January 17, 2019
(+++) DOUBLES THROUGH THE CENTURIES
Schumann: Märchenbilder; York Bowen: Phantasy for Viola and Piano; Clarice Assad: Metamorfose; Garth Knox: Fuga libre; Shostakovich: Impromptu for Viola and Piano; Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasy. Matthew Lipman, viola; Henry Kramer, piano. Cedille. $16.
Paul Lombardi: Holocene; Acquiesce; Persiguiéndose; Phosphorescent; Fracture. Megan Holland, Roberta Arruda and David Felberg, violin; Kimberly Fredenburgh, viola; Joel Becktell, Lisa Collins and David Schepps, cello; Mark Tatum, double bass. Ravello. $14.99.
Brendan Collins: Concert Gallop “Thunderbolt’s Pursuit”; Serenade; Stomp; Sonata; Pastorale for Trumpet, Trombone, and Piano; Concerto for Two Trumpets; Scherzo for Trumpet, Violin, and Piano; Concerto for Trumpet. Phillip Chase Hawkins, trumpet; Maria Fuller, piano; Tyler Simms, trombone; Andy Lott, trumpet; Gabriel Lefkowitz, violin. Navona. $14.99.
Music for Flute and Saxophone by Chin Ting Chan, Phillip Sink, Michael Rene Torres, Scott Brickman, Thomas Wells, Dylan Arthur Baker, Marilyn Shrude, and Charlie Wilmoth. Tower Duo (Erin Helgeson Torres, flute; Michael Rene Torres, saxophone). Ravello. $14.99.
The use of two and only two instruments in a composition provides, on the face of it, a ready template for musical conversation between equals. But the reality of composers’ handling of duos is more complex. Although equality between the two performers, as a partnership, is sometimes present, at other times one of the two is distinctly subservient to the other and plays a support role pretty much from start to finish. Furthermore, the roles of the two instruments and the people playing them have changed considerably over time – and also may change even within a single composer’s output. The variability of the relationship between two players is particularly evident on a new Cedille recording featuring violist Matthew Lipman and pianist Henry Kramer. The CD includes works from three centuries: the 19th, 20th and 21st. That alone gives a sense of the recording’s considerable range. The pieces chosen by Lipman for the program are further evidence of it. Schumann’s Märchenbilder (“Fairy Tale Pictures”) is a moody, often very beautiful four-movement suite written in 1851, in which viola and piano intertwine effectively. The melancholy finale is especially well done in this performance, with Lipman giving it a pervasive gentleness to complement the underlying sadness. The Schumann work lasts as long as the single-movement Phantasy by York Bowen (1884-1961), which dates to 1918 but partakes largely of 19th-century sensibilities. Here the viola is more dominant than in the Schumann, although the back-and-forth “conversational” elements of the music are pronounced. However, by the time of the Carmen Fantasy by Franz Waxman (1906-1967), the prominence of the string player is undoubted, although virtuoso showpieces like this one (originally written in 1947 for violin) have been around for some time. Lipman seems to have particular fun with this work, presenting it with exuberance and genuine enjoyment. The remaining pieces on the CD are something of a mixed bag. Metamorfose by Clarice Assad (born 1978) was written for Lipman in memory of his mother, who died in 2014. It is a conceptually interesting two-movement work based on the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, and both Lipman and Kramer play it with feeling, but its expressiveness seems rather formulaic. Fuga Libre (2008) by Garth Knox (born 1956) is also based on an interesting idea – using Baroque-sounding musical fragments to produce a fugal work filled with contemporary techniques – but it is somewhat too rarefied to be fully engaging even when played as well as Lipman plays it. The CD also includes a world première recording, but a very minor one: Shostakovich’s Impromptu for Viola and Piano, which dates to 1931 but was only recently rediscovered. Lasting just two minutes, it allows the viola to sing above a rather formulaic piano part. Its short, almost abrupt conclusion is its most interesting element. As a whole, this recording is really a showpiece for Lipman and, to a lesser extent, Kramer: the diversity of the works is considerable, but their totality does not hang together very convincingly – although several are very much worth hearing as individual pieces.
Three compilations of 21st-century duets, two on the Ravello label and one from Navona, show relationships between instruments that are in the main very different from those in the Lipman/Kramer pairing. The string duets by Paul Lombardi employ different two-stringed-instrument combinations: Holocene (2004) is for violin and viola, Acquiesce (2006) for violin and cello, Persiguiéndose (2007) for two cellos, Phosphorescent (2008) for cello and double bass, and Fracture (2017) for two violins. But all are constructed using similar mathematical concepts and techniques that composers and listeners alike will immediately recognize as standard in contemporary classical music – which means atonality, intervallic variation, frequent rhythmic changes, recursive patterns, and performance requirements that stretch the players’ abilities as well as the sound of their instruments. There is certainly an occasional attempt at reaching out to an audience – a short pizzicato section in Phosphorescent, for example, is one instance, but it is cut short abruptly. But by and large, the music sounds as if it is written primarily for the cognoscenti, including the composer himself, rather than for anyone seeking emotional connection or any form of enlightenment through music. Knowledgeable audience members will discern some of the building blocks of the pieces fairly readily – for example, the essentially canonic structure of Persiguiéndose, whose title comes from a Pablo Neruda poem about days that “go chasing each other.” But the involvement here is of a strictly intellectual kind: the music does not really speak to anyone who is not “in the know” about its inner workings and the means by which it is made. The overall sound of the material is a balanced one: no matter which strings are involved, Lombardi treats both instruments as equals. But the material comes across more as a set of exercises in modern compositional approaches than as any kind of heartfelt appeal to listeners’ understanding, much less to their empathetic involvement.
