August 02, 2018


Herschel Garfein: Mortality Mansions—Songs of Love and Loss after 60. Michael Slattery, tenor; Dimitri Dover, piano; Marnie Breckenridge, soprano; Donald Hall, reader. Delos. $14.98.

Transcendent: Music of Matthew Aucoin, Sayo Kosugi, Xiaogang Ye, Chad Cannon, Sun-Young Park, and Narong Prangcharoen. Ryu Gotto, violin; Davóne Tines, bass-baritone; Matthew Aucoin, piano; AANMI Los Angeles Ensemble conducted by Yuga Cohler. Delos. $14.98.

Nicole Chamberlain: Three-Nine Line; Mintaka; Lilliputian; In Cahoots; Asphyxia; Chatter; Smorgasbord; Percolate. Nicole Chamberlain, Mary Matthews and Matthew Angelo, flute and piccolo; Jessica Nilles, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Cello Concerto; Sea Murmurs; Mozart/Castelnuovo-Tedesco: “Don Giovanni” Serenade; Cherubino—Two Arias from “Le nozze di Figaro”; Ravel/Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Alborada del gracioso; La Vallée des cloches; Rossini/Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Figaro from “The Barber of Seville.” Brinton Averil Smith, cello; Houston Symphony conducted by Kazuki Yamada; Evelyn Chen, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Tchaikovsky: Six French Songs; Gaspar Cassadó: Sonata for Piano and Violoncello; Antin Rudnytsky: Romantic Fantasy for cello and piano; Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee. Nada Radulovich, cello; Cullan Bryant, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     World-première recordings are nothing new anymore, except insofar as the music they offer is in fact previously unrecorded. There are now plenty of CD labels willing, even eager, to make new, previously unrecorded music – or older, neglected material – available to interested listeners. By definition, these releases are niche products, and it is sometimes difficult to discern what niche they aim for: the obvious one is “listeners who already know the composer(s) and/or type of music,” but there is generally a desire, spoken or unspoken, to get the material out to a wider audience. And sometimes the offerings are so worthy that one at least hopes the music will find its way beyond a small core group. Herschel Garfein’s affecting Mortality Mansions song cycle, for example, deals with a topic of increasing interest as many countries’ populations age, and does so with sensitivity and expressive care. The Delos recording of the cycle shows it to be essentially a collaborative venture, with Garfein’s music carefully complementing the words of former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall. Some of those words recur, given different angles and greater depth as the story of young love develops into one of lasting companionship: “When the Young Husband,” “When I Was Young,” “The Young Watch Us” and, later, “Dying Is Simple, She Said” all reappear. But their meanings change over time as their context is altered, and that is really the point of the whole cycle: affection, meaningfulness, love itself differ as time goes on, and the inevitable loss that comes with aging and death does not diminish the altered feelings but only changes them further and gives them new, additional meaning. Michael Slattery’s singing, interspersed with 89-year-old Hall’s readings of his poetry, makes for a thoughtful and involving experience of which music is really only a part, supporting the narrative in much the same way that Dimitri Dover’s piano playing supports Slattery’s vocals. The cycle has an unusual epilogue that enhances its overall thoughtfulness: “Otherwise,” the longest song of all, uses words not by Hall but by his deceased wife, Jane Kenyon, and it is sung not by Slattery but by soprano Marnie Breckenridge. This means the song cycle ends with a sudden change of perspective, whose complementarity underlines the whole concept of change and difference as one ages and moves inexorably toward death but, hopefully, not toward complete loneliness.

