April 19, 2018


New Music for Flute, Viola and Harp—Works by Stephen Paulus, Andrew Boysen Jr., Libby Larsen, Donald Harris, Dale Warland, and Stephan Main. Cosmos Trio (Katherine Borst Jones, flute; Mary E.M. Harris, viola; Jeanne Norton, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Zhen Chen: New Music for Pipa and Western Ensembles. Lin Ma, pipa; Zhen Chen, piano; Cho-Liang Lin and Elmira Darvarova, violins; David Geber, cello; Liang Wang, oboe; Milan Milisavijević, viola; Howard Wall, horn. Navona. $14.99.

Moto Bello: Contemporary Music for Violin, Cello and Piano. Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     There are some CDs that are enjoyable to hear not because of the specific music they contain but because of the instrumental combination used to produce that music. Unusual instrumental mixtures, or ensemble works incorporating instruments with which many listeners may be unfamiliar, can make for quite pleasant listening even if the specific compositions presented are of interest more because of the way they are tailored to the instruments than because of any inherent communicative power. The entire MSR Classics CD featuring the Cosmos Trio is a sound-above-all example, with lovely, sometimes exquisite blending of the unusual mixture of flute, viola and harp throughout in an offering of six world première recordings. The pieces heard here are uniformly well-constructed and seem to lie ideally on and among the instruments – it is no surprise that the Cosmos Trio commissioned and/or gave the first performances of much of this material. All the works were written in the 21st century, and all the composers appear quite comfortable producing tuneful, largely tonal material in which the instruments blend to very fine effect. Petite Suite (2007) by Stephan Paulus (1949-2014) is mostly bright and open-sounding, the “air of melancholy” in the second movement sounding more wistful than depressive. Beautiful, Sweet, Delicate (2006) by Andrew Boysen Jr. (born 1968) lives up to its title, and in particular to the delicacy of which these instruments are capable. Trio in Four Movements (2006) by Libby Larsen (born 1950) and Columbus Triptich (2006) by Stephen Main (born 1963) both give individual instruments multiple opportunities to shine in solo passages – without, however, losing sight of the effectiveness with which flute, viola and harp can be balanced in light of their ranges and tonal qualities. Arise My Love (2007) by Dale Warland (born 1932) is a short and affecting work with more depth of feeling than several others here. And Letter from Home (2011/2013) by Donald Harris (1931-2016) offers an unusual sonic combination by including the voices of not one but two sopranos (Lucy Shelton and Christine Shumway Mortine) with the three gentle instruments – the result being on the somewhat plaintive side, albeit without lacking beauty. This is a disc for those interested in an unusual sonic combination as it is handled by adept composers and first-rate performers, and although there is nothing particularly profound in the material, there is nothing that is less than engaging to the ear.

     The sound of the pipa, a popular four-stringed Chinese lute with 12 to 26 frets, may be less immediately appealing to listeners on a new Navona CD featuring music written by Zhan Chen. The pipa has been in use for thousands of years but remains infrequently heard in Western music (although variations on the instrument are popular throughout Asia). What Chen does here is to meld the pipa with various Western instruments, with results that range from startling to surprisingly affecting. The CD’s very opening, when a horn intones part of Dvořak’s Symphony “From the New World,” falls into the “startling” category. In this piece, Arrival, the pipa and piano – the only instruments heard in every single piece on the disc – are joined by violin, cello and oboe as well as horn. Instrumental combinations are quite varied here: Good Morning, the City uses oboe and cello; Dancing in the Rain includes string quartet; On the Roof has a violin and cello; Lost in the Midtown is only for pipa and piano; Lullaby again brings in the string quartet; Encounter has a cello; Cocktails is another work just for pipa and piano; Walk on the Fifth is especially interesting in its inclusion of soprano saxophone and drums; and Harmony, the final work on the disc, uses the string quartet plus horn. Much of the music is delicate, wistful and meandering, but not all: Dancing in the Rain is quite lively, Lost in the Midtown has tango elements, and Walk on the Fifth is jazz-inflected and bouncily involving. There is an underlying story for all the music, having to do with the immigrant experience in the urban United States, but, intriguingly, the music does not really need that “framing tale” to have its effect (except, perhaps, to understand what the touch of Dvořak is doing at the start). The issue for listeners here has to do with the sheer amount of pipa music offered on the CD. Despite its appearance, the pipa is not a lute in the Western sense, and its sound is (to Western ears) somewhat harsher and more penetrating than that of the lute of Dowland’s time. The CD is not a long one – only about 37 minutes – and the instrumental variations plus the changes of tempo and mood help carry it along. Nevertheless, the centrality of the pipa here quickly becomes a matter of taste, and not necessarily a taste that listeners unfamiliar with Chinese music will have acquired. Of course, some sense of discomfort and difficulty “fitting in” is part of the immigrant experience and therefore melds well with the concept of this CD. But to be heard simply as music, rather than as a soundtrack, the disc needs to stand on its own. It does, but the effectiveness with which it does will vary quite a bit from listener to listener.

     There is even more variability of response likely to result from listening to another Navona release, this one a two-CD set of pieces by 10 contemporary composers. Here the instruments are conventional – violin, cello and piano – but the composers’ use of them differs considerably from work to work. This means that few listeners are likely to find everything in the release congenial, although many people who enjoy contemporary chamber music will discover at least a work or two here that they would like to hear again and again. Woman A/Part by Diane Jones, intended to reflect a series of photographs, is an ostinato/crescendo mixture. Somewhere between D and C# by Beth Mehocic tries to translate a poem by the composer into a sort of tone poem. Habanera by David Nisbet Stewart is a short interpretation of habanera rhythm. The three-movement Lines, Hockets, and Riffs by Sidney Bailin mainly has the three instruments pursuing their own lines and only occasionally forming an ensemble, “hockets” being melodic phrases split between instruments. Ocean Air by L. Peter Deutsch, the last work on the first CD, seeks to portray “Afternoon,” “Evening” and “Morning” during an ocean voyage, using contemporary musical language rather than Impressionism. On the second CD, Ondine by Giovanni Piacentini is not about the water nymph per se but instead is intended to represent a photo of a sculpture of Ondine, using a combination of shimmering and dissonant sounds. Nightfall by Adrienne Albert is dark and rather dour in effect. Palette No. 1 by Clive Muncaster is an episodic exploration of contrasting sonorities. Solo la Sombra by Joanne D. Carey is a song transcription with contrasting moods. And Imagined/Remembered by Bruce Babcock, with three traditionally labeled movements (“Allegro,” “Lento,” “Presto”), uses the cello particularly effectively both in establishing melodic lines and in prompting, in the finale, material of considerable virtuosity. There is really very little in common among the works here. The two CDs are in effect a sampler of contemporary piano-trio music and are therefore discs that will be of interest mostly to listeners who would like to experience variegated 21st-century material whose basic sonic composition is its primary attraction.

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