July 13, 2017


Back Before Bach: Musical Journeys. Piffaro, the Renaissance Band. Navona. $14.99.

Bach: Solo Works for Marimba. Kuniko, marimba. Linn Records. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, “St. Anne”; Franck: Pièce Héroïque; Barber: Adagio; Eric R. Stewart: Sonetto; Healey Willan: Introduction, Passacaglia & Fugue. Felix Hell, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Xavier Jara Guitar Recital. Naxos. $12.99.

     Although Renaissance music is an acquired taste for many 21st-century listeners, those who have acquired it will be absolutely delighted by a new Navona release featuring one of the best Renaissance-music-playing ensembles around, the Philadelphia-based band Piffaro. This is a CD with a remarkable number of tracks – 38 – and some fascinating ways of presenting the music of composers both well-known (Bach, Praetorius) and almost completely unknown (Heinrich Finck, ca.1445-1527; Johann Ghro, 1575-1627; and others). The works heard here are all short, many running less than one minute and none as long as three. But what Piffaro has done is to arrange the pieces into suites of sufficient length to make a particular point or highlight a specific approach to something musical. The most intriguing of these groupings offers eight settings of the same tune, Christ ist erstanden, starting with an anonymous piece from around 1480 and ending with Bach’s chorale from the cantata BWV 276. The works clearly progress from the intricate and contrapuntal, in which the basic theme is treated freely, to the more clearly organized and harmonically sophisticated settings of Bach and Praetorius. This fascinating compendium, which opens the CD, is followed by gatherings labeled Innsbruck, Ich Muss Dich Lassen (four items); A Solis Ortus/Christum Will Sollen Loben Schon (eight pieces); two suites of German dances (four dances apiece); The World of Chromaticism (five pieces); and A Song from Andernach along the Rhine (five works). The inclusion of old German popular songs is intriguing – very little music of this type has survived – and the variety of the dances collected within the two suites is remarkable. Piffaro’s members wield their dulcians, shawms, sackbuts, krumhorns, bagpipes and more with tremendous skill and enthusiasm, and the percussion plays an especially prominent role in some of the most upbeat works here, notably the dances. The sound of pre-Baroque music takes some getting used to for those not already familiar with it: it is a sound distinguished by the differing sound-production qualities of these ancestors of oboes, bassoons and brass instruments, as well as by differences in the structure of the music itself. Anyone curious about Renaissance music and not yet convinced by it will find this a wonderful introduction, and the ability to hear ways in which pre-Bach music gradually metamorphosed into that of Bach’s time is especially welcome. Listeners should, however, be aware that the printed content of the CD is not at the same level as the musical material: one composer, Stephen Mahu, is listed as having lived from about 1490 to about 1591 (the correct year is 1541); and the dates of another, Samuel Scheidt, are given as 1587-1684 (the correct year is 1654).

     One distinguishing feature of Bach’s music is the frequency with which it is performed on instruments different from those for which Bach conceived it. There is a longstanding argument to the effect that Bach’s works are so musically pure that the means of communicating them almost does not matter – a viewpoint it does not pay to examine too closely, since (for example) the detailed contrapuntal effects that Bach brilliantly elicited from the harpsichord are simply not reproducible on, say, a modern piano. Or a marimba. Yes, Bach on the marimba – that is the point of a new two-CD Linn Records release featuring the excellent percussionist Kuniko Kato (who goes by only one name). Kuniko is as comfortable playing Bach as she is with ultra-modern music written or transcribed for the marimba: she is expert at eliciting sounds of all sorts from the instrument and showing the extent to which it is capable of communicating quite a wide variety of emotional shadings. Bach has been performed on plenty of other unexpected instruments – the accordion and the banjo, to name two – so the decision  to play his music on the marimba, if a bit odd, certainly has precedent. And the playing itself here is very fine indeed. The repertoire and sheer length of the program, though, are enough to give one pause. Preludes open each disc – the first from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I on the first CD, the C minor prelude BWV 999 on the second – but everything else comes from two specific and very grand cycles. The first CD includes Cello Suites Nos. 1, 3 and 5; the second, Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3. Thus, Kuniko’s performances – she did the transcriptions herself – are not simply examples of interesting ways in which Bach’s music can be heard in an unfamiliar sonic environment, but are in effect arguments that the broad, deep and extensive material written by Bach for the cello and violin can be heard with equal effect and equal effectiveness on the marimba. To say that this is a matter of opinion is to understate the case very considerably. This is bound to be a polarizing release: it runs a totality of two-and-a-half hours, which is a very long time for anyone other than a marimba fancier to listen to this particular instrument; and while there is no denying the skill of the arrangements and the excellence of Kuniko’s technical performance, the sonic world here is so dramatically different from anything that Bach conceived or wrote for that it takes, at the very least, a lot of getting used to – likely more than is needed to become comfortable and familiar with the sound of Renaissance instruments and the music written for them. In many ways, this release is simply a curiosity, a way of showing that, yes, Bach can be played on the marimba, and played very well indeed. Whether Bach should be played on the marimba is very much a matter of opinion: what listeners get here is indeed Bach, in some ways, and is certainly not, in others. The two short Preludes are intriguing in this guise, but the much longer works that are the main point here sound decidedly strange unless one is inclined to listen to the performances again and again in order to absorb the sound world in which Kuniko performs this music.

