August 08, 2019


Truman Harris: Concertino for Horn and Chamber Orchestra; Concertino for Flute and Chamber Orchestra; Rosemoor Suite; Aulos Triptych; Flowers; Sonata for Two Bassoons and Piano. Alice Kogan Weinreb, Aaran Goldman, Carole Bean, Leah Arsenault Barrick, flutes; Nicholas Stovall, oboe; Paul Cigan, clarinet; Truman Harris, Sue Heineman, Steven Wilson, bassoons; Laurel Bennert Ohlson, horn; Audrey Andrist, piano; Eclipse Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sylvia Alimena. Naxos. $12.99.

Géza Frid: Trio à cordes; Dick Kattenburg: Trio à cordes; Sándor Kuti: Serenade for String Trio; Hans Krása: Passacaglia & Fuga for String Trio; Tánec for String Trio; Gideon Klein: Trio for violin, viola, and cello; Paul Hermann: Strijktrio. Black Oak Ensemble (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; Aurélien Fort Pederzoli, viola; David Cunliffe, cello). Cedille. $16.

     There is a somewhat unfair perception that many contemporary composers care more about impressing other composers and/or performers of their music than about reaching out to a wider audience. Like many behavioral generalizations, this notion has a grain of truth at its core in some cases but is a vast overstatement when applied to all cases. Indeed, there are composers such as Truman Harris (born 1945) who, while clearly interested in creating music that will appeal strongly to performers, are also hoping that an audience of non-performers will find the works worth hearing even if the listeners do not realize just what goes into the playing. All six Harris works on a new Naxos CD are interestingly scored and written to intrigue and challenge the performers – indeed, the players on the disc are the ones for whom Harris wrote the pieces. But all the works also have much to recommend them simply as music and, on that basis, will appeal to listeners who enjoy woodwinds (which dominate these pieces) and are open to hearing some unusual instrumental combinations. Harris’ music has something of pastiche about it, with noticeable (that is, audible) influences both from classical composers (Stravinsky, Poulenc and others) and from popular music (ragtime, tango, etc.). This music generally lies quite well on the wind instruments, which is scarcely surprising in light of Harris’ lengthy career as a bassoonist with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra (heard on this recording), and other ensembles. The string writing here is also fine, although piano parts, when that instrument is used, are rather pedestrian. The longest and most expansive pieces here have the most conventional scoring. They are the two concertinos, for horn (2015) and flute (2003). Both offer the soloists plenty of opportunities to stand out within a traditional three-movement structure. In fact, despite their dates of composition, both these works could have been written decades earlier – and that is not a criticism but a measure of the skill with which Harris has absorbed earlier influences and put them to good use in producing well-balanced, intricate but eminently listenable music. Still, the four non-concertino pieces, although slighter than the concertinos, are more aurally interesting through their use of unusual instrumental combinations. The five-movement Rosemoor Suite (2015) is for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, with Harris himself playing the last of these instruments. The work pays direct homage to some of Harris’ musical inspirations by including a Charleston and a “Silent Movie” movement that does indeed sound as if it could accompany a film from the pre-sound era. There is also an attractive, brief theme and variations here, called “Fantasia.” Even more engaging is Aulos Triptych (2015), for four flutes and piano – quite an ensemble! – whose three movements’ grace, reminiscent of Poulenc, is nicely expressive of the titles “Light and Color,” “Dreams of Fancy Places,” and “A Warm Day in Winter.” Harris has considerable skill as a miniaturist, as is clear not only in Aulos Triptych but also in Flowers (2006), whose six movements are very short indeed: the longest, “Tulips,” lasts less than 90 seconds. Like Rosemoor Suite, this work is for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon (Harris again). The daintiness and delicacy of Flowers are admirable and are effectively communicated. And then there is the fascinating Sonata for Two Bassoons and Piano (2008), another work (like the concertinos) in the traditional three movements, but one whose sound is decidedly unusual. The piano’s three chords in “Until Three [o’clock]” are its most noticeable contribution here, with the bassoons weaving a lovely sonic tapestry in “Moon in the Water” before cutting loose in a jazzy, waltzing rondo finale in which Harris does not perform, perhaps preferring in this instance to sit back in the role of composer and delight in the many moods of which he knows his instrument to be capable. Even though the bassoon is often relegated to a kind of comic role, Harris knows that it, and the other instruments for which he writes, have a far greater expressive capability – and one that does not require the sorts of artificial “extensions of range” that engage many contemporary composers but few contemporary audiences.

