October 20, 2016


Handel: Cantata—Mi Palpiti il Cor; Rameau: Cantata—Orphée; Agostino Steffani: Cantata—Guardati O Core; Giuseppe Sammartini: Sonata in B minor, Op. 1, No. 6; Telemann: Quatuor No. 3 in G from “Nouveaux Quatuors.” Dominique Labelle, soprano; Musica Pacifica (Judith Linsenberg, recorders; Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; Josh Lee, viola da gamba; John Lenti, theorbo and guitar; Charles Sherman, harpsichord). Navona. $14.99.

James Matheson: String Quartet; Violin Concerto; Times Alone, for soprano and piano. Color Field Quartet (Baird Dodge and Gina Dibello, violins; Weijing Wang, viola; Yi Xin, cello); Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano. Yarlung Records. $19.99.

Michael Slayton: Fantasy and Fugue for Two Pianos & Percussion—Hommage Á Bartók; Le Soir Tombe; Sursum; Sonate “Droyßig”; Sechs Miniaturen Für Das Meer (Six Miniatures for the Sea); Dreamers’ Meadows. Navona. $14.99.

Intersections: Music of Jeffrey Jacob, Heidi Jacob, Steven Block, Sergio Cervetti and Christina Rusnak. Ansonica. $14.99.

Ars Nostra—But Now the Night: Music of Eun-Hye Park, Lewis Nelson, Gerald Chenoweth, Paul Reller and Daniel Perlongo. Sang-Hie Lee and Martha Thomas, piano duo; Kyoung Cho, soprano. Ravello. $14.99.

     We tend to think of Baroque music as straitlaced, balanced and controlled, and are surprised to find examples that are anything but emotionally cool – doubly so when performers find ways to elicit the music’s underlying emotions while remaining true to Baroque style and historical performance practices. This is a tall order, but one that Musica Pacifica and soprano Dominique Labelle fill beautifully on a new Navona disc featuring three vocal and two instrumental works that have little in common except for their willingness to use Baroque structural formalities to capture emotions with unerring skill. Baroque music was far from monolithic – in particular, the German, French and Italian styles differed markedly and were sometimes seen as being in conflict with one another. The fact that works in these styles sound similar to modern ears means only that we now find their distinctiveness subtle, while Baroque audiences found it pronounced. One thing the performers here do particularly well is explore the important differences among the three cantatas (one in Italian by the German Handel, one in Italian by the Italian Steffani, and one in French by Rameau). Rameau’s work, based on the familiar Orpheus legend, is the most variegated, with nine recitatives and airs alternating to express feelings of love, loss and grace. The cantatas by Handel and the less-known Steffani (1654-1728) are more modest in scope, their five movements expressive but restrained at the same time – although Handel’s central one, the aria Ho tanti affani, is quite heartfelt. Labelle has a wonderful voice for this repertoire, clear and light but with plenty of staying power for the extended vocal displays; and the instrumental playing that backs her up is impeccable. Musica Pacifica shines on its own in the Sammartini and Telemann works that break up the succession of cantatas. Again, Baroque stylistic distinctions are much in evidence here, with Sammartini’s rather straightforward four-movement sonata being on the dark-hued side, while Telemann’s seven-movement work, with all movement titles in French, is in effect an orchestral suite scored for a smaller complement of players, and has a particularly happy balance of faster and more moderately paced movements. This is a lovely disc that bears the strong personal stamp of the performers: there is no inherent musical reason to create a CD featuring this particular grouping of material, but the musicians’ interest in exploring the emotional qualities of the compositions are more than enough rationale for the mixture.

