November 08, 2018


Songs without Words: Torchsongs Transformed. Les Délices (Debra Nagy, baroque oboe; Mélisande Corriveau, viola da gamba and pardessus de viole; Eric Milnes, harpsichord). Navona. $14.99.

Ted Coffey: Works for Dance. Ravello. $14.99.

David Rosenmann-Taub: Piano Music. David Rosenmann-Taub, piano, bongo and synthesizer. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

     There is nothing new about musicians looking for and exploring connections between works of the Baroque and those of modern times. Musicologist, keyboardist and conductor Joshua Rifkin’s The Baroque Beatles Book of 1965 remains a classic of the type because of its unique combination of simple joy with careful scholarship – and because the Beatles’ music partook, more than that of any other rock group of the time, of classical elements. So Songs without Words, a Navona release featuring performances by the period-instrument trio Les Délices, builds on a rather deep foundation, even though it comes at its material from a different angle. Interested in what might have been the earliest, now-lost works for Baroque woodwinds, dating to before 1700, Les Délices managed by a rather circuitous route to explore some very old repertoire in combination with jazz standards and pop music from recent decades – played on very old instruments or modern reproductions of them, and in a style in accord with Baroque practices (including A tuned to 392 Hz rather than the 440 Hz standardized since 1936). The sequence of the 19 tracks is sufficient to show just how varied the material is: A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing by Billy Strayhorn, arranged by Aidan Plank; Pourquoi, Doux Rossignol by Jean-Baptiste de Bousset; Emily by Johnny Mandel; Prelude in A Minor by Marin Marais; Tomorrow Is My Turn by Charles Aznavour; Crazy by Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson; D’un Feu Secret by Michel Lambert; Folies d’Espagne by Marais; La Foule by Edith Piaf; J’avois Juré and Allez Bergers by Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre; Les Voix Humaines by Marais; Tristes Apprêts by Jean-Philippe Rameau; Michelle by Lennon and McCartney; Récit de la Beauté by Jean-Baptiste Lully; Misty by Errol Garner; De Mes Soupirs by Jean-Baptiste De Bousset, after Jacques-Martin Hotteterre; Vos Mespris Chaques Jour by Lambert; and Autumn Leaves by Joseph Kosma and Johnny Mercer. Despite the inclusion of one Beatles song, this recording by Les Délices bears virtually no resemblance to its distant relative from half a century ago. Instead, it is a disc featuring excellent, sensitive and elegant playing on instruments with which pop-music fans will likely be totally unfamiliar – instruments that give the simplistic and straightforward pop tunes a level of resonance and beauty that they do not otherwise possess (despite the popularity they have from their easy-listening quality). The audience for this CD is a bit difficult to discern: fans of jazz and pop music will not gravitate to it, nor will listeners focused on historically accurate performance of the music of 300-plus years ago. The disc is essentially an experiment in sonority and in uniting disparate musical forms in an attempt to find out whether they are at some level compatible. It is very interesting to hear, although listening to the full hour of music straight through is a bit much. The CD is a curiosity, for listeners as curious about musical interrelationships as are the performers of Les Délices.

     The sound on a new Ravello CD featuring musical assemblages by Ted Coffey is much more ordinary, in a modern computer/electronic sense. There is, however, one bit of Baroque connection in the material here, through the use of gamba recordings as an element within a piece called Sonatina.  That title and the titles of the other works here have little structural significance and point in no particular aural direction: the other pieces are called Petals 1, Petals 2, Petals 3, Petals 8 and One Note Solo. Coffey says Petals 8 was inspired by medieval Japanese court music, but listeners will be hard-pressed to discover the connection through the many entirely typical electronic sounds here. The works on the CD are actually intended for dance performances, but there is nothing rhythmic or evocative of body movements in them. Coffey clearly reaches out to a very specific and very limited audience through his rather pedantic approach to sound generation. For instance, One Note Solo is built, more or less, around the note C, but the note is obscured rather than elucidated or expressed by the elaborate use of tuning forks, clusters, the inevitable synthesizers, the usual electronic humming and thrumming, and rhythms intended to relate to speech but difficult to distinguish from a kind of sonic mumbling. There is certainly a very specialized audience for material of this sort, and there would be something intriguing about seeing the dance moves associated with this collection of sounds – although even in a visual performance, the 20-minute duration of Petals 8 would likely be a bit much. In strictly aural terms, what Coffey produces is a rarefied form of music that stretches the definition of the word “music” itself even as it uses now-common sound-manipulation methods to transform electronically or acoustically generated notes into elaborate and multifaceted sequences.

     The material on a new two-CD set of piano music by David Rosenmann-Taub is elaborate in a different way. Rosenmann-Taub (born 1927) is a distinguished Chilean poet and artist as well as a musician; he has lived in the United States since 1985 but is still considered a Chilean national treasure and, in some circles, the most important contemporary Spanish-language poet. The MSR Classics release featuring Rosenmann-Taub as both composer and performer offers a lot of his music – nearly two-and-a-quarter hours – and is really for listeners already knowledgeable about and interested in his musical thinking. The pieces are well-constructed in a comparatively straightforward modernist style that often pushes the boundaries of the piano’s sound and sometimes expands them through the inclusion of other instruments. Like Coffey, Rosenmann-Taub sometimes uses electronic techniques, for instance by employing multi-tracking to create works including as many as six pianos. Rosenmann-Taub’s music comes across as less gimmicky than Coffey’s, however. For instance, the synthesizer in Salomé is put at the service of what is essentially a slow habanera, giving that dance form a kind of evanescent quality. Some of the pieces here have titles that are contemporary in the extreme: B1, G1, Z3 and G2, for instance. Others have titles intended to be evocative, but in those cases, such as Primavera sin fin, there is little apparent relationship between a piece’s name and its musical content (Rosenmann-Taub’s “endless spring” consists largely of near-constant atonal dissonance in multiple rhythms). Adding the bongo and/or voice, as in La soledad plena, allows Rosenmann-Taub a greater range of effects, many of them percussive, without noticeably expanding the emotional connectivity of his music – and indeed, emotional connection with listeners scarcely seems to be Rosenmann-Taub’s primary interest. These works vary enough stylistically to show that the composer is exploring techniques of communication without necessarily seeking to say anything very specific to audiences. Again like Coffey, Rosenmann-Taub sometimes creates music that can be danced, even if not originally intended that way: both Salomé and Mensaje a Pedro Humberto Allende have been choreographed. Listeners interested in modern Chilean music and in Rosenmann-Taub’s importance to that nation’s culture (musical and otherwise) will welcome this release. Others will likely find it less attractive: the works, although well-crafted, are not especially distinctive in what they present or how they present it.

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