June 21, 2018


Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Kodály: Concerto for Orchestra. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Jakub Hrůša. PentaTone. $15.99 (SACD).

Monica Houghton: Andean Suite; The Twelve Causes from the Circle of Becoming; Wilderness Portraits—Three Places in Nevada; Stay, Shadow; Three Songs without Words; Epigram; Corpo Sonoro; Sky Signs. Navona. $14.99.

Simon Andrews: Violin Dialogues I and II; And that moment when the bird sings; For the earth is hollow and I have touched the sky; My dove, my coney; The heart has narrow banks; Abiquiu Trio. Navona. $14.99.

     Although they were friends, fellow gatherers of folk music, and fellow ethnomusicologists, Bartók and Kodály by and large wrote very different works – but their interests came together when each created a work called Concerto for Orchestra. Both were after the same thing: virtuoso treatment of all instruments and sections of the orchestra, exploring individual and sectional communicative potential through writing that required performers to give their best at all times. But beyond that, the works are very different, with Kodály’s essentially being a 20th-century update of the Baroque concerto grosso, while Bartók’s much longer work is closer to a symphony, both structurally and in terms of its emotional progress. Each work is in five movements, although in Kodály’s case this is more a matter of being in five sections that are played straight through, giving the effect of a single movement. Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra has the overall feeling of an extended dance with folk elements, an impression reinforced by the work’s repeated alternation of slow and fast sections, much as occurs in many folk dances of Hungary and elsewhere. There is a feeling of small groups of instruments being played against the overall orchestra in concertino vs. ripieno style, and there is considerable use of counterpoint – which reinforces the impression that this is in some ways a much-updated Baroque work. Nevertheless, Kodály’s concerto, which dates to 1939-40, is nowhere near as popular as Bartók’s, which is slightly later (1944). Bartók’s five broadly conceived movements, with their very strong virtuosic elements, their memorable themes, and their overall sense of progress from darkness into light, are captivating – and Bartók’s absorption of Hungarian folk music into the overall symphonic structure proves neater than Kodály’s folk-music elements. A very fine new PentaTone recording of the two concertos, featuring the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Jakub Hrůša, provides a good opportunity to compare and contrast the works, both of which are played with great enthusiasm and considerable sensitivity to their ethnic roots. Kodály’s concerto comes through here as a very serious work, Bartók’s as one that allows humor (for instance, in the form of quotations from other composers’ music) to help leaven its basically serious progress. The orchestra’s virtuosity is evident throughout both pieces, and if Hrůša’s excellent sense of style serves to showcase the reasons for Bartók’s music’s enduring popularity, it also offers listeners a chance to hear Kodály’s concerto given its due as an equally well-constructed work, if a somewhat more distanced and therefore not as emotionally compelling a piece. This is a pairing that would be welcome more often if performances would always be at this level: the significant similarities and even stronger differences between these two concertos are quite fascinating to consider and explore.

