October 31, 2019


Dvořák: Complete Chamber Music for Piano and Strings—Piano Trios Nos. 1-4; Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2; Bagatelles. Busch Trio (Mathieu van Bellen, violin; Ori Epstein, cello; Omri Epstein, piano); Miguel da Silva, viola; Maria Milstein, violin. Alpha. $39.99 (4 CDs).

Limitless: Duos Performed with the Composers. Jennifer Koh, violin. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

James O’Callaghan: subject / object; On notes to selves; AMONG AM A; Alone and unalone. Ensemble Paramirabo (Jeffrey Stonehouse, flutes; Victor Alibert, clarinets; Geneviève Liboiron, violin; Viviana Gosselin, cello; Daniel Áñez, piano; David Therrien-Brongo, percussion). Ravello. $14.99.

     The longstanding notion of chamber music as a conversational form, in which instruments assume virtually equal roles and pass material back and forth and among themselves, is one of those customs often “more honored in the breach than the observance,” certainly in modern times. Even in the early 19th century, composers experimented with balance among instruments in chamber pieces and with the overall feeling of chamber music, which could verge upon the symphonic in both length and depth – Beethoven’s late quartets being a case study. As the 1800s went on, composers increasingly considered new groupings of instruments and new forms within which to display them, particularly including nationalistic elements as those rose in importance. By Dvořák’s time, folk rhythms and actual folk tunes were beginning to appear much more frequently in chamber music, and the patterns for creating chamber forms were widening. These are just a few of the observations occasioned by an excellent new Alpha release featuring the Busch Trio – augmented as necessary – in all of Dvořák’s chamber music for piano and strings. Having all this material in a single set is unusual; having it played this well is delightful. The players here, although chronologically young, have depth and maturity in all these performances, with particular exuberance when called for in some of the composer’s own more-youthful works. Among those are the first two surviving piano trios (two earlier ones were apparently destroyed), the first of which, in B-flat, shows Dvořák trying to bring some of his more-experimental impulses under control within a traditional framework. The second, in G minor, shows the composer reaching for greater depth almost throughout (and with an occasional bow to Beethoven), until his essentially sunny musical disposition breaks through at the end. The Busch Trio captures the moods of these works to fine effect, sweeping listeners along through movements that are more-or-less standardized structurally but that reach well beyond standardization emotionally. The third trio, in F minor, is emotionally deeper than the second and more Brahmsian than Beethovenian. The fourth trio is quite different from all the earlier ones. Written in E minor and known as the “Dumky,” it is a set of six versions of the dumka dance, all in similar style and without the connective harmonic tissue of the earlier trios, but all so varied in melody and use of the instruments that they come across as very different even though, on an underlying basis, they are structurally the same. This sleight-of-hand is another element that the Busch Trio members bring off very well, with the “Dumky” trio sounding a good deal more unified than it in fact is. The only issue with the ensemble’s handling of the trios is that Mathieu van Bellen’s violin is sometimes overwhelmed by the other instruments in a way that does not seem interpretatively intentional and may be the result of the way the works were recorded. The music of all the trios is actually quite even-handed in terms of the players’ roles, so this balancing toward cello and piano is a bit “off” when it occurs. It does not, however, undermine the very fine foundational quality of the interpretations.

     For the remaining works in this four-CD set, the Busch Trio is joined by Miguel da Silva for one disc and by da Silva and Maria Milstein for the other. Improbably, the trio’s performances are even better when the guest artists are there. The two piano quartets are very, very different, and the performers have an excellent sense of this. The first, in D, dates to 1875 and is especially distinguished by a finale that includes both Scherzo elements and rhythms taken from the Furiant. The second, In E-flat, came 13 years later and is a good deal more substantial, its generally positive mood tinged with sorrow in its most-extended movement, marked Lento. The maturity of the Busch Trio is especially strongly in evidence here, giving this movement considerable weight while balancing it with the lyrical beauty so characteristic of pretty much everything Dvořák composed. The piano quintets are every bit as different as the piano quartets. The first, in A, is very early Dvořák, dating to 1872 – a time at which he wrote music that he subsequently destroyed (probably including the two missing trios). This quintet survives only because the pianist for whom Dvořák wrote the music kept a copy – and, as a result, listeners can hear the ways in which Dvořák’s not-yet-mature style was evolving, with his tendency to spin musical arguments at somewhat-too-great length not yet under control (also a characteristic of his earliest symphonies) but his ability to create beautifully lyrical themes already well-established. The second quintet, written in 1887 and also in A, is in some ways the pinnacle of Dvořák’s chamber music for piano and strings: it is significantly longer than the first quintet, running some 40 minutes, but it does not feel long, as Dvořák keeps it tightly knit and structurally sound throughout. And here his combinatorial impulses work beautifully: the Scherzo manages to meld the Furiant with a waltz, to exhilarating effect. Furthermore, the finale moves along with a sense of inevitability – not by any means always the case in Dvořák’s music – and has a wonderful slowing-down interlude that the performers here handle with just the right warmth and delicacy. Also put forth delicately are the pleasantries known as the Bagatelles, originally written for harmonium and filled with some of the same spirit as the first set of Slavonic Dances, which date to the same year (1878). These are salon-music pieces, but written at a very high level, and the Busch Trio and their guest artists treat them with the same care that they give to the more-substantial music offered here – without trivializing them, on the one hand, or giving them any undue sense of importance, on the other. This entire set is a delight, and a testimony to how well Dvořák’s chamber music with piano continues to speak to performers today.

