October 17, 2019


Clara Schumann: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann; Robert Schumann: Impromptus on a Theme by Clara Wieck; Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses; Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann; Nico Muhly: Small Variations; Vijay Iyer: Hallucination Party (from a Theme by R. Schumann). Mishka Rushdie Momen, piano. SOMM. $18.98.

Dora Bright: Piano Concerto No. 1; Variations for Piano and Orchestra; Ruth Gipps: Piano Concerto; Ambarvalia. Samantha Ward and Murray McLachlan, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Peebles. SOMM. $18.98.

Music for Oboe and English Horn by Pavel Haas, Glen Roven, Asha Srinivasan, Vladimír Soukup, and Hugo Godron. Sara Fraker, oboe and English horn; Casey Robards, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Bassoon with Piano, Percussion and Electronics by Graeme Shields, Jess Hendricks, Steven Moellering, Gene Koshinski, Bruce Grainger, Brad Bombardier, and Steven Sondheim. Jefferson Campbell, bassoon; Alexander Sandor, piano; Gene Koshinski, percussion. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     One of the great love stories in classical music is that of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck, later Clara Schumann. It was almost a love triangle, of a sort: Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms were a mutual admiration society musically, and after Schumann’s death in 1856, Brahms became even closer than he had been to Clara – who outlived her husband by 40 years. For Brahms, a lifelong bachelor with a notoriously prickly personality, it is probably no exaggeration to declare Clara the love of his life, albeit on a strictly platonic and musical basis. It is always fraught with peril to try to draw too close a relationship between composers’ lives and their music, but in the case of the Schumanns and Brahms, doing so is inevitable – for reasons made crystal-clear by a particularly thoughtfully produced SOMM recording featuring pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen. Everything here revolves around Robert Schumann, either directly or indirectly. Clara Schumann’s Variations, Op. 20, were a birthday present to her husband in 1853. They directly inspired Brahms’ Variations, Op. 9. Robert Schumann’s Impromptus, Op. 5, originally date to 1832, when the composer was 22 years old and his future wife just 13 – but already a fine musician who did indeed create the theme on which this work is based. The Impromptus are modeled on Beethoven’s Eroica variations, and that is the rather tenuous connection they have with Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Op. 54, which spring from the same model. The very recent pieces (both written in 2019) by Nico Muhly (born 1981) and Vijay Iyer (born 1971) are also tenuously connected to Robert Schumann, but in a different sense than is the Mendelssohn work: both sort of take off from the same theme that inspired Clara Schumann, but both are concerned primarily with using contemporary techniques to twist, turn and taffy-pull the theme in ways that render it largely unrecognizable (the opposite of what happens in traditional variation sets). Momen is to be commended for the quality of her playing as well as the quality of the works in this recital – it is really only the Mendelssohn that seems, intellectually, a bit out of place, but she plays it with such warmth and style that it is worth having here. The very best performance on the disc, though, is of the Clara Schumann Variations, whose simplicity and beauty go hand-in-hand and whose understated loving tone provides considerable insight into the closeness of the relationship (both musical and marital) between the Schumanns. The remaining 19th-century works all get essentially similar treatment from Momen, but it does not work quite as well in them. The quieter, slower sections of the Mendelssohn are first-rate, but the Agitato fifth variation and Poco a poco più agitato Variation 15 are entirely too calm and collected. In the Brahms Variations, Momen fails to distinguish between Andante and slower tempos: even when Brahms clearly marks the eighth variation Andante (non troppo lento), Momen keeps the pace quite slow, and there is little differentiation between Variation 14’s Andante and Variation 15’s Poco Adagio. The Schumann Impromptus are generally more convincing, although the power called for in No. VIII, Mit grosser Kraft, is understated at best. As for the two contemporary works, Iyer’s Hallucination Party is mostly concerned with drawing attention to itself; Muhly’s Small Variations has a better sense of the quiet and warmth of Robert Schumann’s original theme from Bunte Blätter. This is a notably interesting recording, even though it is not difficult to nitpick a number of its individual contents and performances. Momen is not only a skillful pianist but also, on the basis of this disc, a particularly thoughtful one.

