December 19, 2019
(+++) BY ONES AND TWOS
Bach: Partita No. 4, BWV 828; Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze; Caroline Shaw: Gustave le Gray. Amy Yang, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Leo Sowerby: Three Summer Beach Sketches; Suite for Piano—Four Hands; Passacaglia, Interlude and Fugue; Prelude for Two Pianos; Fisherman’s Tune; Synconata. Gail Quillman and Julia Tsien, pianists. Cedille. $10.
Perspectives: Music of Reena Esmail, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Jung Sun Kang, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, Florence Price, Lili Boulanger, Vivian Fine, and Amy Beach. Dawn Wohn, violin; Esther Park, piano. Delos. $14.98.
Music for Oboe and Piano by Pedro Soler, Robert K. Mueller, Edmund Rubbra, Grażyna Bacewicz, and Merab Partskhaladze. Theresa Delaplain, oboe; Tomoko Kashiwagi, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Fernando Sor: Music for Guitar. Gianluigi Giglio, guitar. SOMM. $14.98.
Figments, Volume 2: Music by Yuan-Chen Li, Peter Dayton, Hans Bakker, Navid Bargrizan, and Charles Corey. Navona. $14.99.
Listeners enamored of very fine playing and a feeling of intimacy from recordings can readily turn to CDs featuring just one or two instruments and performers – in effect, “recital” rather than “concert” discs. The enjoyment of these releases depends not only on the quality of the playing, which by and large is very fine indeed nowadays, but also on the specific musical mixtures offered by the performers. That tends to be where a recording becomes a matter of taste. For example, Amy Yang’s new MSR Classics CD is by any standards played with great sensitivity and skill. But the musical combination here is on the unusual, even quirky side, and therefore will likely appeal to some audiences but not to others. Her version of Bach’s D minor Partita No. 4, for example, nicely explores the emotional variances of this seven-movement suite, with the Allemande and contemplative Sarabande coming across particularly well. However, like all performances on a modern concert grand, Yang’s lacks the contrapuntal elegance that Bach created for the harpsichord. Yang actually keeps the sound of the piano admirably light, using the instrument to accentuate some of the delicacy and verve that Bach brings to some of the movements. Listeners who like Bach on piano will enjoy this, but those who prefer the instrument for which the music was written will find the offering here to be just an approximation. There is a strong contrast between the Bach and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, a kind of sequel to Carnaval that is less often heard. There are no fewer than 20 movements in Davidsbündlertänze, and as in the Bach, there is considerable emotional variation among them, with two marked Mit Humor and one Mit gutem Humor, while others are designated Ungeduldig (“impatient”), Zart und singend (“tender and singing”), and Wie aus der Ferne (“as if from afar”). The work as a whole nearly encapsulates the tenets of early Romanticism, and in fact Schumann designated different movements as coming from his intense, extroverted Florestan side or his more inwardly focused Eusebius. Yang’s sensitive handling of the contrasts among the pieces is even more engaging than is her treatment of Bach. The two extended, multi-movement works are separated on the CD by a world première recording of a piece commissioned by Yang herself: Gustave le Gray by Caroline Shaw (born 1982). This is a tribute to the 19th-century photographer who invented the technique of combining separate negatives into a single picture. Shaw’s musical version of this involves mixing material of her own with a Chopin Mazurka (Op. 17, No. 4, in A minor). But the result is not really creation of a whole greater than the sum of its parts, as in le Gray’s work: the Chopin and Shaw elements remain distinct, not quite an oil-and-water separation but more of a colloid than a solution. Listener enjoyment of this disc will hinge on the extent to which people find its highly personal combination of music congenial.
