November 02, 2017


Mozart: String Duos K. 423 and K. 424; Beethoven: Three Duos. Carmine Miranda, cello; Boris Abramov, violin. Navona. $14.99.

Scott Pender: Music for Woodwinds. Navona. $14.99.

Ancestral Voices: Music of Gilad Cohen, Arthur Gottschalk, Malek Jandali, and Javier Farias. Apollo Chamber Players (Anabel Ramirez and Matthew J. Detrick, violins; Whitney Bullock, viola; Matthew Dudzik, cello). Navona. $14.99.

Chévere: Music of Arthur Gottschalk, John A. Carollo, Meira Warshauer, Mona Lyn Reese, Miguel Matamoros & Moisés Simons, and J.A. Kawarsky. Ansonica. $14.99.

     Changing music from its original form, for example by altering instrumentation or combining works from different traditions or mixing traditional instruments with electronic sounds, is a hallmark of modern composition. But some of these changes have a long history – for example, the transformation of vast operatic canvases into solo-piano or piano-four-hands works in the 19th century to make large and costly-to-attend spectacles accessible to a wider audience. There is also the longstanding tradition in which, rightly or wrongly, Bach’s music and that of some other Baroque composers is designated as being for “keyboard” and then performed on modern pianos rather than, as intended, on harpsichord or clavichord. And in a few cases, composers themselves have invited consideration of their music in varied guises: Brahms’ lovely Op. 120 clarinet-and-piano sonatas, for example, can be and often are played in the composer’s viola-and-piano version. And performers often become involved in transcribing, if not transfiguring, certain pieces, simply out of a desire to play them. That is the case with a very well-played Navona CD featuring Carmine Miranda and Boris Abramov offering five works that were not written for their instruments. The first two are Mozart’s delightful violin-and-viola duos, K. 423 and K. 424. Mozart himself played the viola (among other instruments) but did not leave a great deal of music for it – the Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 is the most notable exception – and these duos are therefore cherished by violists and heard fairly frequently in the form in which Mozart intended them to be played. Their wit, Haydnesque humor (perhaps because Mozart wrote them to complete a commission given to Joseph Haydn’s brother, Michael, with whom Mozart often collaborated), instrumental balance (unusual for the time, when the viola almost always served a subsidiary purpose), and impeccable style come through just as well in violin-and-cello guise as in the original. Indeed, the chance to hear them at all is a welcome one. But it has to be said that they do not fit the cello terribly well: they do not take full advantage of the larger instrument’s beautiful lower register, the cello part lying rather high on the instrument while the same part on viola fits the instrument perfectly. It is also harder to balance a violin and cello equally, as Mozart clearly intended to balance the violin and viola in partnership. Still, the exemplary playing and the delights of the music itself make these readings winning ones. The remaining three works, very early (and very Classical-era) Beethoven duos, are somewhat less happy pairings here. These were written highly entertainingly for the unusual combination of clarinet and bassoon, and they do not transform very well to string pieces – the single-string melodies and accompaniments work well enough, but double-stopping just sounds out of place, and the ornamentation that charmingly pervades the works simply does not have the same effect on strings as on woodwinds. Again, though, the point here is not authenticity but beauty of sound, and Miranda and Abramov do provide that – albeit in less-balanced form here than in the Mozart duos, since Beethoven gave greater prominence to the clarinet and these arrangements thus give it to the violin. For the sheer sonic joy of it, this is a lovely CD, and for listeners who already know all these pieces as originally written, these alternative modern arrangements will be fun to hear. But those unfamiliar with the music owe it to themselves to hear the music as the composers wrote it before delving into this disc.

     The clarinet-and-bassoon combination also figures in one work on a new Navona CD of music by Scott Pender (born 1959). Actually, Kimchi Dreams (2013) is for two clarinets (played by Weily Shay and Brian Tracey) and bassoon (Alex Carlucci), and it is as lighthearted in its way as Beethoven’s duos in their original instrumentation are in theirs. Two of the four short movements are lyrical; the other two, which are more effective, are perky and rhythmically attractive. The Pender works heard here – recorded over a long time span, from 1992 to 2016 – show a composer who understands woodwinds’ capabilities and does not feel obliged to stretch them to the breaking point, as other contemporary composers sometimes do in search of a “different” sound. Variations for Oboe and Piano (2010), played by Margaret Herlehy and Rob Haskins, is a one-movement work that is longer than all of Kimchi Dreams and that alternates broadly conceived tunes with evenly flowing ones that sound a bit as if they belong in a movie Western. Toccatina (1989) is a very short work for four flutes (The Powell Quartet: Barbara Brown and Sato Moughalian, flutes; Steven Belenko, alto flute; James Schlefer, bass flute); here, the differing ranges of the instruments, despite their basically similar sound, produce an aurally intriguing landscape. Lyric Set (2010) for bassoon (Phillip Kolker) and piano (Pender himself) is broadly conceived and intended mostly as an emotive experience, but it is its quirkiest movement – the third, called “Lord Berners’ Giraffe” – that is the most interesting, despite (and partly because of) its repetitiveness. The three-movement Suite for Woodwind Quintet (1989/2013) features flute (Nicholas Filton), oboe (Niall Casey), clarinet (Brian Tracey), horn (Jenny Smoak) and bassoon (Hanul Park), and here too the two bouncier and more-enthusiastic movements come across to better effect than the slow central one, which seems to be trying a bit too hard for emotional expressiveness. The final work on the CD is in many ways the oddest and most intriguing: Five Dances (2011) is for three bassoons (Dillon Meacham, Jonathan Nitz and Park) and contrabassoon (Alex Carlucci) – a highly unwieldy combination, one would think, and scarcely likely to produce anything dancelike. Yet here Pender shows genuine cleverness in the way he weaves melodic lines among the three higher instruments while having the lower one growl, grumble or simply provide support underneath. The movements are Canon, Country Dance, Stamp, Steps of Two and Backbeat, and all have something intriguing about them, from the unexpectedly perky Stamp to the considerable chorale-like warmth of Steps of Two to the outright and rather silly gestures of Backbeat. Pender’s woodwind music often offers a great deal of fun, tending to fall short only when it strives for a level of profundity that it never quite delivers.

