November 08, 2018
(++++) UNEXPECTED COMBINATIONS
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet; Elliott Carter: Clarinet Quintet; Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux. Mark Lieb, clarinet; Igor Pikayzen and Regi Papa, violins; Katarzyna Bryla and Colin Brookes, viola; Alice Yoo and Caleb van der Swaagh, cello; Anna Urrey, flute. Navona. $14.99.
Prokofiev: String Quartet No. 2; Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”); Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 6; Osvaldo Golijov: Tenebrae. Calidore String Quartet (Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violins; Jeremy Berry, viola; Estelle Choi, cello). Signum Classics. $17.99.
Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 21; Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 1 (“Regensonate”); Tartini, arr. Kreisler: Violin Sonata “The Devil’s Trill”; Alois Hába: Hudba—Music in Quarter-Tones for Violin Solo. Auerbach-Pierce Duo (Dan Auerbach, violin; Joshua Pierce, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Blues Dialogues: Music of Black Composers. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Hagle, piano. Cedille. $12.
Except for being written for the same instrumental combination, the clarinet quintets by Brahms and Elliott Carter have virtually nothing in common. As a result, they are almost never heard in juxtaposition – a fact that makes a new Navona CD featuring clarinetist Mark Lieb all the more fascinating. Interestingly, the violist and cellist in the Brahms and Carter quintets are different, probably just a matter of musicians’ availability but in a sense underlining the extreme disparity between these works. Brahms’ quintet, which was one of his last works even though he lived six years after composing it in 1891, is full of the sound that is usually called “autumnal” (although Brahms actually used it throughout his compositional life), and it is a work of gorgeous warmth and deeply felt emotion throughout. Lieb and colleagues play it with understanding and considerable depth, bringing out the unison passages in such a way as to provide strong contrast with the ones in which the clarinet emerges from the ensemble to shine forth alone. There is a burnished feeling to the whole performance, a sense of polish in the pacing that fits the music very well indeed. Carter’s quintet is also a very late one for this exceptionally long-lived composer (1908-2012): Carter wrote it in 2007. It is for the most part a dense and very modern-sounding work, and it uses the clarinet in a way just about opposite that of Brahms: Carter emphasizes the distinction between clarinet and strings, while Brahms focuses on blending them. The result in Carter’s work is that when the instruments do come together, as happens from time to time, their “musical agreement” is all the stronger. Yet Carter does allow some lyricism to creep into his quintet, primarily in the middle of the work, whose five movements are all short (the fourth and fifth each last less than two minutes). While Brahms keeps the clarinet mostly in the middle and lower registers, where its beauty and sonorousness are clearest, Carter uses its full range more of the time, notably in a Presto fourth movement whose conclusion goes so high that the clarinet almost sounds like a flute. It is not entirely flutelike, though, as is clear from the inclusion on the CD of Carter’s amusing 1985 trifle, Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux. The flute and clarinet, nominally here performing as a duo, in fact have little to do with each other (to an even greater extent than the clarinet and strings in the later quintet). Flute and clarinet occupy the same physical space while performing, but not the same expressive one, with neither dominating the other but neither paying much attention to the other either. The contrast of rough and smooth, implicit in the work’s title, is beautifully conveyed by Lieb and flutist Anna Urrey, and the placement of this little piece between the two quintets on the CD serves neatly to set off the many differences between Brahms’ and Carter’s handling of the combination of clarinet and strings.
