August 18, 2016
(++++) THE EVOLVING CHAMBER
Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano; Scherzo from FAE Sonata. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Lars Vogt, piano. Ondine. $16.99.
Hakki Cengiz Eren: Buffavento; Six Studies on Archipenko; Music for Strings No. 1 (Doors); Four Pieces for Solo Viola. Ravello. $14.99.
New Music for Clarinet: Another Look—works by William O. Smith, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Adolphus Hailstork, Dana Wilson, F. Gerard Errante and Sydney Hodkinson. F. Gerard Errante, clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone; Nyle Steiner, evi (electronic valve instrument); Lee Jordan-Anders and William Albright, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Maya Beiser: TranceClassical. Maya Beiser, cello. Innova. $14.99.
There are two primary difficulties with the Brahms Violin Sonatas. One is that, for all the differences among them that can be explored analytically, they tend to have a certain sameness of overall sound, and performers do not always do a good job of differentiating them. The other is that Brahms, being a pianist, gave a lot of the heft of the sonatas to the piano rather than the violin, which means the pianist in a performance must be quite restrained, even modest, to avoid swamping the stringed instrument. These issues are worth mentioning in connection with the new Ondine recording of the sonatas, featuring Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, simply because neither issue is of any real significance here. These are warm, expressive readings throughout, always beautiful and very nicely paced: they actually feel somewhat slower than they are, since Tetzlaff and Vogt emphasize the works’ extended lines and thematic subtleties – bringing the latter out effectively in the sort of true partnership that Tetzlaff and Vogt have evolved through longstanding performance together and that stands them in particularly good stead in these works. The flow, the lyricism here are beautifully shaped, and while there is noticeable rubato from time to time, it never seems out of keeping with the spirit or intent of the music: Tetzlaff and Vogt approach these sonatas with as much thoughtfulness as virtuosity. The two recorded these works before, in 2002, and those readings were released as a live recording, but their performance here is even more assured and beautifully blended than the earlier one, and the sound quality is significantly better. As something of an afterthought, Tetzlaff and Vogt offer Brahms’ contribution to the three-composer FAE Sonata: Albert Dietrich wrote the first movement, Schumann the second and fourth, and Brahms the third, the scherzo heard here. The sonata as a whole deserves to be performed more frequently – it is an occasional piece, but of more than passing interest. But the scherzo often stands alone when musicians offer a Brahms recital, and in that case, it can come across as a pleasing trifle and fine encore – which is how it emerges here.
Brahms actually extended the scope of violin sonatas in his three works, especially the final one, which is larger in scale and less intimate than the first two. But whatever Brahms did for chamber music was done within a clearly delineated Romantic context that sets his violin sonatas firmly in their time period. These days, contemporary composers of chamber works seem far more interested in new boundaries for their music, sometimes stylistic ones and sometimes ones that incorporate multiple musical approaches. Thus, on a new Ravello CD featuring works by Turkish composer Hakki Cengiz Eren, the first piece, Buffavento for large chamber ensemble (Thornton Edge conducted by Donald Crockett) is both highly dissonant (based loosely on earlier works by Gyorgy Ligeti) and impressionistic (intended as a depiction of castles in Cyprus). Without knowing the work’s provenance, listeners will simply hear sounds that could have come from innumerable other works of our era. Six Studies on Archipenko for quartet (ECCE: Diamanda Dramm, violin; Paolo Vignoroli, flute; Vasko Dukovski, B-flat and bass clarinet; Virginie Tarrête, harp) has a more interesting sound – the instruments both complement and contrast with each other to good effect – but it too depends for full understanding on listeners knowing that it was inspired by an Alexander Archipenko painting called “La Coquette.” Music for Strings No. 1 is for string quartet (Argus Quartet: Clara Kim and Jason Issokson, violins; Diana Wade, viola; Joann Whang, cello) and proceeds by contrasting layered contrapuntal elements, which have a kind of “horizontal” motion characterized by grace notes, with evenly rhythmic interjections that provide a sort of “vertical” set of punctuation points. Four Pieces for Solo Viola attempts to paint four short scenes – “Wandering,” “Scenic,” “Insistent” and “Dialogue” – by having the performer (Garth Knox) take the instrument through contortions that sometimes sound dramatic and sometimes merely painful. Like so much contemporary music, the pieces on this (+++) CD are carefully constructed along lines chosen and understood by the composer but by no means evident to listeners – and, indeed, the audience seems almost irrelevant to works that appear to be intended to show compositional bona fides but not to communicate anything in particular except to those “in the know.”
