September 26, 2019


Ástor Piazzolla, arr. Sergio Assad: Las Estaciones Porteñas; Akira Nakada, arr. Toru Takemitsu: A Song of Early Spring; Takemitsu: Equinox; Frank Wallace: Cyrcles; Leo Brouwer: Un Dia de Noviembre. David William Ross, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.

Music for Clarinet and Electronics by Benjamin Broening, Matthew McCabe, Mark Snyder, Kirsten Volness, Judith Shatin, Joseph Harchanko, and Mark Phillips. Andrea Cheeseman, clarinet and bass clarinet. Ravello. $14.99.

Craig Vear: Black Cats & Blues—Hypermedia Concerto for Cello and Digital Technology. Craig Hultgren, cello. Métier. $17.99.

     Lovers of music for solo instruments have a multitude of recent releases from which to choose, all featuring fine playing and all designed to showcase works – most of them contemporary – that exploit and often expand the capabilities of the specific instruments on which they focus. Piazzolla’s well-known Las Estaciones Porteñas (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), originally written for a quintet, adapts rather oddly to the guitar, whose capabilities are far more limited than those of the five instruments that Piazzolla used to produce a level of complexity that seems ill-fitting for any solo instrument. David William Ross, however, finds that Sergio Assad’s guitar arrangement of the music offers many opportunities to produce the full range of sounds and technical moves of which his instrument is capable – and in the hands of Ross, an excellent performer, the guitar shows a great many capabilities indeed. Again and again, Ross highlights a specific element of Piazzolla’s music or finds a way to reproduce some of the composer’s polyphonic complexity in ways that are quite remarkable. The music moves mostly in a single line, or two lines at the same time, which means the traditional strumming sound of the guitar is used sparingly and as a means of highlighting particular sections rather than as the basis for most of the sound. Assad’s arrangement is a sensitive and aware one, and Ross’ modifications of it, while not perhaps true to Piazzolla’s original, turn the performance into a combination of presentation of a work of considerable character and a fantasy upon that work. This is a very intriguing reading and by far the most-interesting music on a new Ravello CD. The other pieces also give Ross plenty of ways to display his prowess, but most of the music is less engaging. Akira Nakada’s A Song of Early Spring is a quiet, gentle lullaby that is somewhat too soporific in an arrangement by Toru Takemitsu, whose own Equinox moves from a dissonant opening into a rather scattered-feeling set of notes that seem neither to progress musically nor to be particularly illustrative of the work’s title. Frank Wallace’s six-movement Cyrcles also has celestial references in its movements, two of which bear the title “Solstice.” The multi-movement form gives Wallace chances to establish and pursue varied sounds and pacing; to these he adds a variety of technical effects that establish different sound worlds for the guitar in each piece. The percussive, always-in motion second movement, “The Light,” is a highlight, but other sections, such as “Darkness Falling,” are more obvious and less involving. The finale, called “First Truth,” is, however, quite interesting, seeming more to pose a series of musical questions than to provide a first (or last) answer to any of them. The CD concludes with Leo Brouwer’s Un Dia de Noviembre, a gentle and rather sweet, rocking, lullaby-like piece that promotes relaxation more effectively than does the opening A Song of Early Spring. Brouwer’s work ends this seasonal-and-astronomical-cycles disc with a very pleasant sense of calm – and plenty of admiration for the skill with which Ross explores the composers’ many moods and the guitar’s many capabilities.