The inclusion on a new Signum Classics CD of quartets by Prokofiev and Janáček is scarcely a surprise, but adding to them the final quartet by Mendelssohn is somewhat unexpected – and combining the three works with a piece by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960) is definitely unusual. Yet the disc has a well-integrated feeling about it, thanks in part to the excellent ensemble playing by the Calidore String Quartet and in part to the underlying thematic elements that, to some extent, unite all the music. Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 is a wartime work that is, to some extent, reflective of the chaos all around the composer during the German invasion of Russia in 1941– which had led to Prokofiev being evacuated to a safer area of what was then the Soviet Union. Sensitive to his surroundings as well as to a time of war, Prokofiev incorporated some folk melodies and rhythms from his temporary location (the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous SSR, about 900 miles south of Moscow) into this quartet. The work was actually written at the behest of a Soviet official, who insisted it include regional folk themes, but it still sounds very much like Prokofiev and seems, at least retrospectively, to reflect the turmoil of the times. The first quartet by Janáček reflects turmoil of a different sort: this is frequently wrenching music born of unrequited love and a feeling of inner isolation, written when the composer was in love with a younger woman while trapped in a loveless marriage. The frequent overlap of comparatively lyrical, long-line elements with angular, dissonant ones makes this work from 1923 sound modern even today, and the emotional discord of the feelings underlying it remains quite clear in this performance. The quartet is called “Kreutzer Sonata” after the Tolstoy novella of 1889, whose title in turn comes from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9. The Tolstoy work, about a husband’s murder of his unfaithful wife, who at one point in the story performs the Beethoven sonata with her lover, is filled with the drama that also permeates the quartet. The foundations of the Janáček and Prokofiev pieces are thus quite different, but the Calidore players bring forth the depths that the woks have in common. They do the same for the Golijov, which dates to 2002 and which Golijov says was inspired by seeing violence in Israel and, a week later, taking his son to a planetarium, where they saw the beauty of Earth as viewed from space. The string-quartet-only version of Tenebrae (which is the second version of the work: the first was for soprano, clarinet and string quartet) effectively contrasts the overview of a beautiful planet with the “on closer look” elements, in which deep pain is present. But this is not done through any obvious technique: the piece as a whole is slow, meditative, thoughtful, the painful elements appearing more as an undercurrent of sadness than as an explicit lament. In this, the Golijov is emotionally closer to the Prokofiev quartet than to the Janáček work; and it stands in the strongest possible contrast to the Mendelssohn quartet that concludes this CD and is by far the most intense piece on it. This quartet, Mendelssohn’s final piece in the form, is the composer’s last major work and was labeled by him as “Requiem for Fanny,” a reference to his deeply loved sister, who died in May 1847. Mendelssohn wrote the quartet four months later, and himself died two months after that. The Sturm und Drang of this work, the incredible intensity of the feelings it expresses, can make the piece actually painful to experience, no matter how well it is played: it is a cry of anguish whose occasional elements of nostalgic joy and tender memories are never enough to overcome grief so deep that it feels insurmountable. The Calidore String Quartet is especially effective in this work, offering ensemble playing of strength and drama that makes the music into a heart-wrenching experience that is beyond anything else on the disc, but is clearly related to the other works.
