December 22, 2016
(++++) CENTURIES IN THE CHAMBER
Dario Castello: Sonate Concertante in Stil Moderno, Libro Primo. Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr. AAM Records. $18.99.
Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-6. Francesco Galligioni, cello; L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Music for the Tsars: Works from the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts. UGA Hodgson Singers and UGA Wind Ensemble conducted by John P. Lynch and George C. Foreman. Mark Masters. $9.99.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Trio, Op. 1; Leonard Bernstein: Trio; Arthur Foote: Trio No. 2, Op. 65. Neave Trio (Anna Williams, violin; Mikhail Veselov, cello; Eri Nakamura, piano). Chandos. $18.99.
The virtuosity, delicacy and intimacy of music for small ensembles – and the many ways such music has changed over centuries – are on delightful display in a handful of recent releases that explore works with which most music lovers, no matter how sophisticated, are unlikely to be familiar. Dario Castello (c. 1590-c. 1658), for example, is almost a complete unknown, even though his music was written in Monteverdi’s time and was for a while exceptionally popular. All that survive are two books of sonatas for violin, cornetto and dulcian – highly virtuosic chamber works, the first book of which is explored with great skill and remarkable energy by members of the Academy of Ancient Music in a release on the group’s own label. The dozen sonatas heard here were certainly at the outskirts of the style of their time, being very difficult to play and calling for near-constant shifts of tempo and mood that look ahead a great many years. Some idea of the complexity of the pieces may be garnered from the fact that the first of them on this recording has 10 different sections lasting a total of five minutes and alternating constantly between Adagio and Presto. Extreme contrast is the watchword of nearly all the sonatas, and at a time when wind writing was generally sedate in the extreme, in Castello’s sonatas it is anything but that. Interestingly, a single one of these sonatas, No. 2, is almost entirely a slow piece – it contains just two short sections marked Allegro – while various sonatas heard here go beyond the standard Adagio designation to indicate degrees of Adagio. That is a practice that, like so much in the writing itself, looks forward many years. Richard Egarr, directing from the harpsichord and organ, makes a very strong case for the importance (and influence) of these “modern style” sonatas, which are played by violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Bojan Čičić, Josué Meléndez on cornet, Joseph Crouch on violetta, Benny Aghassi on dulcian, Susan Addison on trombone, and William Carter on theorbo. The CD will have listeners surprised at the depths and difficulties of the works and looking forward to the hoped-for future recording of Castello’s Libro Secondo.
Works for chamber ensemble by Vivaldi are far better-known than those by Castello, but not all of Vivaldi’s music has been explored to an equal extent. This makes the Brilliant Classics recording of six cello sonatas (RV 47, 41, 43, 45, 40 and 46) all the more welcome. Vivaldi was born about 20 years after Castello’s death, and his music clearly bespeaks the sensibilities, both sonic and structural, of a later age. But some of Vivaldi’s music, including these cello sonatas, is less virtuosic and to an extent more straitlaced than his other works. The interesting result is that these Vivaldi sonatas, even when played as well and enthusiastically as they are by Francesco Galligioni and members of L’Arte dell’Arco (Paulo Zuccheri, violone; Ivano Zanenghi, lute; Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord and chamber organ; Francesco Baroni, chamber organ), sound somewhat like throwbacks, while the Castello sonatas seem to look to the future. Part of the reason for this is that the sequence of movements in all six of these Vivaldi sonatas is exactly the same: Largo, Allegro, Largo, Allegro. The contrast with the frequent tempo changes and dynamic expectations of the Castello sonatas is considerable. Also, three of these Vivaldi sonatas are in the same key, B-flat; one is in F and the other two are in minor keys – A minor and E minor. Thus there is a certain sameness of sound here that contrasts vividly with the changeable, even mercurial nature of the Castello sonatas. But it would be a mistake to think too little of these cello pieces. The reality is that five of the six offer a level of expressiveness well beyond that of anything in Castello’s sequence – only Vivaldi’s sonata in F is comparatively bright and clear-voiced. These cello works explore the warmth and depth of hue of the cello to a considerable degree, and indeed to a greater degree than was usual at the time they were written, probably in the 1720s. Vivaldi is justly famed for his violin music – he was himself a considerable virtuoso, although his style was controversial – but his writing for other strings was of very high quality as well. If the explorations heard on this CD are more modest than those heard on recordings of Vivaldi’s violin music, they are highly interesting and accomplished in their own way and show a side of the composer with which listeners are likely to be less familiar.
