June 27, 2019


Walter Leigh: Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings; Ned Rorem: Concertino da Camera; Viktor Kalabis: Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings; Michael Nyman: Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck. Cedille. $16.
Daniel Ott: Pieces of Reich; Fantasy on a Falling Line. Jeffrey Savage and Karen Savage, pianos. Navona. $14.99.

Mira J. Spektor: Summer and Winter Songs. Maeve Höglund, soprano; Jean-Paul Björlin, piano and tenor. Navona. $14.99.

     The 20th century brought a surprising revival of interest in the harpsichord, thanks largely (on the classical side) to Wanda Landowska and (on the decidedly non-classical side) to the desire for unusual sounds for themes for television shows (e.g., Laurie Johnson’s music for the mid-1960s British “spy-fi” cult series, The Avengers). Interestingly, there was also at least a modicum of interest in writing new classical works for harpsichord – not just performing old ones. There are not too many of those modern works for harpsichord, but Jory Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic under Scott Speck have chosen a particularly interesting quartet of them to showcase on a new Cedille CD. What makes the disc special are not only the fine performances and the differences among the works, but also the way the four pieces – arranged chronologically – trace some fascinating changes in harpsichord use and in other aspects of classical music through the 20th century. The Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings, probably the best-known work by Walter Leigh (1905-1942), dates to 1934 and has a very distinct flavor of tribute to Bach and Vivaldi – indeed, this nine-minute, three-movement work in classical form could almost be a lost Baroque concerto, so closely does it hew to its models in writing for the solo instrument (although not in harmony). The Concertino da Camera by Ned Rorem (born in 1923 and still going strong) is not much later – it was written in 1946 – but, surprisingly, this is its world première recording. And a very good one it is, too, neatly showcasing both the elements of the concertino that look back toward Leigh and Leigh’s models and those that have greater acerbity, born of more-recent attitudes toward rhythmic and harmonic structure. Rorem’s work is twice the length of Leigh’s but never has a sense of overstaying its welcome. Things get more complicated, though, in the third work here, Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings (1975) by Czech composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006). This is a very extended piece, lasting 28 minutes in this performance; and while it uses the same three-movement form employed by Leigh and Rorem, it has a very different flavor. Here the writing for the harpsichord is suitably light and is balanced quite well with that for the strings, but the expert construction of the work is scarcely the main thing that listeners will notice. It is the emotionalism of this piece, which is quite decidedly that of the mid-20th century, that is its most salient characteristic. Each outer movement is, in its own way, almost a perpetuum mobile for the soloist: Vinikour’s stamina comes through as clearly in them as does his musicianship. And the central Andante proffers a very bleak landscape indeed, a dryness that seems peculiarly well-suited to the harpsichord’s sound and that casts its chill over the remainder of the piece. This work has many attractive elements, but it will be off-putting to some listeners. It will not be as much so, however, as the final item on the disc, the 1975 Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings by Michael Nyman (born 1944). This is one of those pieces that can be considered an acquired taste that not all audiences will care to acquire. Its six movements have “with-it” modern tempo indications: note values for two, one marked CADENZA (in all caps) and the last designated “(post-cadenza)” with all small letters and parentheses. The musical sound here is essentially minimalist, and minimalism is one of those contemporary approaches with as many detractors as fans. A characteristics of minimalism is the ease with which it fades deliberately into the background, but it does not do that in Nyman’s work – and the reason is the harpsichord, which here is used in the exact opposite of the way Baroque and some Classical-era composers employed it, as harmonic grounding: Nyman makes it an attention-getting foreground instrument in ways that go well beyond those employed by Leigh, Rorem and even Kalabis. Nyman’s concerto is shorter than Kalabis’ (21 minutes vs. 28) but feels longer; and it is less idiomatic in the writing for the harpsichord than anything else on this disc. It nevertheless functions well to cap what amounts to a particularly intriguing chronological survey of original 20th-century harpsichord concertos – and a CD of generous length (76 minutes).

     The keyboard instrument is much more familiar on a new Navona CD featuring music by Daniel Ott – or make that “keyboard instruments,” since these are works for not one but two pianos. This (+++) disc is very much a specialty item: it lasts a total of only 29 minutes and is as much a showcase for Jeffrey Savage and Karen Savage (who call their piano duet 88SQUARED) as it is for Ott’s music. The 2004 Pieces of Reich was written as a prelude to Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, then adapted as a standalone concert piece for 88SQUARED, which gave its première in that version. Fantasy on a Falling Line was actually commissioned by this piano duet, which gave the work its première in 2017. The musical language of both pieces is fairly straightforward for modern (or modernistic) works: almost everything is dissonant and harsh and there are many contrasts between extremely quiet passages and super-loud ones. As a result, the most interesting elements here are the ones that sound least like the music of many other contemporary composers: a surprisingly lyrical section opening the first of the seven movements of Fantasy on a Falling Line, for example, and a delicate and nuanced (and admirably short) third movement (“Interlude I”). Although this is not really minimalist music, parts of it – notably “Movement II” and “Interlude II” – partake of minimalism. The rest of the work, like the entirety of Pieces of Reich, is a comparatively straightforward opportunity for the pianists to engage each other in ways that are sometimes complementary and at other times competitive. The disc is strictly for fans of 88SQUARED and listeners already familiar with Ott’s music.

     Another new (+++) Navona release also contains a modest amount of material – 43 minutes – and will also be mainly of interest to listeners who already know the composer, Mira J. Spektor. Here the piano is primarily an accompaniment instrument, but Spektor uses it again and again to set the scene of her songs, which explore a wide variety of landscapes and moods in rather helter-skelter fashion. For example, the CD’s title, “Summer & Winter Songs,” really relates to only three of the 18 pieces: White Road of Summer, Winter Lullaby and Indian Summer – with the second and third of those separated, rather oddly, by a piece called Paracheech Tea. Spektor herself wrote the lyrics to many of the songs: both Winter Lullaby and Indian Summer as well as Have Song Will Travel, Rain Song, Neige dans Mon Coeur, Take Me Home Tonight, and Call Me, and she also added lyrics to Caroline Crippen’s in You Were There. The authorship reinforces the notion that this is a disc for Spektor devotees. It is also for listeners interested in some rather unexpected (although presumably deliberate) juxtapositions. For instance, Spektor’s Take Me Home Tonight and Call Me, which are quite distinctly modern in the scenes they set, are separated on the disc by When We Two Parted, which uses words by Lord Byron. And Spektor’s Have Song Will Travel and Rain Song are separated by three songs, in German, to words by Goethe. There is little apparent rhyme or reason to the arrangement of material on the disc, but there is certainly clarity of style: Spektor’s music is tonal, lies frequently on the ever-shifting boundary between classical art song and popular music, and has occasional theatrical elements – notably in the final two songs, You Were There and Give Me Time, which are listed as being from a “mini-musical,” itself called Give Me Time, and which are duets featuring both Maeve Höglund and Jean-Paul Björlin. In truth, Björlin is a much better pianist than tenor, especially in contrast to Höglund, who is the soloist on all but those final two songs and who handles their many moods and three languages with sensitivity and insight (where insight is called for, which is not always the case). On the whole, these songs are pleasantries rather than works of significant consequence; and the piano, fulfilling its traditional art-song role of providing backup, accompaniment and scenic design, has enough to contribute to support the singing but not enough to show any particularly distinctive compositional style.

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