March 28, 2019
(++++) SMALL AND/OR UNUSUAL COMBOS
Schubert: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (complete). Elizabeth Holowell, violin; Erin Helyard, fortepiano. Centaur. $16.99.
Matej Meštrović: Danube Rhapsody; Chinese Rhapsody; New England Rhapsody. Matej Meštrović, piano; Zagreb Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Clarinet Concerto; Rain Worthington: In Passages; Ssu-Yu Huang: Guitar Concerto No. 1; Bruce Reiprich: Lullaby; Beth Mehocic: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Croatian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Project W: Works by Diverse Women Composers. Chicago Sinfonietta conducted by Mei-An Chen. Cedille. $12.
Jeff Morris: B4ch1007 (“Bach Loot”); Three Improvisations with Violin. Jeff Morris, live electronics; Ulrich Maiß, electric cello; Eric K.M. Clark, violin. Ravello. $14.99.
What, a listener may wonder, could be more straightforward in classical music than the combination of violin and piano in some Schubert sonatas? Well, if the listener hears Elizabeth Holowell and Erin Helyard playing those sonatas, he or she is going to have to redefine “straightforward.” These performances are anything but usual – they are, in fact, so unusual that they can fairly be described as revelatory about the music and about Schubert as a composer. Holowell and Helyard have gone back to the historical performance practices of Schubert’s time for this Centaur release – and that, it turns out, means much more than reduced vibrato and gut strings. It also means a period bow for the violin and a set of performance characteristics filled with violinistic techniques that were common in Vienna in Schubert’s time but later fell into obscurity or only occasional use. Here everything from rubato to frequent use of arpeggiated chords permeates the performance of all four of the violin-and-piano sonatas, giving them a wonderfully fluid and also very-exotic-to-modern-ears sound. And the violin elements are only part of the story. The piano is a fortepiano, a meticulous modern re-creation of one of Schubert’s time – a specifically Viennese type with no fewer than six pedals, each allowing special effects up to and including the “Turkish” sound of bells and drum. The point is not to overuse these intriguing possibilities but to incorporate them into the sonatas as Schubert would have expected them to be incorporated – they were simply standard elements of music-making in the Vienna of his day, a time when performance characteristics were very different depending on geographical area. Now these elements sound quite amazing, giving the straightforward violin-and-piano combination flavors that 21st-century listeners will have rarely, if ever, heard before. The music is marvelous in any guise, and Holowell and Helyard play it with beautifully knowing pacing and a fine grasp of period style – and with great sensitivity to the manifest beauties of Schubert’s melody-making. But it is the unusual elements of the sound here that set this excellent recording apart, as when that “Turkish” pedal is suddenly, dramatically introduced into the first movement of the Sonata in D, D. 384. This is one of three sonatas from 1816, the others being in A minor, D. 385, and G minor, D. 408 (they are sometimes designated Op. posth. 137, Nos. 1-3). All three are closer to piano sonatas with violin than to works in which the instruments play equal roles, but when a fortepiano rather than a modern concert grand is used, the interplay of the instruments is much subtler and their close proximity, if not quite equality, is much better established. The fourth sonata on the CD, “The Grand Duo” in A, D. 574 (Op. posth. 162), although written just a year later, is something quite different, giving the two instruments much more equal participation and being conceived on an altogether larger scale even though it is only about the same length as the A minor sonata of 1816. This Centaur release offers more than Holowell and Helyard in fine combinatorial form: it provides a window back to Schubert’s time and place, with sounds that are fresh and piquant as well as warm and emotionally evocative. This is quite a musical journey.