The trumpet-focused works of Brendan Collins could not be more different. All are quite recent: Concert Gallop dates to 2010, Serenade to 2013, Stomp and Sonata to 2015, Pastorale to 2018, Concerto for Two Trumpets to 2017, Scherzo to 2014, and Concerto for Trumpet to 2011. And all the trumpet-and-piano duos place the emphasis strongly on the trumpet, casting the piano strictly in an accompanying role. The result is a disc that is more immediately appealing, if less intellectually stimulating, than the one featuring Lombardi’s string works. Collins writes quite well for the trumpet and has a good sense of the wide expressive range of which the instrument is capable: the material here can be martial, but by no means is it that way all, or even most of, the time. For example, the third and last movement of Sonata provides the most-extended piano material on the CD, an introduction lasting well over a minute that is followed by a warmly flowing trumpet melody that is almost film-music-like in its emotive character. The disc is interesting for including three pieces for three rather than two instruments. Pastorale, originally for string orchestra, is a very tuneful work in which both trumpet and trombone have opportunities for expressive outreach. Concerto for Two Trumpets originally was for trumpets with wind ensemble. It is a three-movement work that treats the two trumpet soloists equally whether or not they happen to be playing together, and the music seems always on the verge of bursting into more-enthusiastic sections, as when the first movement, Misterioso, suddenly erupts in bright trumpet calls that are not mysterious at all. And Scherzo, which feels like an encore even though it is not placed last on the CD, is a bright and largely forthright piece that plays off the violin sounds against those of the trumpet to pleasant although not particularly memorable effect. The final work on the CD, Concerto for Trumpet, does not adapt very well to being played by trumpet and piano, because the material given to the piano has the feeling of orchestral garb about it and really does sound reduced in a piano reduction. The trumpet writing here is among the most virtuosic on the disc, but Phillip Chase Hawkins handles it every bit as well as he manages everything else, while Maria Fuller gamely holds up her end of things as well as possible under the circumstances. Whether writing for two players or three – or just one, as in the extended and complex cadenza in the final movement of Concerto for Trumpet – Collins keeps the spotlight on the trumpet and produces music that is often exciting, even when it is on the superficial side.
The native sound of the instruments played by the Tower Duo – that is, the flute and saxophone – is quite different from that of the trumpet, but exploring the instruments’ inherent sound quality is not the point of this release. Instead, the works on the CD, mostly either written for Erin Helgeson Torres and Michael Rene Torres or initially performed by them, are examples of the common approach of some contemporary composers to instruments’ established sounds: take them as a jumping-off point and expand and extend them into new territory. Thus, the ethereality of the flute and the deep warmth of the saxophone are almost nowhere in evidence here. Instead, there are snippets of disconnected sound in Chin Ting Chan’s Crosswind (2013) and short intermingled phrases in Phillip Sink’s Places Never Painted (2012). There are bits of dialogue, mostly dissonant but occasionally consonant, in Michael Rene Torres’ Four Short Episodes (2011), and a venture into twelve-tone that uses the octatonic scale in Scott Brickman’s Epic Suite (2012). There are extremes of range and sound for both instruments in Thomas Wells’ Tower Music (2017), and an attempt to use the instruments to paint a nature portrait in Dylan Arthur Baker’s Precipital Pairing (2014). There is a 2007 arrangement of the 1996 Notturno: In Memoriam Toru Takemitsu by Marilyn Shrude – the original version was for violin, alto saxophone and piano, with the later one using flute instead of violin (the piano in this recording is played by Maria Staeblein). Shrude’s work, although quiet and nocturne-ish enough, really is a tribute to Takemitsu’s compositional style, which means that an audience unfamiliar with Takemitsu will not get the piece’s full effect. Finally, there is extreme sonic repetition, almost like an extended set of études, in Charlie Wilmoth’s Three Pieces (2013), which features flute and saxophone in a kind of pointillist back-and-forth in which they occasionally collide with each other. This is a piece that sounds as if it is more fun to play than to hear. In all the works on this CD, the instruments and performers are balanced in terms of their contributions. What changes from piece to piece is the nature of those contributions and the extent to which the composers have an interest in appealing to listeners other than the players of their music. By and large, there is much less appeal to hearing these pieces – which do little with the basic sonorities of the instruments and much with extensions of their sounds – than there would likely be to performing them as exercises in exploring the further reaches of the flute’s and saxophone’s technical capabilities.