February 16, 2017


Ein Feste Burg—Luther in Music. Soloists and ensembles conducted by Ludwig Güttler. Berlin Classics. $18.99.

Jack Gallagher: Piano Music. Frank Huang, piano. Centaur. $18.99.

Derek Bourgeois: Trombone Concerto; William Goldstein: Colloquy for Solo Trombone; Stephen Lias: River Runner; Jean-Baptiste Arban: Variations on “The Carnival of Venice” (arr. Hunsberger). Deb Scott, trombone; Ron Petti, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     The influence of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses can scarcely be overestimated: 500 years ago, it led to the first substantial chink in the thousand-plus-year-old armor of the monolithic Catholic Church, ushering in an era of questioning and freethinking that forever ended the Church-focused control of the Dark Ages and that led to the multiplicity of Western religions that the world knows today. That this was not Luther’s intent is clear: Lutheranism, the Protestant religion that most closely follows Luther’s precepts, retains a great deal of the style and substance of Catholicism – indeed, so much that people dissatisfied with more than the Church’s sale of indulgences (Luther’s primary focus and concern) went on to create forms of Protestant worship even further distanced from the control and trappings of Rome. And the different forms of worship used music quite differently, with Lutheran music standing highest in the Baroque era because of the Bach family and other composers who were nearly as notable. Ludwig Güttler’s assemblage of performances of music that draws on Luther’s own words and tunes – notably but not exclusively Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (c. 1529) and Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (words 1534, music 1539) – is not only a commemoration of the five centuries through which Luther’s thinking has resonated, but also an intriguing compendium of musical styles dating as far back as the time of Johann Walter (1496-1570) and continuing to our own time through music by Daniel Schnyder (born 1961). This Berlin Classics release is a specialty item rather than a CD likely to appeal to listeners at large, as so much of Bach’s music does: it does include, inevitably, several short Bach works (three excerpts from the Weinachtsoratorium, for instance, all inevitably out of context); but other works here are of considerably less interest except in this specific context. For example, Güttler assembled a Partita on Ein feste Burg by pulling together seven brass-and-trumpet versions of the tune by Heinrich Schütz, Melchior Franck, Melchior Vulpius, the aforementioned Walter (two versions), Michael Altenburg, and Johann Crüger; and this is interesting to scholars of Baroque composition and brass-music fanciers, but will simply sound repetitious to many listeners. A similar Partita on Von Himmel hoch incorporates works for brass by Johannes Eccard, Michael Praetorius (two pieces), and Johann Hermann Schein; it has the same strengths and weaknesses as its sibling. Also here is Baroque music by Dietrich Buxtehude, Christian August Jacobi, and Johann Ludwig Krebs – and much newer works by Max Reger (who was Catholic, but whose two short contributions here are notable), Matthias Kleemann (born 1948), Jean Langlais (1907-1991), and the aforementioned Schnyder, who gets more time here than anyone else except Bach: Part I of Schnyder’s Oratorium “Eine Feste Burg” is given in its entirety. Unfortunately, this work drags on and on and spends too much time incorporating the usual contemporary choral and orchestral techniques into a piece that bears little resemblance to the spirit (much less the letter) of Luther’s music and teachings. It, and the other recent works given here, do show that Luther’s influence has persisted for five centuries, but they also show it so transmogrified as to be barely recognizable at times. The performances, by various soloists and groups, are generally quite good; they are selected from a wide variety of recordings dating from 1982 to 2014. The arrangement of pieces on the disc is clearly a personal one: there is no inherent reason for presenting this material in this specific order. The CD thus stands largely as Güttler’s own acknowledgment of and tribute to Luther, rather than being a recording that reaches out to audiences at large to display the tremendous influence, musical and otherwise, that Luther has had for so many people for so many years.

