October 11, 2018


Chopin: Mazurkas—Op. 41; in A Minor, KK IIb/5; in A Minor, KK IIb/4; Op. 50; Op. 56; Op. 59; Op. 63; in A Minor, Op. 67, No. 4; in G Minor, Op. 67, No. 2; in F Minor, Op. Posth. Todd Crow, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Piano Music of Eric Satie, Zoran Hristić, Svetislav Božić, Marta Brankovich, Fredrick Kaufman, and Clint Mansell. Marta Brankovich, piano. Navona. $14.99.

French Music for Oboe and Piano by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Koechlin, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel, and Gilles Silvestrini. Lumina Duo (Merideth Hite Estevez, oboe & English horn; Jani Parsons, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Trombone and Piano by Johannes Brahms, Daniela Candillari, Ástor Piazzolla, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Carlos Salzedo, and Georg Christoph Wagenseil. Steven Menard, trombone; Yoko Yamada, piano; with Timothy Higgins, trombone;
Christopher Davis, bass trombone; Brian Magnus, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.

American Music for Violin and Piano by Norman Dello Joio, William Bolcom, John Adams and Paul Schoenfeld. Blue Violet Duo (Kate Carter, violin; Louise Chan, piano). Blue Violet. $20.

     Chopin’s piano music admits of so many interpretations that practically any well-considered performance has something new to say. Todd Crow’s handling of the late mazurkas on an MSR Classics disc says that this music can be played with refined sensitivity, even a slight air of coolness, avoiding the Romantic excess to which it invites some performers – but without ever becoming cold or distanced. Crow applies considerable care to each of the works; some accept it better than others do. Op. 4, No. 4, for example, sounds somewhat stilted and tentative, but the A Minor, KK IIb/5, which is dedicated to Émile Gaillard, sounds just right in similar treatment, thanks to the care with which Crow handles the sixteenth-note rests. Both the Gaillard mazurka and the A Minor, KK IIb/4 (Notre Temps) are slow-paced here, to good effect, but Op. 56, No. 3, in C Minor, is very slow, and although it flows well, listeners familiar with the music will likely find parts of it almost plodding. On the other hand, Op. 59, No. 2, in A-flat, is well-paced but could use more expressiveness – while No. 1 from the same group, another of the many mazurkas in A Minor, comes through with effective counterpoint. The CD has its share of interpretative ups and downs, but certainly more of the former than the latter. The overall impression is one of thoughtful handling in well-considered readings that, even when they are not quite convincing emotionally, show Crow’s sensitivity to the music and the care he has taken to convey the elements of it that he deems central to its effects.

     The emotion is much more the heart-on-sleeve type on a new Navona CD featuring Marta Brankovich playing her own music and that of others. Only Satie’s Trois Gnossienes will likely be familiar to most listeners, and Brankovich handles their melancholy with more delicacy than is exhibited elsewhere on the disc. The two works here by Brankovich herself, Victory and War, reflect events in her homeland of Serbia, are inspired by melodies from there, and are as intense and dramatic as their titles indicate – in fact, the titles could be reversed and the pieces’ effect would be much the same. Brankovich, like many contemporary composers, tries to meld traditional Western esthetics with other musical elements, with mixed success. Zoran Hristić does something similar in his cluster-filled Toccata, while Svetislav Božić’s Lyric of Athos tries to blend Orthodox chant with dissonance. Also here are two works by Fredrick Kaufman, whom Brankovich calls her mentor and musical inspiration. Metamorphosis is a fairly standard mixture of multiple stylistic elements, from fugue to jazz. It is well-made, but less interesting than Yin and Yang, which uses two pianos (Kemal Gekić plays the second one) to highlight the differences and commonalities between the two states of the title – all within a context that deems the piano most definitely a percussion instrument. The final work on the CD is Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell, created for a 2000 film called Requiem for a Dream. In the manner of much film music, it is somewhat overdone and overdrawn, but in its slow and deep melancholy, it is reflective of – although scarcely superior to – Satie’s Trois Gnossienes. Brankovich throws herself into all the music with intensity and enthusiasm that border on the emotionally overwrought. The result is a program that feels as if it lasts longer than its actual 50 minutes.

     The piano’s expressiveness is much more subtly conveyed in the works on a new MSR Classics disc featuring Merideth Hite Estevez and Jani Parsons. This is French oboe-and-piano music, mostly of the 20th century, and that implies delicacy and Impressionism, which are certainly in good supply even though this too is a short CD (48 minutes). A highlight here is the David Walter transcription for oboe and piano of Ravel’s Sonatine: the performance is all light and elegance, with the oboe’s expressiveness in the first movement particularly engaging. More dramatic and less well-known, Charles Koechlin’s Au Loin – Chant pour Cor Anglais et Piano contrasts well with the Ravel, which it precedes on the disc. The Ravel is also strongly contrasted with the piece that follows it: Six Études pour Hautbois, written in 1997 by Gilles Silvestrini (born 1961). Directly inspired by Impressionist paintings, the work goes well beyond musical Impressionism to delve into contemporary composers’ interest in pushing traditional instruments beyond their usual sonic boundaries. Although very well-played, it seems somewhat more concerned with creating technical demands on the performers than on connecting expressively with listeners. The remaining works here are all essentially encores. They are Fauré’s Après un Rêve, dating to 1877 and the oldest work here; Debussy’s very early Beau Soir, from the same time period (1880); and Messiaen’s Vocalise-Étude (1935), in which the wordless “voice” of the oboe hovers enticingly just beyond the communication of anything specific. The final piece on the CD is the only one beside Koechlin’s to feature the English horn. It is Charles Young’s transcription of the Adagio assai from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, and it sounds in this arrangement with just the right combination of warmth and melancholy.

