May 23, 2019


Villa-Lobos: Sonata Fantasia No. 2; Arnold Bax: Violin Sonata No. 2; William Bolcom: Duo Fantasy. duo526 (Kerry DuWors, violin; Futaba Niekawa, piano). Navona. $14.99.

Steven A. Kennedy: Marian—Sonata for Violin and Piano; Allen Brings: Duo for Flute and Piano; Lee Actor: Duo for Violin and Cello; Peter Greve: Aria; Sidney Bailin: Blue Plea. Vit Mužík, violin; Lucie Kaucká and Stephanie Watt, piano; Christopher Morrison, flute; Petr Nouzovský, cello; Ondřej Jurčeka, trumpet; Karel Martínek, organ; Sauro Berti, bass clarinet. Navona. $14.99.

Thad Anderson: Withheld; Route; As We May Think; Five Messages; Withhold; Re-Cite; Mechanization; Outside, Looking In; Through-Line; By-and-By; Within. Ravello. $14.99.

     Fine playing of works with deeply contrasting uses of violin and piano creates something of a puzzle in a new Navona recording featuring violinist Kerry DuWors and pianist Futaba Niekawa. Why these works, individually and collectively? The question is reasonable and perhaps inevitable, given the composers’ stylistic variety and the specific pieces’ extremely different moods and approaches. From Villa-Lobos comes Sonata Fantasia No. 2, a 1914 work of pervasive lyricism in which the piano frequently seems at odds with the broad singing quality of the violin, almost as if the instruments occupy different sound worlds that are joined together at best uneasily. Yet the confluence works in subtle ways, pulling listeners in different directions at the same time but layering those differences into a unified whole unlike either of its components. In its expressivity, the piece is very much of its time, its first two movements conveying weightiness while its third, concluding one is for the most part lighter, more elegant and more graceful in its flow. DuWors and Niekawa hold the piece together well – but it is hard to see why they follow it with Bax’s Violin Sonata No. 2 of the same time period (1915, revised in 1920). The four-movement Bax work is not only much longer than that of Villa-Lobos but also much darker and more portentous: it is significant that it was first written during the Great War and then revised after it. The titles of the four movements show much of what Bax is trying to convey here: “Fantasy: Slow and gloomy,” “The Grey Dancer in the Twilight: Fast Valse,” “Very broad and concentrated,” and “Allegro feroce.” There is nothing here with the gentleness or lyricism of Villa-Lobos or of his periodic playfulness. The Bax is a work of high, if unstated, purpose, and one requiring the performers to engage in often-anguished dialogue instead of trying to pull disparate musical elements together. The intensity of Bax’s work is nearly unremitting, and its raw emotions rarely relieved. DuWors and Niekawa acquit themselves well here, if perhaps not quite as comfortably as in the Villa-Lobos: the half-hour-plus of the Bax is wearing on performers as well as, to some extent, on listeners. The ironic bite of the second movement is a bit attenuated here, but the darkness of the first and third comes through clearly, and the finale does have intensity, if not quite ferocity. It is an admirable performance, if not quite as convincing as that of the Villa-Lobos. But it is hard to go from both these works to Bolcom’s Duo Fantasy of 1973, which occupies an altogether different sound world and calls on altogether different emotions. It is a wry, ironic piece that parses a variety of styles and calls on sometimes self-conscious modernity in its harmonies and the way it juxtaposes contrasting and sometimes deliberately ill-fitting themes – for example, in a lovely, lyrical section that sounds altogether misplaced. If chamber music tends to be thought of as conversational, this Bolcom work can be deemed chatty. It is not exactly lighthearted, but it does mix rather rough humor with a certain amount of sarcasm. DuWors and Niekawa play it very well indeed, allowing its deliberate excesses all the space they need for their effect. But Bolcom is a subtle composer, and it is his subtlety that gets somewhat sparse attention here: he is using humor for a purpose, and even if that purpose is not entirely clear, its existence needs to be acknowledged. That is, however, a bit much to ask of performers – or listeners, for that matter. On the whole, this CD showcases two first-rate performers trying, mostly successfully, to wrap their talents and thoughts around three works that are just a little too different from each other to make for a wholly satisfying listening experience.

