March 22, 2018


Brian Buch: From the River Flow the Stars No. 6; Acanthus Leaves No. 6; Life and Opinions No. 7; Landscapes No. 1; Maze of Infinite Forms No. 1. Daedalus Quartet (Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; Thomas Kraines, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Peter Dayton: Fantasy for Viola and Piano; Morceaux des Noces for String Quartet; Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” for Violin and Piano; Variations for String Quartet; Sonata for Violoncello and Piano. Sarah Jane Thomas, Marika Suzuki, Joshua Hong and Andrew Kwan, violins; Yang Guo, viola; Lavena Johanson, violoncello; Michael Sheppard, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     Although composers have for centuries been inspired to create music by witnessing or reacting to artistic endeavors in other media, the tendency seems even more pronounced among some contemporary composers than it was in the past. Again and again, modern composers make it a point to share the inspirations for their music and to suggest that audiences respond multidimensionally, to the music itself and to the underlying reasons it was written. Even composers who do not go quite that far clearly believe that listeners will gain more from works whose provenance they know and understand – even when the music is able to connect with listeners who are not cognizant of its origins. Thus, Brian Buch’s compositions, five world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD, have numerous telling moments unrelated (or at most marginally related) to their titles; and at some level, Buch is surely aware of this, since in four of the five pieces here he gives the movements of the works entirely conventional titles based on their tempos – the only programmatic or inspirational element is the overall label for each work. That labeling is rather curious, adding numbers to words, and this is something about which listeners would do well to know. Buch says he composes in collections of short pieces – the longest movement in any work on this disc lasts less than six minutes – and tries to evoke specific feelings by combining the brief pieces in different ways. At least on this CD, Buch shows himself especially inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman: Acanthus Leaves No. 6 relates to thoughts expressed by a feline in Hoffman’s novel Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, and Life and Opinions No. 7 draws on the same work. Buch does, however, have other literary inspirations: From the River Flow the Stars No. 6 contains three pieces based on ancient Japanese poetry, and Maze of Infinite Forms No. 1 is based on poems by Rabindranath Tagore. Interestingly, the only work here with a visual inspiration is the only one whose three movements have evocative titles: Landscapes No. 1 refers to three specific paintings by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, “Sparks,” “Mists,” and Creation of the World V.” What are listeners to make of all this, particularly listeners who may know little or nothing of Tagore, Ciurlionis, even Hoffmann? That is a question answerable only by hearing the music as music and deciding whether it “works,” whatever its origins may be. In fact, Buch has a good sense of the capabilities of the string quartet and does not feel obliged to push the instruments to their extremes, much less beyond them. The two Hoffman-based works offer a multiplicity of moods, the juxtaposition of differing ideas being especially clear in Life and Opinions No. 7. There is considerable lyricism in the two movements of the Tagore-inspired work, gentleness in the piece based on Japanese poetry, and a kind of dreamlike quality to the music interpreting and reacting to Ciurlionis’ art. There is no way listeners can know if the sounds coming from the Daedalus Quartet are evoking the specific feelings and emotions that Buch sought when writing this music, but this will matter less to the audience than to the composer. Listeners will find that Buch’s music is generally communicative and expressive whether or not they familiarize themselves with the specifics of its inspiration and intent.

     The two string-quartet works on a new Navona CD of the music of Peter Dayton have specific inspirations as well, but in this case many of them are musical rather than literary – and some will come through clearly for listeners attuned to 20th-century composers. Variations is a single movement whose elements in Shostakovich’s style are particularly evident, although several other composers are alluded to as well. And if listeners will not know that the variation consisting of a violin cadenza is inspired by a specific violinist, it will not matter – the virtuosity speaks for itself. Morceaux des Noces is a three-movement work whose movements, like those in most of the Buch pieces, simply bear traditional tempo indications. The third movement does have a literary inspiration – a poem by Hart Crane – but what listeners will hear is simply a well-crafted sequence of contrasting pieces whose impact is primarily based on the writing for and playing of the instruments, not on Dayton’s source material. Actually, the three works on this disc for solo strings and piano are somewhat more interesting than the two for string quartet. Fantasy for Viola and Piano is a rare contemporary work that seems too short: its four-and-a-half minutes include so many moods, meters and tempo changes that it seems to want to expand into something larger. The four-movement Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” is more than four times as long and not as convincing – largely because this is a highly personal piece, intended to display and interpret the personalities of specific individuals. There are some interesting elements, such as the sense of talkative chatter in the final movement, but most of the sonata is on the bland side, nicely written but not terribly involving. On the other hand, the two-movement cello-and-piano sonata is captivating from its starting and pervasive first-movement trills onward. Shostakovich looks over the composer’s shoulder here as in the Variations, with Dayton successfully channeling some of the earlier composer’s frenetic pacing and bitterness of expression – without, however, becoming overtly imitative. Although it ends questioningly and delicately, this is a rather gritty work – some piano chords are positively pounded – and it is a piece that provides an example of how a contemporary composer can absorb earlier artistic influences and use them in a new and effective context.

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