August 24, 2017


The Christmas Album: Holiday Favorites for Nine French Horns. American Horn Quartet and Queensland Symphony Horns conducted by Peter Luff and Kerry Turner. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Masters of the Guitar, Volume 3: Cuba, 1955-1965. José Rey de la Torre, Elias Barreiro, Héctor García, Juan Mercadal and Leo Brouwer, guitar. IDIS. $14.99.

Antti Samuli Hernesniemi: Piano Music. Antti Samuli Hernesniemi, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Carl Vollrath: Dragon Land; The Land of Lanterns; And Bugles Sang. Moravian Philharmonic Wind & Percussion Ensemble conducted by Petr Vronský and Stanislav Vavřínek. Navona. $14.99.

Ken Walicki: Light; Black Water; Sabah; Cyberistan; nada Brahma. Ravello. $14.99.

     Some CDs seem to exist mostly as sonic celebrations, their focus being the instrument or instruments profiled more than the specific music being played. A pre-seasonal MSR Classics CD called The Christmas Album fits this description neatly. There is nothing particularly unusual about the music here, from Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten to Handel’s For Unto Us a Child Is Born to Leroy Anderson’s ubiquitous Sleigh Ride. The time span of the material is a wide one, ranging from the 16th-century carol Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming to the decidedly contemporary and only modestly snarky You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. But the real enjoyment here comes simply from listening to the warm and often clever arrangements for nine French horns, with the occasional inclusion of didgeridoo (played by Harry Wilson). The whole project springs from the mind of Kerry Turner of the American Horn Quartet, who not only performs on horn but also acts as percussionist and is composer of two offerings here: the three-movement Symphony of Carols and concluding Hymnus. The performances are as smooth as butter, taking full advantage of the horn’s inherent warmth of sound and expanding it so it, well, oozes through multiple instruments. The players are clearly virtuosos, but there is no grandstanding here (except in Wilson’s 16-second Solo Didgeridoo). Everything is in the service of camaraderie and warmth of feeling, an appropriate mixture for the Christmas season even when the calendar says Christmas is not yet on the horizon. Horn players will especially enjoy getting an earful of what their instruments, in combination, can sound like.

     The sound of one single instrument, the guitar, permeates the third album in the Masters of the Guitar series on the IDIS label. Actually, sometimes the virtuoso performers heard here sound as if they are playing two instruments at once, or as if they have 20 fingers. These are famous Cuban and Cuban-American guitarists in performances recorded 50 to 60 years ago, and if the sound is not really up to modern standards, it is certainly acceptable, and the finger work of the guitarists comes through clearly and cleanly. Non-guitarists will be hard-pressed to decide whether the different sounds of the performers result from differing techniques, different instruments, or the different characteristics of the music they perform; but really, this matters little, since the point of the CD is to put on display the music-making of five masters of this instrument. José Rey de la Torre (1917-1994), Elias Barreiro (born 1930), Héctor García (also born 1930), Juan Mercadal (1925-1998), and Leo Brouwer (born 1939) all show the vitality of guitar playing and the considerable virtuosity guitar masters bring to bear on music ranging from works by Bach, Carulli, Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti to ones by Villa-Lobos, Albéniz, and Brouwer himself (his Elogio de la danza is a highlight here). Many of the specific pieces on the CD are rather inconsequential in and of themselves, but as showpieces for the wide emotional range of the guitar and its master players, they serve very well indeed. The disc will be especially intriguing to guitarists, just as the one featuring excellent horn playing will be particularly attractive to performers on that instrument.

     Recordings with a piano focus are far more common than ones featuring guitar or horn, but the new MSR Classics release of music and performances by contemporary Finnish composer Antti Samuli Hernesniemi (born 1950) is unusual in that it is largely about the sound of three different pianos. Hernesniemi’s music shows the usual influences on modern composers’ work, including jazz and folk music as well as traditional classical forms. What is interesting here are the ways in which the music comes across in different sonic environments, depending on which instrument Hernesniemi is using to produce it. Poem (2004), Shore (2004) and City (2004) are all heard on a Yamaha Clavinova, a digital instrument with aspirations to grand-piano status. Hernesniemi seems particularly comfortable with this instrument, and that may be why it dominates the recording. But the music itself has more heft and aural staying power when Hernesniemi takes to a full-sounding Bechstein for Three Waltzes (2004, 2016, 2003) and Bridge (2016). The most-common of all modern concert pianos, a Steinway Model B, also makes an appearance here in the final work on the disc, Ballade (2013). The disc is really aimed only at people already familiar with Hernesniemi’s music: it is the third devoted to his compositions, and at 45 minutes is so short that only an enthusiast will likely be highly enthusiastic about it. Much of the music here is on the abrasive side, although the three waltzes (one of them a piano arrangement of a song) are nicely done. However, what is most interesting is the way Bridge, written as a connecting piece between Shore and City and using a theme from the latter, really does bridge the other two works – while sounding different because of its performance on a Bechstein rather than the Clavinova. Pianists will find the sonic possibilities of this music more intriguing, on the whole, than the pieces in and of themselves.