     Garfein’s and Hall’s depth of feeling is largely absent on another Delos world première recording, this one focusing on members of the Asia/America New Music Institute (AANMI), founded in 2013 for the purpose of giving young Asian and American composers and performers a venue in which to create and play their works. It is not that the composers eschew the search for meaning: it is clear, in particular, in Matthew Aucoin’s Two Whitman Songs, in which the settings of “The Sleepers” and “A Clear Midnight” are only mildly contemporary in sound and, for that very reason, are emotionally evocative. On the other hand, Chad Cannon’s six-song cycle, Wild Grass on the Riverbank, is more self-consciously “modern” in instrumentation and less emotionally trenchant, for all that Cannon makes its intended progress clear by starting with “In the Wasteland” and concluding with “Budding in the Wasteland.” The works by the four Asian composers are likewise a very mixed bag. Lilac Nova by Sayo Kosugi is clearly a contemporary chamber piece, from its scurrying opening through its ongoing interplay of instruments. Lamura Cuo by Xiaogang Ye, the longest work on the CD, uses a solo violin effectively and offers, as a whole, an emotional reaching-out, but it wears out its welcome after a while and becomes, if not repetitious, rather static in feeling. Sun-Young Park’s My Beloved is essentially minimalism with some Oriental sounds mixed in, and the words are on the ordinary side. And Whisper from Afar by Narong Prangcharoen also features a kind of minimalist ethereality. All the works show the creative skill of their composers, but the CD is not a “theme” release except insofar as the whole thing relates to AANMI. Nothing here truly reaches out to an audience beyond one already knowledgeable about AANMI and its members; indeed, it is as if the whole recording is intended primarily for the AANMI membership and its friends.

     The focus seems even narrower on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the flute music of Nicole Chamberlain (born 1977). It has to be said at the outset that Chamberlain plays her chosen instrument with considerable skill and a great deal of understanding of exactly how it produces sounds and what those sounds can be. But once that is said, there is little more to discuss with regard to the music Chamberlain composes. Everything here seems intended for flute players rather than for an assumed audience beyond the performers themselves. The disc is something of a set of flute études, under various titles and in various arrangements from solo flute to multiple flutes to flute (or piccolo) plus something else. Chamberlain loves showing non-traditional ways in which the flute can be played: she draws attention to breathing, does that breathing in a wide variety of ways, taps and knocks the instrument to use it percussively, contrasts brief legato and frequently tonal elements with staccato, atonal ones and some that are genuinely and intentionally unpleasant to hear, and so forth. The CD is exploratory and instructional without being musically compelling for anyone who does not play the flute – or is not deeply engaged in learning the ins and outs of how it produces sounds and what those sounds can be. The two multi-movement works here are the most successful. Three-Nine Line (2015), for flute and piano, has a title that refers to the position of airplane wings relative to the cockpit and offers four movements intended to reflect different elements of flying – from the intense to the relaxed and “floaty.” And Smorgasbord (2010) for flute and piccolo has a distinct sense of humor in exploring, in four very short movements, just what sorts of sounds the flute can make: “Crunchy,” “Gelatinous,” “Carbonated” and “Fluffy.” The sound-for-its-own-sake approach of this work also works well, albeit in a different way, in Lilliputian (2014), which is for the fascinating combination of piccolo and music box and succeeds in part because, at two-and-a-half minutes, it does not overstay its welcome. The remaining works are exploratory in a more didactic and generally less interesting way: Mintaka (2014) and Percolate (2015) are for three flutes, In Cahoots (2011) and Chatter (2011) for two, and Asphyxia (2016) for just one. Chamberlain and her companions all sound as if they revel in the sonic explorations of the material, and other performers will surely find the disc intriguing, but for listeners in general, the material is likely to seem repetitious and somewhat overdone in its determination not to have the flute sound as it usually does in more-familiar music.