     Yet another short MSR Classics CD, this one running 47 minutes, combines the piano with a different wind instrument, the trombone – and although the bold brassiness of this instrument is its most salient characteristic most of the time, this disc bears the title Cantabile for a reason. Its aim is to showcase the considerable expressive warmth of which the trombone is capable, presenting the instrument not only as a deeper member of the brass choir but also as a nuanced, tonally elegant instrument that, in the right hands, can convey a wide range of feelings. Steven Menard’s hands are certainly the right ones: in collaboration with pianist Yoko Yamada, he shows again and again just how pure the trombone’s sound can be and just how well it can communicate a wide range of feelings. Menard’s own arrangement of Four Songs by Rachmaninoff is a high point of the recording: in general, the clarinet may better match the vocal range of many songs, but this arrangement shows that the trombone’s sonorousness can stand in for the voice’s expressive qualities to excellent effect. An arrangement by Verne Reynolds of Three Vocal Duets by Brahms confirms the same impression: here Menard is joined by Timothy Higgins, and together they produce interwoven instrumental warmth that is every bit as emotionally involving in its way as was the original vocal scoring of these three unrelated songs (Op. 28/3, Op. 20/2 and Op. 75/3). The other especially interesting work here is the Concerto for Trombone by Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777), obviously a work of much more modest scale than the considerably later one by Rimsky-Korsakov, but a piece whose two movements, lasting only eight-and-a-half minutes, contain a great deal of charm – and show that the trombone’s expressive possibilities were already being explored, however tentatively, in Mozart’s time. The remaining pieces here have more of a feeling of being encores, even though one of them is the first work on the disc: Pièce Concertante, Op. 27, by Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961). Also here is Balkanika by Daniela Candillari (born 1979), which takes two trombones – Menard’s plus Christopher Davis’ bass trombone – through some thoroughly contemporary paces. And there is a surprisingly effective, almost endearing arrangement by Anthony Wise of Oblivion by Ástor Piazzolla: it involves both Menard’s trombone and Brian Magnus’ cello in a double dose of warmth, showing that the trombone not only can sway emotions but also, under the right circumstances, knows how to dance.

     There is also a considerable amount of dancelike material on a new CD featuring the Blue Violet Duo. Four Souvenirs for Violin and Piano (1990) by Paul Schoenfeld (born 1947) is all about dance: its movements are titled “Samba,” “Tango,” “Tin Pan Alley,” and “Square Dance,” and Schoenfeld takes the dances pretty much at face value. The second movement may not have the natural swing of, say, a Piazzolla tango, but “Tin Pan Alley” has a neat popular-music feeling about it, and “Square Dance” has more-than-faint echoes of Copland. Variations and Capriccio (1948) by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) presents strongly accented rhythms of a sort that would fit a dance motif nicely, and a pleasant melodic flow that violinist Kate Carter and pianist Louise Chan handle with smooth and well-balanced give-and-take. Road Movies (1995) by John Adams (born 1947) also contains a minimal amount of the feeling of dance within Adams’ usual minimalist musical approach. This is clearest in the last of its three movements, “‘40% Swing,’” whose title’s inclusion of quotation marks points to the reality that 60% of the movement is something that is not swing – something more akin to the first two movements’ typically (for Adams) contemplative approach. Those movements, “Relaxed Groove” and “Meditative,” are more in line with what listeners familiar with Adams will expect. On the other hand, listeners who know the music of William Bolcom (born 1938) will find a pleasant surprise here: his Second Sonata for Violin and Piano (1978), which is not among his better-known works, is the most interesting piece on the disc. Its four movements bear evocative subtitles that actually reflect what Bolcom writes, which is not the case with many composers who favor titles that have little obvious connection with their music. “Summer Dreams” indeed sounds warm and dreamy, with Carter and Chen reveling in a level of lyricism that proves quite compatible with uncertain tonality. “Brutal, Fast” is a two-minute tour de force that gives both performers plenty of opportunity to show off, while Adagio is every bit as evocative as might be expected from a movement featuring that old-style tempo indication. The real surprise here is the finale, “In Memory of Joe Venuti,” the one movement whose title requires explanation: Venuti (1903-1978) was the earliest performer to use a violin in jazz and was also influential in swing. Bolcom does not so much channel Venuti as pay tribute to him in a jazz-imbued movement filled with harmonics, slides, bouncy rhythms, and unexpected interruptions of the musical flow. The movement is both virtuosic and fun, and although Carter gets most of the good stuff in it, Chen complements her so well that the movement – like the CD as a whole – has the flavor of genuine and very accomplished musical partnership.

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