     Listeners whose solo-instrument preferences are for woodwinds will find much to like on another Ravello CD, this one featuring clarinetist Andrea Cheeseman – provided that they enjoy winds combined with electronically generated sounds. Less thematic than the Ross disc, Cheeseman’s simply offers seven 21st-century works that give the performer ample chances to demonstrate both virtuosity and the ability to interact in a variety of ways with electronics – Cheeseman has said she considers the computer just another musical instrument. Arioso/Doubles (2002) by Benjamin Broening creates an electronic landscape against which the soloist’s acoustic instrument stands out, but into which it sometimes is absorbed. Somewhere (2015) by Matthew McCabe has more-prominent electronics that tend to become intrusive, sounding as if they are, in a way, exhaling their breath over the clarinet’s rather tentative meanderings – this “somewhere” may not be a place where listeners will be comfortable. Mark Snyder’s Messy (2008) opens on a completely static aural landscape, although as the work progresses, some electronic interventions do provide a substantial, if not quite messy, counterpoint to a clarinet part that is essentially slow and even. Ultraviolet (2007) by Kirsten Volness has the clarinet often sounding strained, in its higher range, while the electronics provide the sort of “space music” familiar from innumerable science-fiction movies. Judith Shatin’s Penelope’s Song (2008) features a rather unpleasant electronic ostinato, above which the clarinet bounces here and there restlessly – a reasonable representation of the distress and discomfort of Odysseus’ wife during the long years in which she awaited his return from Troy, but musically not a piece that is particularly pleasant to listen to (which may be part of the composer’s point). Breath (2005) by Joseph Harchanko stands as a strong contrast, moving at a slow, deliberate pace and with an overall sense of quiet both in the clarinet and in the electronics. It produces a sense of stasis but never quite one of peace, especially as the electronics become chimelike as the work progresses. Favorable Odds (2018) by Mark Phillips concludes the disc with a combination of synthesized waveforms and bass-clarinet samples heard sometimes in background, sometimes as overlay, and with a central all-electronic section that comes across as an unintentional parody of electronically generated static-like sounds professing to be music. The second half of the piece, however, is an intriguingly dancelike segment whose rhythmic evenness (generated in the electronics) comes as a distinct surprise. Listeners who are fans of electronic music will not find much else surprising on this CD, but they will encounter a variety of clever ways in which electronics mingle with acoustic clarinet sounds that Cheeseman generates with considerable skill.

     Electronic and traditional instrumental sounds are also combined on a new Métier CD on which Craig Hultgren is the featured cellist in a performance of Craig Vear’s Black Cats & Blues (2014-18). Hultgren here interacts improvisationally with an electronically generated score whose movements are based on a 1949 book by Boris Vian, Blues for a Black Cat and Other Stories. Knowledge of the book is a necessity to get the full effect of this work, whose 10 sections bear titles including “Dead Fish,” “Journey to Khonostrov,” “Good Students,” and “One-way Street.” Whether listeners who love the warmth, wide range and emotional expressiveness of the cello will enjoy this disc is very much an open question, since Vear does not call on any of those characteristics particularly strongly in this illustrative fantasy, and Hultgren rarely provides them. The cello is as often plucked as bowed; instrument and electronics, along with some narrative words (“I have had enough,” for example, and “If the sun is cold, the two-hour day”), clearly strive to produce an atmosphere of some sort, but it is impossible for anybody who does not know the underlying literary source of this work to figure out just what Vear is illustrating. Without the literary anchor, there is precious little for a listener to hold onto here except in a few places, such as “Blue Fairy Tale,” where some surprising near-lyricism comes as quite a relief. Vear’s piece as a whole, in live performance, is designed to include video as well as audio elements, and the visuals would likely help make the whole thing more comprehensible. From a strictly auditory perspective, there is not much to enjoy here, although enjoyment may not even be the primary point of Black Cats & Blues. The use of the cello is such that it is not always even clear that the cello-like sounds are from the cello, and Hultgren spends much of his time at the extremes of his instrument’s range, as if trying to turn its sounds into approximations of the electronically generated ones. That commonality of purpose of cello and electronics may be much of the point here, but it does not lead to any particularly focused form of communication. Determinedly avant-garde, apparently largely just for the sake of being avant-garde, Black Cats & Blues would likely be more effective as a video offering than as a CD – although even with visuals, the work would appear to be aimed only at an audience familiar with Vian’s book and/or one enamored of avant-garde techniques and sounds for their own sake.

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