June 13, 2019
(+++) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SOUND
Spinning in the Wheel: Music for Berimbau Sextet. Projeto Arcomusical. National Sawdust Tracks. $20.
Piano Music from Romantic Manila. Sally Pinkas, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Renderings: A Musical Landscape for Violin and Harp. Crimson Duo (Matt Milewski, violin; Jaymee Haefner, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Bach: Goldberg Variations—arranged for Baroque ensemble. Repast Baroque Ensemble (Amelia Roosevelt, Baroque violin and viola; Emi Ferguson, Baroque flute [traverso]; Katie Rietman, Baroque cello and piccolo cello; Stephanie Corwin, Baroque bassoon; Gabe Shuford, harpsichord). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Defiantly different: here are four excellently performed CDs that may be well outside the musical mainstream but that invite hearing and rehearing simply because they offer sonic discoveries. Spinning in the Wheel presents sounds that listeners will not have heard before and may even find bizarre – unless they are Brazilian or familiar with Brazil’s culture. Projeto Arcomusical is a sextet of berimbau players, and the berimbau is a musical bow – a single-stringed instrument with a gourdlike resonator attached to the string, the size of that object determining how high or low the string sounds. The berimbau is revered in Brazil because of its connection with, of all things, a martial art that is nowadays performed as a kind of multifaceted game: Capoeira, originally learned and practiced by slaves and developed by them as a form of resistance and a battle-worthy manner of repelling troops sent to wrest control of escaped-slave enclaves from those who had set them up. The history is fascinating and so, to some extent, is the music on a new National Sawdust Tracks release. The reason for the “to some extent” qualifier is that there are expressive limits beyond which single-string musical bows, however well played, cannot go: the sounds here, highly intriguing at first, tend to blend into sameness as the disc progresses. This is so even though Projeto Arcomusical has arranged the CD cleverly in a wheel-like sequence of “sextet – trio – duo – solo – duo – trio – sextet.” The recording opens with the four-movement Roda by Elliot Cole and then proceeds to six single-movement works by members of the ensemble: Ondulaçāo by Alexis C. Lamb; Berimbau Duo No. 6, Berimbau Solo No. 5, and Berimbau Duo No. 2 by Gregory Beyer; Echoes by Kyle Flens; and Berimbau Sextet No. 2 by Beyer. The concept here is to make music modeled in part on a wheel, because the wheel is an important symbol in Capoeira. This is all very well thought out, but for listeners not steeped in Brazilian culture, and interested primarily in how the music sounds as music, there is less depth in the hearing than in the design of the presentation. Certainly Projeto Arcomusical is highly adept with its instruments, and certainly there are nuances of sound from piece to piece – Echoes, for example, really is filled with echoing effects. But for most listeners, the attraction here will be the sheer unfamiliarity of the berimbau and the discovery that this apparently simple instrument is capable of producing a wide variety of individual and combined sounds, some bowed and some percussive, with the pieces on the CD displaying the performers’ skills at varying tempos and in rhythms that, for all their differences, attain a certain degree of familiarity as the disc progresses. An audience without the cultural background or interest underlying the berimbau may not find this a disc to which it will return often, but it is worthwhile hearing once or even twice simply for the opportunity to expose oneself to a new-to-most-listeners musico-cultural environment.
The nation on which a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Sally Pinkas focuses is half a world away from Brazil: it is the Philippines, whose musical heritage will likely be just as little-known to many listeners as is that of Brazil. Although the instrumental sound here is very familiar, being simply that of the piano, the material that Pinkas performs is definitely not. Written during 80-plus years, from the 1870s to 1960, these short salon pieces are grouped on the disc not by year or decade but by type: three “Literary Inspirations,” seven “Danzas Filipinas,” three “Romances,” seven “Waltzes,” and three “Civic Pride” works. The composers’ names will be wholly unfamiliar to most listeners. The one heard most often here is Francisco Buencamino Sr. (1883-1952), while others whose music is offered by Pinkas were born as long ago as 1846 (Ignacio Massaguer, who died in 1906) or died as recently as 1960 (the long-lived Julio Nakpil, born in 1867). When a composer here is responsible for more than one work, the pieces are scattered according to the category into which Pinkas places them, so there is little chance to develop a feeling for individual composers’ styles. But that is not the point of this disc. What Pinkas does here, and does very well and very stylishly, is to sample works of both the Spanish and American colonial periods in the Philippines, showing both how the nation’s music reflected that of other lands and how it differed. The differences are especially clear in the habanera, which in these pieces is a Cuban-originating dance of considerable delicacy, and the waltz, which is not at all like the famous Viennese variety but instead has its own kind of piquant swirl. Indeed, one of these waltzes, Gratitudo by Buencamino Sr., has something Brazilian about it; but another, In the Orient by Francisco Santiago (1889-1947), blends Oriental colorations with Latin ones to fine and rather amusing effect. Another Santiago work here, a Nocturne in E-flat minor that is included in the “Romances” section, offers an attractive adaptation of European Romantic models. Each listener will easily find different works congenial, and those familiar with Philippine history will enjoy hearing the differing influences on the music from the days of the Spanish and American periods. Nothing here rises much beyond the level of a trifle, or tries to: these are, by and large, drawing-room and occasional pieces of no great consequence and no substantial length (only one lasts more than five minutes). However, there are charms aplenty here, undiscovered ones that Pinkas has done a fine job of displaying in the best possible light.