     There is nothing familiar on a new Naxos CD featuring music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), even though a couple of the pieces on the disc have been recorded before, including the Cello Concerto and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s arrangements of Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and a bit of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (although the latter is here arranged by Brinton Averil Smith, principal cellist of the Houston Symphony). The remaining short pieces have not been recorded previously, and all are charming and rather sweet in their selection of specific melodies, their emphasis on the expressive capabilities of the cello, and their forthright appeal to performers’ virtuosity and audiences’ delight in watching and hearing an instrument get a real workout in arrangements of generally well-known music. The very short Sea Murmurs that concludes the disc is different from the other brief works in that it is an arrangement by violinist Jascha Heifetz rather than a Castelnuovo-Tedesco arrangement of material by an earlier composer; but here too the elements of warmth and display are in the forefront. The studio recordings of these brief works are intended to complement the live recording of the Cello Concerto that is the primary attraction of the CD, and the short pieces serve their purpose well. The concerto itself is one of those big-boned, somewhat cinematic 20th-century works that have fallen rather unaccountably by the wayside despite the continuing popularity of a small subset of similar pieces, such as Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. Originally played (in 1938) by no less than Gregor Piatigorsky and conductor Arturo Toscanini, the concerto is a real rarity now, and deserves better. True, it is not innovative, but it is large-scale, lyrical, and in some parts swooningly expressive – all characteristics that Smith’s cello playing brings forth to fine effect, with the Houston Symphony under Kazuki Yamada offering as fine an orchestral accompaniment as pianist Evelyn Chen provides for the shorter, encore-like material on the CD. The concerto’s brief central movement, charmingly marked Allegretto gentile, is essentially an intermezzo between two extended, expressive, large-scale meanderings filled with themes that are wide-ranging and readily appealing (if rather overdone). There are passages that are purely virtuosic to engage soloist and audience alike, with longer and more-emotive sections also holding listeners’ interest effectively. The concerto is sumptuous if a bit bloated, and while it is not great music, its grandiosity itself makes it worthy of being heard (and recorded) with more frequency. Listeners looking for unfamiliar neo-Romantic material will find a good deal of it to enjoy here.

     There is also plenty of neo-Romantic cello music, and some that is outright Romantic, on a new Navona CD featuring the very well-matched pair of cellist Nada Radulovich and pianist Cullan Bryant. The four works here are stated to be world première recordings, but obviously that is stretching the definition of “world première” a bit in the case of the Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov pieces. More accurately, these are first recordings in this specific form, with the Tchaikovsky songs transcribed for cello and piano by Radulovich and the ubiquitous Flight of the Bumblebee heard here in a transcription by Bryant. The Rimsky-Korsakov works well enough as an encore, but forcing the cello into its upper range throughout is not the best way to showcase the instrument. The Tchaikovsky transcription is considerably more engaging, with the cello’s warmth standing in effectively for the voices (medium voice in five of the poems, low voice in No. 2) for which the work was originally written. The six poems – four by Paul Collin and one each by Edouard Turquety and A.M. Blanchecotte – are included in the CD notes, with translations by Radulovich that show her sensitivity to the French of the originals and help explain the vibrancy that she brings to her musical presentation. The truly unexplored repertoire here, however, dates to the 20th century and consists of two very different approaches to cello-and-piano writing  by two cellist/composers who are scarcely household names. The sonata by Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966) dates to 1924 and shows the clear influence of Ravel and de Falla, with both of whom Cassadó studied. It is a well-made, very Spanish-focused work with strong emotional contrasts within and among its four movements, the second of which, marked Aragonesa, uses a theme favored by many composers (including Liszt in his Spanish Rhapsody). The sonata is attractive enough so it is surprising to realize that it has not been recorded before: it is rather superficial but is filled with elegant turns of phrase and wears its heart on its sleeve unashamedly. The third movement, Saeta, is especially compelling: the title refers to a religious song, and here Cassadó lets the emotionalism of the material flow freely and with strength. Cassadó’s sonata contrasts interestingly with the Romantic Fantasy by Ukrainian composer Antin Rudnytsky (1902-1975), which was written much later, in 1966. This piece retains much the same harmonic  language employed by Cassadó (and, for that matter, by Tchaikovsky), but its treatment of cello and piano is quite different: initially they appear separately (piano first, with considerable intensity, followed by cello in a cadenza-like passage), and then they communicate conversationally in ways that effectively highlight their inherently different sounds (percussive piano with pizzicato cello, for example). Unlike Chamberlain’s flute music, which seems primarily intended for performers, and also unlike Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s large-scale Cello Concerto, the four works here are modest in approach and reach out with considerable effectiveness both to performers (notably cellists seeking less-known material) and to listeners intrigued by the chance to hear first-ever recordings of works whose neglect seems genuinely unjust.

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