April 26, 2018


Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42; Liszt: Grandes Études de Paganini; Haydn: Piano Sonata in C, HOB. XVI:48. Jooyoung Kim, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

The Eloquent Saxophone: Music of Jean Françaix, Alexander Tcherepnin, Gene DiNovi, Paule Maurice, Claude Debussy, Robert Schumann, Paul Bonneau, Charles Koechlin, Felix Arndt, and Leslie Bassett. David Tanner, alto, soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones; Marc Widner, piano. Navona. $14.99.

The Fifth Row: An Acoustic Tour of Historic Theaters. Stuart Weber, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.

New Music for Flute—Works by Roger Dannenberg, David Stock, Tony Zilincik, Elainie Lillios, Linda Kernohan, Randall Woolf, Roger Zahab, and Judith Shatin. Lindsey Goodman, flute. Navona. $14.99.

     There is an interesting connection, beyond their Romantic style, between two of the works performed by Jooyoung Kim on a new piano-solo CD from MSR Classics. Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli uses a theme that is not by Corelli, although he did use the theme (known as “La Folia”) as the basis of a set of variations of his own – for violin and continuo – in 1700. But just as Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn retains its title even though Haydn did not write the theme, so Rachmaninoff’s work maintains its designation despite the historical inaccuracy. The intriguing “connection” element is that Liszt also used “La Folia” as a theme in one of his works: Rhapsodie espagnole. Beyond this tidbit of history, there is no particular relationship among the works here, except that Kim has clearly selected them to show her pianistic prowess – which two of them, the Rachmaninoff and Liszt, clearly do. Kim makes full use of the capabilities of a modern concert grand in these works, and this is particularly effective in the Rachmaninoff variations, which Kim plays with considerable finesse and a fine sense of contrast from piece to piece. Some of those contrasts are especially effective, such as that between variations 7 (Vivace) and 8 (Adagio misterioso). Kim is also strong in Liszt’s Grandes Études de Paganini, which she performs, as most pianists do, in the somewhat less difficult (but still formidable) 1851 version. These pieces are actually harder to play (either in the 1851 version or the original from 1838) on a modern piano than on one from Liszt’s time: mid-19th-century pianos had a lighter action and shorter key travel, making some of Liszt’s demands in these pieces simpler, if scarcely easy. Kim handles the material well, and her light touch in the third étude, “La Campanella,” is particularly welcome, as is her handling of the arpeggios in the final étude. The one piece on this disc that does not come across as effectively as it might is the two-movement Haydn sonata, whose delicacy of sound fits poorly with the fullness of the piano here and whose poised first movement, Andante con espressione, seems less congenial for Kim than the more overt emotionalism of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. On the whole, though, Kim shows herself here to be an impressive performer and an effective interpreter of the Romantics.

     Solo-piano CDs are quite common, solo-saxophone ones much less so. The new Navona release featuring David Tanner – actually a re-release of a recording from 1988 – is both a solo offering and a multi-saxophone one, with Tanner, thanks to the magic of multi-tracking, playing four separate saxophones in two of the works recorded here. Although Kim’s piano recording is one to which listeners who especially like the music may well turn to hear her performances, it is more likely that fans of Tanner and/or saxophones in general will be interested in this CD than that they will select it because of the specific pieces Tanner plays. That is true even though the work opens with a real gem, Serenade comique by Jean Françaix, an under-appreciated composer whose music shows real wit and style. This is a two-and-a-half-minute quartet that bounces along so stylishly that one wishes it would go on considerably longer. The other quartet here, La Blues by Gene DiNovi, is at the opposite end of the expressive spectrum, being melancholy, reserved and crepuscular. The other works here showcase effects from the traditionally classical (in Sonatine Sportive by Tcherepnin, another underrated composer, and in Debussy’s Syrinx, Schumann’s Romance No. 1, and Koechlin’s Etude No. 8) to the jazzy and pop-influenced. Tanner is at home with pretty much every style of which the saxophone is capable, and he receives very able backup from Marc Widner in the saxophone-and-piano works. It would be overstating things to call any of the music here especially profound, and even the longest work, Maurice’s impressionistic Tableaux de Provence, lasts less than a quarter of an hour – with Maurice getting there via five very short movements. But every piece gives Tanner a chance to show the moods and colors of which the saxophone is capable. In addition to the pieces already mentioned, the CD includes Arndt’s Nola, Bassett’s four-movement Music for Alto Saxophone and Piano, and Bonneau’s Caprice en Forme de Valse, which is a real charmer for saxophone solo. Tanner’s saxophone playing is exuberant and always sure-handed, and if none of the works heard here is highly significant in itself, all of them give Tanner a chance to display not only his own multifaceted performance capabilities but also those of the instrument itself.