     The violin-and-piano sonata on a new Navona anthology disc of modern chamber music is quite different from anything played by DuWors and Niekawa. It is a four-movement programmatic work bearing the title Marian and intended as an encapsulation of the life of Christ. The movements, played with skill but on the whole rather emotionlessly by Vit Mužík and Lucie Kaucká, depict Advent, the walk to the Cross, the Resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Steven A. Kennedy includes bits of hymns, carols and antiphons in the sonata, and its sincerity is undoubted, but strictly as music, it is rather undistinguished. The three-movement Duo for Flute and Piano by Allen Brings is, on the whole, more interesting. The piece has some structural echoes of Bach but is quite contemporary in its handling of the instruments and in its treatment of tonality and of thematic presentation and development. The first movement has the instruments in rather competitive mode; the second is filled with contrasts between peaceful (but not lyrical) sections and intense, fragmented ones; the third is brighter and more upbeat – in it, the instruments seem to be chasing each other as much as cooperating. The three other works on this CD are single-movement ones for various instruments. Lee Actor’s Duo for Violin and Cello is emphatic in its dissonance and demanding in some of its techniques. It sounds thoroughly contemporary if not particularly individual. Peter Greve’s Aria is for the interesting combination of trumpet and organ. It is broadly conceived, uses the instruments’ contrasting sonorities very well, and does a good job of combining an expressive opening and closing with an exceedingly dissonant and displaced-sounding middle portion. This is, in fact, the most intriguing work on the disc. Also here is Sidney Bailin’s Blue Plea for bass clarinet. It is unusual to hear a solo work for this instrument, but once the element of the unexpected wears off, the piece proves somewhat less compelling: the central riffs provide good contrast to the opening and closing sections, but the work as a whole is more interesting sonically than in terms of its musical material. Like other anthology discs, this one has its ups and downs: listeners who enjoy contemporary chamber works will likely find something congenial here, if not everything.

     Thad Anderson’s music on a new Ravello CD is for listeners whose definition of contemporary chamber works encompasses ones in which acoustic instruments are paired with electronics. That is the basis of most of the material here: some pieces are for fixed media and some include live processing; and then there are those that require tuned metals. The works are based on a compositional technique that Anderson calls “duration lines,” and as usual in material based on a composer’s invented concept, the pieces are intellectual exercises and applications of the underlying technique rather than works intended to impress themselves clearly on an audience not versed in the basis of their composition. Anderson’s music is certainly of interest to the sonically adventurous, however – at least in small doses rather than by listening to all 11 works (15 tracks) on this CD straight through. The specific choices of sound for the various pieces are the disc’s most appealing elements. The opening Withheld and closing Within are for tuned metals that sound rather like temple bells, while Withhold, heard midway through the disc, is for snare drum and fixed media. All the pieces overstay their welcome, but in all cases their initial presentation is quite fascinating, and the way in which Anderson blends and contrasts the various sounds is definitely worth hearing, if not at the full length to which these works go. Three pieces here are for multiple keyboards: As We May Think is for multi-keyboard and fixed media (using words as part of the texture), Mechanization is a duet for multi-keyboards, and By-and-By – the least mechanistic and most engaging of the three – is for two vibraphones and two marimbas. Continuing the percussive theme that permeates this disc, Five Messages is for two pianists and two percussionists; most of it sounds like extended telephone ring tones. And then there is Outside, Looking In, which is simply for piano solo – and here too Anderson is concerned mainly with the struck-key, struck-string nature of the instrument rather than with any of its expressive potential. Yet not everything on the CD is entirely percussion-focused: Route is for solo saxophone and fixed media; Re-Cite is for wind instruments and live processing; and Through-Line is for flutes and fixed media. However, the winds do not smooth or soften the electronics here – in fact, something of the opposite occurs, with the electronic elements tending to “electronic-ify” the acoustic instruments. Thus, for example, the flutes in Through-Line sound somewhat like the temple-bell metals heard elsewhere on the disc – a sonic transformation that may be exactly what Anderson is looking for, but that goes very much against the grain of the instruments’ expressiveness. That, however, is not the central concern on this disc, or very much of a concern at all: the CD is all about exploring percussive and electronic textures within structures dictated by a compositional approach that will likely be far too rarefied for a general audience, but that does not appear to be aimed at a large group of listeners in any case – it is really for Anderson himself and for people familiar with his work and the thought process that underpins it.

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