July 03, 2019
Andrew Anderson: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. Australia Piano Quartet (Kristian Winther, violin; James Wannan, viola; Thomas Rann, cello; Daniel de Borah, piano). Navona. $14.99.
Eleanor Alberga: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Ensemble Arcadiana (Thomas Bowes and Jacqueline Shave/Oscar Perks, violins; Andres Kaljuste, viola; Jonathan Swensen, cello). Navona. $14.99.
Joseph T. Spaniola: Escapade; Klempirik Farms; Blow, Eastern Winds; Dream; The Winds of the Quadrumvirate; Der Heyser Bulgar. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Combinations of four musicians and four instruments continue to intrigue contemporary composers, who sometimes use traditional quartet ensembles to communicate their ideas and sometimes put together groups of four instruments pretty much ad hoc, without regard to whether those groupings have been used in the past. Andrew Anderson and Eleanor Aberga opt for traditional instrumental mixtures on new Navona discs, while Joseph T. Spaniola uses some unusual and unexpected groupings on a release from Big Round Records.
Anderson’s first piano quartet (2010) is unusual for a contemporary piece in being designated as being in a specific key: C minor. This strong commitment to tonality is not in itself unusual – many modern composers have rediscovered the value of building works around a tonal center – but affirming the key in the work’s title is somewhat out of the ordinary in today’s music. So is the piece’s structure, which has opening and closing movements pretty much in traditional sonata form. There are four movements in all, and they proceed in a familiar manner: opening, slow movement, more-or-less Scherzo, and finale. Indeed, the work as a whole has a familiar feeling about it much of the time, with clear debts to the Romantic era. Yet that is scarcely the whole story here: the second movement has a distinctly modern feeling about it and is more harmonically ambiguous than the quartet’s key designation would lead a listener to expect, while the third has a bouncy, fleet-of-foot pacing that makes it sound as if it is almost (but not quite) a musical joke. The quartet is in an overall arch form, with the two outer movements each running about 10 minutes and the two inner ones about eight minutes apiece; and the seriousness that pervades the outer movements is well-balanced by the lighter fare of the inner ones. The second quartet (2018) is in two extended parts, each with multiple tempo changes. Although this quartet opens with a bow to the Romantic era, its overall sound is much more what listeners will expect of 21st-century music. The first movement has five sections, the second seven, and the tempo changes are generally subtle ones: the first movement’s indications are “Introduction,” “Larghetto,” “Andante,” “Lento,” and “Andante.” The overall pacing of the quartet is slow and measured, and there is a pervasive gloominess to much of the music even without a firm footing in any specific minor key. The result is that the work tends to drag: it is possible to appreciate the care with which it has been constructed even while noticing that it spends much of its time in a slough of despond. Occasionally a passage of beauty emerges, usually on the cello, but these are few and far between. The second quartet sounds, much of the time, as if it is mired in quicksand and not particularly concerned with getting out. Like the first quartet, it is very well-constructed, and also like the first, it gets an exemplary performance from the Australia Piano Quartet (the composer himself is Australian). And the two sections of the second quartet’s second part that are marked “Ritmico, alla breve” bring some much-needed forward motion to a work that is otherwise pretty much static. Those sections, however, are not enough to counter the generally dour mood that the second quartet projects.