Almost nothing is familiar about the composers heard on an intriguing Mark Music CD featuring performers and scholars from the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. This mixture of chamber, wind-ensemble and choral music is the result of a fascinating project to explore the musical archives of the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts – archives that include, among other things, three almost wholly unknown military marches by none other than Rossini. All those are heard here, along with music by Eudoxie De Bologovsky, Osip Antonovich Kozlovsky, Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov, Eduard Wenzel, Ivan Chapievsky, August Söderman, and Alexander Hirsemann. These are scarcely household names, although Lvov is known for writing the imperial Russian national anthem, God Save the Tsar, in 1833 – that work, heard here in choral form, will be familiar to listeners from, among other things, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Rossini’s marches may be somewhat familiar, too – the reason they are only almost wholly unknown is that the composer, an inveterate self-borrower, reused the pieces in several other contexts, and it is thus possible that listeners will have heard them in different arrangements. In truth, they are not among his better compositions and are nothing special: they are occasional pieces, in this respect a bit like Wagner’s American Centennial March, and like that march have the flavor of a commission fulfilled rather than that of a piece written from the heart. Two chamber works here, on the other hand, are quite attractive: Kozlovsky’s brief Polonaise for Two Flutes and a Quintet for Two Clarinets, Two Horns, and Bassoon by an unknown composer – this being a set of four very well-made miniature movements that nicely balance and highlight the individual instruments. Another anonymous work here is the longest piece on the CD by far, and one of the most interesting: Fantasie militaire pour deux pianos et Cor de signal, a 20-minute succession of bugle calls tied to specific aspects of military maneuvers, elaborated on the two pianos in a series of unusual and attractive episodes. In truth, though, none of the music here is highly distinguished: the CD offers access to mostly obscure works of a long-gone time period and long-extinguished ruling family, and is as much an auditory document of historical interest as it is a well-planned recital. Still, everything is very well performed, and the extraction from obscurity of these pieces, minor though they be, makes for an unusual and enjoyable listening experience.
The three chamber works on a new Chandos CD featuring the Neave Trio are scarcely better known. But all three of these trios have more musical heft than anything on the Romanov-focused disc. The Korngold and Bernstein works date from very early in their composers’ careers; the Foote trio is a much more mature piece. The trio by Korngold (1897-1937) is his first published work and is something of a marvel: he wrote it at the age of 12. It is a strongly accented, atmospheric work created with compositional skill far beyond its composer’s chronological age. The style is scarcely distinctive, but the stretching of tonality and expressive intensity of the music place it squarely at the end of the Romantic era and show that even in 1909-10, Korngold had a knack for mixing emotive sensitivity with a high degree of drama – a combination that would stand him in good stead in his much later film music. Less impressive is the trio by Bernstein (1918-1990), which he wrote while at Harvard in the late 1930s. This is more clearly a piece of juvenilia than is Korngold’s work: it is replete with stylistic influences of all sorts, and while it shows some attractive jazz elements in its short middle movement, its two outer ones seem to strive and grasp for coherence and sensitivity that they never quite attain. The Neave Trio members play the Bernstein with as much tastefulness as they bring to the Korngold, but it does not repay them, or listeners, nearly as well. The trio by Foote (1853-1937) is the real gem here. It dates to 1909, which makes it clearly a work of this less-known composer’s maturity. And that maturity shows throughout: the first movement swings elegantly between propulsiveness and tranquility, and back again; the second features a particularly lovely and expressive cello theme, replete with thoughtfulness; and the finale strides confidently and with elegant rhythms through thoroughly Romantic melodies to a forceful and effective conclusion. It would be stretching things to suggest that anything here is great music, but certainly all of it has significant American roots, which is the Neave Trio’s point: the CD bears the title American Moments. Not all the moments are worthy of a repeated listening experience, but many in Foote’s work and some in Korngold’s surely are; and the chance to hear these chamber-music rarities in such fine performances is, in and of itself, a most welcome one.