August 09, 2018


The Celtic Lute. Ronn McFarlane, lute. Sono Luminus. $13.99.

Hampson Sisler: Family Days Suite; Popular Monastics Suite. Michael Koenig, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Lowell Lieberman: Nocturnes Nos. 8-11; Variations on a Theme of Schubert; Two Impromptus, Op. 131; Piano Sonata No. 3. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Douglas Anderson: Solo Instrumental Music. Ravello. $14.99.

Mind and Machine, Volume One: Organic and Electronic Works by Doug Bielmeier, Jon Bellona, Julius Bucsis, Herbert Deutsch, Bill Whitley, and Schliestett & Bliss. Ravello. $9.99.

     Simply hearing a single instrument played with consummate skill can be enough to make some recordings worthwhile, even if the specific music performed is less involving than the manner of playing it. That is the case with a new Sono Luminus release featuring lutenist Ronn McFarlane. The 26 tracks, which collectively last only 56 minutes, include 11 works by Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), the famed blind Irish harpist, along with eight traditional Scottish pieces, six traditional Irish tunes, and one piece by James Oswald (c. 1711-1769). All are played masterfully in McFarlane’s own arrangements, which give the disparate works a greater feeling of cohesion than they would otherwise have. McFarlane’s complete mastery of his instrument is everywhere apparent in his fingerings, his expressiveness, his ability to contrast bright and dancelike material with inward-focused pieces, and his overall sensitivity to the nuances of compositions that, especially in the case of the folk tunes, are generally straightforward and harmonically and rhythmically simple. There is generally greater depth to the O’Carolan pieces than to anything else here, and McFarlane translates the ethereality of some of the harp material to the lute in a way that is thoroughly engaging to hear. This is less a disc to be listened to for the sake of the specific musical works presented than one to hear to consider, or reconsider, the wide adaptability of the lute in the right hands: far from being a simple, archaic serenade-accompanying instrument of the sort so notably parodied by Wagner in Die Meistersinger, the lute can be a communicator of sensitivity and considerable emotional scope when played with as much attentiveness and flair as it is here. The Celtic Lute is a tribute to the instrument and to McFarlane more than to any individual work on the disc, and more even than to O’Carolan – although certainly the arrangements of his material inspired McFarlane to produce transcriptions of considerable beauty for his lute to bring forth.

     There is somewhat greater balance between interest in performer and music on a new MSR Classics CD of two organ suites by Hampson Sisler (born 1932). Sisler has written a considerable amount of sacred choral and organ music, but these two pieces have a somewhat more-secular bent than many of his others. Family Days Suite (1992) includes four movements titled “Mothers Day,” “Fathers Day,” “Celebrate the Children,” and “A Salute to Grandparents,” while Popular Monastics Suite (1994) is a five-movement work: “At Candlemas (Winter’s end; Gopher’s out) (February 2nd),” “Saint Valentine (February 14th),” “Saint Patrick (March 17th),” “Nature St. Francis (of Assisi) (October 4th),” and “All Saints’ Day/All Hallows’ Day (November 1st).” The titles of the movements in both suites point more toward the everyday than toward the religiously elevated; but interestingly enough, Sisler never trivializes any of the dates and in fact never truly becomes playful or entirely lighthearted in exploring any of the material. There is an underlying seriousness and thus meaningfulness to every one of these days in Sisler’s handling of them, and that requires an organist to find just the right balance between solemnity and lighter (if not light) expressiveness throughout both the suites. Michael Koenig does just that, producing sensitive and very involving world première recordings of both the suites, drawing listeners into Sisler’s sound world and his foundational solemnity without allowing any movement in either suite to drag or become dull. Sisler does not accept any opportunities for easy amusement or delight, not even in the movements about children and the groundhog. In fact, it is notable that the designations of Candlemas and All Saints’ Day, not Groundhog Day and Halloween, are used to give those dates their due. Sisler’s music is well and carefully constructed and reflects a consistent worldview in which, even in our modern age, the sacred and the profane coexist at all times; and Koenig brings forth Sisler’s vision and his careful, thoughtful exploration of organ sonorities and capabilities to very fine effect.

     The works on another MSR Classics release are also world première recordings and are also very well performed, but the music of Lowell Liebermann (born 1961), at least as heard on this disc, is somewhat less interesting than Sisler’s, resulting in a (+++) CD. At its best, as in Nocturne No. 8 (2003), Liebermann’s music is delicate, sensitive, even sensual in its near-devotional sensibilities. Even here, though, the material tends to drag after a while; and Nocturnes Nos. 9-11 (2006, 2007, 2010) are from the start somewhat less affecting. More interesting musically is Variations on a Theme of Schubert (2007), which is based on Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s Heidenröslein and includes 10 often-inventive approaches to the attractive original (plus a coda). David Korevaar, whose care and sensitivity are evident throughout this disc, does an especially fine job with the contrasts inherent in this work – which, taken as a whole, comes across better than the more-monochromatic Nocturnes. Also on the CD are the Two Impromptus, Op. 131 (2016), written as exam pieces for a piano competition and offering plenty of opportunities to display technique, although the musical material itself is rather thin. Thinness is also apparent in the most-substantial work on the disc, Piano Sonata No. 3 (2002), whose four movements are assembled from a series of brief sections in a way that prevents the piece from having a strong sense of continuity. The movements’ sequence is rather odd: the first reflects its tempo indication of Inquieto, esitante, rather well, but both the second (Dona nobis pacem) and the third (Lullabye) partake of similar sensibilities, and the fourth, marked Interlude, appears for most of its length to be deliberately inconclusive. There is a feeling of meandering throughout the sonata, its tonal uncertainty being paralleled by a stylistic approach that never seems really to settle – it is ultimately a work that, after a strong beginning, declines in musical interest as it progresses, at least until its highly virtuosic final few minutes. Those will repay listeners interested in contemporary solo-piano music who have stayed with the work through its less-interesting sections.