     Some modern performers, though, are determined to take chamber music in as many new directions as possible. That seems to be the aim of violinist Jennifer Koh in an intriguing experimental two-disc Cedille recording in which she performs contemporary music, much of it composed for her, along with the composers themselves. That is an interesting idea, and it provides a window into both the compositional abilities and the performance capacity of the eight composers featured here. But what ultimately matters is not the cleverness of the notion but the “enjoyment quotient” of the music, and it is here that Koh’s presentation falls a bit short (although it still deserves a +++ rating). The listeners who will be interested in this material will include those who admire Koh and want to hear pretty much anything in which she is involved, and those who are happy hearing a fairly random sampling of contemporary compositions created with all the usual elements that modern composers have at their disposal, such as electronics, politicization, and references to highly obscure concepts. Qasim Naqvi’s The Banquet uses a modular synthesizer to try to express beauty in a time of stress. Lisa Bielawa’s three Sanctuary Songs set texts from American women poets of the 1920s to assert that music itself is a sanctuary of sorts. Du Yun’s Give Me Back My Fingerprints turns Koh’s usual warm violin tone into something screechy in seeking emotional connectedness. Tyshawn Sorey’s In Memoriam Muhal Richard Adams is an expression of gratitude to an avant-garde pianist who was the composer’s mentor. Nina Young’s Sun Propellor uses scordatura tuning and electronics to try to approximate the “throat singing” of the Tuva people of southern Siberia. Wang Lu’s three-movement Her Latitude, another piece for violin and electronics, includes aleatoric elements as well as sounds drawn from Buddhist chants, pop songs and other sources. Vijay Iyer’s A Thousand Tongues has four movements whose interesting titles (“A Dream,” “A Phantom,” “A Drop of Dew,” “A Flash of Lightning”) tie to a specific quotation from a Buddhist text that is crucial to understanding the nature of the piece. Finally, there are two works by Missy Mazzoli. A Thousand Tongues mixes amplification with a meandering violin line, while Vespers for Violin is filled with deliberately distorted electronic samples – of organs, voices, strings and more – that sound in the background as the violin meanders in the foreground. Each and every piece here is a matter of taste, and the works are sufficiently different so listeners who find themselves gripped by one or two are by no means assured of finding any others congenial. Koh’s playing and conversations-with-composers concept unite this release, but the music itself, without all its extramusical gloss, tends to pull the CD in too many different directions.

     The four James O’Callaghan works on a (+++) Ravello CD use a chamber-sized instrumental group and, like those on the Koh disc, are filled with extramusical elements, including footsteps and the sounds of chairs being moved and much more. Also like some of the Koh-plus-composers works, O’Callaghan’s rely heavily on electronics of various types. And they also have objectives, purposes they are meant to fulfill, arguments they are intended to make – which listeners need to know in order to get the effects that O’Callaghan seeks. Whether this level of study of background, intention and method is worthwhile will likely depend on how listeners respond to the sheer sound of the material. That response will determine whether they think it worthwhile to invest the time needed to understand where these works come from, why they sound the way they do, what the composer wants listeners – with whom he is, in effect, conversing – to hear, and how he expects them to hold up their end of the conversation. subject / object (no capital letters) dates to 2016 and is a multiply self-referential work, in which O’Callaghan takes one of his earlier pieces, modifies and alters it in various ways, and produces a variety of sounds that make no attempt to be musical in any traditional sense. On notes to selves (also 2016) sounds much the same and is also determinedly self-referential, even though the origin of its sonic material is different, its sounds being drawn from recordings made in various cities and playing those recordings to performers who in turn then react to the recordings as part of the performance. AMONG AM A (all capitals) dates to 2015 and is a piece about listening to pieces – by this time listeners will long since have realized that O’Callaghan is primarily concerned with a “meta” approach to music and performance rather than with music or performance in any traditionally interactive, much less conversational sense. The final piece on the CD is Alone and unalone (2019), which – like AMONG AM A – was commissioned by the group that presents it here. Once again there is a philosophical gloss – here, the difference between individual and collective experiences in listening to music, yet another “meta” matter – and once again there is electronic processing of sounds of various types, from environmental noise to bits of Handel. All four of these pieces are intended to be long enough for listeners to immerse themselves – they last from 11-and-a-half minutes to more than 23 – but in the absence of any identifiable beginning, middle or end, all four can be heard at whatever length a listener may wish, and can be started and stopped anywhere. Furthermore, all the titles can be randomly reassigned without any significant impact, since there is nothing audible in any of these works to distinguish it (from a title standpoint) from any of the others. Like many self-defined avant-garde composers, O’Callaghan creates what is essentially theatrical and situational material that may or may not be worthwhile to label “music.” The label does not really matter, just as the distinction between music and nonmusical sound is erased in these pieces and in many others of the same ilk. The philosophy, the thoughts, the settings, the plans under which these works are designed and executed are the things that matter to O’Callaghan. The actual sounds are largely secondary. Whether that results in material that should be labeled “music” at all is a matter of opinion – or, perhaps, something about which it would be worthwhile to have a conversation.

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