     It is, of course, far more traditional to play Bach on the organ and other instruments for which he in fact composed. There is nevertheless something unusual in Felix Hell’s organ recital on a new MSR Classics release, not because of Bach’s “St. Anne” prelude and fugue – which Hell handles very well indeed – but because of the other music with which the Bach is offered. This is a highly personal program by any measure, the Bach being presented along with a well-known César Franck work from 1878; an extended Baroque-form piece from 1916 by prolific but little-known Anglo-Canadian composer Healey Willan (1880-1968); an arrangement by William Strickland of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio from his Op. 11 String Quartet of 1936; and a world première recording of a piece written in 2012 by Eric R. Stewart (born 1985). This is thus an anthology disc even though a single performer plays everything on it. It must be said that Hell is quite a performer: he handles all the varying works and varying styles with aplomb, his pedal work is first-rate, and he seems quite as comfortable with the grandeur of Bach as with the warmth of Barber and the more-contemporary sound of Stewart. Sonetto was written for Hell, who collaborated with Stewart on it, and the work’s four-section structure gives Hell plenty of chances to offer varied textures and changing registration. The work is interesting if not ultimately particularly moving; it comes across as rather cool despite its fairly free-flowing structure, while Willan’s piece seems warmer despite the composer’s use of old-fashioned and potentially constricting forms. The reality is that, like all anthology releases, this one has higher and lower points, elements that some listeners will find more congenial than others – who in turn will have their own preferences among the works. The pieces will not be to all listeners’ taste, but it is hard to fault Hell’s performances of any of them.

     In a somewhat analogous vein, it is easy to appreciate the virtuosity of guitarist Xavier Jara in another recital that spans hundreds of years, opening with three works by Shakespeare contemporary John Dowland and including pieces by three living composers: Dreams from Summer Garden Suite by Sergio Assad (born 1952); Elegy by Jeremy D. Collins (born 1986); and Mysterious Habitats and Sonata No. 3 by Dušan Bogdanović (born 1955). Sprinkled among these pieces are one by François Couperin; a set of variations by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) and a movement from his Caprichos de Goya; and an elegy written by Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) and completed by guitarist Julian Bream. Stylistically, this Naxos CD is more of a mishmash  than is Hell’s organ recital: there is little apparent rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the works on the disc, unless “contrast and more contrast” is the guiding light here. Certainly everything is played very well indeed: Jara has considerable technique and considerable sensitivity to the nuances of the music. When straightforward technical brilliance is called for, Jara has it to spare; when what is needed is a quieter kind of virtuosity (for the Rawsthorne and Assad works) or playing more sensitive stylistically to the period in which the music was written (for the Dowland and Couperin pieces), Jara has that as well. It is the four-movement Bogdanović sonata, placed last on the CD, that most fully gives Jara a chance to contrast his abilities in warm, inward-focused music and bright, outgoing material; and he rises skillfully to the occasion. This is, in fact, a CD that is more about Jara than it is about any of the composers heard on it: the music allows Jara to show his skill quite clearly, but the program as a whole does not hang together especially well – like Hell’s CD, this is an anthology disc rather than one with a consistent theme or an underlying reason for being beyond the performer’s personal preferences. Guitar players, in particular, will enjoy and admire what Jara has done here, but listeners for whom the musical material matters more than the person presenting it will find the release somewhat lacking.

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