     Listeners who enjoy modern solo-instrument music as a genre will be intrigued by the offerings on a (+++) Ravello CD featuring works by Douglas Anderson. There are plenty of performances on a single instrument to choose from here, including five with similarly designed titles. Maureen Keenan plays flute on “…increasingly, physical…” (1980). Jill Collura is bassoonist for “…procession, emerging…” (1984). Debbie Schmidt plays French horn in “…springing, gradually…” (1988). Violist Ina Litera offers “…mood, enough…” (2007). And Richard Cohen plays bass clarinet in “…vikings, unless…” (2011). It is tempting, in view of the titles and the solo-instrument nature of these five works, to see them as part of a series, but in fact they do not come across that way, since each is quite different in approach and effect: the solo-flute music is jazzy and passionate, for example, while the French horn work is larger-scale and dramatic. There are other solo-instrument pieces here as well, including two for piano that Jin-ok Lee plays pleasingly: Five Bagatelles and a Synopsis (1979), a work that lurches somewhat uneasily between jazz and standard atonal composition, and Abe’s Rag (1981), a deliberately paced piece offering a somewhat similar stylistic mixture. The five movements of Wedding Music (1994), played on trumpet and flugelhorn by John Charles Thomas, are more effective in their combination of suitable pageantry with the occasional sly aside and, in the concluding “Recessional,” a touch of bright liveliness and bounce. Also here is a sort-of-solo work called Piece for Clarinet and Tape (1975), in which Gary Dranch’s instrument engages in the usual wide leaps and squawks typical of a certain kind of contemporary extend-the-instrument-beyond-its-comfort-level composition, while the electronics blip and burble above, below, in front of and beyond the wind instrument. This work sounds much like many, many others written in the 20th century by composers who at the time were fascinated by the soundscapes made possible by electronic rather than acoustic manipulation of aural material.

     In fact, electronic music, now often called computer or electroacoustic music, does not seem to have progressed a great deal in the past 50 years or so, as listeners will discover if they sample another (+++) Ravello CD, this one called Mind and Machine, Volume One. It is a bit difficult to say for sure whether the works here are for solo instruments or not – do the electronic additions and manipulations constitute additional instruments, or no? Listeners can contemplate the philosophical elements of this while listening to a series of works whose primary interest is generally not in their electronic material but in the way that material interacts with the non-electronic instruments with which the composers connect it. Thus, Costa Mesa Rocking Chair by Doug Bielmeier shows how lap steel can sound almost electronic on its own, while Currents by Jon Bellona mixes electronics with a traditional string quartet (Jannie Wei and Wyatt True, violins; Kimberlee Uwate, viola; Eric Alterman, cello) in such a way that the strings seem to be elements of the electronic sounds and it is often difficult to determine what sort of audio (some of which is outright noise) is coming from which source. In the Interest of Time by Julius Bucsis is strictly electronic, while Abyss by Herbert Deutsch includes a poem by Sonia Usatch performed by mezzo-soprano Grace Anderson, a piccolo played by Patricia Spenser, and various sounds that fit well with the poem’s exploration of the troubled relationship between a mother and her schizophrenic son. Also on this CD is Absent Light by Bill Whitley, which expands the instrumental elements associated with electronics to an unusual degree and produces some electroacoustic material of genuine cleverness as a result – although the work goes on much too long. The performers here are Elena Talarico on piano and celesta, Francesco Zago on electric bass and electric guitar, Fedele Stucchi on trombone, Federico De Zottis on soprano saxophone, Stefano Grasso on vibraphone, and Giuseppe Olivini on electronic tanpura (an electronically modified version of a traditional Indian stringed instrument). Even without electronics per se, this instrumental combination invites a very wide variety of sounds and many sorts of interplay among performers, making Whitley’s work an intricately fascinating one until it wears out its welcome. The final piece on this CD is the purely electronic Sunrise Sonata by Jim Schliestett and Bob Bliss, which reproduces the effect of the rising sun in what is essentially a nine-minute crescendo that proves rather less compelling and effective than similarly themed works by composers using traditional instruments – Nielsen’s Helios Overture, to cite a single example. Indeed, a reasonable question for listeners to these electronic works and others using similar techniques to ask is to what extent the pieces truly represent a new way of making music and exploring its capabilities, and to what extent they simply allow composers to repackage, in a kind of “old wine in new bottles” way, what earlier composers have done as well or better.

1 comment:

  1. Jim Schliestett12:41

    Thank you for reviewing Mind & Machine, and for your thoughtful commentary!

    I'd like to clear up a bit about the programmatic nature of Sunrise Sonata. The title came from a painting so named, not so much from an attempt to "reproduce the effect of the rising sun". If you wanted to imagine a scene, it might be better to start with a twilight ocean vignette, on the water. At some point a whale rises up (first crescendo), later submerging, finally surfacing again (second crescendo) just as the sun comes up over the horizon. But, you could most definitely skip the script, and experience it as absolute music. (Headphones are recommended.)

    Jim Schliestett

    p.s. I can assure you that no venerable classics were harmed in the making of this recording ;-)