June 06, 2019


Rachmaninoff: Trio élégiaque No. 1; Trio élégiaque No. 2; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14. Hermitage Piano Trio (Misha Keylin, violin; Sergey Antonov, cello; Ilya Kazantsev, piano). Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

Franz Ignaz Danzi: Sinfonia Concertante for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra; Joel Puckett: Concerto Duo; Saint-Saëns: Tarantelle, Op. 6; Michael Abels: Winged Creatures. Demarre McGill, flute; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Allen Tinkham. Cedille. $16.

James Lentini: Concerto for Guitar and Strings; Rain Worthington: Full Circle; Jan Järvlepp: Camerata Music; Peter Castine: Aperture; Beth Mehocic: Left of Winter. Navona. $14.99.

     The resemblances between the emotional expressiveness of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are well-known, and the way the two composers were deeply imbued with their Russian heritage is equally familiar. Indeed, the two men knew each other, although Rachmaninoff, born in 1873, was only a young teenager when he played his 1886 piano-four-hands transcription of the Manfred symphony for Tchaikovsky. But the composers’ connection is notable in much of their music, and especially so in two early Rachmaninoff works that are far less familiar than his piano concertos and symphonies. These are piano trios, each marked Trio élégiaque, both in minor keys (G minor and D minor), and both composed in the early 1890s: the first in 1892, the second in 1893 – although the latter was revised in 1907 and again in 1917. The spirit of Tchaikovsky pervades both the first work, which is short and in one movement, and the second, which is quite long – 50 minutes – and in three. And the pervasive melancholia of both the trios, so redolent of much of Tchaikovsky’s output, would in later years become a well-known characteristic of some of Rachmaninoff’s music as well. The two trios receive absolutely splendid readings, filled with warmth and passion and presented in exceptionally full and elegant sound, on a new Reference Recordings SACD featuring the Hermitage Piano Trio. This is the ensemble’s first recording, although its members have featured elsewhere as soloists – but the group’s impassioned, deeply involving beauty of phrasing and cooperation is worthy of trios that have been around far longer. The first Trio élégiaque has a specific tie to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred through a piano opening marked Lento lugubre, which is exactly how Tchaikovsky marked the Manfred beginning. The work as a whole, which opens despondently and ends with its main theme as a funeral march, certainly deserves to be designated an elegy. And the second trio really is one – for Tchaikovsky, whose death in 1893 led directly to Rachmaninoff’s composition of the trio, which is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s memory. This is a brooding, grieving work almost throughout its substantial length, and would be difficult to absorb in its sheer outpouring of emotion if the Hermitage Piano Trio did not find so much sheer beauty and profundity in the themes and their intensity of expression. The piano often dominates in this second Trio élégiaque, but the strings have plenty of opportunities for virtuosity as well, and all the players handle their parts with assurance and a healthy helping of heart-on-sleeve passion that fits the music of both Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky exceptionally well when not allowed to overflow into formlessness. The performers’ tight control of the material ensures that that never happens in either trio, and the result is a pair of deeply moving and wholly convincing performances. As an encore, the trio plays the famous Vocalise of 1915 in a 1928 transcription by Julius Conus. This is a work whose melancholy aptly complements the forthright emotionalism of the two trios. This disc could easily be a dour recording, and certainly it is one better heard on a sunny day than amid dark clouds and looming thunderstorms. But as an exploration of the emotional depth that Rachmaninoff could extract from a three-instrument combination, it is as much an impressive achievement as a depressive one.

