November 29, 2018

(++++) THREE, TWO, ONE

Classical String Trios, Volume 2—Music by J.C. Bach, Carlo Antonio Campioni, Haydn, Johann Ignaz Klausek, François-Joseph Gossec, Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval, and Vivaldi. The Vivaldi Project (Elizabeth Field, violin; Allison Edberg Nyquist, violin and viola; Stephanie Vial, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Kaija Saariaho: Tocar; Cloud Trio; Light and Matter; Aure; Graal théâtre. Jennifer Koh, violin; Nicolas Hodges, piano; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith and Anssi Karttunen, cello; Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington. Cedille. $12.

Campbell Ross: Concertante; Sonata for Solo Guitar; Variations 2 (on “Norwegian Wood”); Variations 3 (on “World without Love”); Ariel Dirié: Morning; Mesurando y Dalias; Diez Estudios; Gerardo Dirié: Si un Dia el Olvido…; Evening. Campbell Ross, guitar; Lachlan Symons, bass; James Whiting, drums and percussion; Benjamin Greaves, violin; Matthew Ryan, viola; Ngaio Toombes, cello. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     The period-instrument string trio, The Vivaldi Project, actually includes a bit of Vivaldi on its second MSR Classics release devoted to trios of and around the Classical era. That does not make this recording better or worse than the previous one, which omitted Vivaldi: this CD is equally delightful in its exploration of hitherto almost completely unknown repertoire. For that matter, several of the composers heard on the disc are also almost completely unknown: J.C. Bach, Haydn and Vivaldi are familiar names, and works by François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) are heard every now and then, but very few listeners will likely be familiar with Carlo Antonio Campioni (1720-1788), Johann Ignaz Klausek (c. 1720-c. 1775), or Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval (1753-1823). The dates of the composers are worth noting: all were contemporaries of Leopold and/or Wolfgang Mozart, and in the case of Gossec and Bréval, their lives extended as late as that of Beethoven. But the trios heard here are redolent of earlier sensibilities, being light, beautifully balanced, unchallenging to the ear, and exceptionally pleasant as a kind of 18th-century background music. Vivaldi’s Sonata da Camera, Op. 1, No. 2 is the earliest work here, dating to 1705, and uses two melody instruments plus “violone o cembalo,” as would be expected in what is essentially a Baroque form. J.C. Bach’s Sonata in G for two violins and basso dates to the late 1750s, as does Haydn’s Divertimento in D for the same instruments. The remaining four works, though, are later, and serve as testimony to the ubiquity of the string trio as a kind of occasional music for many occasions. Even when these works are in minor keys, they have at most a mild melancholy about them, a slight sense of wistfulness rather than any real depth. Campioni’s 1762 Sonata in G minor and Klausek’s 1769 Trio in B-flat minor are the two minor-key works here. The latest piece, and the one that most thoroughly engages the cello with the two higher strings, is the intriguingly titled Trio Concertant et Diologué in B-Flat, Op. 27, No. 4 by Bréval, which dates to about 1786. It is a touch unfair to think about what Haydn, Mozart, and the Mannheim composers were doing in the mid-1780s, when listening to these slight and uniformly pleasant pieces. Clearly the purpose of these trios was to serve as a kind of salon music, performed for royal households and in some cases by amateur musicians of those households. The melodies of all the works flow easily, naturally and pleasantly, the harmonies are carefully managed to intrigue the ear in easy-to-grasp ways, and the interplay among the instruments – especially the violin and viola – is managed with care and sensitivity. The Vivaldi Project, whose three members play with consummate skill throughout this disc, can spin out its rediscovery of trios of this era for quite some time if it so chooses: there are several thousand such works, most of them entirely unknown today. Additional volumes like this and the first one would be most welcome: there is nothing profound about any of these works, but in their generally simple beauty and largely uncomplicated forms, they offer some very welcome musical respite from the rigors and complexities of everyday life today – just as they did from the very different, but no doubt equally stressful, mundanities of the 18th century.

