September 27, 2018


Bach: Goldberg Variations. Wolfgang Rübsam, lute-harpsichord. Naxos. $12.99.

Greg d’Alessio: Chamber Music—Veil; Thread; Sono Solo; Now’s the Time; After Ending. Ars Futura Ensemble (Shuai Wang, piano; Luke Rinderknecht, percussion; Madeline Lucas Tolliver, flute; Benjamin Chen, clarinet; Yunting Lee, violin; Daniel Pereira, cello); William Bender, viola; Robert Nicholson, cello; John Perrine, alto saxophone; Gunnar Owen Hirthe, clarinet; Victor Beyens, violin. Navona. $14.99.

Arthur Gottschalk: Benny, Zoot and Teddy (Play Richard and Lorenz); Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano; Oh, More or Less; Sonata for Bass Clarinet and Piano; Shalom. Mario Ciaccio, alto and tenor saxophone; Sauro Berti, clarinet and bass clarinet; Naomi Fujiya, piano; Eccher School of Music Vocal Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.

     Bach’s Goldberg Variations have been performed and recorded so often, on so many instruments and in so many styles, that it is justifiable to wonder what could be brought to listeners by yet another version. Often, the answer is “not much,” but in the case of a new Naxos CD featuring Wolfgang Rübsam, the answer is “an extraordinary amount.” There are two reasons for this: Rübsam himself and the instrument on which he performs. The lute-harpsichord looks like a harpsichord but has gut strings rather than metal. And it is known to have been one of Bach’s own favored instruments: he owned at least two, although neither they nor any others of Baroque vintage have survived. What the lute-harpsichord does that a standard harpsichord does not is to give music a warm, mellow sound that allows, indeed encourages, a level of emotion in performance that is the opposite of the statelier and sometimes foursquare approach offered by performers using the traditional harpsichord. But the emotionalism is Baroque emotionalism, and must be communicated with considerable delicacy and sensitivity – and without moving outside the strictures and expectations of Baroque forms. And that is where Rübsam’s excellent performance comes in. This is an exceptionally involving version of the Goldberg Variations, structurally sound and highly knowledgeable regarding the elegant and sophisticated layout of the music. It is a carefully paced version of the work, considerably slower than many others, but without ever dragging. That is, it is expansive rather than bloated, with Rübsam giving the material plenty of chances to penetrate listeners’ consciousness and be understood by them with both the head and the heart. This is marvelously involving music, and what Rübsam shows is that it does not have to be involving only on an intellectual level, as it is in many very fine performances. The emotional communicativeness of this reading, which adheres strictly to Baroque stylistic practices (to the point of varying the many repeats, as would have been the standard expectation in Bach’s time), is brought out to wonderful effect by the subtleties of intonation of which the lute-harpsichord is capable. The instrument used by Rübsam, built to Baroque specifications by Keith Hill – who is well-known for the quality of his instruments, of which he is one of the few modern creators – has a splendid depth and solidity of tone that is nevertheless clearly in the harpsichord family (the strings are plucked, not struck). As Rübsam moves with careful pacing through the many variations – the total performance runs more than 78 minutes – the coloration capabilities of the lute-harpsichord emerge and surprise again and again, and Rübsam finds multiple ways of evoking its emotive and expressive qualities. By the time of the longest element of the Goldberg Variations, Variation 25 – which here runs more than eight minutes – listeners have been regaled with a remarkable set of sounds and effects that have only become more intricate and winning as the piece has progressed. All the way to the work’s end, Rübsam and the lute-harpsichord show themselves a beautifully matched pair, evoking sounds and feelings that Bach put into this sublime music purposefully and that it takes tremendous understanding, as well as technical skill, to extract so beautifully.

     No contemporary composer handles any keyboard instrument in a manner like Bach’s, but even in the 21st century, composers continue looking for ways to use the keyboard – usually the piano – to bring a combination of expressive and percussive elements to their work. Greg d’Alessio uses piano for a variety of purposes in his chamber music on a new (+++) Navona CD. The works here are arranged chronologically, from Veil (2001) to After Ending (2017). There is little particularly distinctive about Veil, which employs the same sharp sonic contrasts and extended instrumental techniques used by many other contemporary composers. The overall pacing is slow, and the overall mood is a sad one, emphasized by the addition of a viola to the instruments of the Ars Futura Ensemble. Thread (2002) is in a somewhat similar vein, with a focus as much on individual instruments as on groups of them; here the piano has a larger role than in Veil, but none of the members of the ensemble ever really takes the lead. Thread meanders, twisting here and there, without any particular sense of direction. Sono Solo (2011) treats the piano more interestingly: it opens the work and dominates the musical discourse for a time, but gradually fades toward the background as the other instruments pick up and make use of the material – so that the piano nearly disappears by the work’s end. There is a greater sense of structure here than in the earlier works. Now’s the Time (2015) has reasonably clear structure as well: it is a two-movement work with strong jazz elements and a greater sense of melody (and even, periodically, lyricism) than d’Alessio offers elsewhere. Alto saxophonist John Perrine, for whom the work was written, features prominently in it, giving the piece almost the flavor of a chamber concerto at some times, and of a duet at others (notably between alto saxophone and piano in the second movement). As for After Ending, another two-movement piece, it has a fairly typical structure for two-movement works: contrast. The first, longer movement is generally slow-paced and rather stolid, while the second is considerably more energetic, using percussion (including a percussively scored piano) to good effect. D’Alessio’s works seem written more to express his own feelings than to reach out and try to connect with listeners, but they do make contact from time to time, especially when they seem less studied and more lucid – as in the second movement of After Ending.

     The piano is largely relegated to a supporting role in the music of Arthur Gottschalk on another (+++) Navona release. Saxophone and clarinet, individually and together, are the focus here, making the CD enjoyable for listeners who like the sounds of these instruments and for performers intrigued by some of the ways in which contemporary composers handle them. Benny, Zoot and Teddy (2012) includes clarinet and tenor saxophone; Oh, More or Less (2011) features bass clarinet and tenor saxophone; and Shalom (2015) uses bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and choir. These three works, although not as substantially developed as the two three-movement sonatas, provide most of the aural interest here: Gottschalk skillfully interweaves the sound of the winds and sets each instrument’s unique tonal qualities against those of the other. The result is music in which expectation is hard to come by: Gottschalk never quite lets listeners know what is coming next and which instrument will be delivering whatever-it-is. The sonatas are more straightforward. The one for bass clarinet is more interesting and, not coincidentally, gives more prominence to the piano: there is a genuine sense of interplay rather than the lesser role of accompaniment that is accorded the piano in the alto-saxophone sonata. Indeed, the piano establishes the underlying mood of the bass-clarinet sonata’s second movement, with the wind instrument commenting on and enlarging the material, and the sonata’s finale (Green Dolphy Street Boogie) possesses considerable verve as much because of the piano’s rhythmic portions as because of the bass clarinet’s bouncy lines. The final work on the CD, Shalom, built around choral intonation of the Hebrew word for “peace,” stands in great contrast to Benny, Zoot and Teddy, which opens the disc with a constant parade of bright and upbeat melodic interjections in which the two winds and piano paint a variegated and lively musical picture of no specific scene but of considerable joy as well as virtuosity. Mario Ciaccio and Sauro Berti both offer smooth tone and a fine sense of rhythm throughout the recording, whether playing separately or together; and if Naomi Fujiya’s piano role is on the somewhat limited side, she makes the most of what Gottschalk gives her and provides very fine support throughout.

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