The enjoyment of a new Cedille release of world première recordings of music by Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) is mostly a matter of discovery – and appreciation both of the music and of the performances by Gail Quillman (who studied with Sowerby) and Julia Tsien (who studied with Quillman). Sowerby had a career as a pianist for a time (and later as an organist), and his writing for the keyboard is assured and idiomatic, if often rather backward-looking. Indeed, the earliest work on this CD, Three Summer Beach Sketches of 1915, is harmonically the most advanced-sounding. The latest work on the disc, Suite for Piano—Four Hands (played here on two pianos), dates to 1959 and has some of the typical sound of mid-20th-century compositions, but it is scarcely adventurous. There is an aleatoric element to the suite: the movements can be played in whatever order the performers wish. Here they appear in a slow-fast-slow-fast sequence that works well. There is nothing particularly profound in the music, but it is pleasant to hear and, like all Sowerby’s works on this disc, very well-constructed. The most intriguing work on the CD is Passacaglia, Interlude and Fugue, essentially a single-movement, three-part sonata that reinterprets some classic Baroque forms in accordance with 20th-century Impressionism, and contains a variety of unusual and unexpected elements, including a very quiet conclusion. Prelude for Two Pianos is shorter and somewhat more straitlaced, although it partakes of similar sensibilities. Fisherman’s Tune is shorter still, and is very upbeat and accessible. The CD concludes with the intriguingly titled Synconata, which is equally forthright and communicative, with distinct jazz elements reminiscent of some music by Gershwin – perhaps unsurprisingly, since Sowerby’s work arose from a collaboration with Paul Whiteman, through whom Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue came into being. All the performances here, which date to 1997, are enthusiastic, and all evince commitment to the music and to the elements that make Sowerby’s piano pieces stand out. If there is nothing truly exceptional on the disc, there is much that is enjoyable and much that will make listeners wonder why Sowerby’s many works – he wrote more than 500 – are not heard more frequently.
There are, of course, many, many composers whose works are heard rarely, if at all. A kind of “redress the balance” movement has been in progress for some time now, seeking worthy pieces that have not been heard in many years or with which audiences may be wholly unfamiliar. One aspect of the approach is to seek out “under-represented” groups of composers, such as women – an admirable enough goal if the music uncovered is worthwhile in itself and just happens to have been composed by women (as opposed to being deemed worthy because females rather than males wrote it, which is just silly). A new Delos CD featuring violinist Dawn Wohn and pianist Esther Park is a typical “rediscovery” release, an anthology featuring 10 pieces by nine women whose names will likely be almost wholly unfamiliar to listeners (the three most likely exceptions being Lili Boulanger, Florence Price and Amy Beach). As with any anthology disc, this is very much a mixed bag, and it is highly unlikely that listeners will enjoy all the material equally – the intent here is to offer a potpourri of short works from various time periods and in many styles, with listeners deciding for themselves whether there is enough worthy material to counterbalance pieces that they may find less enjoyable. There are Indian folk melodies at the heart of Jhula-Jhule by Reena Esmail (born 1983). Episodes by Ellen Taafe Zwilich (born 1939) combines a broadly Romantic sensibility with pervasive atonality in very well-contrasted movements simply marked “Arioso” and “Vivace.” From Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) comes the gentle and affecting Legenda. Jung Sun Kang (born 1983) offers Star-Crossed, a rather self-consciously modernistic work, commissioned for this CD, based on a Korean story about literally star-crossed lovers who represent two constellations. From Chihchun Chi-sun Lee (born 1970) there is Provintia, “Sunset of Chihkan Tower,” the title referring to a Dutch-built 17th-century monument in Taiwan and the music originally written for the Chinese erhu rather than violin. There are two works here by Florence Price (1887-1953), Deserted Garden and Elfentanz, both of which are distinctly Romantic in sound but incorporate elements from spirituals, ragtime and other influences – these are pieces that, short as they are, show Price’s personal style. The brief Nocturne by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), the short-lived younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, is less distinctive but is exceptionally evocative, smooth, and genuinely beautiful. Portal by Vivian Fine (1913-2000) follows on the CD and is a very strong contrast, with its pervasive dissonance and multiple, quickly changing textures. The disc concludes with Romance by Amy Beach (1867-1944). This is a particularly sweet work with very fine balance between violin and piano, partaking of some of the sensibilities of Boulanger’s Nocturne but presenting them at greater length and in more depth. There is quite a lot to enjoy on this very well-played recording, and although listeners may not find all the music equally worthy, they will likely find at least a few pieces worth hearing again and again.