     Modern sensibilities are, of course, very different from those of centuries past, even when the matters stimulating them are similar. Thus, it is no surprise that a work such as Cloud Trio (2009) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (born 1952) manages the violin, viola and cello in thoroughly contemporary ways. Saariaho has in fact stated directly that her handling of the cello differs substantially from its use in the Classical era, with her emphasis on the instrument’s highest register and on producing sound through techniques that stretch listeners’ ears as well as performers’ fingers. The question is whether Saariaho’s approach is simply technically motivated or whether it is put at the service of enhanced audience communication, and this question will have different answers in the minds (and ears) of different listeners. Certainly the instruments in Cloud Trio shift and change sonically through all four movements, but whether in so doing they pull listeners effectively into the ongoing metamorphosis of clouds is another matter. Similar questions about intended and actual effects are raised in a trio for different instruments – violin, cello and piano – called Light and Matter, which dates to 2014 and receives its world première recording on the new Cedille CD featuring violinist Jennifer Koh. Here as in Cloud Trio, Saariaho appears concerned with changing musical textures by varying the relationship among the three players and also having them employ techniques that extend the usual sound of their instruments. Light and Matter seems somewhat more abstruse than Cloud Trio, though, and its musical connection to its title is less apparent. Also on this disc are two works in which Saariaho employs two instruments rather than three. Tocar (2010) is for violin and piano and, despite its title, gives little sense of “touching” between the instruments, their themes or their sounds. Aure (2011), whose title refers to a gentle breeze, is heard here in its first recording in a version for violin and cello – it was initially written for violin and viola – and carries rather a lot of freight for a six-minute piece. Originally written for the 95th birthday of composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), the piece is built around a motive by Dutilleux and draws not only on that music but also on Anne Frank’s diary, to which the Dutilleux work made reference. It is a rarefied work that is likely to be fully intelligible and emotionally communicative only to listeners who know its background and its referents. The last and longest work on the CD, an actual violin concerto, is called Graal théâtre and dates to 1994. The title is taken from a novel by Jacques Roubaud (born 1932), and the piece is filled with expressions of pain that are put forth through often-painful-to-hear contemporary compositional techniques. Its two movements, “Delicato” and “Impetuoso,” are by no means as reflective of their respective titles as a listener might expect, and the work as a whole makes its points repeatedly and seems quite unwilling to let them go no matter how often they have been emphasized. It is a difficult work both to play and to listen to. It is certainly possible to appreciate Koh’s considerable skill with the solo part, and the very fine support she receives from the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under Conner Gray Covington, without necessarily finding the music either intellectually or emotionally particularly satisfying. This is a (+++) CD that is filled with committed performances of music that will please existing fans of Saariaho but that will not necessarily engage the thoughts or feelings or anyone unfamiliar with this composer’s techniques and her forms of expressiveness.

     Saariaho is far from the only contemporary composer for whom two or three instruments are not always enough to communicate with an audience. Guitarist Campbell Ross requires a small chamber group for Concertante, the opening work on a (+++) Ravello release offering two CDs for the price of one. The piece is for guitar, jazz trio and strings, and it is a melodious and nicely paced, if not especially original-sounding, blend of jazz, blues and classical elements, with some Latin touches thrown in as well. Ross writes quite well for his own instrument and plays it with considerable enthusiasm – indeed, the most affecting and effective parts of Concertante are those in which Ross plays solo or is well out in front of the remaining performers. The balance of the first disc in this release is for Ross alone. Sonata contains four movements that put the guitar and guitarist through a great many paces. The second and most melodious movement is designated “homage to Franz Schubert,” and while it sounds not at all like anything by the earlier composer, it has enough quiet beauty to be vaguely reminiscent of some of his work. Also on this disc are two sets of guitar-solo variations on Beatles tunes. These are homages rather than representations of what Lennon and McCartney created or variations upon it. Indeed, they come across somewhat like variations on homages, with Ross taking off from and paying tribute to the original songs, then creating improvisatory elements based on his initial spinoff. The second disc offers a series of works for guitar and percussion by Ariel Dirié (1960-2010) and Gerardo Dirié (born 1956). The most interestingly varied material here appears in A. Dirié’s Diez Estudios, which draw both on classical models (“Con Brio” sounds positively Baroque) and on Latin dance forms (two of the 10 movements are labeled “Tango”). The Dirié works are all previously unrecorded, and will be of considerable interest to guitarists as well as listeners who enjoy guitar music. The material on both CDs is largely consonant rather than dissonant, the G. Dirié pieces being exceptions; the rhythms throughout the pieces are generally clear; and the somewhat superficial feelings underlying the music are nicely brought out by Ross, who is a very fine and sensitive performer. This is a considerable amount of guitar music to digest in a single sitting: hearing it a few tracks at a time will be the best approach for anyone interested in the communicative power of a single instrument whose expressive capabilities are well-explored here.

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