of ways Winteregg finds to use the lead instruments, and the first-rate playing of Zehringer in every one of these pieces.

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