September 20, 2018


Mozart: Variations on “Unser Dummer Pöbel Meint,” K. 455; Haydn: Andante with Variations in F minor, HOB. XVII:6; Beethoven: “Eroica” Variations and Fugue, Op. 35. Leslie Tung, fortepiano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ed Martin: Three Pieces for Piano (2006); Swirling Sky (2014); Journey (2015-17). Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

Dennis Kam: Piano Sonata No. 1 (2002); D-Bop—Sonata No. 2 (2010); String Quartet No. 1 (1966); String Quartet No. 2 (1986). Mia Vassilev and Amy Tarantino-Trafton, piano; Sirius Quartet and Pedroia Quartet. Navona. $14.99.

Quadrants, Volume 2: Music for String Quartet by Paul Osterfield, David T. Bridges, Ferdinando (Fred) De Sena, L. Peter Deutsch, Katherine Price, and Marvin Lamb. Pedroia String Quartet. Navona. $14.99.

     Beethoven was famously hard on pianos – a fact usually attributed to his encroaching deafness. But there was surely another factor involved as well: the inability of pianos of Beethoven’s time, such as the five-octave fortepiano, to produce the intensity and sheer volume that he sought as his music progressed into new and largely uncharted areas. Earlier Beethoven, such as the “Eroica” Variations and Fugue of 1802, sounds quite wonderful on the fortepiano, especially when played with as much understanding of historic style – and appropriate-to-the-era virtuosity – as Leslie Tung shows on a new MSR Classics CD. Tung elicits all the nuances of the fortepiano, using its unique sound – which partakes as much of the harpsichord as it does of the modern piano – to good effect. He gives each variation its own character and lets the music flow naturally throughout, despite the inherently episodic nature of the variation form. The well-known theme was used by Beethoven in four works, the last being most famous: as the main theme of the finale of his “Eroica” symphony. The piano variations are the theme’s third use: earlier, it had appeared in The Creatures of Prometheus and in the seventh in a set of 12 Contredanses. Tung takes full advantage in his performance of the fortepiano’s relatively thin keys and lesser key travel than modern pianos have: the instrument he uses, built in 1983, is based on one from about 1795, and approximates what Beethoven would have had at his disposal. The delicacy and inventiveness of the variations are their primary characteristics here, and the set sounds all the more intriguing because of the way Beethoven experimented with its conclusion, which includes a fugue and an Andante con moto. Also on this disc, Tung plays two somewhat earlier variation sets. Haydn’s dates to 1793 and is composed with the fine sense of balance and contrast for which Haydn’s music is justly renowned. It pushes no boundaries, but it uses its F minor home key to good effect, with pleasantly warm touches of melancholy expressiveness. Haydn’s work contrasts exceptionally well not only with Beethoven’s but also with Mozart’s 1784 variations on Unser Dummer Pöbel Meint from Gluck’s 1763 opera, La rencontre imprévue, ou Les pèlerins de la Mecque. The opera may no longer be familiar, but the tune that Mozart uses is, and his clever variations pay homage to the original while stamping the music with his own style. As in the Beethoven, Tung handles the Haydn and Mozart works with aplomb and shows just how well they work as fortepiano rather than modern-piano pieces, with the basic instrumental sound and the cleanness of ornamentation being especially noteworthy.

     Today’s composers, of course, see the piano very differently and use it – in standard modern form or in “prepared” or otherwise altered guise – for very different purposes. On a new (+++) Ravello CD, two Ed Martin piano works clearly show how some contemporary composers regard the instrument. Three Pieces for Piano has three titles that bear no particular relationship to the sounds of the pieces: “Fanfares,” “Reflection” and “Soar” (although the quietness of the middle movement does help offset the pervasive dissonance of the work as a whole). Swirling Sky is intended as an impression of clouds, and if it is not especially evocative of them, it is a pleasant enough reverie. The third work on the disc, Journey, shows how different the variation form is today from what it was in the Classical era. The 11-movement work is better described as transformations than as variations, and here there are titles that do reflect the musical sounds. The opening “Soul” is built on a simple minor third, but the motif – it falls short of being a theme – is reused and altered and built upon and transformed through movements called “Lament,” “Revelation,” “Vexed,” “Regret,” “Obsession,” “Manic,” “Conviction,” “Metamorphosis,” “Grit,” and “Transcend.” The titles are an odd mixture of parts of speech, with a couple of verbs and an adjective (“Manic”) among the nouns. The music is something of an odd mixture, too: there is little sense of lamentation or revelation, for example, although the rhythmic intensity of “Vexed,” the repeated figures of “Obsession,” and the leaps of “Manic” are effective. Pianist Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi handles all the works with apparent ease and brings a welcome bounce to some of the lighter material. Nothing on the CD is especially memorable or intricate, but the music mostly lies well on the piano and will be of interest to listeners who enjoy hearing the ways in which today’s composers emphasize the percussive aspects of the instrument to at least the same extent as its harmonic and rhythmic capabilities.

