April 18, 2019


John Robertson: Concerto for Clarinet and Strings; Hinemoa & Tutanekai; Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra; Symphony No. 3. Mihail Zhivkov, clarinet; Kremera Acheva, flute; Fernando Serrano Montoya, trumpet; Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.

David Maslanka: Recitation Book; William Albright: Fantasy Etudes; David Clay Mettens: Ornithology S. Fuego Quartet (Nicki Roman, soprano saxophone; Erik Elmgren, alto saxophone; Harrison Clarke, tenor saxophone; Gabriel Piqué, baritone saxophone). Ravello. $14.99.

David Noon: Partita; Jerry Owen: Meshquanowat’; Marc Mellits: Two Pieces for Flute and Guitar; Amin Sharifi: Duets Exhibition; Jorge Muñiz: South Shore Suite. Duo Sequenza (Debra Silvert, flute, alto flute, and piccolo; Paul Bowman, classical guitar). Navona. $14.99.

Giovanni Piacentini: Icarus—Suite in six movements for guitar and electronics; Six Preludes for Solo Guitar; Los Murmullos for guitar and flute; Passacaglia. Giovanni Piacentini, guitar; Gina Luciani, flute; Fernando Arroyo Lascurain, violin; Stefan L. Smith, viola. Navona. $14.99.

     The many moods of which wind instruments are capable make them a continuing source of interest to contemporary composers, especially ones who still find traditional musical forms congenial. Thus, John Robertson has turned to the form of the wind concerto several times, with his clarinet and trumpet concertos featured on a new Navona CD. The clarinet work, which dates to 1989 and is in the traditional three-movement concerto form, shows Robertson’s skill with exploring the range of the clarinet without feeling obligated to push the instrument beyond the point of comfort for performer or audience. The slow movement is the longest of the three and is suitably melodic, but it is the finale, in which the clarinet is neatly played off against pizzicato and glissando strings, that is the most attractive part of the work. The trumpet concerto (2013) is also a three-movement work, opening with a military-style fanfare that is soon contrasted with more-lyrical elements. Again, it is the slow movement that is the longest, but again, it is the finale that is most striking, with its snare-drum opening and some Latin American themes and rhythms, reflecting the work’s origin: Robertson wrote it for a Cuban trumpeter. Robertson uses winds in a different, decidedly non-virtuosic way in Hinemoa & Tutanekai, a 10-minute tone painting from 1988 that is based on a Mâori legend of two lovers from warring tribes who are kept apart, on separate islands, by their families – leaving the woman, Hinemoa, disconsolately listening to the flute played by Tutanekai from across the water, then deciding to swim to him. The earlier part of the piece drags a bit, especially for anyone who does not know the legend: nothing here indicates warring tribes or demanding parents. But once the flute begins to sound (after about four minutes of music), the effect is pleasant and even elegant, and the piece has a well-managed air about it even without any particular emotional depth. Also on this CD is Robertson’s Third Symphony (2017), dedicated to the conductor Anthony Armoré, who leads it here with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra in a solid, committed performance – all the performers on the CD do a good job with Robertson’s style and the way he blends and contrasts instruments. The first of the symphony’s three movements has some of the sound of slow-moving waves about it, and some of the repetitiveness characteristic of minimalism, although it is more varied than strict minimalist pieces. The second movement, a Scherzo, is more attractive – Robertson’s faster movements tend to be more appealing than his slower ones – and the warmer, lyrical portion midway through makes an effective contrast. The first movement is string-dominated, but winds are more prominent in the second, especially in the central section. The third movement mingles strings and winds and, like the second, contrasts livelier material with more-lyrical music. The symphony, taken as a whole, is somewhat rambling, without a strong sense of direction or purpose: it is well-constructed but not particularly involving.

     The entirety of a new Ravello CD involves wind instruments: saxophones, which are heard in three very different contemporary works. David Maslanka’s Recitation Book uses Bach works and other centuries-old music as the basis of a series of transformations into modern forms and musical approaches. Maslanka actually cites the specific pieces on which he bases the five movements of this suite, making it easy for listeners familiar with the originals to hear the ways in which he modifies and “updates” the material, for instance by turning a Bach chorale into a kind of popular, yearning “love song” melody. The saxophones’ sound fits a different Bach work, the meditative Jesu meine Freude, particularly (and rather surprisingly) well. Also here is a short piece based on a Gesualdo madrigal, a meditative handling of a Gregorian chant that begins effectively in the low register, and a set of variations on Durch Adams Fall (“Through Adam’s fall”) that is almost as long as the other four movements combined and that takes the Fuego Quartet members from their instruments’ highest reaches to the lowest and offers some very definitely modern rhythmic touches and considerable speed. The six Fantasy Etudes by William Albright are much more “modern” in sound, full of starts and stops, unexpected instrumental blends, pervasive dissonance, and many passages that do not so much explore the saxophones’ ranges and capabilities as they extend and push them. The quartet members play the material well, but the music itself is far from compelling, with Albright seeming more interested in having saxophones utter ghostlike shrieks and foghorn-like low notes than in having audiences get anything in particular from the material. This is one of those works that sound as if they are more fun to play than to hear, although the final movement, “They only come out at night,” has enjoyable bounce. The CD concludes with David Clay Mettens’ Ornithology S, a work that not only has the saxophones imitating birdsong but that also takes the extension-of-sound approach of Albright several steps further by having the performers use slaps, key clicks and other effects to extend the sound world. As an exploration of a sonic environment that includes and goes beyond that of saxophones, this is certainly effective, but the piece lacks musical cohesion and does not seem to have any particular purpose beyond a demonstration of techniques – a kind of etude exploring wind instruments’ percussive sounds, and another work that seems to be more for performers than for listeners.

