November 21, 2019


Mendelssohn: Complete Organ Sonatas. Hans Davidsson, organ. Loft Recordings. $18.99.

Christmas with the 5 Browns. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Devonté Hynes: For All Its Fury; Perfectly Voiceless; There Was Nothing. Third Coast Percussion (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore). Cedille. $16.

Jonathan Östlund: Voyages. Divine Art. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Maija Hynninen: Winnowing; …Sicut Aurora Procedit—As the Dawn Breaks; Orlando-fragments; Freedom from Fear. Maija Hynninen, electronics. Ravello. $14.99.

     An exceptional reconsideration of Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas within a religious context and by viewing them as essentially a single very large work, Hans Davidsson’s performance on the excellent 1806 Schiörlin organ in Gammalkil, Sweden is revelatory in many ways. The organ has, thankfully, not been spoiled through numerous updates, although it has been restored several times and a few non-historical elements have been added. Still, a plan to make the action pneumatic was abandoned, and the organ retains enough of its original sound to make it a superb instrument for performing Mendelssohn’s infrequently heard sonata cycle. Individual sonatas from the sequence occasionally find their way into organ recitals, but the 80-minute entirety is a rarity – yet it is decidedly more than the sum of its parts in Davidsson’s interpretation. The fact that the sonatas draw in part on Bach chorales is well-known, but the relationship between the sonatas’ themes and those of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang” – actually a kind of symphony/cantata – is less often remarked upon and explored. Davidsson finds the themes from that work and integrates them seamlessly into the totality, all while showing the distinctive ways in which the sonatas blend Bach-derived material with movements that sound much like Mendelssohn’s own “songs without words.” Davidsson shows that the sonatas are essentially two cycles made into a grand, larger whole: the first three sonatas form one grouping whose focus is human turmoil and despair, concluding with the eventual triumph over darkness through Christian affirmation; the second set of three is more joyful and positive, even though the third and longest of the second group is in D minor – fittingly, since it ends by recalling the sacrifice of Christ that is musically depicted in the very first sonata and makes human joyfulness possible. This interpretation also makes the very end of the cycle satisfying rather than puzzling: the conclusion of the last sonata is restrained, contemplative and rather pastoral, seemingly an odd capstone for such a large and impressive grouping of works – but in Davidsson’s reading, it stands as a kind of quiet, satisfied “amen” after all that has gone before, and this makes it wholly understandable and a more-than-satisfactory peroration. This very impressive exploration of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas sheds considerable light both on the music and on the thinking and belief underlying the cycle.

     The 5 Browns – sibling pianists Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan – seek nothing as deep as this with their new Christmas CD on the Steinway & Sons label. But Christmas is, after all, a religious holiday for many millions of people, and the arrangements on this disc are nicely balanced between the sacred and the secular. They are also well-thought-out in terms of how the five performers’ talents are deployed: For Unto Us a Child Is Born from Handel’s Messiah, arranged by Carl Czerny, uses only a single piano – played six-hands (by Desirae, Deondra and Melody) – while O Holy Night is heard on two pianos (Desirae and Deondra) and Silent Night and Max Reger’s Mariae Wiegenlied are both played as solo works (by Gregory). These religious works all garner sensitive and caring performances, as do Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Still, Still, Still – the latter played by all five performers on five pianos, as are works with a more-secular orientation, including A Carol Symphony and the Skater’s Waltz by Émile Waldteufel. The other tracks here are four movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite; Sleigh Ride; Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; Greensleeves; and Carol of the Bells. Although this exploration of piano sonorities and Christmas-themed music does not stray far from a well-trod seasonal path, it mixes the religious and secular elements of holiday celebrations to fine effect, and provides a welcome chance to enjoy the ways in which the 5 Browns interact among themselves and also perform as soloists and in groups of fewer than five. Every year brings seasonal recordings of all sorts, of course, and this one is of considerable interest and musicality, offering more enjoyment than usual because it explores mostly familiar repertoire in some unusual ways.

     Third Coast Percussion includes just four members, but the wide variety of instruments the ensemble plays often makes it seem as if a much larger group is performing. Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore intend just about everything they do to be exploratory in nature, which is certainly the case when it comes to a new Cedille CD featuring world première recordings of three works by Devonté Hynes, who uses the stage name Blood Orange and formerly called himself Lightspeed Champion. Third Coast Percussion has made its own arrangements of these pieces by Hynes (born 1985), of which the longest by far is the 11-movement For All Its Fury. This work partakes, to a rather surprising degree, of impressionistic textures rather than a strong sense of melody or any sort of thematic development. Its repetitiveness has something of minimalism about it. Some movements, such as “Wane,” are nothing but atmosphere; others evoke specific scenes – “Curl” has a background that sounds like a rainstorm, with foreground water drops; still others offer contrasting sounds with some underlying similarity, as in “Gather” followed by “Tremble.” Strictly on a sonic basis, For All Its Fury has many attractive elements, and Third Coast Percussion shows its usual skill in adapting and performing the material. But the music itself is not especially interesting – it may have been more effective when heard in the dance collaboration for which Hynes composed it. The one-movement Perfectly Voiceless is a more-interesting work: here the minimalist elements are not pervasive, and there is enough tunefulness to attract listeners with something beyond the sheer sound of the instruments. The piece goes on a bit too long for its content – 11½ minutes – but it is not as long as the 14-minute There Was Nothing, whose extensive synthesizer use gives it a sound distinct from the rest of the material on the CD but does not make it particularly engaging. The pleasures of this (+++) disc lie more in the performing than in the material performed: Hynes is a creditable composer who has absorbed various contemporary approaches to music, but the distinctiveness of the material here seems more to be due to the performers than to the creator of the material they play.