     A Cedille recording of far more varied moods, featuring works by very different composers from three distinct time periods, is a showpiece for the McGill brothers: Demarre, principal flute of the Seattle Symphony, and Anthony, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. The two extended works here were composed two centuries apart and provide a fascinating contrast in the ways in which writing for the flute-and-clarinet combination has changed, and has not. The Sinfonia Concertante by Franz Danzi (1763-1826) is beautifully poised, elegant in themes and structure, and excellently balanced between the two soloists and between the solo performers and orchestra. The bubbly concluding Polonaise showcases the two solo winds to particularly pleasant effect. The Concerto Duo by Joel Puckett (born 1977), on the other hand, is jazz-inflected throughout, percussion-heavy, and often sounds like TV or film music in its onward propulsiveness. Here the solo instruments seem always on the verge of competitiveness (and sometimes immersed in it), but their cooperative moments provide a fine contrast to their somewhat jarring ones. Like many contemporary works, this one has titles for each of its movements: “The Great American Scream Machine,” “Mama Dee’s Song for Joel,” and “For Audrey.” Interestingly, the second movement is as long as the other two put together – but Puckett’s finale, like Danzi’s of so many years earlier, neatly ties up the relationship between flute and clarinet into a combination that highlights each instrument’s range and sound very well. The CD also features Winged Creatures by Michael Abels (born 1962), and this piece really does sound as if it is ready to take off at any moment, with the flute’s musical flights, in particular, seeming always on the verge of soaring skyward. And then there is a real charmer of an encore, not as early as the Danzi or as recent as the Puckett and Abels works: Saint-Saëns’ marvelously exuberant Tarantelle, where the solo winds are constantly on the verge of tripping over each other but never quite do – instead, they chase each other around the stage (metaphorically) in a perpetuum mobile whose only real fault here is that it is placed between the Danzi and Puckett works and is therefore more a placeholder or punctuation point than an encore. And that is about as small a quibble as it is possible to have about a thoroughly engaging recording.

     The solo flute figures as well on a new Navona anthology release that includes five composers, four conductors and three orchestras. Not surprisingly, this (+++) CD lacks any centrality of theme or significant musical cohesiveness, but it has numerous highlights that listeners who enjoy contemporary orchestral works will find congenial. The work here that features flute is Aperture by Peter Castine, in which soloist Barbara Hill performs with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek. Written after the terrorist murders that struck New York City on September 11, 2001, this is one of many works of the time expressing a mixture of horror and sadness through dissonance and, in this case, a rather fragmented feeling, in which the flute and string orchestra seem mostly to be at cross-purposes rather than working together. Castine’s work is one of three solo-and-ensemble works on the disc. Rain Worthington’s Full Circle is for cello solo (Petr Nouzovský) and small orchestra (the Moravian Philharmonic again, this time conducted by Petr Vronský). This is an interestingly structured work: in it, musical elements emerge from the orchestra’s members as well as from the soloist, then recede into the overall texture – an attempt to show the way emotions arise and subside, intriguing conceptually if not always clear in the execution. The Concerto for Guitar and Strings by James Lentini is the third work here that features a soloist (Iliana Matos). Here the ensemble is the Zagreb Festival Orchestra under Miran Vaupotić. The work itself is efficiently structured to highlight the guitar against the orchestra and produce the expected ups and downs of its traditional three-movement form – it is well-made music but rather characterless. Also offered here is Camerata Music by Jan Järvlepp; this is another performance featuring the Moravian Philharmonic under Vronský. This is a nicely bouncy piece, essentially tonal, with some dance rhythms inspired by the folk music of Colombia; and at less than eight minutes, the work does not overstay its welcome. Even shorter – indeed, the shortest piece on the CD – is the concluding offering, Left of Winter by Beth Mehocic, which is for full orchestra: the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. This has an interesting history, having been conceived as a prelude to a production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de Printemps. Even without knowing that, listeners familiar with the Stravinsky would hear echoes of it in the extended and heavy use of percussion and the frequent changes of rhythm. Mehocic’s piece lacks the sheer drama of Stravinsky’s and tends to be rather loud and insistent, while Stravinsky’s is subtle. But the comparison is unfair to Mehocic, who has created a work of drama and intensity that could function as a Stravinsky prelude but can just as well stand on its own as an effective curtain-raiser or, as here, an encore to a very variegated program.

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