November 15, 2018
(++++) POWERS OF THE SMALLER-SCALE
Telemann: Sonatas Nos. 1-6 for Violin and Harpsichord, TWV 41; Sonata in F-sharp minor, TWV 41:fis2. Dorian Komanoff Bandy, baroque violin; Paul Cienniwa, harpsichord. Whaling City Sound. $15.
Jeffrey Boehm: Sonata for Three; Virginia Samuel: Flying over Water; William Price: I Don’t Want to Dance (Dance-Like); Chris Steele: Suite No. 1; Robert J. Bradshaw: Crepuscular Rays; Valentin Mihai Bogdan: City Scenes; Juan Maria Solare: Sale con Fritas. UAB Chamber Trio (James Zingara, trumpet; Denise Gainey, clarinet; Chris Steele, piano). Ravello. $14.99.
Samuel A. Livingston: Gentle Winds; The Old Man Is Dancing; Call to the Mountains; Quiet Summer Night. Arcadian Winds and Pedroia String Quartet. Navona. $14.99.
Jo Kondo: Syzygia; Snow’s Falling; Craig Pepples: Pine Cones Fall. Ensemble Nomad and Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus with Satoko Inoue, piano, conducted by Paul Zukofsky. CP2. $19.99.
Large-ensemble works, for chamber or full orchestra, garner much of their power from the massing of instruments and the effects made possible by unison or carefully balanced playing of groups set against one another. The communicative potency of chamber music, from duets up to sub-chamber-orchestra ensembles, lies elsewhere: it comes from interplay between and among instruments, and frequently from the clarity of line made possible when only a few musicians, or only a couple of them, are, in effect, conversing without words. This conversational element is especially apparent in works such as the six Telemann violin-and-harpsichord sonatas of 1715 heard in a splendid new performance on the Whaling City Sound label. Superlatives abound here, from the enormously involving playing of Dorian Komanoff Bandy – who fully evokes the emotional undercurrent of the sonatas without ever deviating from Baroque appropriateness – to the beautifully nuanced and rhythmically sure harpsichord support provided by Paul Cienniwa. Six-sonata groupings were commonplace in Telemann’s time, and the key variations among the sonatas had specific musical functions as well as emotive ones. The sequence here is G minor, D major, B minor, G major, A minor, and A major – and even for listeners unfamiliar with Baroque attitudes toward and expectations of keys, the perfect minor-major balance will come through clearly as establishing an explicit form of communication and involvement between the performers and, through them, with the audience. It is important to remember that works like these were written not for public display but for noble household members to perform themselves, or for small groups of invited guests to enjoy in a salon. Thus, the sequence of movements – slow-fast-slow-fast in all six sonatas – provided an easy-to-grasp kind of background, while the specific ways in which a composer used the standardized arrangement of movements allowed considerable creativity and a series of delights and unexpected turns of phrase. Telemann handled this balance of the expected and the innovative masterfully – in many ways he was a highly intuitive composer. In this series, Nos. 2, 5 and 6 are dance-focused, all three starting with an Allemande: Largo and continuing with Corrente: Vivace, Sarabanda, and Giga. Nos. 1, 3 and 4 simply provide tempo indications for the movements and are structured somewhat more formally, or at least less danceably – but these sonatas are packed with clever and often unexpected elements, such as the harpsichord solo that opens No. 3. Bandy and Cienniwa have a comfort level with this music that is altogether extraordinary, and they have been blessed with an exceptionally well-thought-out sonic environment, in which microphone placement and overall aural ambience contribute mightily to the very impressive effect of their playing. And the recording offers an exceptional bonus in the form of a world première recording of a kind of “study score,” or perhaps simply a failed attempt, involving an F-sharp minor sonata. This has three slow or slow-ish movements in sequence (Largo, Andante, Adagio), and a second movement so short that Bandy and Cienniwa have to play it twice to get it to two-minute length. It has a third movement that is longer than all but one of the movements in the TWV 41 sequence, but that meanders strangely and is almost themeless. And it has a finale, Un poco presto, that veers from straitlaced to rustic and back and then simply disappears. Heard after the six completed TWV 41 sonatas, this TWV 41:fis2 evokes new respect for the care and polish with which Telemann wrote the works that he finished. Whatever this F-sharp minor piece may have been, or may have been intended to become, it is here a showcase for the quality of the remainder of the music on this CD and for the elegance and beauty of Telemann’s violin-and-harpsichord sonatas as Bandy and Cienniwa present them.