     The sounds are intriguing on a new Navona CD featuring Duo Sequenza, because this two-person group combines wind instruments with guitar – an unusual mixture that opens up some interesting sound possibilities. The five pieces on the disc, by five different contemporary composers, are of varying levels of interest, but listeners will find the mingling of sound intriguing in all cases. David Noon’s Partita (1989) is a work that, like Maslanka’s Recitation Book, looks to the past for inspiration, with four movements whose titles reflect old forms: “Preludio,” “Musette,” “Pastorale,” and “Rigadoon.” The first and third are gently lilting, the second and fourth more energetic, and all are pleasantly scored. Jerry Owen’s 1995 Meshquanowat’ (the apostrophe at the end adds a syllable, so the word is pronounced mesh-quan-o-wát-eh in the Native American Mesquakie language) has some elements of dance and lyricism as well, but here they are captured within a series of short, fast-changing sections that are intended to reflect the red-tailed hawk: the piece’s title is what the Mesquakie call the bird. Two Pieces for Flute and Guitar (2000) by Marc Mellits starts hesitantly but soon becomes intricate and strongly rhythmic in the first piece, after which the second (somewhat more ordinarily) strives for a kind of poignant nostalgia. Amin Sharifi’s Duets Exhibition (2016) includes four brief pieces with evocative titles: “Seven Color Tile,” “Prelude,” “The Game,” and “Murdered in His Labyrinth.” The music is less intriguing and involving than the words, however. Debra Silvert and Paul Bowman interrelate their instruments skillfully here (as they do throughout the disc), but there is little sense of either forward motion or scene-painting in these miniatures. The CD concludes with its longest piece by far: the six-movement South Shore Suite (2016) by Jorge Muñiz. This work is, by intent, very much a mixed bag of sounds, incorporating elements of jazz, blues, country music and other styles. The elements do not fit together particularly well, and some of the effects, such as the hesitant opening of the second movement, sound contrived rather than clever. The “South Shore” of the title is that of Lake Michigan, and the individual movements are supposed to evoke historical and contemporary figures within that geographical area. But listeners who are not familiar with the region will hear only a series of not-very-closely-related pieces in which Silvert and Bowman play skillfully, but without the music ever really seeming to go anywhere. It is all pleasant enough, but to no apparent purpose for anyone who does not know the specific circumstances or scenes that inspired each of the six individual pieces within the larger suite.

     Flute and guitar are also joined in one of the works on a new Navona CD of the music of Giovanni Piacentini. This is Los Murmullos, which uses alto flute and guitar to convey the dreamlike quality of the “magical realism” literary movement. Close familiarity with such literature is not needed in the way familiarity with specific geography and legends is in the Muñiz South Shore Suite. That is because Piacentini uses the lower part of the flute’s range, in combination with guitar strumming, plucking and other sounds (such as striking the wood of the guitar with his hands), to produce a somewhat dreamlike landscape in five movements whose individual elements are less important than their cumulative effect. It is the tonal ambiguity that ultimately turns Los Murmullos into a musically imaginative experience, independent of whether listeners are familiar with the specific book that inspired Piacentini, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Parama. Piacentini is an effective performer of his own music, and his guitar is heard without other instruments in other works on this CD – although with electronics in Icarus, a six-movement retelling of the Greek legend of the boy whose wings took him too close to the sun. The tale is familiar, its treatment here much less so: atonality, twelvetone writing, percussive segments, many electronic samples of guitar music, jazzlike rhythms, and the usual distortions of sound with which electroacoustic music abounds, produce an intermittently gripping sonic landscape that never seems to reflect the old legend in any significant way. Also here are Six Preludes for Solo Guitar, this time without electronics, and this sequence offers the most interesting material on the disc: there is no specific literary or legendary gloss here, only a series of complex and beautifully handled etudes that range from Impressionism to tranquility to dynamic display to nostalgia to generalized scene-painting, showing just how wide an expressive range the guitar can have in the hands of an expert player such as Piacentini. In truth, the preludes are inspired by specific scenes or places, but so effective is Piacentini’s playing that the underlying motivation for these two-to-three-minute works becomes much less significant than their exploration of the guitar’s capabilities and the multitude of sounds of which the instrument is capable. The CD ends not with a guitar piece but with one for violin and viola: Passacaglia, a slow, encore-length, meandering tribute to Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor – a non-traditional sort of encore, without flash or brightness, and a work very different  from the others heard here, showing that Piacentini has interests beyond tone painting and skills that go beyond writing for his own instrument.

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