February 13, 2020
(+++) A LITTLE KNOWN, A LOT UNKNOWN
Percy Grainger: Bridal Lullaby; Shepherd’s Hey; Colonial Song; Spoon River; The Nightingale and the Two Sisters; Scotch Strathspey and Reel; Frederick Delius: In a Summer Garden (transcribed by Philip Heseltine); Roger Quilter: Summer Evening; Henry Balfour Gardiner: Con Brio; Adagio non troppo; Gavotte; Cyril Scott: Lento; Pierrette; Cherry Ripe; Rainbow Trout; Norman O’Neill: Deux Petites Pièces. Richard Masters, piano. Heritage Records. $16.50.
Witold Lutosławski: Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon; Antoni Szałowski: Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon; Wawrzyniec Żuławski: Aria con Variazioni for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon; Władysław Walentynowicz: Trio for Reeds (Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon); Tadeusz Baird: Divertimento for Flute, Clarinet, Oboe and Bassoon; Janina Garścia: Tema con Variazioni for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon. Sonora Winds (Bethany Gonella, flute; Anastasiya Nyzkodu, clarinet; Stuart Sutter, oboe; Marta Troicki, bassoon). MSR Classics. $12.95.
A suitable entry point for becoming familiar with the work of less-known composers is to explore the way their music is similar to and different from that of the better-known ones with whom they share a time period or set of predilections. Thus, familiarity with Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin can become a gateway to the music of the two other members of Imperial Russia’s “Mighty Five” composers: Mily Balakirev and César Cui. In other cases, though, instead of several members of a group being comparatively well-known today, there may be only one with whom listeners are likely to be familiar. That is the case with the “Frankfurt Group,” a set of five composition students who met at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt in the late 19th century. Only the youngest of them, Percy Grainger (1882-1961), gets much attention nowadays – a situation that pianist Richard Masters does his part to alter on a new Heritage Records CD featuring works by the entire Frankfurt Group and by one of the young composers’ favored elders, Frederick Delius (1862-1934). Delius’ music is not universally appealing, and that of the Frankfurt Group will also not interest everybody: the group’s music had a kind of “political” purpose, specifically involving an attempt to throw off the influence of Beethoven and other German and Germanic composers, and it sometimes seems rather self-conscious in its avowed Impressionism and determination not to do what the German school was doing or might have done. Nevertheless, Masters makes a strong case for the quality of this material – and in the process shows that Grainger deserves to be the best-known of the Frankfurt Group, with music that is more innovative and attractive than the somewhat milder (although still pleasant enough) works of his compatriots (at least those of their works presented here). Masters actually places the six Grainger pieces at the end of the CD, in effect building up to them, and he precedes them with the longest piece on the disc by far: a well-constructed piano arrangement by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) of Delius’ In a Summer Garden. This is fragrant music by any measure, more so in its orchestral guise than as a piano piece – but nevertheless redolent in its keyboard arrangement of the colors and harmonies that make Delius’ music so distinctive. Grainger himself transcribed some Delius works for piano, and their appeal to the younger composer is clear from the juxtaposition of the Delius with Grainger’s Bridal Lullaby, which follows it on the disc and partakes of much the same sort of outdoorsy but inwardly compelling beauty. A similar connection to the outdoors comes through to pleasant effect in Colonial Song. But Grainger was and is mainly known for his rediscovery and advocacy of folk material, and the other four pieces played by Masters show why. All are very well-crafted and often quite cleverly constructed, whether Grainger is combining multiple fiddle versions of Shepherd’s Hey or mixing two apparently ill-assorted Danish folk songs in The Nightingale and the Two Sisters in a manner that makes them seem a perfect fit. Next to Grainger, the other four members of the Frankfurt Group seem a trifle pale. Roger Quilter (1877-1953) offers an evanescent Summer Evening that is more pretty than profound – which may perhaps be the intent. There is more inward feeling in the Adagio non troppo by Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950), and a sense of folk music in Gardiner’s Gavotte, but here too the music seems rather restrained and even a touch superficial. The pieces by Cyril Scott (1879-1970) are varied in their effect: Lento was actually inspired by a work by Grainger, and Cherry Ripe features some interesting harmonies, but neither they nor Scott’s other works have much heft or depth. The Deux Petites Pièces by Norman O’Neill (1875-1934) are simple and pleasant, emotionally rather vapid, and on the whole pretty much forgettable. It certainly seems, on the strength of this well thought out and very well played recording, that Grainger deserves to be significantly better-known than his Frankfurt Group compatriots – and that Delius did indeed have a noticeable compositional influence on the entire group.
The 20th-century Polish composers on a new MSR Classics CD did not a form a “group” except in the most general sense: that of having similar ethnicity in a similar time period. But it is interesting to hear the sensibilities that they shared – and did not share – when writing trios (and one quartet) for wind instruments. The only name here that will likely be familiar to most listeners is that of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), and his Trio (1945) is characteristic of his style: angular, strongly rhythmic and written with a sure understanding of the capabilities of the instruments. The dissonances here are mild, as are the emotions the music evokes, with the playful concluding Rondo having more character than the other two movements. The 1937 Trio by Antoni Szałowski (1907-1973) is in four movements, as is the 1953 Trio for Reeds by Władysław Walentynowicz (1902-1999). Both are shorter than Lutosławski’s work despite having an extra movement, and both embrace a kind of suite-like structure in which individual movements are on the stylized side: there is a Gavotte in the Szałowski, while the Walentynowicz includes both “In Waltz Time” and a brief, decidedly upbeat concluding “Merry March.” Both these trios are in the main strongly tonal – the one by Walentynowicz sounds like a deliberate throwback to earlier times – and both use the winds idiomatically and to very pleasant effect. Also on the CD are two sets of variations for flute, clarinet and bassoon, one from 1950 by Wawrzyniec Żuławski (1916-1957) and one from 1967 by Janina Garścia (1920-2004). The first of these handles a chorale-like theme with sensitivity and skill, while the second starts with a lighter and more dissonant basic theme and gives each instrument several opportunities to shine. As for the quartet on this disc, the 1956 Divertimento by Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981), it consists of five very short movements, each lasting only one to one-and-a-half minutes. Much of this is stop-and-start music, and most of the material is played by one or two of the instruments rather than by the group as a whole. This gives the work a somewhat rarefied feeling, and the use of dissonance and high-register writing, especially for flute, produces a more “modern” impression than comes from the other pieces on this disc. The members of Sonora Winds do a top-flight job with all the music on the CD, and hearing them explore this largely unfamiliar repertoire is a major pleasure of the recording. The actual pieces, though, are somewhat insubstantial and unlikely to have a strong attraction for a general audience – although people who are themselves wind players will find a great deal of interest in this rediscovery of mostly undiscovered 20th-century Polish music.