Another anthology disc of music by mostly unfamiliar composers, this one an MSR Classics release featuring oboe and piano, offers works by Pedro Soler (1810-1850), Robert K. Mueller (born 1958), Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), and Merab Partskhaladze (1924-2008). Theresa Delaplain and Tomoko Kashiwagi handle the very different styles of these pieces quite well. Soler’s Souvenir de Madrid has the Spanish inflections and soulful passages to which its title points, and builds to a very bouncy conclusion that is a real workout for the oboist. Mueller’s Commemoration: In Honor of Fallen Heroes moves this recital from the 19th century to the 21st (2006), but Mueller’s work retains much of the expressiveness associated with the Romantic era, especially in the first of its two movements, Elegy. And the second movement, Spirals, provides an apt contrast. The three movements of Rubbra’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano are well differentiated, too. Although this is a work of the middle of the 20th century (1958), it shows little evidence of the sometimes outré timbral experiments of the time: the first movement is a gentle Con moto, the second an Elegy: Lento in which the oboe’s wistful qualities are prominent, and the finale a Presto in which the scurrying piano part is combined with oboe material that borders on the jaunty before the work wraps up in a surprisingly thoughtful mood. This makes for quite a contrast with the sonata by Bacewicz, which was written two decades earlier (1937) but comes across as a more angular, less flowing work. The oboe and piano are closely interwoven here, and the music is on the acerbic side, especially in a central Tempo di Valse that has some of the flavor of Shostakovich. The CD concludes with Partskhaladze’s Two Pieces for Oboe and Piano, its short Melody and Dance intended to reflect Russia in much the same way that the other works on this disc are associated with other countries: Soler’s with Spain, Mueller’s with the United States, Rubbra’s with Great Britain, and Bacewicz’s with Poland. The actual reflection of nationality or regional music, such as folk material, is more apparent here by its absence, however: the disc as a whole simply gives listeners a chance to hear several interesting ways that composers have handled the oboe-and-piano combination from the 19th century to the 21st.
The whole of a new SOMM disc featuring guitarist Gianluigi Giglio lies in the 19th century, and this is a recording featuring works by only a single composer: Fernando Sor (1778-1839). Sor may have written music in the 18th century, but all his published works date to the 19th, and he is best-known for his guitar music – although he also wrote for string quartet, piano, and even tried his hand at ballet and opera. Sor’s music is very familiar to classical guitarists but much less so to listeners in general, making this CD a treat for audiences looking for out-of-the-ordinary, virtuosic solo music. Sor actually wrote for players of all skill levels, but Giglio focuses primarily on his more-challenging material. He includes one of Sor’s best-known works, Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 9, which is based on a melody from The Magic Flute and which explores the guitar’s expressive potential. Also here is another work of a similar type, Introduction and Variations on “Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre,” which begins simply but soon becomes quite intricate. The remaining pieces cover several genres that were popular in Sor’s time – and a couple of them are from his instructional rather than virtuosic material. One such is The movement of a religious prayer, No. 23 of Sor’s 24 Progressive Lessons for Beginners, whose chordal structure may be fairly simple to play but fits the theme of the work very well. Another is the Easy Fantasy in A minor, Op. 58, which has lovely flow but does sound more straightforward than the Elegiac Fantasy in E, Op. 59, an in memoriam work in which the use of the guitar’s lower range is particularly impressive – and in which Sor produces an effective funeral march as the second of two movements. Also here are Nos. 3 and 5 from Sor’s Mes Ennuis – Six Bagatelles, the first a gentle Cantabile and the second a rather spare-sounding Andante. Sor excelled in delving into the expressive powers of the guitar, as in the Capriccio in E, “Le calme,” which progresses in a satisfyingly even manner. But Sor could also call up specific national sounds and forms when he wanted to, as in the intriguing Les folies d’Espagne and a Minuet. Giglio’s cross-section of Sor’s work will perhaps be of more interest to guitar players than to a broader group of listeners: 68 minutes of solo guitar music, even excellent solo guitar music, is a bit much except for those truly devoted to the instrument. Listeners who are not intense guitar aficionados will likely enjoy the disc more by hearing it a couple of pieces at a time rather than straight through.