     The Variations for Piano and Orchestra by Dora Bright (1862-1951), heard on another new SOMM recording, fit the 19th-century model for this musical form well even though they were written in the 20th (in 1910). They are closer than Clara Schumann’s very personal Variations to being salon-like music, which simply means they are pleasant and easy to listen to in a rather impersonal way. The theme is marked Semplice and the seven variations themselves, by and large, equally merit that designation. There is certainly prettiness here, and even some elegance, but only in the sixth variation, marked Lento, is there much feeling of emotional involvement. The extended concluding variation-and-finale, representing six-and-half minutes of the whole work’s 16-and-a-half, maintains an upbeat and cheerful tone pretty much throughout – which makes the unexpected delicacy at the very end quite surprising, and the most interesting element of the whole piece. Samantha Ward plays this world première recording very adeptly, and is well supported by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Charles Peebles. Ward and Peebles also make a fine team in Bright’s more-substantial Piano Concerto No. 1 – also a world première recording – although here, too, Bright offers rather superficial pleasures, even pleasantries, rather than anything more profound. This is not to denigrate the concerto, which is very well written and nicely paced, and shows some real skill in orchestration. The surface-level appeal of the music, however, may help explain why this work has lain in obscurity for so long. This recording makes as good a case for it as it will likely get, and it is certainly a piece worth hearing for anyone interested in the byways of Romantic piano music, but there is little in the concerto that would likely encourage more-frequent performances of it. The other concerto on the CD, by Ruth Gipps (1921-1999), is somewhat more substantial and, indeed, at times on the portentous side, as in its strong orchestral opening and intense piano entry (here the pianist is Murray McLachlan). The first movement is by far the longest of the three here (as is also the case in the Bright concerto), and it is well-orchestrated and features some attractively lyrical elements – plus a section in which the piano is accompanied by timpani, along the lines of Beethoven’s first-movement cadenza for his piano arrangement of his Violin Concerto. Gipps’ second movement features some pleasant woodwind touches, and indeed the word “pleasant” describes much of the concerto as a whole. The bright, lively and cheerful finale leaves a particularly positive impression of the whole piece. The CD concludes with a work sans piano: Ambarvalia, a late piece by Gipps (written in 1988 as an in memoriam). This is the third world première recording on the disc (Gipps’ concerto was recorded once before), and it is in some ways the most attractive work of all those here. Written for small orchestra, with celeste but otherwise without percussion, it has a mood of simplicity and acceptance about it rather than anything tragic or monumental. The title, which refers to an ancient Roman festival of blessing of the fields, helps explain the somewhat pastoral impression of the music. This is a subtle and understated memorial work of considerable sensitivity – and a piece perhaps more likely to bear repeated hearings than are the three other, more-ambitious works on this CD.

