May 09, 2019


Peter Schickele: Spring Forward; Richard Danielpour: Clarinet Quintet; Aaron Jay Kernis: Perpetual Chaconne. David Shifrin, clarinet; Miró Quartet (Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violins; John Largess, viola; Joshua Gindele, cello); Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello); Jasper Quartet (J. Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violins; Sam Quintal, viola; Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello). Delos. $14.98.

Alyssa Morris: Where Do Children Come From?; Coastal Kaleidoscope; Collision Etudes; Motion. Alyssa Morris, oboe; Christina Haan, piano; Elizabeth Darling, flute; Andrea Vos-Rochefort, clarinet; Jessica Findley Yang, bassoon. MSR Classics. $12.95.

York Bowen: Sonata for Oboe and Pianoforte; Petr Eben: Oboe Sonata; Henri Dutilleux: Sonata for Oboe and Piano; Eugène Bozza: Sonata for Oboe and Piano; Francis Poulenc: Sonata for Oboe and Piano; Camille Saint-Saëns: Sonata for Oboe and Piano. Alex Klein, oboe; Phillip Bush, piano. Cedille. $16.

     David Shifrin’s deeply felt and strong commitment to the new clarinet literature as well as more-classical clarinet works leads him again and again to unearth some gems of modern composition. If those gems are in the main semi-precious rather than truly valuable and brilliant, they are nevertheless often quite worthy of the time and attention that Shifrin lavishes on them, as he does on the three works for clarinet and string quartet – all world première recordings – on a new Delos CD. Peter Schickele’s Spring Forward (2014) is a pleasant, often bouncy work whose title indicates a somewhat seasonal interest but whose music simply moves along good-naturedly and for the most part with a tonal center. The five fairly short movements confirm Schickele as something of a miniaturist: each is nicely done on its own and well complemented by the others, although none is much of a standout and the work as a whole has more the feeling of a rather lighthearted suite than that of a closely integrated composition. Matters are considerably more serious in Richard Danielpour’s two-movement quintet (2015), which bears the title “The Last Jew in Hamadan.” The underlying topic is the Iranian city where the biblical queen Esther lived and where a Jewish community thrived for many years but has now very nearly disappeared. A far more dissonant work than Schickele’s, Danielpour’s quintet makes repeated forays into Jewish music as well as strongly felt emotional expression. The agitato indication for the first movement is very clearly reflected in the music, while the triste sounds of the second movement – which is almost twice the length of the first – are intended to reflect Danielpour’s sorrow at what has happened to the Jewish community of Hamadan, and to the city itself, since the Iranian revolution of 1979. There is a certain inevitability in the progress of the music, at times almost a sense of ostinato underlying the expressionism, and Danielpour often uses extremes of the clarinet’s range to underline the feelings he is trying to convey. The second movement’s length does tend to overbalance the work, with Danielpour making his point about the pervasive sorrow of Hamadan’s current circumstances quite clearly at the movement’s beginning and then belaboring it to a somewhat over-extended degree. Shifrin’s sensitive playing suits the music admirably, but does not overcome the spinning-out of what is essentially a single emotional expression. Aaron Jay Kernis’ Perpetual Chaconne (2012) is a work of a very different sort: an extended single-movement piece of “pure” rather than descriptive music that opens in quiet, rather lyrical sadness and contrasts that feeling with considerably more-anguished and harsher material as the work progresses. Variations and combinations of themes are evident in the structure, and the piece is certainly well-made, but it gives the impression of trying hard to show emotional progress while not being really very descriptive of it. There is something a touch too intellectual in Kernis’ work: it does not fully repay the effort needed to absorb its structure and progress, and lacks the emotional satisfaction that the best parts of Danielpour’s piece convey. Here too, however, Shifrin offers the same sort of highly committed, first-rate playing that he brings to all the music on this disc; and in all three works, he receives sensitively played backup and cooperation from the musicians who make up three separate string quartets.