There is less of a relationship among the works on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the Auerbach-Pierce Duo, but this too is a disc that combines material in unanticipated ways – although in this case the exact reason for doing so is somewhat elusive. Dan Auerbach and Joshua Pierce first present a moving but thankfully not overstated version of Mozart’s only minor-key violin sonata, No. 21 in E minor, K. 304, written shortly after his mother’s death and perhaps an attempt (within Mozart’s usual refined musical approach) to express grief at her passing. Auerbach and Pierce successfully tread a delicate line between having the sonata seem straitlaced and blowing it out of proportion into something from the Romantic era; the poised performance fits the music very well. The Brahms sonata that follows is not quite as successful: Pierce’s pianism is very fine here and clearly establishes the importance of the piano in the work, but Auerbach is a touch too reserved. This is music of considerable warmth, and it is music of underlying sadness, too, with a kind of funeral-march rhythm within the middle movement; but Auerbach is rather matter-of-fact about the whole work, which comes across as a touch too thin for effective emotional expression – although Auerbach’s actual playing is first-rate. The CD concludes with Giuseppe Tartini’s notorious “Devil’s Trill” sonata, and here Auerbach’s virtuosity and clarity of tone fit the music perfectly. He and Pierce neatly and effectively build up to the notorious trill itself through the snippets of it provided earlier in the work by Tartini, and when the trill finally does appear, it proceeds with masterful clarity. The Tartini does not really fit very well with the Mozart and Brahms works, however; yet it is not the primary instance here of something unexpected. That distinction goes to the work that appears after the Brahms and before the Tartini: the world première recording of Hudba—Music in Quarter-Tones for Violin Solo by Moravian composer Alois Hába (1893-1973). This is nonmelodic, nonthematic music using intervals smaller than the usual semitones, and it seems to be more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. The work is laid out in four movements whose tempo indications suggest a slow second movement and energetic third-movement Scherzo between traditional opening and closing movements. But the music mostly just sounds strange, like a demonstration of a way in which music can be written rather than a piece that is fully realized in its own right. Auerbach is a specialist in microtonal music, and Pierce’s longtime association with John Cage is only part of his commitment to far-reaching techniques and new interpretations of what music means and what it can do. So the performers’ comfort with Hába’s work cannot be gainsaid. But it is a different matter for listeners, who will likely listen for something to hang onto in aural terms – and will find neither emotional connection nor melodic presentation here. The rhythms are strong, and Hába deserves credit for even including a touch of humor here and there, but ultimately Hudba sounds more like an experiment in microtonality than a fully realized piece that just happens to be written using microtones.
Unexpected material for violin and piano is offered throughout a new Cedille recording featuring Rachel Barton Pine and Matthew Hagle: very few of the composers heard here are familiar, and even fewer of the works presented. World première recordings appear throughout the CD. They include A Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin by Noel Da Costa (1929-2002); the four-movement version of Blues Dialogues – also for solo violin, despite the title – by Dolores White (born 1932); Incident on Larpenteur Avenue, a single-movement sonata by Billy Childs (born 1957); an arrangement by Wendell Logan of In a Sentimental Mood by Duke Ellington (1899-1974); a 2018 revision of Filter for Unaccompanied Violin by Daniel Bernard Roumain (born 1977); and the violin version of A Song without Words by Charles S. Brown (born 1940). But not all the pieces here are previously unrecorded. The CD also includes Blues (Deliver My Soul) by David N. Baker (1931-2016); two solo-violin pieces by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), Blue/s Forms and Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk); the Suite for Violin and Piano by William Grant Still (1895-1978); Levee Dance by Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960); and Woogie Boogie by Errollyn Wallen (born 1958). The unifying principle of the disc, as its subtitle says, is that the composers are all black; but that is a poor reason for hearing this music, more a matter of identity politics than one of musical quality. What does matter is the way in which the works use versions of the “blues” for its expressiveness, its ability to connect viscerally with contemporary audiences in the 20th and 21st centuries in ways very different from that in which Mendelssohn and Mozart did in earlier times. The basic concept of “blues” may be of something sad and downbeat, but these composers show again and again that there is nothing unidimensional about the form. The three parts of Perkinson’s Blue/s Forms, for instance, view the blues from three entirely different vantage points, while Still’s three-movement sonata – the movements all suggested by works by African-American sculptors – manages to combine bluesy elements with dance rhythms in a way that stays firmly within 20th-century classical traditions. Pine and Hagle show considerable sensitivity to the nuances of all the music on the disc, whether jazz-inflected, distinctly danceable, warmly overdone in pop-music style, evocative of gospel, or redolent of the Harlem Renaissance. There is enough variation within and among these works to present Pine and Hagle with plenty of chances to showcase a variety of styles, and there is plenty for listeners to gravitate to as well: every track of the 23 is short (only two last more than five minutes), giving the entire recital the feeling of a hop, skip and jump from style to style and sensibility to sensibility. The sum total is exhilarating, a combination of inward-looking emotion that stops well short of the depressive with periodic outbursts of celebratory exuberance.