October 05, 2017


Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 7-9. Altius Quartet (Andrew Giordano and Joshua Ulrich, violins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello). Navona. $14.99.

Louis Spohr: Adagio for Bassoon and Piano; Josef Matern Marx: Sonata for Bassoon and Piano; Johannes Meinardus Coenen: Sonata for Bassoon and Piano; Julius Weissenborn: Notturno for Bassoon and Piano; Gustav Schreck: Sonata for Bassoon and Piano; Ignaz Lachner: Notturno for Bassoon and Piano. Michel Bettez, bassoon; Jeanne Amièle, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ann Giffels: Sonata for Trumpet and Piano; Susan Mutter: Ages, for Trumpet and Piano; Amy Riebs Mills: Red Dragonfly—Sonata for Trumpet and Piano; Dorothy Gates: Shaken Not Stirred, for Trombone Quartet; Lauren Bernofsky: Two Latin Dances for Trombone and Piano. Natalie Mannix, trombone; Stephanie Bruning, piano; Tony Baker, Natalie Mannix, Steven Menard and Christopher Sharpe, trombone quartet. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Steve Rouse: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Form Fades; Nevolution; Ten Little Things; King Tango. Ravello. $14.99.

     The intimacy and conversational nature of chamber music invite a level of communication among performers and between performers and audience that can be quite exceptionally moving, and chamber compositions are, for some composers, considerably more intensely personal than their other works. Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets cover at least as wide an emotional range as his 15 symphonies, and the directness with which some of the quartets express the intensity of his feelings makes high-quality performances taxing – albeit emotionally stirring – for players and listeners alike. Unlike the symphonies, the quartets tend to be end-weighted, and this was becoming particularly apparent by the time of No. 7, which ends in a melancholy muted waltz that seems to stand as a direct tribute to Shostakovich’s late first wife, in whose memory the work was written. On a new Navona CD, the Altius Quartet does a particularly fine job of highlighting some of the unusual structural elements of the quartet, such as the absence of individual instruments from sections of it in a way that seems to accentuate the theme of loss. The players do a fine job as well with No. 8, the most frequently played of the Shostakovich quartets, in which the composer seems to be dealing both with the Allied firebombing of Dresden late in World War II (he was working on a film score on the topic while composing the quartet) and with his own misgivings about recently joining the Communist Party. All five of this quartet’s movements – which are played without a break – include the composer’s thematic DSCH initials, so the personal elements of the music are abundantly clear, even if the emotional specifics are not always so. Here the Altius Quartet emphasizes a cohesive performance as opposed to the more-fragmented one of No. 7, the result being an effectively atmospheric reading. Quartets Nos. 7 and 8 were both composed in 1960 and gain some understanding by being considered as a pair. The inclusion of No. 9 with them on this CD is thus a bit problematic – this is a work from 1964 that actually pairs rather well with No. 10, which is not heard here. No. 9 is a large-scale, almost symphonic work in which four of the five movements (again played without pause) sound like quintessential Shostakovich, with moods ranging from elegiac to meditative to sarcastic to manic to purgatorial. The finale pulls all the emotional elements together in an affirmation that contrasts sharply with the existential angst that concludes No. 8. The big sound of the Altius Quartet is well-used here, and the work is played with great skill, although the emotional turmoil of No. 8 seems to fit these performers better than does the rather scattered landscape of No. 9. Nevertheless, these are first-rate performances of some deeply stirring and emotionally trenchant chamber music.

     There is nothing with anywhere near this impact on a new MSR Classics CD of 19th-century works for bassoon and piano, but this disc offers pleasures of a different sort. The bassoon is capable of being a highly expressive instrument – for example, Vivaldi, who wrote more than three dozen concertos for it, was well aware of this, as was Mozart in his single bassoon concerto. But by the 19th century it tended to be relegated to a supporting, usually comic role in instrumental music, becoming a good-natured and rather Falstaffian instrument rather than one offering any profound communication. The works played by Michel Bettez and Jeanne Amièle do not really redress the balance in the bassoon’s favor, but they do accord it more of a starring role than it often had at the time these pieces were written. And if they are not especially consequential, neither are they entirely trivial or dismissible as mere salon music. It is, however, interesting that Bettez and Amièle have had to reach well beyond the usual composers in order to find bassoon-focused chamber music of this time that accords the wind instrument a degree of respect. The best-known composer here, Louis Spohr (1784-1859), offers the earliest work, a pleasant little piece titled Adagio but marked Larghetto and dating to 1817. It is warm and rather sweet. The sonata by Josef Matern Marx (c. 1791-1836) dates to 1830 and is a nicely constructed three-movement work offering good contrast between its expressive second movement and its bouncy finale. The sonata by Johannes Meinardus Coenen (1824-1899) was written in about 1863 and follows a similar arc, but is a more-compact work and one that emphasizes its central Recitative – while Marx’s piece spends most of its time and energy on an extended first movement. The three remaining works come from late in the century. The Notturno by Julius Weissenborn (1837-1888), which dates to the composer’s final year, packs four contrasting sections into six-and-a-half minutes while maintaining a crepuscular feeling throughout. The sonata by Gustav Schreck (1849-1918) was written around 1890 and is solid and well-crafted, although not especially innovative. And the Notturno by Ignaz Lachner (1807-1895), another piece from the final year of its composer’s life, is broadly conceived and features some lovely interplay between bassoon and piano. Bettez is a very fine advocate for this little-known music, and Amièle provides fine support and partnership throughout this unusually pleasant foray into unfamiliar Romantic-era material.