The unfamiliar sound combination of violin and harp is a major attraction on another new MSR Classics release, this one featuring six composers and seven pieces written as long ago as 1895 and as recently as 2017. The Crimson Duo opens with the oldest pieces on the CD, Andante Religioso and Scherzo-Fantaisie, both from 1895, by Henriette Renié (1875-1956). At the age of 20, Renié was fully and firmly steeped in Romanticism, and if these slight pieces break no new ground, they are effective in introducing the lyrical and pleasant sounds that characterize the entire recording. They are followed by one of the most-recent works here, Still/Nervous (2017) by Gary Schocker (born 1959). The juxtaposition is quite interesting, because just as the slower and warmer Renié work contrasts with the speedier and somewhat more intense one, so the two parts of Schocker’s piece produce a comparable contrast in a much-more-recent musical language. Also contemporary in sensibility is Violin and Harp Music (2015) by Patricio Da Silva (born 1973). This work’s three movements bear titles intended to help direct listeners’ perceptions: “West Is the Way,” “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” and “Hands On.” Whether those titles accurately reflect the music is a matter of opinion, but certainly the work offers a series of interesting contrasts and provides both violin and harp with opportunities for some virtuoso showcasing. This is the world première recording both of Violin and Harp Music and of the next work on the disc, Flutter (2017) by Kirsten Soriano Broberg (born 1979). Broberg’s piece is something of a short étude, pleasant enough but not very substantial. It is certainly less interesting than the piece that follows it and concludes the CD: a violin-and-harp arrangement of the Sonata for Flute and Harp (1937) by Nino Rota (1911-1979). Rota is far better known for the film scores he wrote for directors Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, and Francis Ford Coppola: he scored the first two Godfather films and won an Academy Award for his work on the second. But Rota also wrote a considerable amount of music in classical forms, and this sonata is a charmer and rather sweet. Written in the traditional three movements, it encourages camaraderie rather than any sense of competitiveness between the performers, and if the violin-and-harp version does not quite have the effervescence of the original, it nevertheless gives Matt Milewski and Jaymee Haefner plenty of chances to blend their respective sounds with skill and beauty.
And what could possibly be outside the aural mainstream in yet another recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Quite a bit, as it turns out on another MSR Classics release. This is a fascinating version of the music, in a performance by the original-instrument group called Repast Baroque Ensemble. It does not entirely turn its back on the harpsichord, for which Bach’s work was written: the closing Aria da capo is, intelligently, given to the harpsichord solo, as if to remind listeners of what the music was intended to be all about, and seven variations (Nos. 5, 11, 14, 20, 23, 28 and 29) are also played by the harpsichord – and very well, too. But no listener will want this disc for its solo-harpsichord elements: the fascination here, the sonic attraction, lies in the Goldberg Variations that are performed by the ensemble, or some portion of it. All the individual members get their own chances to shine forth, but it is the decisions made by the performers as to what instrument should be front-and-center in which variation that provide most of the enjoyment. For example, using the bassoon to open and close what Wanda Landowska called the “Black Pearl” variation – No. 25, the third and last in G minor – seems a decision that is sensible and almost, in this context, obvious. But within that variation, the decision to have the bassoon and the piccolo cello play at the extremes of their respective ranges is unexpected and quite affecting. The musical decision-making that underpins this performance is what gives the reading such a high level of interest. The flute-bassoon-cello mixture in Variation 4, to cite one example, is as interesting as the choice of a viola rather than violin in Variation 6, to cite another. This should scarcely be any listener’s first choice of a Goldberg Variations to own or hear: the recording is something of a connoisseur’s delight, most likely to be enjoyed by an audience that is thoroughly familiar with the music already and is intrigued by the notion of hearing it played in a totally non-authentic but highly knowledgeable form on correct period instruments or first-rate copies. Compared to hearing this work on a modern piano, hearing it performed by the Repast Baroque Ensemble is a joy: the players understand Bach’s style very well, and the overall instrumental sound, if not correct for this specific piece, is certainly right for music of this time period. This may not be a recording to which listeners who love the Goldberg Variations will return frequently, but it could easily become one to which Bach lovers turn if they ever feel the desire to imagine what might have been if Bach had chosen to arrange this music for a highly skilled and sensitive chamber ensemble.