     The communication involves smaller groups of instruments – and, sometimes, voices – on two new (+++) CDs from Navona, one featuring the music of Monica Houghton and the other focusing on works by Simon Andrews. Much of Houghton’s music, like that of Bartók and Kodály, has folk influences and impressionistically reflects Houghton’s travels, although not so directly as do the works of the Impressionists. Much of her writing is tonal, but she incorporates various contemporary attitudes and techniques, including the use of non-Western material. The nicely varied, four-movement Andean Suite, for cello (Dmitri Atapine) and piano (Hyeyeon Park), includes impressions of and folk tunes from Peru. The Twelve Causes from the Circle of Becoming, for solo piano (James Winn), intended as a musical reflection of paintings relating to the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life, has something of a “New Age-y” feeling about it, contrasting with dissonant moments. Two trios – Wilderness Portraits: Three Places in Nevada, for violin (Stephanie Sant Ambrogio), cello (Atapine), and piano (Winn), and Sky Signs, for violin (Stephen Warner), piano (Carolyn Gadiel Warner), and saxophone (James Umble) – mostly offer episodes of quiet drifting, sounding more like background music than portrayals of or reactions to specific parts of the natural world. Epigram, for standard quartet scoring (Takako Masame and Sae Shiragami, violins; Lisa Boyko, viola; Linda Atherton, cello) is intended as a response to and commentary on Beethoven’s last quartet. However, it is a stretch to relate Houghton’s unprepared-for (and thus modern-sounding) dissonances, use of harmonics, and unexpected instrumental entries into even vaguely Beethovenian thinking. The three remaining works on this disc are inspired by poetry, but two are strictly instrumental. They are Three Songs without Words for flute (Mary Kay Robinson) and guitar (Don Better), which has a rather minimalist sound because the quiet juxtaposition of the instruments; and Corpo Sonoro for piano (Halida Dinova), a somewhat more substantial four-movement work whose pervasive stop-and-start motion wears thin rather quickly. And then there is one piece that goes beyond the instrumental by including voice: Stay, Shadow, for soprano (Sandra Simon), flute (Robinson), viola (Lynne Ramsey), and piano (Alijca Basinska). This is a setting of a sonnet in Spanish by 17th-century poet and composer Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, and it includes some music attributed to her as well as her words. Like much of the music on this disc, the work is rather evanescent, the instruments tending to float serenely and quietly while the singer declaims the words. The eight works here are collectively a generous helping of Houghton’s music – the CD runs more than an hour – and will please listeners already enamored of her compositional style. Those not familiar with her music may, however, find a certain similarity of blandness among many of the compositions.

     The Andrews CD also offers a fair sampling of that composer’s music – here too, about an hour of material. There are two pieces here using voice: My dove, my coney for soprano (Celeste Godin), oboe (Andrew Price), cello (Aron Zelkowicz), and piano (Andrews himself), and The heart has narrow banks for soprano (Godin) with piano (Andrews). The first of these sets a poem by W.H. Auden, the second one by Emily Dickinson. Both settings use a kind of Sprechstimme that has the primary effect of erasing the tremendous differences of thought and sensibility between the two poems, with the Dickinson setting’s acerbity seeming particularly at odds with the words. The remaining material here communicates strictly with instruments. Violin Dialogues I and II (with Joanna Kurkowicz on violin and Andrews on piano) has one section with the instruments in conflict and eventually coming together, followed by one in which they seem basically in accord – but calling the back-and-forth conversational, in traditional chamber-music style, would be quite a stretch. This is an extended work, lasting more than 16 minutes, that does not really have enough to say to sustain its length. Half that length and more musically and instrumentally interesting, And that moment when the bird sings is written for clarinet (Doris Hall-Gulati), two violins (Gregory Vitale and Christine Vitale), viola (Kenneth Stalberg), and cello (Aron Zelkowicz) – with Andrews conducting the chamber group. The composer’s combinatorial prowess is the most intriguing element here: the various sounds of the instruments (including some that push the limits of ranges, in typically contemporary fashion) are interesting to hear, even if the musical material itself is thin. The four contrasting movements of For the earth is hollow and I have touched the sky, for violin (Michael Jamanis), cello (Sara Male), and piano (Xun Pan), offer some pleasant contrasts not only of sound but also of tempo, although some of the gestures – such as the chordal piano opening of the second movement and the brutal pizzicati at the start of the third – are overdone and rather clichéd. The CD ends with a somewhat impressionistic work, Abiquiu Trio for clarinet (Doris Hall-Gulati), violin (Simon Maurer) and piano (Pan). But although inspired by scenes in New Mexico, this work is nothing like a Houghton piece such as Andean Suite. Instead, Andrews uses impressions gleaned from his visit to explore his own inner responses, doing so especially effectively in the very slow and broad opening of the second movement. Like Houghton, Andrews is a composer of some skill whose work is inevitably well-crafted and will be of considerable interest to audiences already familiar with his style or ones interested in hearing some of the instrumental methods through which contemporary composers continue to seek their own forms of expressiveness.

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