     What the Apollo Chamber Players want to deliver on Navona’s Ancestral Voices CD is an overt blend of traditions as interpreted by four contemporary composers, all of them working in the folk/multicultural style that is common in modern classical (or sort-of-classical) music. Gilad Cohen’s Three Goat Blues is a genuinely odd blend, starting with a Jewish Passover prayer that includes a fable about a goat, using an old Judaic tune as its musical source, and giving the strings sounds beyond their usual ones in an attempt to combine some traditional elements with blues and rock-music-style effects. It is a clever piece, but not clever enough to sustain for its full 13-and-a-half minutes. Arthur Gottschalk’s three-movement Imágenes de Cuba, the finale of which supplements the strings with percussion (played by Adel González), also has the Apollo Chamber Players striving for sounds beyond the norm. Protest songs, the Cuban national anthem, sonic gestures, dance rhythms – all those and more are tossed together here in a rather disorganized brew that dips into expressiveness only occasionally and to no particular purpose. Malek Jandali's String Quartet in E-flat Major is another cultural blend, this time mixing Western classical forms with elements from the Middle East. Jandali is Syrian-American, and many of the work’s melodies are old Syrian ones that Western audiences will not recognize but that listeners will have little difficulty associating with the part of the world from which they come. The six-movement work proceeds at a mostly moderate pace (two movements are marked Moderato, one Andantino and one Adagio). There is a certain sparseness to the string writing that contrasts interestingly with the sumptuous nature of many of the melodies, and Jandali has a good sense of variety in string sounds (the legato-pizzicato contrast in the Vivo movement, for example). But the work’s longest movement, an extended Adagio, is its least engaging, more gestural than expressive. The final work on the CD is Andean Suite by Javier Farias, in which the composer himself plays guitar with the string quartet. This three-movement piece mixes dance rhythms with extended solo-guitar riffs that are somewhat overdone, and the melding of the guitar with the bowed strings is on the awkward side – much of Andean Suite sounds as if there are two separate pieces that just happen to occur at the same time. The most strongly rhythmic sections, and the ones in which the quartet is given an opportunity for some expressiveness, come off most effectively. All the works on the CD are very nicely played by performers who clearly believe in the music and do their best to display it in the most-favorable light.

     The Apollo players' performance of the first movement of Gottschalk’s Imágenes de Cuba also appears on a new Ansonica release simply titled Chévere (roughly translatable as “cool”). This is a hodgepodge of Cuban and American music, a kind of extended jam session recorded in Havana, in which U.S.-based composers work with their Cuban counterparts and with Cuban arrangers, instrumentalists and singers. The CD will be of interest primarily to listeners who want to hear the burgeoning level of artistic cooperation between the two countries and listen to the way their differing musical traditions are being brought together – more effectively at some times than at others. After the Gottschalk, the CD proceeds to In Your Hour of Need by John A. Carollo, a piano work reimagined in a Cuban setting with different instruments and in a non-European style of orchestration. Next is Akhat Sha’alti by Jewish-American composer Meira Warshauer, a meditative Hebrew-language choral work that is less interesting in itself than in its contrast with what follows, Mona Lyn Reese’s ¡La Habana, Mi Amor! Like the Carollo work, this set of three pieces gets a distinctive Cuban treatment by being arranged for voice and Cuban jazz band, and the result is an intriguing blend of bluesy nightclub singing with some appealingly unusual instrumental touches, especially in the final ¡Chocolate Caliente! Next on the disc is another lyrical Warshauer choral offering, Oseh Shalom, followed by Son de la Loma/El Manisero by Miguel Matamoros and Moisés Simons – a bouncy, upbeat and lightly scored paired work whose bright forthrightness is most welcome even though it goes on a bit too long. The CD concludes with Grace Dances by J.A. Kawarsky, which proves more interesting than either Carollo’s work or those by Warshauer in its blending of U.S. and Cuban elements. Grace Dances is for oboe and string quartet, so there is no forced (or unforced) jazziness here: the single movement starts with a very expressive opening, then moves into energetically dissonant sections that include references to Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville as well as atmospheric scene-setting in which the strings provide an expansive backdrop for the oboe’s ruminations. Both upbeat and thoughtful, Grace Dances – loosely inspired by an early Christian text – has more depth of feeling and a broader appeal than the other music here, making it a particularly effective showcase for U.S.-Cuban musical collaboration.

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