     The musical language is far more modern, but the emotional underpinnings are just as important to the works on a new Yarlung Records recording featuring music by James Matheson (born 1970). Here too there is both vocal and instrumental material, although in this case the non-vocal elements predominate. But it is the vocal work, Times Alone, that is most immediately striking. It is a setting, in English, of five surrealist poems from the 1907 collection called Soledades, galerias y otros poemas by Antonio Machado (1875-1939). The emotional progression of the poems is handled particularly adeptly by Laura Strickling and Thomas Sauer: the first three poems are on the light, even playful side, but the last two become more thoughtful, serious and introspective, and the works’ imagery is well-reflected in Matheson’s nicely proportioned settings. Like the other works here, Times Alone was recorded live in performance – and in the case of the Violin Concerto, the performance heard here was the work’s 2011 première. The concerto was written specifically for Baird Dodge, principal second violin of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he and the orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen take to the work with great gusto and a particular focus on maintaining the clarity of Matheson’s writing for soloist and ensemble alike. The concerto, in the standard three movements, makes for accessible listening and considerable virtuoso display by the soloist, although it is never quite clear what, if anything, it is trying to say. The opening movement, Caprice, is generally unsettled and has some particularly facile instrumental touches, notably a solo flute picking up a scurrying violin figuration that proves just as intriguing for a woodwind as for a stringed instrument. But the movement eventually drifts away, and the other two, which are shorter and played without pause between them, never resolve whatever question the first movement may be raising. Matheson says the slow Chaconne was inspired by the slow movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, but the comparison does Matheson no favors: he gets the darkness and angst right without the underlying, compelling emotional connection – although the orchestral bleakness here does echo some of Mahler’s. The final Dance is a rather straightforward, lively, bright showpiece for the soloist, propulsive and pleasant to hear, but existing on an altogether different plane from that of the preceding movements. Indeed, Matheson seems to front-weight his music. The longest work on this CD is a dense and strongly rhythmic String Quartet whose first movement alone takes up more than half the piece’s 34 minutes. As in the Violin Concerto, this quartet movement seems always to be on the verge of asking substantial and substantive questions without ever quite clarifying what they are. Certainly it gives a workout to the Color Field Quartet (violinist Dodge and three other soloist-quality performers), and the central section, which brings each instrument to the fore in turn, shows just how good these players are. The sad and passionate slow movement goes through the right motions in search of the right emotions, and the finale is a real display piece for all four instruments – again, as in the concerto, seeming somewhat detached from the earlier movements. Matheson is a highly interesting composer whose work genuinely seeks to reach out to audiences, and this recording is as good an introduction to (or exploration of) the forms in which he works as anyone is likely to offer. It is also a particularly handsomely produced release, with a very extended booklet packed with information and fine color photos – not a reason in and of itself to own the CD, but a particularly nice bonus for purchasers.

     Matheson’s homage to Mahler is far from the only case of a modern composer looking backwards to produce something intended to communicate to a contemporary audience. A new Navona CD of the music of Michael K. Slayton is every bit as variegated as the recording of Matheson’s music, if not more so, and it opens with two movements tied explicitly to Bartók. The Fantasy and Fugue for Two Pianos & Percussion (performed by pianists Laura Berger and Jacob Rhodebeck and percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg, the four being collectively known, rather quaintly, as “Yarn/Wire”) does not directly echo pieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, but it has some of the same blend of acerbity and smoothness. Le Soir Tombe for soprano (Amy Jarman) and piano four hands (Melissa Rose and Jerome Reed) is a mildly atmospheric operatic aria. Sursum is a work for string quartet, commissioned by and here performed by the Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skærved and Mihailo Trandafilovski, violins; Clifton Harrison, viola; Neil Heyde, cello); the music seeks to emulate its title, which is Latin for “upward,” by striving toward higher notes as if in pursuit of transcendence, or perhaps evanescence. More emotionally compelling is the longest work on the disc, Sonate “Droyßig” for solo piano, which Evan Mack takes compellingly through its paces as a piece that negotiates familiar terrain – from darkness and depth through struggle to light – while also seeking to explore, impressionistically, the actual setting of the village of Droyßig in the Saxony-Anhalt area of Germany. Some of the same impressionism, also with a German accent, is offered in the series of attractive short pieces called  Sechs Miniaturen Für Das Meer (Six Miniatures for the Sea), performed by Joshua McGuire on guitar and Jennifer McGuire on piano. There is nothing particularly deep or even deep-water here – among the scenes evoked are ones of fog, morning, wind, docks, and night – but these short items, each bearing a German title, are pleasantly rhythmic. The final work here is Dreamers’ Meadows, a piano quartet featuring the Atlantic Ensemble (Wei Tsun Chang, violin; Seanad Dunigan Chang, viola; Kirsten Cassel Greer, cello; Jennifer McGuire, piano). Here the impressionism is somewhat strained – the work relates to hiking trails in West Virginia – but the three movements are well-constructed. The finale, Tramontaine, makes a suitably upbeat conclusion for this (+++) disc, on which the piano sonata is considerably more gripping than the rest of the material.