     Martin’s comparative expressivity contrasts with the more jagged and self-consciously modernistic approach to the piano in the works by Dennis Kam on a (+++) Navona CD. Elements typically associated with music of the 20th and 21st centuries are pervasive here, including emphasis on the extremes of the piano’s range and an attempt to substitute rhythmic variety and abrupt transitions for any form of flow or expressiveness that could be a way to connect with listeners. Kam’s first sonata, from 2002, has a more-grandiose opening than his second, from 2010, but the basic musical techniques and approaches of these one-movement works are similar. Both are well-played, by Amy Tarantino-Trafton and Mia Vassilev, respectively, but neither has enough formal or expressive attractiveness to engage listeners to a significant degree. The piano is clearly not the only instrument to which Kam applies a modernistic, non-tonal approach that, realistically, has changed little since the days of the Second Viennese School. The single-movement String Quartet No. 1 is filled with the plucking and vibrato and Webernesque swellings, crescendos and diminuendos familiar from the works of many composers in the middle of the 20th century. It is well-performed by the Sirius Quartet (Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Hueger, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Jeremy Harman, cello). But even at its modest length of 10 minutes, the work seems to overstay its welcome. The second quartet, a three-movement piece, is more substantial and uses ensemble rather than individual-instrument playing to a greater extent. Kam’s basic technique is pretty much the same here, though, the music being entirely atonal, filled with fits and starts, and sounding like the sort of work that draws attention to the composer’s technical ability rather than to any attempt to communicate with an audience with any sort of specificity. As with many similar-sounding works, the quartet is engaging for a time because of the instrumental interplay, but ultimately comes across as vapid. It is, however, played enthusiastically by the Pedroia Quartet (Jae Cosmos Lee and Rohan Gregory, violins; Peter Sulski, viola; Jacques Wood, cello).

     The Pedroia Quartet also shows its mettle on another (+++) Navona disc, an anthology release that features half a dozen works of varying intent by six different composers. Khamsin by Paul Osterfield bears some resemblance to Kam’s second quartet, but with a greater reliance on extreme dissonance and on having instruments play with, or against, each other in different tempos and with different thematic bits. This Fragmented Old Man by David T. Bridges is loosely based on the children’s counting song, “This Old Man,” pulling the song apart in a myriad of ways that render it largely indistinguishable – it is a sort of anti-variations, using basic material as variations do but preventing listeners from connecting the music with the original through pulling elements of it in extreme directions. String Quartet No. 1 by Ferdinando (Fred) De Sena is something of a departure for a composer best known for his electronic music. Its three movements have titles with distinctly religious connotations: “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” “Salve Regina,” and “Ave Regina Caelorum.” But while the titles point to a Marian hymn, the work’s sound – although richer and more vibrant than that of other pieces on this CD – has little apparent connection with Mary or, indeed, with Christianity. However, parts of the middle movement are, rather unexpectedly, touching, although anyone seeking depth of feeling will not find it here. L. Peter Deutsch’s Departure is a four-movement work that connects clearly with the notion of a journey: “Anticipation,” “Preparation,” “Leave-Taking,” and “Setting Sail.” The first movement makes it sound as if the traveler is not quite certain about the coming trip; the second is more upbeat, with a pleasant pizzicato opening; the third is quiet and rather wistful; and the finale has an anticipatory mood, as if the traveler is now actually looking forward to the travel ahead. For a contemporary composition, Departure is surprisingly communicative of what is promised in its overall title and in that of each of its movements. Also on the CD are two rather inward-focused works that stand in contrast with the more outgoing (if scarcely ebullient) piece by Deutsch. They are Hymnody by Katherine Price, a very slow-paced piece in which the sound of unison strings predominates, and Lamentations by Marvin Lamb, an extended single-movement composition that sets a dark and dour mood at the start and stays with it throughout. Lamb’s work makes for a decidedly downbeat finale for a disc that, as usual in anthology recordings, offers a variety of unrelated works containing disparate elements that may appeal to listeners here and there but that are unlikely to find a significant audience in their totality.

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