     There is an underlying playfulness, and occasional whimsy, in Harris’ music, which therefore stands in stark contrast to the string-trio works played by the Black Oak Ensemble on a new release from Cedille. This is a “tribute” disc, the sort of thing that can easily be overdone and can quickly become tiresome. Titled “Silenced Voices,” it pays homage to the many Jewish composers who perished in the Holocaust, as did five of the six whose works are heard here (the sixth fought in the Resistance and long survived World War II). The usual difficulty with well-meaning CDs such as this one is that the music, in and of itself, tends not to be particularly noteworthy beyond the circumstances in which it was written, or those in which the composers lived and died. However, matters are different here, sufficiently so that the disc really does shine a light on how much was lost in cultural terms (among others) because of the Nazis’ “final solution.” All the pieces on the disc are serious, well-constructed, carefully composed to fit the sound and expressive potential of a string trio, and indicative of compositional skill that could clearly have developed in a significant way had the composers’ lives not been cut short. As it happens, the longest work here is by the longest-lived of the composers, Géza Frid (1904-1989). But Trio à cordes is an early work, redolent of the decade of the 1920s, when it and other pieces here were created – and although this is Frid’s Op. 1, this is the trio’s world première recording. Like several other pieces on this CD, Frid’s is strongly influenced by Hungarian folk music, with the first and third movements in particular drawing on Hungary’s traditions (the finale is actually marked Allegro giocoso all’ungherese). The second movement, though, is the most interesting, its essentially peaceful nature interrupted by an agitato section in different meter. The other work here with the same title as Frid’s is by Dick Kattenburg (1919-1944), and it is also an early work, written when the composer was just 19. A short (five-minute), single-movement piece, it is well and tightly structured and shows compositional maturity beyond what would be expected from a 20th-century teenage composer. When Sándor Kuti (1908-1945) composed his Serenade for String Trio, which dates to 1934, he was not much older than Kattenburg at the time of his Trio à cordes. As in Frid’s work, the influence of Hungarian folk music is clear in Kuti’s, but this three-movement trio has a distinct personal stamp not only in style but also in organization: the very short and dynamic second movement is succeeded by a concluding Adagio ma non troppo whose sorrowful depth is something of a surprise after the less-intense earlier material. The two pieces by Hans Krása (1899-1944) have a very direct connection to his fate and that of the other Holocaust victims whose works appear on this disc: both the Passacaglia & Fuga and Tánec (“Dance”) were written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the final year of Krása’s life. The two paired Baroque-form movements are solid and strong, while Tánec belies its title by being a rather frenetic (although not quite Mahlerian) invitation to something more ominous than any traditional dance. The three-movement Trio for violin, viola and cello by Gideon Klein (1919-1945) is also a product of Theresienstadt, dating to 1944 – when Klein was 25. It is a curious and moving work, its two short outer movements proceeding blithely if not quite merrily but framing a central Theme and Variations that is longer than both of them put together and is clearly the heart of the music, being built around a Moravian folk song and bearing all of this trio’s emotional weight. Strijktrio by Paul Hermann (1902-1944) is a shorter, single-movement work, and an earlier one, dating, like Frid’s trio, to the 1920s. Hermann was a cello virtuoso, and it would have been unsurprising to hear that instrument dominating this piece, but in fact the three strings are pretty much evenly matched in a work whose main musical attraction is its unusual form, which combines elements of rondo and theme-and-variations. The Black Oak Ensemble members play all this music with intensity and involvement as well as technical skill, and the seriousness of purpose underlying the recording is apparent throughout. Such seriousness, common in anthology discs intended as tributes or recognition of one sort or another, does not always serve the music particularly well. Here, though, it does: all these pieces are fully deserving of rising at last above the obscurity in which most of them have languished since the untimely deaths of all but one of the composers represented here.

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