There is also some theoretical journeying on a new Navona CD featuring music of pianist/composer Matej Meštrović – in this case to Croatia, China, and New England – and there is also a considerably more exotic sound than might be expected from what at first seems like a disc of rhapsodies for piano and orchestra. Meštrović, it turns out, is not content to produce rhapsodies that only focus on piano and orchestra – at least not in two of the three works here. Danube Rhapsody, a celebration of the famous river that flows through 10 countries, sounds distinctly like a piece by Smetana from time to time, but its overall feeling is as Croatian as is Meštrović himself. The extended (30-minute) four-movement work mixes highly Romantic piano material with the sounds of instruments native to or especially popular in Croatia: accordion (played by Marjan Krajna), tambura (Svetlana Krajna), cimbalom (Alan Kanski), and fife (Dani Bošnjak ). In its unapologetic Romanticism – consisting of a splashily grandiose opening movement, a second-movement waltz that begins with almost-corny three-beat emphasis, a third movement called “Water Reflections” that sounds exactly like its title, and an extended and celebratory finale – Danube Rhapsody veers back and forth between genuine exoticism and a sort of Rachmaninoff-like overdoneness. It is very unusual to hear a recently-composed work in this style, which sounds like “maximalism” in an age where minimalist music is so common. The experience will not be to the taste of listeners who find unashamed use of Romantic-era effects inappropriate nowadays – but just when Meštrović seems to take things a little too far, as in the opening of the final movement, he suddenly stops everything and produces some lightly scored, near-self-parodic material that is genuinely amusing and is clearly part of a well-honed compositional style. Chinese Rhapsody is much shorter, at 12 minutes, but the approach here is similar: Meštrović builds on the expected piano-and-orchestra scaffolding by including a violin (played by Li Xinxing) and three Chinese instruments: pipa (Tu Shan Xiang), zheng (Zhang Pei), and erhu (Bai Yu). Add a rhythmic approach that distinctly reflects Chinese music – through a European’s perception, to be sure – and you have a work that quite successfully melds Western and Eastern musical elements. New England Rhapsody, whose three movements run about 17 minutes, is the only piece here that sticks to the piano-and-orchestra plan without other prominent instruments, but it is unusual in other ways – certainly for anyone expecting stolidity or a homespun Ivesian approach. As he filters China through Croatia, so Meštrović filters New England through his homeland, producing a work that generally swings along merrily, dips deeply into overt sentimentality in its second movement, and eventually finds in New England both a hint of Croatia and a level of jazziness that will surprise anyone who associates jazz with more southerly climes. Meštrović is both a skilled composer and a clever one, and his willingness to use, without irony, the forms and melodies of an earlier era, results in music that is genuinely enjoyable to hear and that, while sometimes sounding like a throwback, more often comes across as a reinterpretation of the past and its filtration through Meštrović’s very personal sensibilities.
There is also a Croatian connection on a (+++) Navona anthology CD of five very different concertos or other soloist-with-orchestra pieces: Miran Vaupotić, whose fine conducting of the Zagreb Symphony Orchestra is a big part of the success of the Meštrović disc, appears here as well – this time as conductor of the Croatian Chamber Orchestra. And he proves as sensitive and adept with the smaller ensemble as with the larger one. There are musical connections, too, in the forthright neo-Romanticism of Lullaby by Bruce Reiprich (with violinist Goran Končar) and the large-scale, ebullient Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Beth Mehocic (with pianist Charlene Farrugia). This concerto actually sounds at times like something Meštrović could have written: although it is not as tightly structured as his pieces, it has some similarities in use of specific instruments, as in the percussive opening of the finale. The three other works on the CD are of somewhat less interest, or of interest more intermittently. Michael G. Cunningham’s Clarinet Concerto is intriguingly scored, featuring solo clarinet (Bruno Philipp) with the non-string instruments of the orchestra. The result is a rather bleaker sound than might be expected, added to by Cunningham’s insistent dissonance: the concerto certainly has interesting elements, but never quite hangs together. Rain Worthington’s In Passages uses solo violin (Mojca Ramušćak) for a 10-minute piece that dips in and out of lyricism seemingly rather arbitrarily. And Ssu-Yu Huang’s Guitar Concerto No.1, subtitled “Remembrance of Hometown,” interestingly uses a Taiwanese folksong as its basis and opens with a nicely considered solo for guitar (played by Pedro Ribeiro Rodrigues); but the rest of the piece is rather wan, and the intermingling of guitar with orchestra is not especially compelling. All the pieces here contain material of interest, but not all sustain particularly well from start to finish.
