September 26, 2019
(++++) SOUTH AFRICA, AMERICA, AND BEYOND
Music for Violin and Piano by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Chausson, Svendsen, Massenet, Bloch, and Saint-Saëns. Piet Koornhof, violin; Albie van Schalkwyk, piano. Delos. $14.98.
Music for Violin and Piano by Telemann, Schubert, Tessa Lark, Kreisler, and Ravel. Tessa Lark, violin; Amy Yang, piano. First Hand Records. $19.99.
Music for Violin and Bass by Bach and by Eddie Barbash, Michael Thurber & Tessa Lark. Tessa Lark, violin; Michael Thurber, bass. Redonky Tonk. $19.99.
Philip Grange: Chamber Music. Gemini (Ileana Ruhemann, flutes; Catriona Scott, clarinets; Joby Burgess, percussion; Aleksander Szram, piano; Caroline Balding, violin; Rose Redgrave, viola; Sophie Harris, cello) conducted by Ian Mitchell. Métier. $17.99.
Listeners primarily interested in some exceptionally fine violin-and-piano playing and less concerned about a fully integrated or carefully curated musical program will find a great deal to like in new recordings on the Delos and First Hand Records labels, the former featuring a duo from South Africa and the latter offering players from the United States. Piet Koornhof and Albie van Schalkwyk are a superbly matched pair whose sensitivity and emotional resonance make their performances of emotive, lyrical, mostly well-known Romantic repertoire a joy in which to luxuriate. Perhaps a bit too much of a joy: there is considerable similarity among these seven works in terms of their emotional evocativeness, and hearing the CD straight through may mean a touch too much wallowing for some tastes. But a focus on simply listening to these South African performers should take care of that: the playing is smooth, elegant, beautifully balanced, and so neatly presented that listeners may have to remind themselves that most of these works are not usually heard in violin-and-piano guise at all, but in versions for violin and orchestra. Yet each of them was arranged for violin and piano by the composer, with a single exception: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, which concludes the disc and provides all the fireworks to be had on the CD, was arranged by Bizet. The latter part of the Saint-Saëns really does serve as a wakeup call here, coming as something of a surprise after six gentler, moodier and very nuanced pieces. They are Romance, Op, 11, by Dvořák; Sérénade mélancolique by Tchaikovsky; Poème by Chausson, in which the piano part has been slightly modified from the composer’s somewhat awkward one; Romance, Op. 26, by Johan Svendsen, the least-known work here, but one that holds its own effectively in this company; Méditation from Thaïs by Massenet; and Nigun from Baal Shem by Bloch. These performers seem to have the ability to spin out beauteous sound and sweet lyricism unendingly, with the longer Dvořák and Chausson works sustaining just as well as the Massenet, the shortest piece here. Pretty much everything on the disc will be familiar to classical-music lovers, but not necessarily in these versions and not necessarily when played with the genuine but uncloying sweetness of these performances.
The repertoire is more of a mixed bag emotionally, in pacing, and in geographical origin in the recital by Tessa Lark and Amy Yang. The seven pieces are punctuated by some of Telemann’s Fantasies for solo violin – Nos. 1, 4 and 5 – which, however, are actually the least convincing pieces on the disc. Lark plays wonderfully, with the sort of apparent effortlessness that comes only after an investment of a great deal of effort. And she has a very personal style that pulls both precision and tonal warmth from the fine Giovanni Paolo Maggini violin (c. 1600) that she uses here. However, although the instrument is apt for Telemann, Lark uses it to make the composer’s works warmly emotional in a way that does not quite fit their time – she sees them as looking ahead to the later fantasies on the disc, a proposition that is arguable at best. Yet the sheer skill of Lark’s performances will undoubtedly win over many listeners – and the non-Telemann pieces here invite virtually no quibbles at all. One of them is also a solo-violin work: Lark’s own Appalachian Fantasy (2016), based on her personal roots and featuring her treating the Maggini very much like a super-elegant and super-expensive country fiddle. Here we have a piece and a performance that are likely to elicit genuine amusement as well as enjoyment and that invite an enthusiastic “brava” at the end. Indeed, Lark’s work has all the distinct elements of an encore – but it is placed midway through the disc, in a rather odd decision that sandwiches it between Schubert’s Fantasie in C, D934, and one of the Telemann works. Whatever one may think of the juxtaposition, though, the fact is that the stylistic and performance contrast between Lark in Schubert and Lark in her own music is tremendous – and fascinating to hear. The Schubert is by far the longest work on this disc, and it receives a wonderfully spun-out performance from Lark, one in which Yang partners fully to plumb musical depths that go well beyond the surface prettiness of many of the works on the Koornof/van Schalkwyk CD. The Schubert is a beautiful, expansive work that is almost as demanding for the piano as for the violin, and that is filled with the characteristics of late Schubert – it is the last of his compositions for violin and piano, and has some of the expansiveness of his Symphony No. 9 (“Great”) in the same key. Lark and Yang are smart enough to let the music breathe and expand to a considerable length, downplaying their mutual virtuosity in the service of the broadly conceived beauties of Schubert’s themes. It is a simply lovely performance from start to finish. The other two pieces on the disc are, if not trifles, certainly of less consequence. One is Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, a work that is not heard especially often and that is certainly an attractive display piece for the violin, the piano here taking more of a subsidiary role. The other, and the concluding work on the CD, is Ravel’s Tzigane, and here both Lark and Yang really do cut loose, playing with strength and abandon and joy and full-fledged intermingled virtuosity. Like the pieces on the Koornof/van Schalkwyk disc, this is a work usually played by violin and orchestra, and it must be said that the fireworks in that version outshine those here. But the violin-and-piano version predates the orchestral one – although Ravel suggested use of an optional luthéal attachment for the piano, which would add a fair amount to the work’s intended sound. In any case, what Lark and Yang offer here is a kind of celebration of exoticism (though the piece does not include any genuine Gypsy tunes). Their joie de vivre, or perhaps joie de jouer, is evident throughout, and the Ravel makes a fine conclusion to a disc that celebrates the performers as much as the music they perform.