Add a third player to the duet concept and the possibilities of musical interplay grow substantially, whatever the three instruments involved may be. This is so even in less-common combinations, such as that of clarinet, trumpet and piano – the instruments played by the UAB Chamber Trio on a new Ravello CD. Because this is a somewhat unlikely grouping, these performers play a great deal of music composed especially for them, including six of the seven works heard here (the sole exception being Crepuscular Rays by Robert J. Bradshaw, written for clarinet, flugelhorn and piano). Everything on this (+++) CD is played very well, but listeners will not likely find everything equally congenial. Jeffrey Boehm’s three-movement Sonata for Three is a mostly pleasant mixture of classical and jazz elements; there is some de rigueur dissonance that seems rather out of place. Virginia Samuel’s Flying over Water, also in three movements, has a tendency to meander rather aimlessly much of the time. William Price’s I Don’t Want to Dance (Dance-Like) is a short neoclassical work that lurches rather pleasantly here and there. The three movements of Chris Steele’s Suite No. 1 do not focus on the piano, even though Steele is the pianist. Like Price’s work, it is somewhat dancelike in a slightly awkward, almost tipsy way. Bradshaw’s brief piece evokes twilight through moderate pacing and mostly moderate dynamics. The three movements of Valentin Mihai Bogdan’s City Scenes bear the titles Riffs, After Midnight and Zoom and offer rather forthright tone painting, with the finale being the most affecting section. The disc concludes with Sale con Fritas by Juan Maria Solare, a small gem that makes a very satisfying encore in the form of the tango-like Argentinian milonga. Listeners who would like to hear the specific combination of instruments played by the UAB Chamber Trio are the natural audience for this pleasant if somewhat uneven chamber-music offering.
A (+++) Navona CD offering four works by Samuel A. Livingston will have a more-limited audience: it is really for fans specifically of Livingston, all of whose works here are similar in their use of syncopation, dance rhythms and folklike elements. All four of these pieces are in three movements. Three of the four feature members of the Arcadian Winds, a group that at full strength includes Vanessa Holroyd, flute; Alicia Maloney, oboe; Mark Miller, clarinet; Marina Krickler, horn; and Janet Underhill, bassoon. Gentle Winds (for flute, oboe, clarinet and horn) justifies its title with its overall pleasant sound. The Old Man Is Dancing (for flute, oboe and clarinet) must refer to a rather spry elderly person, the piece being full of bounce throughout and having a distinctly light, almost airy feeling, thanks to Livingston’s skillful blending of the instruments. This work is a highlight of the CD. Call to the Mountains (for the full Arcadian Winds ensemble) is influenced by or intended as homage to film scores. This makes for easy listening but, within fairly short order, a sense that there is not much musical substance to be found here: the work is distinctly thin and, in the second movement, rather mannered, although the finale certainly has considerable pizzazz. The concluding work on the CD, Quiet Summer Night, features clarinetist Yhasmin Valenzuela in partnership with the Pedroia String Quartet (Jae Cosmos Lee and Rohan Gregory, violins; Peter Sulski, viola; Jacques Wood, cello). This piece shares structural similarities with The Old Man Is Dancing and has an overall sound along the lines of Gentle Winds, but it never quite stakes out its own territory: although the instrumentation is different from that of the other works here, the piece sounds as if everything it has to say has already been said earlier on the disc. Livingston’s chamber music here is nicely constructed and generally tonal, easy to listen to and rather unchallenging for an audience. This is pleasant music that may not have very much to say but that delivers what it does offer with finesse and clarity.
Contemporary music of a very different sort, and small-ensemble playing that is also on a different level, will be found on a (+++) CP2 disc featuring the final recording (from June 2016) by conductor/violinist Paul Zukofsky (1943-2017), a lifelong advocate of a certain kind of modern music-making. This is very much an enthusiast’s disc: it will not appeal to listeners at large, and makes no attempt to do so. It lasts just 47 minutes but will seem much longer to anyone not already attuned to what composers Jo Kondo and Craig Pepples are trying to do, and how Zukofsky is trying to help them do it. Syzygia (written in 1998) is one of those highly complex works in which the composer strives to integrate moods, rhythms, speeds, musical notation and other compositional and emotional elements – an attempt that makes the work very difficult to perform but that, for listeners, does nothing to make it sound different from many other recent musical pieces using similar forms of instrumental combination (even if notated differently). Pine Cones Fall dates to 2016 and is a reflection of a T’ang Dynasty poem, but it has no musical content particularly redolent of Eastern music – indeed, in its emphasis on singularity of notes and virtual absence of linearity, this is a work in which it sounds as if acoustic instruments (shakuhachi, piano, cello and double bass) are trying to imitate electronic sounds. Individual notes of long duration, followed by extended silences, characterize this piece, which runs more than 16 minutes but could just as easily last six or 60. Snow’s Falling (2001), a choral setting a 1929 poem by Chuya Nakahara (1907-1937), is the most interesting work here, treating the voices instrumentally as well as using them to recite the Japanese words (which are fairly straightforward ones about how snow looks as it falls in various places). Again and again, the chorus starts on one note and rises or descends from it, in a manner imitative both of typical contemporary instrumental composition and of the way snow falls and, blowing, rises. Slow-paced and atmospheric, Snow’s Falling is an impressive piece that somewhat overstays its welcome (it runs nearly 20 minutes) but that has a lulling, involving quality that is attractive through most of its length. This CD is emphatically not for everybody and is not intended to be: it is for fans of Zukofsky, certainly, and for those familiar with the music of Kondo and Pepples, and for listeners interested in experiencing one clear and specific way in which small-ensemble performances – and choral ones as well – are handled by contemporary composers whose interests lie in using limited sound palettes to produce effects of a very particular type.