There is interesting small-ensemble material as well on a (+++) Cedille “cause” recording, an anthology devoted to music by women – as if a composer’s gender is somehow highly germane to the quality of his or her compositional ability. Like the Navona concertos-and-other-works CD, this one is a mixed bag in terms of how the material sounds and how effectively it reaches out to listeners. Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence Price (1887-1953), as arranged by William Grant Still (a man!), includes three simple and gently meandering dance tunes that, individually or collectively, serve as pleasant curtain-raisers for the rest of the program. Sin Fronteras by Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad (born 1978) is a more-conventional blend of multicultural influences, pleasant enough but too slight for its 13-plus minutes. Coincident Dances by Jessie Montgomery (born 1981) is deliberately multicultural as well, but its richer orchestration and more-evocative instrumental use help it hold its own to better effect than does Assad’s work. Two pieces by Reena Esmail (born 1983) are the most overtly sociopolitical works here, with the brief Charukeshi Bandish using a traditional Hindustani form (and Esmail’s own voice) to set up the much longer #metoo, yet another of the proliferating pieces that seem destined to turn a powerful and important women’s movement from one of assertiveness and self-expression into yet another series of endless complaints about how hard life is. The sincerity of the underlying motivation here is never in doubt, but there has been so much music created recently along these lines that only a piece offering something genuinely revelatory will likely stand out significantly. Esmail’s does not. Dance Card by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962), on the other hand, is a real winner. Providing a strong “closing bookend” in parallel to Price’s first-on-the-disc dances, Higdon creates a five-part suite in which some movements are genuinely danceable; some are mostly notable for rhythmic vitality; some are tours de force for performers (the Chicago Sinfonietta under Mei-Ann Chen is outstanding here and throughout the CD); and all are noteworthy for the skill of their orchestration and the high quality of the underlying creativity on a purely musical basis – independent of gender and of whatever the composer’s and listeners’ social, political or societal viewpoints may be.
Contemporary small-ensemble works may include, as often as not, electronic components, extending even into “duets” of a sort quite different from those of Schubert. A (+++) Ravello CD of music written and partly performed by Jeff Morris is a case in point. Morris’ performance elements are in the form of live electronics that are combined in the usual multiple sonic ways with electric cello in one piece here and with violin in the other. The first work, B4ch1007 (“Bach Loot”), has one of those cutesy titles in which the part in parentheses sort of relates to the main title – in this case, through a form of Internet writing known as leetspeak. The title is also, intentionally or not, ambiguous: “loot” can refer either to the richness of the Bach material on which the piece is based, or to the notion of looting Bach in the sense of vandalizing his creation. Will listeners familiar with Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G find this series of monumental distortions of that work revelatory in some way (the “richness” idea), or will they consider the whole Morris piece a bit of silliness, if not desecration (the “vandalizing” notion)? The answer will, of course, be highly individual and will depend on the extent to which listeners think electronic screams and shrieks of all sorts, through which bits of Bach occasionally emerge, are to be celebrated or dismissed. As for Three Improvisations with Violin, the idea here is to take the violin through paces inspired by images ranging from a house of mirrors to a ride on a beam of light, and in so doing to explore all the sound capabilities of which the instrument is capable. As an experiment in violin sonority – which, at its extremes, sounds quite as electronic as the live electronics – this work has some intellectual interest. Whether it is actually music, and whether it is intended to be, is a philosophical question (certainly not a musical one). There is a theatricality to this piece, and indeed to everything Morris offers here, that points toward the possibility that a live performance of this material would be more engaging than a recorded one, and less likely to wear out its welcome as quickly. Strictly as a recording, this disc offers very little in the way of sounds that has not been heard frequently before in pieces that composers seem to create primarily from a desire to show how adeptly they can handle the intersection of the electronic and acoustic worlds.