The moods are of many kinds in Alberga’s three string quartets, which date, respectively, to 1993, 1994, and 2001. Alberga’s third string quartet covers some of the same emotional territory as Anderson’s second piano quartet, although Alberga delves far more deeply into 20th-century and 21st-century compositional methods – including atonality, dodecaphony, rhythmic irregularity, and a frequent focus on the extremes of the instruments’ ranges. This four-movement work is the longest quartet of the three and is, indeed, somewhat overlong, in large part because it progresses through repetition rather than development of its thematic material. The recurrence in the finale of material from the first three movements, a tried-and-true method of pulling a piece together, is adeptly handled – and very well played by Ensemble Arcadiana, which is clearly quite at home with Alberga’s style and performance demands. But the overall effect here is somewhat bland. The two earlier quartets are more interesting. The first, which Alberga says was inspired by a physics lecture explaining that all matter is made of star dust, contains no obvious tone-painting or narrative but a great deal of expressive interplay among the instruments. The first movement seems to proceed in all directions at once – the instruments rarely coalesce – while the second has a rather conventional sense of contemplating the wonder of it all, and the third and last is so intensely energetic that it sounds as if someone in the quartet is always on the verge of breaking a string. Alberga’s titles for the movements are exceptional in their inventiveness and the way they tie to the musical material: the second movement is marked “Espressivo with wonder and yearning,” the third is “Frantically driven yet playful” (which is exactly how it sounds), and the first and most-unusual title is “Détaché et martellato e zehr lebhaft und swing it man.” The music is not quite as good as these titles but has much to recommend it. As for the second quartet, it is in a single movement, is the most compressed of the three, and is the most tightly constructed, being in effect a series of variations (with that word broadly defined) on material introduced at the outset. Atonal and insistent, it is appealing more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, standing in that respect in contrast to the first quartet. The second quartet contains slow-ish and scherzo-ish elements within its overall flow, but there is an impression of randomness to it that belies the care with which it was obviously put together: it sounds more disorganized than it is, possibly because the complete lack of a tonal center makes it difficult to know what Alberga is here trying to communicate.
Only two of the six works on the Spaniola disc have four-instrument groups as a focus, and in both cases the groupings are entirely of clarinets. In Klempirik Farms, clarinets in B-flat are played by Noelle Little, George Roach, and Heike Gazetti, with Kariann Voights on bass clarinet. This short three-movement work bounces along tonally and in good humor as a tribute to Spaniola’s family’s farm and farming in general. In The Winds of the Quadrumvirate – a title with direct reference to the four directions of the compass – Little plays E-flat clarinet, Crystal Proper is on B-flat clarinet, Scott Richardson plays basset horn, and Claudia Weir is on bass clarinet. The wind group is set off against a larger wind band (the US Air Force Academy Band conducted by Lt. Col. Steven Grimo) in a work that is denser, less tonal and by intent more grandiose than Klempirik Farms. There are some nice percussion touches here, but there is also a persistent repetitiveness underlying the material that takes some of the shine off the fine playing by the four-wind solo group. Two of the remaining works on this disc are strictly for large wind ensemble. Escapade, again featuring the US Air Force Academy Band but this time conducted by Lt. Col. Philip C. Chevallard, opens with a fanfare and afterwards meanders in directions that are less than fully clear but that offer some very appealing sound-for-its-own-sake elements. Blow, Eastern Winds, in which Todd Nichols conducts the Eastern Wind Symphony (which commissioned the work), is milder and less hectic. It also has a greater sense of destination, although it too gives the members of the ensemble plenty of chances to showcase the particular sounds of their instruments. As a portrayal of different types of winds (in weather), it is a bit overdone, but as a way to shine a spotlight on different types of winds (in music), it is effective. The two other works here use groupings of five and six, respectively. Dream, at almost 17 minutes the longest piece on the CD, features Danny Helseth on euphonium, Mark Dorosheff and Nathan Wisniewski on violins, Bryce Bunner on viola, and Christine Choi on cello. If there were an official designation of “euphonium quintet” (along the lines of “piano quintet”), this combination would qualify. Structurally, though, Dream is closer to a concerto for euphonium and small ensemble, with the euphonium in the lead position pretty much throughout – not too surprisingly, since Helseth commissioned the piece. As a showcase for Helseth’s instrument, Dream is well-done, providing plenty of chances to explore the euphonium’s range and its emotional capabilities. But the relatively bland string accompaniment adds little to the piece, and after a while it drags and seems to run out of steam. Not so Der Heyser Bulgar, which makes a marvelously upbeat four-minute encore. It is performed by the Stellar Brass, consisting of Steven Przyzycki, xylophone; Steven Kindermann and Tim Allums, trumpet; John Gohl, trombone; Gary Poffenbarger, tuba; and Gary Stephens, tambourine. This is a traditional Yiddish folk song created as an exercise in xylophone virtuosity at Przyzycki’s request, and Spaniola certainly fulfills that commission adeptly: the piece is relentlessly bright and upbeat, and the xylophone sounds front-and-center throughout. This CD has its ups and downs, to be sure, but it certainly ends on an up note. Or, rather, a series of up notes.