The primary focus of another (+++) Ravello CD seems to be the performer, clarinetist F. Gerard Errante, rather than what he performs. The chamber-music works here, originally recorded on vinyl by Errante some years ago and mostly dedicated to him, are among many that take instruments (and not only the clarinet) as building blocks for sounds that work against what the instruments’ construction and sonic range were intended to be, all in the name of expanding performers’ (and, theoretically, listeners’) auditory experience. This is not really a new concept: it dates at least as far back as Charles Ives’ notion that music should stretch the ears. But Ives always cared about listeners’ ears as well as his own; the focus is much less certain in the works heard here. Errante’s own piece, Souvenirs de Nice, for example, is a clarinet improvisation punctuated by prepared piano and including, among other things, Errante playing two clarinets at the same time. To what end? To Errante’s, certainly, and theoretically to other performers’, but not noticeably to an audience’s. Two William O. Smith pieces, Solo for Clarinet with Delay System and Asana, use technology that makes real-time changes in the clarinet’s sound – a collaboration between composer and performer, certainly, but with the audience largely left out. Sonic difference is also the main point of Vladimir Ussachevsky’s Four Studies for Clarinet and Evi, the latter being essentially a breath-actuated synthesizer. Adolphus Hailstork’s A Simple Caprice is more fun than the other pieces here, with a certain bouncy irreverence to its handling of clarinet and piano; it does, however, go on much too long (at nearly 15 minutes, it is the longest work on the CD). A contrast to Hailstork’s outgoing work is the introverted Piece for Clarinet “Alone” by Dana Wilson, which uses a multitude of techniques, often to good effect. The final piece here, Sydney Hodkinson’s The Dissolution of the Serial, is actually fun to listen to as clarinet and piano together make fun of multiple musical genres and styles of composition – including, knowingly or not, some of the ones employed in all seriousness elsewhere on the disc.
Errante is scarcely the only contemporary performer whose interest is pushing musical boundaries as far as possible, even if that means breaking some of them; in fact, especially if that means breaking some. The same approach is something of a stock-in-trade for cellist Maya Beiser, whose well-played but vapid (+++) Innova release, TranceClassical, bears a title suggesting that this music is entrancing (which it is not) and also transclassical – across and beyond the classical (which it is). Self-indulgent CDs like this are strictly performer-focused and very much an acquired taste: listeners who think that Beiser is fascinating/important/intriguing and that a cello altered and augmented to such an extent that its underlying tonal beauty and range are largely concealed will delight in the disc; everyone else will wonder what all the fuss is about and/or simply dislike the whole self-important production. Beiser can certainly play Bach – she offers a Bach arrangement to open the proceedings here – but what she wants to play is music that shows how clever she, as a performer, can be, which is why the other bookend of the CD is a Beiser arrangement of a piece by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) that celebrates the divine power of wisdom. The seven works between those of Bach and von Bingen include three world première recordings and pieces ranging from a Kol Nidre by Mohammed Fairouz to Lou Reed’s Heroin in an arrangement by David Lang that actually includes some arpeggiation. This is a disc for people who do not especially like the cello (although the von Bingen arrangement is actually rather affecting) but who very much like celebrity performances. In a live recital or on DVD, Beiser might well be mesmerizing to see: getting the variety of sounds that she extracts from her instrument surely requires circus-worthy contortions and intensity. An audio recording, though, rises or falls on the basis not only of playing but also of what is being played. The material here, intended to be variegated, is really just a hodgepodge connected by Beiser’s interest in it and her skill at playing arrangements (her own and ones by others). This sort of production can no longer be considered defiantly different or consciously contemporary – it is simply one more performer-as-celebrity offering in which the material presented is mostly thin and the focus is more on the person delivering the musical message than on the message’s content.