     There is a fairly ambitious agenda underlying a new MSR Classics CD featuring oboist Sara Fraker and pianist Casey Robards – but the grandiose overlay is somewhat at odds with the comparatively modest music. Titled “Botanica,” the disc is supposed somehow to call on notions of environmental and social justice (whatever those slippery concepts may mean to different listeners). But it really does no such thing: it simply presents six works, by five composers, that in some cases are supposed to call up sociopolitical thoughts and in others are not. The single composer represented by two works is Pavel Haas (1899-1944), who has recently received new attention in large part because of his death in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. However, that particular sociopolitical element is not the point here: the two Haas works open and close this disc in a way that shows the composer’s considerable skill at wind-and-piano writing in which the oboe or English horn stands in for voice. The Suite for Oboe and Piano (1939) was apparently originally written for tenor; certainly the oboe here seems to declaim unheard words, while the first two movements’ tempo indications – Furioso and Con fuoco – indicate what sorts of words are absent, before the Moderato finale brings a level of calm, or perhaps resignation and acceptance. Four Songs on Works of Chinese Poetry (1944) was actually written in Terezin, for bass voice and piano. Fraker has cleverly arranged the vocal part for English horn, an instrument that does a good job of communicating the underlying (although unheard) words, especially in the third and fourth songs, “Far Is My Home, O Moon,” and “A Sleepless Night.” One other work on the CD is from the same time period as those by Haas: Suite Bucolique (1939) by Hugo Godron (1900-1971). This is a considerably lighter piece than either of those by Haas, its four short movements having a pleasantly outdoorsy aura without attempting to paint any specific pictures. The remaining three works on this CD are, on the whole, less effective. Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1970) by Vladimír Soukup (1930-2012) offers two contrasting-tempo movements in standard 20th-century musical language. And then there are two works commissioned for this recording and therefore partaking more closely of its intended nonmusical meaning. Braiding (2017) by Asha Srinivasan (born 1980) is for oboe, electronics and natural sounds; it is inspired by a book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It communicates nothing of particular note (or notes) to listeners unfamiliar with that book. And Elegy for Oboe and Piano (2018) is one of the last works by Glen Roven (1957-2018), a bit ironically in light of its title and its conclusion with a Bach-like chorale. It is intended to further Fraker’s purpose: the two movements are called “Blight-Killed Eucalypts” and “Pale Pink, Dark Pink.” But really, the music does not speak in any meaningful way to environmental issues: its elegiac nature could apply to just about anything.

     Piano and winds appear in much lighter guise on another new MSR Classics CD, this one featuring bassoonist Jefferson Campbell. This disc is chock-full of commissioned pieces: Campbell has been arranging for contemporary composers to create music that bassoonists will enjoy playing. He and his accompanists – Alexander Sandor on piano and Gene Koshinski on percussion – do seem to get considerable pleasure from playing these works. Listeners enamored of the sound of the bassoon and interested in hearing works written for it in today’s musical styles (popular as well as classical) will also enjoy the disc. There is nothing particularly profound here, but there is a fair amount of fun to be had. There are four multi-movement pieces on the disc. Four Onomatopoeias for Bassoon and Piano by Graeme Shields (born 1992) is by far the most interestingly titled, both overall and in its four movements: “Buh-uh,” “Ba Doo-ah,” “Wah Bit-itty Doo-Wah,” and “Gah-da-Bah.” Yes, the music sounds as you would imagine it to sound based on those silly but evocative titles. Concertino for Bassoon and Electronics by Jess Hendricks (born 1972) also tries to reflect the titles of its three movements: “Aria,” “Dance and Fugue,” and “Adventurous.” Here, though, the electronics get somewhat in the way of the bassoon’s expressiveness, although the finale certainly seems adventurous enough. Sonata for Bassoon and Piano by Steven Moellering (born 1977) is the most conservatively planned piece on the disc, with movements called “Improvisation,” “Lullaby,” and “Rondo.” It uses both bassoon and piano well in music that nicely reflects the movement titles. Pocket Grooves for Bassoon and Percussion by Gene Koshinski (born 1981) – the percussionist on this recording – has titles that will not likely be clear to many listeners: “Joropo” (a fandango-like Venezuelan dance), “Samai” (a Turkish form), and “Choro” (Brazilian popular music). All the music “grooves” in a jazz sense, with the percussion elements equal to if not more prominent than those given to the bassoon. There are four other pieces on the disc. Get It! for Bassoon and Percussion is an additional, short work by Koshinski. A Steamboat Lullaby for Bassoon and Piano is by Bruce Grainger (born 1954) as arranged by Truman Bullard. Bassoon Rawk for Bassoon and Bassoon Ensemble by Brad Bombardier (born 1960) has one of those titles that could indicate anything from a raptor’s cry to “rock,” as in rock music. And Send in the Clowns by Steven Sondheim (born 1930), arranged by Campbell, has become one of those inevitable crossover tunes offered by all sorts of instruments and ensembles – rarely, however, to the same effect as the original. Bassoonists will likely have more fun with this release than will listeners in general, but there are elements in all four of the longer works that are interesting and attractive even for an audience of non-bassoon players.

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