     The new Centaur CD of piano music by Jack Gallagher, performed by Frank Huang, is personal in a different way: most of the nine works are dedicated to Gallagher’s family and friends. This could easily turn the disc into a speak-to-oneself-and-one’s-intimates experience. Happily, Gallagher’s music is better than that, reaching out beyond a core audience more effectively, in some ways, than does Güttler’s project. One reason for this is that Gallagher has rethought six of the nine pieces here and appears, in so doing, to have made them quite accessible – although the easiest-to-enjoy work here, Six Pieces for Kelly (1989), has not been substantially revised. This is a kind of “Kids’ Corner” (distantly related to, but not to be confused with, Children’s Corner by Debussy): intended for young pianists, Gallagher’s work includes a short and cheery March, suitably sweet Lullaby, bright and forthright Piping Song, warm Chant d’Insouciance, wistful Folksong, and dashing final Balkan Dance. Gallagher has considerable skill as a miniaturist, shown also in Six Bagatelles (1979), dedicated to six different people – five movements are heard here, with an explanatory note about the other. The short Pastorale (1978) also shows Gallagher to be effective in miniaturist mode. It is one of four pieces here that are dedicated to Gallagher’s wife, the others being Sonata for Piano (1973/2005), Nocturne (1976/2008), and Happy Birthday, April (1976/2014). The Sonata, which opens the album, is somewhat reminiscent of Hindemith in a lyrical mood, but it is more transparent and less turgid. Nocturne is almost too close to its clear lineage back to Field and Chopin: pleasant enough, it somewhat overstays its welcome after 10½ minutes. Happy Birthday, April concludes the CD pleasantly – another effective Gallagher miniature, this one with distinct pop-music roots – but it has less of an encore flavor than the work placed before it here, Malambo Nouveau (2000/2009), a bouncily rhythmic piece that gives Huang’s fingers a real workout. The other two pieces heard here are Evening Music (1998/2009), a pleasantry that is more effectively evocative than Nocturne, and Sonatina for Piano (1976/1999), whose Berceuse second movement is a sweet little lullaby that Gallagher later orchestrated. Huang’s pianism, although not technically perfect, is involved and enthusiastic, and is a reason that this compilation of works written and rewritten over a period of more than 40 years comes through as much more than a series of pieces united primarily by Gallagher’s affinity for the people to whom he dedicated them.

     A new Navona CD featuring contemporary music by Derek Bourgeois, William Goldstein, Stephen Lias and Jean-Baptiste Arban is highly personal as well – in this case, reflecting the personal taste of trombonist Deb Scott, which may or may not reflect listeners’. Scott clearly has an affinity for jazz as much as for classical forms – it shows in how she plays as well as in what she plays. Arban’s very virtuosic Variations on “The Carnival of Venice,” originally written for trumpet, ought to be more fun than they are here: they do not lie very well on the trombone in this arrangement, and there is a resulting breathiness to Scott’s playing that is continually (if not continuously) distracting, although pianist Ron Petti backs here up here and throughout the disc with considerable aplomb. More interesting than Arban’s work is Lias’ River Runner, which has the most personal background of anything here: it is a reflection of a paddling trip that the composer and Scott took together. The three movements – Lajitas, The Sentinel and Rock Slide – all offer effective tone painting with considerable jazz inflections, to which Scott takes quite readily. The expressiveness of the trombone, which often comes as a surprise to people accustomed to its ceremonial use, comes through especially well in the central movement, while the excitement of the finale is very well communicated. Scott also has a chance to show the emotional expressiveness of her instrument in Goldstein’s Colloquy for Solo Trombone, a kind of “duality” piece that alternates between intensity bordering on anger and calm bordering on stasis. The most conventionally structured work here is Bourgeois’ concerto, and it is also the one in which trombone and piano are most effectively paired rather than having the keyboard primarily in a support role. The conventional three-movement form of this work belies its stylish amalgamation of classical and jazz idioms with periodic hints of soulful (and somewhat overdone) pop music. The songfulness of the trombone comes through to fine effect in the central Adagio, after the multifaceted opening Allegro; and the concluding Presto is a particularly buoyant display piece in which both Scott and Petti get a real workout. The overall feeling left behind after the music concludes is that both Scott and Petti seem to have had a great time recording this work. Trombone fanciers will certainly find this disc a pleasure, and even listeners with a more-casual relationship with the trombone will discover a fair share of intriguing material here.

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