     Another new MSR Classics CD that also features excellent playing, but in the service of much-more-recent compositions, includes five works by female composers – one piece written in the mid-20th-century and the others in the 21st. The composers’ gender is scarcely germane to these trombone-focused creations, which are somewhat less successful at sustaining interest than are the bassoon-and-piano ones played by Bettez and Amièle. Here the trombonist, Natalie Mannix, exhibits excellent breath control and a warm, pleasant tone throughout, while pianist Stephanie Bruning provides able accompaniment for four of the five works. The earliest, from 1949-50, is the sonata by Ann Giffels (1928-1993), a pithy and rather standard-issue three-movement work. The five-movement Ages (2008) by Susan Mutter (born 1962) is intended to depict human life at ages six, 15, 34, 66 and 92 – a clever concept that does not, however, lead to especially compelling individual movements. The sonata called Red Dragonfly (2012) by Amy Riebs Mills (born 1955) is more straightforward structurally, including three movements simply numbered 1, 2 and 3, but it does give the trombone considerable opportunity to display both emotional impact and virtuosity. For rhythmic vitality, however, the most-effective work here is Two Latin Dances (2015) by Lauren Bernofsky (born 1967), in which the Bossa Nova and Tango are presented effectively without overstaying their welcome. Also on the CD is a short encore from 2012 called Shaken Not Stirred by Dorothy Gates (born 1966) – a piece whose title will immediately resonate with James Bond fans, and a work that nicely weaves the four trombones for which it is written into an intriguing aural mixture. This is a (+++) CD that, despite offering some rather ordinary pieces, will certainly please trombonists and listeners interested in hearing recent compositions for the instrument.

     Another (+++) CD of contemporary chamber music is a Ravello release of five very different works by Steve Rouse (born 1953). Here too listeners will encounter a sonata and a dance piece. The sonata is for violin (Ben Sung) and piano (Jihye Chang-Sung) and consists primarily of the sort of atonal stabbings and relaxations familiar from many other modern works; the third movement is supposed to be dancelike but is too awkward and unbalanced for that description. King Tango, on the other hand, does take an unusual and effective approach to a dance form, using flute (Evelyn Loehrlein) and double bass (Sidney King) to produce a surprisingly sinuous combination of instruments with ranges that are about as different as they can possibly be. Another work whose combination of instruments is intriguing is Nevolution, which is for corno da caccia (Michael Tunnell) and piano (Meme Tunnell). Rouse uses the Baroque hunting horn’s limited range to its full extent in the first and third movements, but the subdued second movement, “Star Quiet,” is the real surprise here, allowing the horn a degree of lyricism that is quite unexpected and affecting, even though not really in keeping with the instrument’s reasons for being. Unfortunately, the piano part of Nevolution is of only slight interest. Also here is a work for clarinet (Matthew Nelson) and percussion (Greg Byrne) called Ten Little Things, and it is a compendium of many elements that contemporary composers apparently consider forward-looking while unconvinced audiences deem them self-indulgent and meaningless. There is no correlation between the section titles (“The Sight,” “The Nature,” “The Charm,” and so on) and the sonic blips, bleeps and blasts that emerge both from percussion and from the clarinet, whose warmth of sound is wholly absent here. This is a piece that comes across as if the composer is so enamored of his own cleverness that he is interested barely at all in whether an audience is even paying attention, much less becoming involved in the material. Somewhat more successful is Form Fades, a five-movement composition for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, performed here by the Indiana University New Music Ensemble conducted by David Dzubay. The movements have the sort of pseudo-clever titles that are all too common in contemporary works: “Ritual Fills,” “Pulse Frees,” “Memory Feels,” “Petal Floats,” and “Hammer Falls.” And of course those titles are quite meaningless. But here there is some interest in the way Rouse combines and contrasts the disparate instruments, and if there is little offering sustained involvement to an audience, there are at least several instances in which the sound quality of the ensemble has an interest level of its own. The music means much less than its overdone and pretentious titles pretend it does, but it is at least moderately engaging from time to time. The most interesting thing about this entire CD is the way Rouse gravitates to instruments that are as different as they can be and finds ways of connecting them, even if imperfectly and only from time to time within his works.

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