The Lark-Yang disc is something of a mixed bag in terms of repertoire, and a Lark-Thurber disc is even more so. This CD also has Baroque music as punctuation points – in this case, seven Bach Two-Part Inventions among the 13 tracks. But it is the other six pieces here that primarily reflect the inventiveness of violinist Lark and bass player Thurber. Of those six, one called Wooden Soldier was written by the performers and Eddie Barbash, while the other five were composed by Lark and Thurber alone: Tumble Time, Cedar & Sage, Weather Vane, Tom & Nancied, and Until We Meet Again. The six new pieces provide a more-thorough exploration of Lark’s Appalachian roots than the single work by her on the Lark-Yang disc, and these new pieces also explore American themes and ones outside the classical-music realm, in so doing contrasting with Bach’s foundational role in the classical-music world. There is nothing particularly new in the idea of expanding classical performance practices into non-classical areas, and nothing very unusual about merging genres or acknowledging Bach’s importance while creating music to which his underpinning is not particularly relevant. The question for listeners will be whether this CD hangs together well and whether it offers any exceptional musical material and/or highly convincing performances. The disc falls a bit short on all those levels: it has all the hallmarks of a highly personal production, one in which the performers clearly believe and one that speaks to their personal interests and their desire to make music together. So far, so good. But there is nothing particularly distinctive about the non-Bach compositions here, and while the Bach performances are fine, they are not sufficiently distinguished to make the disc worth owning on their account. The feeling on this disc is one of a jam session, despite the non-improvisational nature of the music: these are two friends hanging out together and making music for fun and for their own pleasure, giving an audience an opportunity to listen in on them. For fans of Lark and Thurber, or ones interested in hearing a varied but quite short (only 32-minute) recording of skilled violin-and-bass playing, this (+++) CD will be enjoyable. But the whole project seems designed for a very limited audience. It comes across as something created by Lark and Thurber for themselves and a small circle of friends, a disc giving an intimate look at (or listen to) some highly personal one-on-one music-making, but not one reaching out – or intending to reach out – much beyond the two participants themselves, along with their inner circle.
The violin gets mixed with more than the piano on a new (+++) Métier CD featuring music by Philip Grange – and the one solo string work here is not for violin but for cello. Called Elegy, it is an extended (10-minute) piece that, like much contemporary writing for strings, takes the instrument’s traditional range and sound as starting points and then seeks ways to expand both. That means considerable use of the cello’s high range rather than its mellower and more emotionally evocative low notes, and athematic writing in which there is plenty of use of pizzicato, glissando and other techniques. There is nothing notably elegiac in the music. Grange uses extramusical sources for the works heard here, and apparently expects audiences to be familiar enough with those sources to pick up ways in which the music reflects them: composer John Casken, writers Edward Thomas and Samuel Beckett, and painter Marc Chagall. This last is the only one to whom a piece’s title makes a direct reference. The work is Piano Trio: Homage to Chagall, and it is in four movements with standard tempo indications (Moderato, Scherzo: Sempre leggiermente, Adagio and Con fuoco) but a structure that belies the apparently traditional elements. In the first movement, the instruments play individually and sound as if they come together only coincidentally. The second, shortest movement is indeed light, with a prominent but scattered-sounding piano part. The third has none of the lyrical or emotional quality that might be expected in a slow movement, and little warmth except, to a limited extent, in the cello part. The finale, like the first movement, is essentially a series of individual, always-dissonant parts for the three instruments, one or another of which occasionally comes to the fore as the others subside before they in turn move forward. The connection of all this with Chagall is less than apparent. Adding a fourth instrument, Tiers of Time is for piano, violin, viola and cello, and is in a single movement that, again, is always dissonant, themeless and little concerned with blending or mingling of the instruments. Indeed, like much other contemporary music, this and the other Grange works sound more like collations of sound than like any recognizably structured piece with definitive beginning, middle or end. Under those circumstances, the last and longest work on the CD, Shifting Thresholds, is in many ways the most interesting (because it uses the most instruments) and the most honest (because two of its four movements are marked Movement in shifting tempi). This more-than-half-hour-long piece is written for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and cello, but Grange seems to have little concern for the extended tonal palette available to him through use of a larger instrumental complement: the basic sound of the piece, in terms of the notes played and pacing, differs little from that of Elegy for solo cello or the other works for smaller groupings than Shifting Thresholds employs. There is today a built-in audience for music that is avowedly and enthusiastically contemporary, that dispenses with rhythm and harmony and identifiable themes and longstanding structural elements in favor of a kind of perpetual disconnectedness of sound. That is the audience for Grange’s music – that, and those who are sufficiently in-the-know to understand the nonmusical inspirations for these pieces. There are some interesting sonic explorations in Grange’s works, especially in Shifting Thresholds, but there is not very much meat on the musical bones of these offerings – not enough to provide a satisfying compositional meal to listeners, except those already familiar with Grange’s work or always ready to embrace contemporaneity for its own sake.