     The primary sonic focus on a new Navona CD of music by Carl Vollrath is actually three focuses: China, a wind-and-percussion mixture, and the solo clarinet. Dragon Land and The Land of Lanterns are both clarinet concertos (in which Aleš Janeček is a fine soloist). Layered melodies predominate in these works, especially The Land of Lanterns, and the result is a rather unusual treatment of what amounts to polyphony in a contemporary context. The solo clarinet weaves in and out of expressiveness in the two-movement The Land of Lanterns, its rich lower register getting fairly short shrift most of the time but being used often enough to create some mellow sounds among the more-acerbic ones that dominate other sections. The opening leaps of the second movement and the following contrast between clarinet and percussion are especially attractive to hear. Dragon Land is more descriptive in intent, with each of its three movements given a title: “The Last Emperor’s Palace,” “Summer Palace,” and “The Warrior Monk.” Here there is greater drama and intensity, especially in the final movement, and the sound blends folk-music influences with some distinctive percussion passages and frequent dynamic contrasts. The sound tapestry is different in the third work on the CD, And Bugles Sang, since this is a trumpet concerto – but oddly enough, “Part I” of this work bears the title “The Birth of a Warrior Monk,” while “Parts II & III” are labeled “Forgotten Graves & Tales of an Aged Warrior Monk.” And Bugles Sang takes its title from a poem in Britten’s War Requiem, and Vollrath tries in his concerto to explore some of the same themes that Britten handled in that work. But the main aural effect of Vollrath’s concerto is not unease or thoughtfulness, nor is it martial (despite the use of bugle-like trumpet calls at some points).  Vollrath’s work gives a primary impression of uncertainty, of not knowing what is coming next, where any part of the concerto ties to what has come before or where any specific section is going to lead. The trumpet soloist (Ondřej Jurčeka) is not called on for the same extensive repertoire of sounds as is the clarinet soloist in the other concertos, but this is a solidly virtuosic work whose effects often lie as much in the very fine playing of the Moravian Philharmonic Wind & Percussion Ensemble as in the soloist’s contribution. The snare-drum opening of the second part of the concerto, followed by the solo trumpet’s intoning of what sounds like the first phrase of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, captures the somewhat puzzling sonic canvas on which Vollrath paints these musical portraits.

     It is electronic sounds, plain and simple, that dominate a new Ravello CD of the music of Ken Walicki. Well, actually not so simple. Walicki likes to use traditional instruments in nontraditional ways – or rather in ways that are common in contemporary composers’ work but are outside the classical-music tradition. Light, for example, uses a double bass (played by Tom Peters) as a springboard for extended electronic sounds and effects, letting the instrument’s underlying acoustic sound emerge just long enough to be subsumed under the usual feedback loops and squeals of electronics. Black Water is for clarinet (Virginia Costa Figueiredo) and piano (Füreya Ünal), and while the music has little direction, it allows the instruments’ basic natures to emerge long enough to produce some nicely paced, rhythmic sections with interesting combinatorial elements. Sabah is for flute (Rachel Mellis), using the airy breathiness associated with the instrument to expand into a kind of cloudlike milieu that is interestingly atmospheric for a while but wears thin long before the conclusion of its 13-minute length. Cyberistan is a piano work (Ünal again) whose intriguing title is its best element: the music itself is a rather uninspired set of contrasts between the piano, mostly at its percussive best, with electronic sighs and such, all within a kind of ostinato envelope that may be intended as expansive but that comes across as overextended. Finally there is nada Brahma, the first word non-capitalized, which is a string quartet in which the strings are decidedly subservient to the electronics and seem to spend most of their time struggling against each other rather than in complementary mode. The Eclipse Quartet (Sara Parkins and Sarah Thornblade, violins; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; Maggie Parkins, cello) approaches the work with gusto, and the interweaving of the instruments with electronics is managed with considerable skill. But the piece seems more concerned with displaying techniques – martellato here, pizzicato there, spiccato there – than with using the players’ technical capabilities for any expressive purposes. Indeed, it seems here and in the other works by Walicki on this CD that the composer is more interested in showing himself and the performers all the things that can be done by combining traditional musical instruments with electronic enhancements – in a kind of compositional étude – than in using the various techniques to create a meaningful (as opposed to merely interesting) soundscape.

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