October 03, 2019


Dvořák: String Quartet in F, Op. 96 (“American”); Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81. Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lipsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello); Joyce Yang, piano. Foghorn Classics. $16.99.

Music for String Quartet by Ian Erickson, Marga Richter, Jennifer Castellano, Brian Field, and Mari Tamaki. Sirius Quartet (Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Jeremy Harman, cello). Navona. $14.99.

Music for Marimba and other instruments by Hamilton de Holanda, Bill Douglas, Paul Simon, Mongo Santamaria, Chick Corea, Julie Spencer, George Gershwin, and Pat Metheny. Mika Stoltzman, marimba; Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Steve Gadd, drums; Eddie Gomez, bass; Duke Gadd, percussion; Hamilton de Holanda, 10-string Brazilian mandolin; Sybarite String Quartet (Sarah Whitney and Monica Davis, violins; Angela Picket, viola; Yves Dharamraj, cello). Big Round Records. $14.99.

Music for Violin and Viola by Ashkan Behzadi, David Bird, and Clara Iannotta. andPlay (Maya Bennardo, violin; Hannah Levinson, viola). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Two intriguing examples of the way in which location influences composition – or fails to do so – are offered by the Alexander String Quartet, in one case with pianist Joyce Yang, on a new Foghorn Classics release of music by Dvořák. The pairing is an interesting one: Dvořák wrote his “American” quartet during a three-month stay in Iowa, in a community called Spillville that had seen a significant influx of Bohemian immigrants. The predominant language in Spillville when Dvořák visited was Czech, so the town provided a setting both Czech and American for the composer. The Piano Quintet in A, on the other hand, was written at Dvořák’s summer home in the Czech countryside. So if the location of composition matters, one might expect considerable differences between the two works – but in reality, both are finely made, somewhat bucolic and filled with Dvořák’s usual warmth and lyricism, but neither shows any strong sense of place. It is worth remembering that Dvořák’s best-known symphony bears the title “From the New World,” not of: it is very much a Czech symphony of its time that just happens to use some thematic material gathered in the United States. The “American” quartet does not even go that far: it uses elements that Dvořák thought would sound American, but are not actually taken from New World sources. The intersection of biography and music is always an interesting subject for speculation, but it is not ultimately very meaningful in the case of these works. What matters here are the performances, which are very fine in both works: well-paced, very well balanced, fully cognizant of the easy flow and lyrical beauty of both pieces, and thoroughly involved in the “conversational” elements of the music. These are well-conceived and carefully managed interpretations that retain a sense of apparent spontaneity while proceeding with all the expressiveness and understanding a listener could want. The richness of the Alexander String Quartet’s sound, and the seamless integration of Joyce Yang into the strings in the quintet, produce a highly pleasing and involving listening experience that sheds no particular new interpretative light on the music but that burnishes both pieces until they glow with warmth and beauty.

     The string quartet is used quite differently on a new (+++) Navona CD featuring the Sirius Quartet in music by five 21st-century composers. There are two works here that are actually labeled as string quartets: No. 3 by Marga Richter and No. 1 by Brian Field. Richter’s third quartet, like the Dvořák works, is associated with a specific place: in Richter’s case, a summer home in Vermont. But like Dvořák, Richter does not noticeably present anything especially impressionistic here. The quartet moves from the near-standstill sound of its first movement – which Richter says does reflect the stillness of a moment in Vermont, although this will not be evident to listeners – to a disturbed-sounding second movement and then a finale with stretched-to-the-limit forms including waltz, tango and march. The overall feeling of the work is largely one of uncertainty and dislocation. The string writing is assured, although the instrumental sounds are often, apparently by design, rather shrill. Field’s first quartet is in four movements rather than three, although, like Richter, Field simply numbers them, not giving them tempo indications or titles. Pizzicato elements dominate the first movement, legato ones the second, contrasting rhythms the third, and a sense of speed the fourth. The piece is fairly tightly knit from a structural standpoint but has little emotional heft – and apparently is intended more to engage the intellect than to capture or evoke any particular feelings. Also on the disc is a three-movement work that is a kind of “quartet suite,” Images by Paul Klee by Jennifer Castellano. Klee was in fact a musician – a violinist – and saw relationships between aural and visual art; that is what Castellano tries to explore here. A knowledge of the specific Klee works to which each movement refers is necessary to get the full effect of this piece. The movements are “Twittering Machine,” based on a painting from 1922; “Dream City,” relating to a 1921 work; and “Fugue in Red,” a reference to a 1911 work. Castellano’s music is written in strict twelvetone, and that is all that listeners will hear if they do not know what the movements are supposed to evoke. There is nothing particularly birdlike and not much machinelike in the first movement, although the second movement does have some of the sense of calm that dreams can bring. The finale is fugue-like but without harmony, creating a strange impression that goes by in a quick minute-and-a-half without ever quite settling down. The other two pieces on the disc are single-movement works. Ian Erickson’s bears the strange title öðlo, the second letter being an Old English one that still exists in Icelandic and is pronounced “th.” The title, which has no meaning, is more interesting than the music, which is just one of innumerable dissonant pieces that seem more concerned with stretching the boundaries of string playing than with communicating anything other than chaos to an audience. Finally, Mari Tamaki’s sneak into the Q-City is another work with an odd title (starting with a small letter) and another inspired by art (the title is that of a painting by Japanese artist Iori Mamiya). As with the Klee-inspired music, this piece requires familiarity with its visual inspiration to make any real sense – although Tamaki’s willingness to mix episodes of warmth and introspective lyricism with harsher material results in a piece that flows well and expressively. All the performances on the disc are strongly committed and effective ones, even when the music itself is less than fully involving.