     Like Shifrin’s clarinet journeys, those that Alissa Morris makes via oboe have both outward and inward elements; like Shifrin’s explorations, Morris’ are offered as world première recordings of 21st-century works; but while Shifrin offers interpretations of music by three contemporary composers, Morris presents her own, very personal views of the subject matter with which she deals musically. As both composer and performer on a new MSR Classics release, Morris has ample opportunity to display highly skillful playing in the service of music that, if sometimes over-clever, is in the main imaginative and adeptly put together. The CD opens with Where Do Children Come From? (2013) and offers four answers of increasing seriousness to the title question. “The Circus” is a romp that mixes music of the big top with bits of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Then “Outer Space” presents suitably (if rather clichéd) impressions of otherworldliness, along with material best described as flighty. “A Higher Place” answers the title question with quieter and more-lyrical material that, however, is rather obvious in its reaching for something approaching sublimity. Finally, “Grace” is, well, graceful, less forthrightly expressive than “A Higher Place” and better as a result, implying rather than insisting on its answer. The interplay between Morris and pianist Christina Haan is also more effective in this final movement than elsewhere in the work. Scene painting is the point of Coastal Kaleidoscope (2013) as well, with the three movements – “Waves,” “Seals,” and “Spring Tide” – being suitably evocative of what their titles suggest. In this work, Morris and Haan are joined by Elizabeth Darling on flute, and the result is a pleasant blending of two woodwind sounds that are enjoyable to hear together even when the scene-painting in which they participate is on the obvious side. The bouncy, jazz-infused “Seals” is the most attractive movement here. There is also plenty of bounce in the six Collision Etudes (2017), which really are etudes, showcasing a wide variety of oboe techniques in pieces that are nominally descriptive of or responsive to scenes painted by five women artists: Mary Cassatt, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O’Keeffe (twice), Alma Thomas, and Margarete Bagshaw. These pieces will likely be of considerable interest to Morris’ fellow oboists, but less so to a general audience: their focus really is on effective performance approaches rather than on strong emotional communication. The final work on this CD, Motion (2010), is for woodwind quartet (oboe/flute/clarinet/bassoon) and tries to portray four forms of movement: “Bike Ride,” “Stretch,” “Tip Toe,” and “Strut.” Like the fanciful titles to other works by Morris, these four are somewhat indicative of how the music sounds, but only somewhat. The role of the prominent bassoon in “Bike Ride,” for example, is a bit hard to discern. But the blending of instruments – in all four movements – is nicely handled, and there is a pleasant undercurrent of amusement throughout the work (most strongly in “Tip Toe”). All the pieces here have their pleasures – mostly small ones, to be sure, but plenty of them, resulting in a very enjoyable foray into some little-known chamber music for oboe.

     Stepping back just a few years, to the 20th century rather than the 21st, dramatically changes the oboe’s role and the nature of the music written for it. The six works on a new Cedille CD featuring Alex Klein with pianist Phillip Bush are one and all larger-scale and more ambitious than anything on the Morris disc. This is not a matter of the works’ length but of their seriousness of intent and quality of compositional execution – and performance as well. The Saint-Saëns sonata, the shortest work here at 10-and-a-half minutes, will be a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with it: bright and outgoing, thoroughly Romantic in temperament, it showcases the emotionally communicative ability of the oboe while partnering it with piano in a highly skillful manner. It is, to put it plainly, simply beautiful music. The sonata by Dutilleux, barely longer than that by Saint-Saëns, is not quite at the same level, but its emotional range is actually wider: it opens with a very serious Grave movement before proceeding to a lighthearted and inventive Scherzo and a strongly determined conclusion. But even Dutilleux’ work, although scarcely shallow, is less deep than Poulenc’s, a genuinely philosophical and inward-looking piece whose considerable thoughtfulness climaxes in a third, final movement with the unusual title “Déploration” (that is, “Lamentation”) and a pervasive sense of meditative, if somewhat dour, calm. These three French works are, in and of themselves, sufficient reason to own this exceptionally well-played and well-thought-out disc. The remaining pieces, though, are of lesser quality and interest, although each has its own interesting elements and is worth an occasional hearing. York Bowen’s sonata is gracious and pleasant and lies well on the oboe. It is not music of great consequence, but its sound is quite pleasing and its construction admirably well-planned and well-executed. The sonata by Petr Eben (1929-2007) gives the piano a significant role and features a particularly lyrical central movement, although the work as a whole never seems to go anywhere in particular. And the sonata by Eugène Bozza (1905-1991) – the only four-movement work here, all the others being in three – is most noteworthy for being possessed of a wistful, slightly melancholy air that Klein brings out with particular skill. This sensibility pervades even many of the faster parts of the music, placing the sonata in a somewhat monochromatic landscape and lending it a less-engaging emotional tone than will be found in several of the other pieces here. But even though the musical selections on this disc are uneven in their impact, they are all quite interesting to hear in Klein’s wonderfully adept interpretations and in his compellingly effective partnership with Bush.

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