     Like Tanner on saxophone, Stuart Weber on guitar offers a broad stylistic mixture of material and a playing technique that shows familiarity not only with classical guitar style but also with folk and pop performance. The title of Weber’s new Ravello CD, The Fifth Row: An Acoustic Tour of Historic Theaters, shows to how great an extent the specific music heard here is not the main interest. What Weber offers are 11 compositions, of various types, recorded in historic American theaters – thereby intending to give listeners a sense of what it would sound like if they were sitting in the fifth row of each theater during a guitar performance. This rather curious concept is all that really unites the various pieces here, beyond the fact that all are short: the whole disc runs only 37 minutes. Certainly the CD is a treat for guitarists and for listeners interested in just how varied the sound of an acoustic guitar can be. The classical composers heard here include Telemann (Bourée alla Polacca), Dvořák (Humoreske), 18th-century lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss (Passacaille), and Bartók (Evening in the Country). Weber also performs Randy Newman’s Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father and Samuel A. Ward’s America the Beautiful. And he includes five of his own works: Sacajawea, Spanish Creek, Jefferson Waltz, Toccata—Darkness, and Walk Away. The oldest music here, by Telemann and Weiss, offers a particularly strong contrast with the remainder of the material, moving in stately fashion through prescribed forms in a way that is very different from the sometimes unfocused emotionalism of Weber’s expressive pieces, among which the quiet beauty of Jefferson Waltz stands out. For those genuinely interested in the venues where these pieces were recorded, the CD helpfully provides that information: five works were recorded in Montana theaters, two in Colorado, two in Idaho, and one each in Utah and Wyoming. There are indeed sonic differences among the pieces, but it is difficult to know to what extent that results from the music itself rather than from the aural qualities of the venues where the recordings were made. Weber plays everything quite well, in any case, and listeners interested in this eclectic collection of material will find the disc quite satisfying.

     Somewhat similarly, the music on a Navona CD focused on flautist Lindsey Goodman – in this case, eight contemporary compositions – is not the disc’s primary attraction: Goodman’s playing is (along with her voice in two pieces). But this is a more rarefied disc than Weber’s, because all the music goes out of its way to show just how “modern” (or post-modern) it is. This means that five pieces include electronics or computer-generated sounds: Separation Logic for flute and live computer processing (2013) by Roger Dannenberg (born 1955); I Asked You for solo flute and fixed media (2016) by Tony Zilincik (born 1967); Sleep’s Undulating Tide for flute in C and live, interactive electroacoustics (2016) by Elainie Lillios (born 1968); The Line of Purples for flute and pre-recorded electronics (2015) by Randall Woolf (born 1959); and For the Fallen for amplified flute and electronics (2017) by Judith Shaitin (born 1949). The remaining works here are A Wedding Prayer for two flutes (2004) by David Stock (1939-2015), Demon/Daemon for solo flute (2016) by Linda Kernohan (born 1970), and the all-small-caps-titled suspicion of nakedness for flute (2012) by Roger Zahab (born 1957). The titles’ attempts at profundity, or at least meaningfulness, are entirely in line with the preferences of many contemporary composers, and the use of various electronic and computerized “enhancements” of the flute’s sound – including amplification of the instrument itself – make the disc’s provenance abundantly clear. Thus, this is not a CD for listeners enamored of the traditional sound of the flute or of skillful performance on the instrument. It is only for people who wish to hear the flute in this particular context, whose interest is in 21st-century compositions that happen to employ the flute as part of their sonic texture, altering its sound and the form of its participation in the material as each composer wishes. All is carefully planned here. The genuinely unpleasant sound at the start of Separation Logic is entirely intentional, as is the percussive ostinato that opens I Asked You – and as are the words that pop out from within the musical line. So are the loud breaths, some sounding almost like gasping, in Demon/Daemon, and the dirgelike percussive background of For the Fallen. Goodman appears thoroughly satisfied to be performing this material, and certainly extracts from her instrument a very wide variety of sounds, some of which may come as a surprise to listeners not already familiar with the extent to which familiar instruments can be made to sound like something outside their inherent nature. So this is not a recording for listeners who want a chance simply to hear adept flute playing: context is everything here, and the CD is only for those attracted to this type of music and wanting to listen to the ways in which a flute can fit into it.

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