The solo guitar figures as well in some works on a new Navona disc called Figments, Volume 2. But the four contemporary works in which the guitar is heard here bear virtually no resemblance to anything by Sor, and the techniques required to play some of the modern music are quite different from those of Sor’s time. Hans Bakker’s Tiento I (performed by Ruud Harte) and Tiento II (played by Tatakh Huismans) both look to the past, it is true – all the way to a 16th-century Spanish keyboard form – but both are determinedly modern in sensibility, although the second has a certain amount of Romantic or post-Romantic lyricism. And neither approaches the sound of Se-Chahar-Gah by Navid Bargrizan, played by Tolgahan Çoğulu on an instrument he invented called the “microtonal adjustable guitar.” Retuned strings, references to traditional Persian music, and frequent changes of scaling and intonation characterize this work, which is quite interesting to hear purely sonically, although it falls somewhat short as music in the sounds extracted from the instrument. Also on this disc is a work for guitar (David William Ross) and oboe (Jennifer Slowick): the piece, by Peter Dayton, is called Mar de Lurín, after Paintings by Fernando de Szyszlo. The title refers to a Polish-Peruvian artist whose style the composer tries to translate into music, but only those who are thoroughly familiar with the artist’s work will be able to judge whether Dayton succeeds. Heard simply as music, this piece handles the unusual mixture of sonorities skillfully, although guitar and oboe seem much of the time to be going their own way and mingling only incidentally, or coincidentally. A special understanding is equally necessary to make sense of Tell for Alto Saxophone Solo – a work that, despite its title, is actually for alto saxophone and voice (Jessica Maxfield both plays and emotes). Yuan-Chen Li here seems, like many contemporary composers, to be quite interested in having the instruments (both saxophone and voice) sound like something other than what they are: squeaks and squeals from the sax, exclamations and sound snippets from the voice. There is an elaborate background story to the piece, having to do with a site so holy that its story cannot be told even to prevent it from being despoiled. Again like many contemporary composers, Li expects audience members to learn and absorb the story and then apply their newfound, esoteric knowledge to hearing the music. Listeners not so inclined will find this piece puzzling at best. Also on this disc is 10 Aphorisms, a second work by Bargrizan, this one written for soprano saxophone (Laurent Estoppey) and baritone saxophone (Steve Stusek). The comparative simplicity of this music belies the considerable underlying complexity of its creation: it is based on a principle developed in an opera called Orpheus Kristall by a composer named Manfred Stahnke. But in this case, the music is accessible, if not particularly appealing, without knowing the “psychoacoustical” framework used to produce it. The saxophones have clearly discernible differences in their material, which makes the piece something of an intellectual exercise to follow, although portions of it are genuinely unpleasant to hear – presumably by design and in accord with its underlying foundation. The final work on this disc is the only one to use more than two instruments: Syzygy by Charles Corey is for string quartet (the Pedroia String Quartet: Jae Cosmos Lee and Rohan Gregory, violins; Peter Sulski, viola; Jacques Wood, cello). Once again, this is a work requiring elucidation by the composer, and study by listeners, for its full effect, which is intended to come from its title as applied specifically to poetry and astronomy. The four movements’ titles are described by the composer as homonyms (they are actually homophones): Canon/Cannon, Pour/Pore, Descent/Dissent, and Rays/Raze/Raise. Those titles are the cleverest element of the piece, because the music within each movement, although the composer can surely show how it fits the title, simply does not sound as if it is aimed at expressing anything relating to the verbiage. The second movement, for example, is supposed to be perceived as an outpouring of notes within which there are tiny spaces (hence “pores”) through which slower material emerges. The work actually makes the most musical sense by simply being heard as a dissonant, atonal modern string quartet with a first movement, scherzo, slow movement, and a finale that opens in ethereality and progresses into fragmentation. Contemporary composers are by no means the first to insist that it is important that listeners know their works’ programmatic content – indeed, a considerable amount of the argument between the Brahmsian and Wagnerian factions in the 19th century had to do with whether or not audiences should be required to know exactly what a work was about in order to make sense of it. What today’s composers have done, however, is to create music based on more and more abstruse systems and referents, thus requiring listeners to spend more and more time learning about a piece before being able to absorb a composer’s intention in writing it. Audiences will have to decide for themselves, when it comes to Figments, Volume 2 and similar CDs, whether the game is worth the candle.