February 13, 2020
(+++) THROUGH THE YEARS
Michael G. Cunningham: Prisms; Polyphonies; Piano Sonata, Op. 33; Images; Phases; Statements; Concertant; Triple Sonata; Terzett; Scenario; Noetical Rounds. Students of the Indiana University School of Music. Navona. $14.99.
Kirk O’Riordan: Four Beautiful Songs; Autumn Winds; Prayer Stones; Beautiful Nightmares. Holly Roadfeldt, piano; Ann Moss, soprano; Peter Dutilly, viola. Ravello. $14.99.
Michael G. Cunningham (born 1937) and Kirk O’Riordan (born 1968) are of different generations and have different sensibilities as composers. Yet they utilize many of the same musical tools and structures to communicate their thoughts in chamber music, as new Navona and Ravello releases show. Interestingly, although Cunningham is significantly older than Riordan, he composed the works on the new disc when he was younger: the CD commemorates his residency at Indiana University School of Music from 1969 to 1973, and consists entirely of live performances dating to that pre-digital era. So these are Cunningham’s musical thoughts when he was in his 30s – while the Riordan disc includes works written in 2012 and later, reflecting his approach in his 40s.
Prisms, the earliest-recorded Cunningham work (1969), features a string trio delving into fairly straightforward-for-its-time dissonance and tone clusters. Polyphonies, the first of four works here that were recorded in 1970, is more interesting: it is for xylophone, tom-toms, bass drum, cymbals, and timpani, and explores the sonorities of this mixed-percussion section effectively and in brief (about three minutes). Piano Sonata, Op. 33, returns to the sound world of Prisms, one that has been employed by so many composers in so many ways that it was already somewhat passé by this time. Images, for violin, cello and bass, sounds somewhat self-consciously “modern” but includes some interesting contrasts between the highest and lowest string ranges. Phases is even more interesting in sonic terms, being written for bass clarinet and harp – the musical material is not particularly substantial, but the aural combination is intriguing. The next three works on the CD were recorded in 1971. Statements, for trombone and piano, contrasts a mostly chordal piano part with trombone statements that bear little relationship to it. Concertant is for brass quintet – two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba – and has a certain verve and unselfconscious display-piece structure. Triple Sonata, at 12 minutes the longest work on the disc, is a meandering four-movement work for flute, clarinet and piano, whose quiet slow movement makes the best effect. Terzett, recorded in 1972, is a piece for three horns that seems to go on longer than its three-and-a-half minutes: it just does not have much to say, although it seems challenging enough to perform. Scenario, recorded in 1973, is interestingly experimental, calling for a conductor and five players who perform on multiple instruments. It is a work of some theatricality, labeled as a “Prelude and 4 Scenes,” that opens with an extended passage for bells before delving into a variety of percussion sounds that are mixed to sometimes intriguing, sometimes arbitrary effect. The final work on the CD is out of order in terms of recording: it is another from 1971. It is called Noetical Rounds and is performed on violin, oboe, marimba, and bass. This is another piece showing Cunningham’s interest in experimenting with instrumental combinations at this point in his career, and is another case in which he does so effectively. However, the work seems written for effect rather than in an attempt to communicate anything in particular to an audience. Like several other pieces here, it seems designed to engage performers more than listeners: Cunningham uses the tools of arrhythmic atonality skillfully, and throws in a surprise or two (such as ending Noetical Rounds with a descending glissando), but the music sounds mostly gestural rather than emotive.
Emotion, however, is the primary concern both of O’Riordan’s songs and of his instrumental pieces on the Ravello disc. There is, however, something a bit “meta” about Riordan’s approach, as is clear in the title of the first of the Four Beautiful Songs, “Ode on ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” The text (for all four songs) is by Lee Upton. Keats’ poem is a contemplation of beauty and mortality, so Upton is contemplating a contemplation, and doing so, in O’Riordan’s setting, in a rather intense and somewhat screechy vocal manner – above, at the start and on a recurring basis, a very quickly flowing piano part that is far from contemplative. The underlying musical language here is not much different from Cunningham’s of decades earlier, but O’Riordan uses his forces differently. His dissonances are insistent and often dramatic, and he often puts piano, soprano and viola more at odds with each other than in any sort of concerted combination. These are not particularly short songs, ranging in length from four to more than five minutes, but O’Riordan uses their length to accentuate and stretch out the words, not to provide instrumental episodes during which listeners might contemplate what they have heard vocally. “The Age of Beauty” is mostly slow-paced; “Even If,” also moderately paced, features some attractive use of the viola with the voice; and “The Blouse” features the clearest vocal writing, almost a narration, in a piece about being rejected and not quite knowing why. Despite the overall title, these songs are not particularly beautiful either musically or in their topics; indeed, the cycle’s title is presumably ironic. Not so the title Autumn Winds. This cycle, for soprano and piano, offers 15 haiku by Matsuo Basho, each of them including and briefly exploring an aspect of the two words of the title. This is a very intriguing poetic conceit that invites a composer to create very different music for each short poem, reflecting the differing aspects of the winds and the season. O’Riordan does not quite rise to that challenge, though, apparently seeing the material differently. There is a certain sameness to the musical treatment of all 15 pieces here, which makes some sense for contemplating the bleak aspects of autumn but not specifically for thinking about the season’s winds. Individual poems’ emphases are certainly different: one, for example, is called “Spiders,” and the final three all have the noun “grave” in their titles. But there is something somnolent about this season and its winds in O’Riordan’s settings: the winds may blow and produce unsettling events, but the music soon becomes, if not repetitious, largely the same in effect. This CD also includes two instrumental works, Prayer Stones for piano and viola and Beautiful Nightmares for piano solo. The first of these is quiet, contemplative, meditative and often gently lyrical, its musical language quite different from O’Riordan’s in the songs (and from Cunningham’s). The use of the viola’s lower register is especially effective here, and the overall somewhat soporific nature of the piece is justified by its title – although some of its effects, such as the meditative “tinkling” from time to time on the piano, are rather too obvious. Beautiful Nightmares has a very intriguing title but less-interesting execution: it is a serial piece, a bit of homage to Schoenberg, but considerably more delicate and emotionally attractive than serialism or nightmares tend to be. The performers handle all this music with skill and enthusiasm, with pianist Holly Roadfeldt seeming especially well tuned into O’Riordan’s sound world and expressive interests. The overall impression of the recording is of a composer seeking emotional connection through fairly straightforward contemporary compositional techniques, but finding it only irregularly and inconsistently.