     Hynes does seem to have some interest in reaching out to a fairly wide audience, which is not always the case with today’s composers. It is rather difficult, for example, to be sure at whom a (+++) two-disc Divine Art release of the music of Jonathan Östlund (born 1975) is directed. There is a very large amount of music here – more than two-and-a-half hours – and the pieces are exploratory in the sense that they are written for many instruments and groupings, including solo material, chamber music, and vocal works. Many are geographical explorations as well, inspired by scenes of nature, and many reflect impressions that are easily gleaned from their titles: Visions on the Wind starts with a somewhat spooky vocalise before the piano holds forth, for example, while Veils of Night uses strings to produce a slightly ominous feeling. Östlund sometimes pays tribute to earlier composers (Air on a Grieg Theme for solo violin, Fantasia on Bach’s “Badinerie” for piano) and sometimes to other forms of older music (Folklore Fantasia, Two Fantasias on Ancient Hymns). Some of his work is seasonally oriented (Autumnal Aire, Après l’hiver, Winter Cathedral). Some incorporates sounds of nature (L’al di là Theme, Syrinx et Pan). Some items call on Östlund’s Swedish heritage (Gate of Northern Lights, Erlkönig). Some pieces are small collections of musical thoughts (the pretty little five-movement Jeux pour deux, the three-movement Sonatine Lyrique). Some are more-extended single movements of somewhat greater depth, even a touch of melancholy (Dacian Prayer, Oblivion). The music is mostly tonal and accessible, but this collection is so wide-ranging that it is difficult to get a handle on it. There are 36 tracks spread between the two discs, which means that almost everything is brief: despite the overall length of the collection, not a single piece lasts as long as 10 minutes. The effect is one of hearing a lengthy series of vignettes or encores, all of them well-played and all created by a composer who writes effectively, if at times rather simply, for the various instruments he employs. Nothing really connects with anything else here, except presumably in Östlund’s own mind. The material is often atmospheric, sometimes attractive, never really deep or intense. The CDs are pleasant to listen to but leave little behind when they are finished – and little reason to return to the music in the hope of finding something more in it the second time around.

     Composer Maija Hynninen (born 1977) explores some mostly familiar contemporary territory on a new (+++) Ravello CD by combining her own performances on electronics with acoustical material in three duets and one work for voice and chamber ensemble. Winnowing (2010) uses piano (played by Jaana Kärkkäinen); …Sicut Aurora Procedit—As the Dawn Breaks (2015), whose title begins with an ellipsis, uses violin (Mirka Malmi); and Freedom from Fear (2017) uses oboe (Kyle Bruckmann). The piano material consists largely of dissonant chords; the violin is at first featured very high in its range and in harmonics, then becomes part of a kind of dialogue with electronic sounds and vocal material; the oboe often sounds electronic even though it is not, its range frequently stretched in a way favored by many contemporary composers who seek to force acoustic instruments (and their players, and the audiences listening to them) beyond their comfort zone. Hynninen does have specific purposes for these duets and specific things she wants to communicate, but the music itself – without the gloss supplied by the composer – really does not put across any specific story or commentary on its own. Also like many other modern composers, Hynninen sees some of her music as just part of a presentation: Freedom from Fear is written for oboe, electronics, and lights, so it is intended as a theatrical event rather than anything that might work well in a nonvisual medium. Conceptually, the most interesting work here is Orlando-fragments (2010), based loosely (very loosely) on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando. It consists of five movements, using generally unintelligible-by-design lyrics by Henriikka Tavi, delivered with a combination of Sprechstimme and vocalise-style declamation by soprano Tuuli Lindeberg. In addition to Hynninen on electronics, the accompaniment comes from Hanna Kinnunen, flute; Lily-Marlene Puusepp, electric harp; Mikko Raasakka,  clarinet and bass clarinet; and Anna Kuvaja, piano. The work is clearly intended seriously, but its formulaic use of hyper-modern vocal and instrumental techniques that are now rather passé means that it sounds almost like a parody of a contemporary piece. Woolf’s 1928 novel is a grand, satirical exploration of English literature through the centuries, featuring a central character who swaps genders (male to female) at age 30 and lives for centuries without aging – giving him/her the chance to experience changing literary tastes first-hand. But neither Tavi nor Hynninen makes much effort to explore the literary or satirical elements of the book, and Orlando-fragments, although more ambitious than the other works on this CD, is ultimately no likelier to attract an audience beyond listeners who simply prefer to hear the way many contemporary composers create their soundworlds.

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