January 16, 2020
(+++) CHAMBER COMBINATIONS
Traci Mendel: Landscapes, Series II; Lines at Dusk—Hymn to the Rising Moon; Nocturne; James M. David: Batuque; Otto Ketting: Intrada; Bernhard Krol: Laudatio; Alexey Posin: Brass Quintet No. 1. Navona. $14.99.
Diane Jones: Earth Rise; Edna Alexandra Longoria: Los Ritmos Para Tres (Rhythms for Three); Ovidiu Marinescu: Sunt Numai Urechi (I’m All Ears); Christina Rusnak: Glacier Blue; Chad Robinson: Darkbloom; Clive Muncaster: Palette No. 2; Joanna Estelle: Faraway Star; Eliane Aberdam: Grisailles Vaporeuses. Navona. $14.99.
Anthology CDs of contemporary music have a built-in plus and a built-in minus. The plus is the opportunity to hear examples of works by numerous composers with whom a listener may not be familiar – a chance to discover at least one new piece and/or composer worth exploring further. The minus is the unlikelihood of finding all the works and composers on the CD intriguing enough to explore further – a certain level of disappointment is almost inevitable. Artists and labels generally try to compensate for the “minus” by providing something other than the music itself that may make a release worthwhile – for example, by focusing on a specific performer, instrument or instrumental group that may appeal to an audience through skill and sound even if not all the music communicates effectively to everyone who hears it. Two new Navona releases take exactly this artist-focused approach to anthologies of recent music. John McGuire’s horn playing is the thread that ties together otherwise very different works by Traci Mendel (born 1964), James M. David (born 1978), Otto Ketting (1935-2012), Bernhard Krol (1920-2013), and Alexey Posin (born 1971). The works here have varying inspirations and varying ways of responding to their source materials. Mendel’s three offerings are for horn and piano (the pianist is Kevin Chance). Landscapes, Series II includes three pieces inspired by Japanese paintings and woodcuts, musically limned by generally having the piano take a background/foundational role as the horn moves the music ahead – usually with greater dissonance than fits comfortably with Japanese artistic sensibilities. The inspiration for Lines at Dusk—Hymn to the Rising Moon is the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here much of the pianistic material is chordal, while the horn, often in its higher register, sounds more strident and less warm than might be expected in Shelley-inspired material. Of Mendel’s works, Nocturne is most effective in pairing horn and piano, and there is at least a modicum of gentleness in this nighttime music. David’s Batuque is a two-movement work whose title refers to dance music of Brazil and West Africa. The piece is scored for horn, piano (Chance) and clarinet (Wesley Ferreira). The first movement explores some of the clarinet’s and horn’s singing qualities, which fit somewhat uneasily with the piano’s stridency; the second movement has distinct jazzlike qualities and considerable bounciness – it is much more engaging than the first. Ketting’s Intrada and Krol’s Laudatio are solo-horn pieces, the former a series of silences alternating with fanfare-like proclamations, the latter more fluid and flowing. McGuire’s skill on his instrument is especially evident in these two pieces, as he extracts varying sounds from the horn while exploring a multiplicity of performance techniques. The CD concludes with its most-interesting offering, Posin’s three-movement Brass Quintet No. 1, in which McGuire is heard as part of the Fortress Brass Quintet with Bradley Ulrich and Eric Yates, trumpets; Bradley Kerns, trombone; and Michael Dunn, tuba. The opening Allegro Vivo is ebullient and full of energy, with some especially nice treatment of the lower brass; the Intermezzo contrasts well, being quieter and focused more on individual instrumental lines; and the final Rondo-Tarantella, played attacca, more or less sneaks up on the listener at the start and soon becomes a propulsive whirl featuring the many coloristic effects of which this instrumental complement is capable. It is a winning conclusion to a CD that has, all in all, more high points than low.
It is a group rather than a single instrument that unites disparate works by Diane Jones, Edna Alexandra Longoria, Clive Muncaster, Joanna Estelle, and Eliane Aberdam: all are for string trio and performed by Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). In addition, there are three pieces here for solo cello – one each by Marinescu, Christina Rusnak and Chad Robinson. Jones’ Earth Rise begins with some quiet piano scene-setting before becoming livelier and more attenuated by turns – it is supposed to be a kind of cosmic dance, and does have some dancelike rhythms as well as a certain degree of lyricism. Longoria’s Los Ritmos Para Tres is strongly jazz-inflected and is infectiously rhythmic, including percussive elements generated by the performers tapping their instruments. Muncaster’s Palette No. 2 combines some of the “cosmic” sounds of Jones’ work with some of the dancelike rhythms used by Longoria, but it also features some genuinely affecting lyricism and particularly well-managed relationships among the instruments. Estelle’s Faraway Star is a kind of extended love song in which the piano “narrates” a dialogue between violin and cello. It is a pretty piece that does not overextend its welcome – a good thing, since it is on the verge of becoming cloying throughout. Aberdam’s Grisailles Vaporeuses (“misty graynesses”) has three movements marked “Pensive,” “Lyrical” and “Joyful,” the first of which extends the mood of Estelle’s work to rather less effect. The second movement is more interesting in its instrumental combinations, and the third provides considerable contrast through short, broken themes that sound quite different from the long lines and extended melodies of the earlier movements. The work is nature-inspired but does not have a particularly strong connection with natural phenomena, and its inconclusive finish leaves listeners hanging. The music for string trio takes up the first and last part of this CD, with the solo-cello material in the middle. Marinescu’s Sunt Numai Urechi brings some flamenco-guitar elements to the cello but wears out its inventiveness after a while, although its speedy concluding material is attractive. Rusnak’s Glacier Blue is a three-movement piece intended to depict or respond to “Mountain,” “Sky” and “Water.” All the movements have interesting elements, and the work as a whole is a showcase not only for technical prowess but also for the cello’s ability to produce a wide variety of string and percussive sounds (the latter especially in the middle movement). But the piece really does not sustain for almost 15 minutes: it becomes clever rather than thoughtful and ends up seeming more interesting for a performer than for non-cellist listeners. Robinson’s Darkbloom also seeks out and finds the cello’s full expressive range, managing to make the instrument sound truly violin-like at times while allowing its potential for rich warmth to come to the forefront at others. Like Rusnak’s piece, though, it seems to be more of an étude than music intended to connect with a general audience: it is easy to appreciate the skill of the work’s construction (and of Marinescu’s accomplished performance) without being particularly moved by the musical material. The works for trio on this disc, although themselves a mixed bag, generally come across more effectively than do those for the cello alone.