     There are strings of several sorts on a (+++) Big Round Records release featuring jazz arrangements of eight works in which the instruments that assume the foreground role are the marimba and clarinet. Two of the pieces use a full string quartet in addition to marimba, clarinet and other instruments. They are Bill Douglas’ Return to Bahia, a moderately paced and modestly scored work, and Chick Corea’s Spain, arranged by Tim Garland, in which the clarinet’s warmth is juxtaposed both with the marimba and with strings – this version has some distinct swing to it. Then there are two pieces using both a string bass and a 10-string Brazilian mandolin – the latter played by Hamilton de Holanda, composer of one of the works, Taperebá. Aside from the mandolin elements, this piece has little exotic about it – the background jazz-ensemble material is straightforward. More interesting is Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, arranged by Steve Gadd, which opens on drums and uses the clarinet to good effect in providing rhythmic contrasts to the percussion. The other pieces here are a mixed bag – in fact, the entire CD is really a pastiche, held together only by some similarities of instrumentation. Afro Blue by Mongo Santamaria, arranged by David Matthews, is slow and moderately sultry. Julie Spencer’s DJ Dog Demokracy, arranged by Mike Stoltzman, has an insistent beat over which the marimba weaves a variety of carefully punctuated lines. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, or rather a bit of it – as arranged by Kazunori Maruyama – tries unsuccessfully to out-jazz the original jazz elements, succeeding primarily in showing how much subtler and more elegant Gershwin was than this adaptation is. The final work on the CD is the gentlest and most affecting: Pat Metheny’s Letter from Home, arranged by Peter John Stoltzman just for marimba and clarinet, is warm and touching, the intermingling of the instruments handled very effectively and with a genuine-sounding feeling of caring and concern. This CD has elements that jazz lovers, marimba lovers and clarinet lovers will enjoy – in fact, it helps to be devoted to all three of those elements to get the full flavor of this material.

     There are also just two instruments on a (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring four recent compositions for violin and viola. The performers, violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson, call themselves “andPlay,” and play they certainly do. To what effect, though, is definitely a matter of taste and opinion. They open with Crescita Plastica (2015) by Ashkan Behzadi (born 1983) – commissioned by the performers. This is a thoroughly straightforward contemporary expand-the-range-of-instruments piece in which the primary objective seems to be to avoid, as much as possible, any hint of expressiveness, tonal warmth or elegance in sound. All the usual sweeps, glissandi, yawps and yipes of contemporary music are present in abundance; they are as engaging or off-putting, depending on one’s predilections, as similar techniques used by innumerable other composers. Matters are similar in two works by David Bird (born 1990), also commissioned by Bennardo and Levinson. Bezier (2013) starts with electronic-sounding scratches, squeals and squeaks that are in fact generated acoustically – string players will likely cringe at the thought of what is being done to some high-quality instruments. Then there is silence, followed by a touch of sound, then more silence, and so on, leading eventually to a central section in which the instruments wind around and engorge each other, after which they fall silent again, this time for some 20 seconds, before beginning a section in which they imitate birdcalls. And so forth. Apocrypha (2017) really does use electronics, which enhance (extend?) the violin and viola, engage in dialogue (trialogue?) with them, expand the overall sonic palette, and make the whole work sound remarkably like dozens, if not hundreds, of other pieces written for acoustic instruments plus electronics over the last half-century or so. This is the longest piece on the CD, running nearly 17 minutes, and by the time it offers an actually painful electronic tone at about 13 minutes in, all but the most strongly committed fans of contemporaneity will likely have had more than enough. The fourth piece on the disc, and the only one not commissioned by the performers, is Limun (2011) by Clara Iannotta (born 1983). Like Bird’s Bezier, it open with sounds that cannot and should not be mistaken for music: squeals, squeaks, the inevitable harmonics and glissandi, and more. The first half of Limun is a series of contrasts between loud and soft, all in the context of phrasing that mostly sounds as if the instruments are perpetually tuning up. The second half is substantially quieter, not so much delicate as exhausted-sounding, with very long note values and an overall sense of stasis. It would be unfair to dismiss all these pieces out of hand. Clearly Bennardo and Levinson believe in them: “andPlay” plays them with élan and considerable skill – extracting such sounds from a mere violin and viola is scarcely an easy task. But it is reasonable to ask whether the performers are looking for any audience besides themselves for these works and this CD. Assertive modernity may be its own reward for some composers and some players, but listeners who are not already thoroughly committed to material of this type will rightfully approach it with some trepidation, wondering what sort of communication the music offers and what the composers and performers are trying to say. The answer here seems to be that they are simply saying they create and play material like this because they can, certainly not with any deference to anyone outside the inner circle of those who are already “true believers” in works like these.

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