January 10, 2019


Tanguero: Music from South America. Christoph Denoth, guitar. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Music for Saxophone and Harp. Admiral Launch Duo (Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, saxophone; Jennifer R. Ellis, harp). Albany Records. $16.99.

     The word “tanguero” means “one who sings or dances the tango,” and although neither Christoph Denoth’s voice nor his feet may be heard on a new Signum Classics CD, his sense of song and dance rhythms is everywhere present. Of the 21 tracks on the disc, one-third are by Ástor Piazzolla – scarcely a surprise, since it was he who moved the tango past the dance hall and into the concert hall. The seven Piazzolla arrangements here, many with origins in the theater, get their full emotional due in Denoth’s playing. They include Piazzolla’s own stated favorite, Adios nonino, whose subtle mood changes are beautifully communicated, along with the more-urgent Libertango and Verano porteño, the more-inward-looking Oblivion and Milonga del ángel, as well as Triunfal and Chiquilín de Bachín. The depth and variety of the Piazzolla works is reflected in Denoth’s choice of pieces by other composers as well – and not only tangos, since Denoth is looking for ways in which South American dance forms, plural, intersect with classical music, which means exploring more widely. Thus, although there is a high-quality tango here by Carlos Gardel, El día que me quieras, there are also Venezuelan interpretations and expansions of the waltz in the works by Antonio Lauro: El Marabino, Valse Venezelano No. 2, and Valse Venezelano No. 3. The saudade makes an appearance as well, in Egberto Gismonti’s Agua y vinho, and there is even a tango that is not quite a tango, the tongue-in-cheek Tango en Skaï by Roland Dyens. Denoth, who is Swiss, shows considerable sensitivity to the ways in which South American dance forms, broadly defined, explore and interpenetrate European norms in the classical-music field. There is actually little on the CD that is new, whether arranged for guitar or written for it: Denoth appears more interested in presenting a carefully arranged and thoughtful program than in offering anything truly revelatory. So listeners interested in tango have likely heard El choclo by Ángel Villoldo, La Cumparsita by Gerardo Motos Rodriguez, Sueño de barrilete by Eladia Blázquez, Sons de Carrilhões João by Teixeira Guimarães de Pernambuco, Se ela perguntar by Dilermando Reis, Te vas milonga by Abel Fleury, Milonga by Ernest Cordero, and Violetas by Julio Sagreras – or at least some of these. Familiar or unfamiliar, though, all the works share a folkloric background to which the composers in their own ways have applied rhythmic changes, traditional variation form, extended harmonies, and other techniques common to classical music. By bringing these elements to the forefront while performing the pieces with sensitivity, Denoth offers tango lovers – especially those of a refined and perhaps somewhat academic bent – a fascinating exploration of the ways in which simple dance forms have evolved into something more complex and of greater emotional depth.

     Emotional expression is not the primary reason for being of a fine-sounding new Albany Classics CD featuring the Admiral Launch Duo. This is a disc for curiosity seekers, strictly for listeners intrigued by the unusual combination of saxophone and harp and interested in hearing the ways in which 10 composers of the 20th and 21st centuries have chosen to explore the instruments. Yet even those listeners will obtain what they are looking for only in part, because – as often happens in contemporary music – some of the composers are more concerned with extending the sonorities and ranges of the two instruments than they are with exploring them. Given the fact that the repertoire for this combination is quite limited, one might expect composers to be eager to add to it, but that is so in only some of the works here, not all. Particularly successful is Romance for Soprano Saxophone and Harp (1991) by Yusef A. Lateef (1920-2013), whose three movements allow the saxophone and harp to intermingle with charm, warmth and joyfulness. La Lettre du Jardinier (1912) by Marcel Tournier (1879-1951), originally for voice and harp, offers an outpouring of feeling that comes through clearly even without the original words by Henry Bataille. And parts of the five-movement suite Eolienne by Ida Gotkovsky (born 1933) – arranged by the composer in1978 for saxophone and harp after originally being written in 1969 for flute – also lie well on the instruments and allow them the expressiveness of which they are capable. On the other hand, Thaumaturgy (2015) by Patrick O’Malley (born 1969), Amhrán na Cásca (2014) by Christine Delphine Hedden (born 1990), and Kitchen Dance (2015), also by Hedden, seem mostly interested in pushing the saxophone and harp to extremes that undermine their natural beauty – and in the case of Kitchen Dance, which is essentially an electronic composition, making the acoustic instruments almost irrelevant. The remaining works here fall somewhere between effective use of the instruments and their, in effect, deliberate misuse: starshine & moonfall (2014) by Natalie Moller (born 1990), one of those works whose absence of capital letters in the title may be intended, like the music itself, to convey a level of intimacy, but which does so only imperfectly; Whirlwind (2015) by Stephen Rush (born 1958), the longest piece on the CD (nearly nine minutes), which lacks sufficient breeziness to sustain its duration; Still Here (2017) by Angélica Negrón (born 1981), one of those sociopolitical works (in this case about emotionally abusive relationships) that asks the instruments to convey more than they are capable of putting across; and the thoroughly look-how-clever-I-am ...nice box! “Oh So Square” (punctuated exactly that way for no reason whatsoever), written in 2014 by Jasper Sussman (born 1989) and conveying not much of anything, which appears to be its intent. The sound possibilities of saxophone and harp are quite intriguing, and at their best, the works on this CD show how fascinating the combination can be. Unfortunately, too many of the pieces seem only to want to show off the composers’ belief in how clever they are at writing for this instrumental combination. The result is that the sound mixture in their pieces never comes across as effectively as it does in the few works here in which the focus is more on performers and audience communication than on the self-assertion of artful craftiness by the creators of the musical material.

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