     A couple of new (+++) anthology CDs, from Ansonica and Ravello respectively, also offer well-made music that does not sustain interest at the same level throughout – but certainly does so intermittently. Intersections is a further exploration of the cross-cultural attractions made possible by rapprochement between the United States and Cuba – the same area explored, rather more consistently, on an earlier release called Abrazo. Those who enjoyed the previous issue will be prime candidates for this one, which offers similar cross-pollination of stylistic, harmonic and rhythmic musical elements. Jeffrey Jacobs is solo pianist in a performance of his Awakening for Piano and Orchestra, backed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba conducted by Enrique Pérez Mesa. Essentially a concert overture built around a lyrical melody, the piece also features bell sounds throughout that provide contrast with the flowing warmth of the primary melodic elements. The piano material is less interesting than the orchestral, having a distinct sound of lounge music.  Untouched by Morning, Untouched by Noon by Heidi Jacob is a suite of eight short movements for bass clarinet (Aiden Ortuño Cabeza), trumpet (Yasek Manzano Silva), trombone (Marisel González Valdés), baritone (Brian Church), and piano (Charles Abramovic). It starts with percussive sounds like those of the finger-snapping in West Side Story and continues through various strongly jazz-inflected gestures to a surprisingly gentle final movement with the ambiguous-in-this-context title of Distratta. Steven Block’s Puttin’ It Together, for drum set (Abiel Chea Guerra), alto saxophone (Jorge Sergio Ramírez Prieto), tenor and soprano saxophones (Carlos Alejandro Gonzales Guerra), and two double basses (Rubén Gonzales López and Liset Toppe Benítez), offers a clear melding of American jazz with Cuban music, including Cuba’s own version of jazz. The work is well-conducted by Enrique Pérez Mesa – it is complex enough to need a conductor – and makes an interesting juxtaposition with And the Huddled Masses by Sergio Cervetti, in which Pérez Mesa conducts an ensemble consisting of clarinet (Alden Ortuño Cabezas), two violins (Leonardo Pérez Baster and Luis Alberto Mariño Fernández), and cello (Lester Monier Serrano). Both Block’s work and Cervetti’s have clear political purposes, with Cervetti’s being more direct in its focus on the hopefulness of immigration to the United States (from Cuba and elsewhere: Cervetti himself moved to the U.S. from Uruguay). Strictly as music, Cervetti’s three-movement piece – the longest work on this CD – is more heartfelt and emotionally trenchant. The disc concludes with two choral works by Christina Rusnak, sung by Ensemble Vocal Luna conducted by Sandra Santos González. Both Dearly Beloved and Dearly Departed – the pairing is rather over-obvious – are intended to convey a sense of hope for Cuba’s future in a repaired relationship with the United States. Both are well-meaning, but neither is especially memorable despite some nicely balanced choral writing.

     The anthology called Ars Nostra—But Now the Night is held together, to the extent that it holds together at all, by the fact that all the music here is for piano duo. The target listenership seems to be duo pianists, or people simply wanting to hear the sound of two pianos rather than one as an aural exploration of what can be done with 176 keys instead of 88. The first work here, Chera in Nain (A Widow in Nain) (2009) by Eun-Hye Park, includes narration by soprano Kyoung Cho, but its primary content is percussive keyboard contributions that seem to exist independently of the words. The remaining pieces here involve only the pianists. Aber Jetzt Die Nacht (2013) by Lewis Nielson starts as an overlong exploration of dissonance and turns into an overlong use of modernistic techniques such as hitting the piano’s case and playing the strings inside the instrument. There is nothing genuinely new here – just a veneer of contemporaneity. Celestial Phenomena (2008) by Gerald Chenoweth is more intriguing in its exploration of Big Bang, Starshine, Black Hole and Night Sky—Dawn, but its use of two pianos rather than one seems arbitrary for most of the effects it produces (although its very beginning certainly has more clout on two instruments than it would on a single piano). Sonata for Two Pianos (2008) by Paul Reller is another of the innumerable contemporary compositions that seek to find something unusual in combining rhythms and stylistic elements from jazz, rock and pop music within a classical or pseudo-classical form. The stop-and-start nature of the music and its repeated forays into dissonance are less impressive than its occasional calmer moments. The final work here, Windhover for Piano Duo (2009) by Daniel Perlongo, has more calm, even lyrical moments than does Reller’s work and is less afraid to venture into tonality. As a result, it sounds less self-consciously “with-it” than the other works and more like a piece that seeks to reach out to an audience beyond that of pianists. The precise nature of the reaching-out is never quite clear, however, and the work ultimately comes across as more gestural than explicatory. Still, it is one of the highlights of a CD that features first-rate pianism in the service of music that, however well-constructed, generally seems to lack any powerful communicative reason for being.

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