February 27, 2020
(+++) VIOLIN AND MUCH MORE
Ravel: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite; Petrouchka—Three Movements for Piano. Chloé Kiffer, violin; Alexandre Moutouzkine, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Zhou Long: Five Elements; Chen Yi: Night Thoughts; Lu Pei: Scenes Through Window; Vivian Fung: Bird Song; Yao Chen: Emanations of Tara. Civitas Ensemble (Yuan-Qing Yu, violin; Kenneth Olsen, cello; Winston Choi, piano; Lawrie Bloom, clarinet); Yihan Chen, pipa; Cynthia Yeh, percussion; Emma Gerstein, flute and piccolo. Cedille. $16.
Excellent performances of works that do not quite fit together in any meaningful way are presented by violinist Chloé Kiffer and pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine on a new Steinway & Sons CD. Kiffer and Moutouzkine may have personal reasons for assembling this recital, but it comes across a trifle oddly when heard straight through, the most distinctive element of the disc being the skill with which the performers handle the material. The fact is that Ravel and Stravinsky had very different musical sensibilities and approaches, and while contrasting them can be interesting, it can also be somewhat jarring – especially on a disc arranged like this one, with the two Ravel violin-and-piano works placed first and third and the two Stravinsky solo-piano ones heard second and fourth. In any case, the Ravel sonatas come across with genuine distinction here. No. 2, which dates to the mid-1920s, is the only one heard with any frequency. Its strong jazz influences are apparent throughout: the middle movement, called “Blues,” is quite unlike most other pieces by Ravel, and the outer movements are just as rhythmically uneven and attractively harmonized as the composer’s other jazz-influenced music, notably Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The single-movement first sonata, called “Posthume,” dates to 30 years earlier than the second and is far more conventional harmonically and rhythmically. It nevertheless has a very engaging late-Romantic sensibility about it, and Kiffer’s rich violin tone is especially welcome in maximizing the piece’s effectiveness. In the two Stravinsky works for solo piano, Moutouzkine shines forth with substantial virtuosity if at times with a somewhat over-hectic approach to the material. He made his own piano arrangement of the 1919 version of the Firebird Suite, and the focus on virtuosic display is quite clear: this is music that partakes of the spirit of Liszt as much as that of Stravinsky. The suite is quite effective as a showpiece in this arrangement, although some of the warmth and sensitivity to folk heritage is missing. Still, listeners can scarcely ask for more excitement than Moutouzkine offers in the “Infernal Dance,” and the “Final Hymn” has a more-than-apt conclusiveness about it. Besides, Stravinsky was scarcely averse to a certain degree of pianistic showmanship being applied to his music. He made his own piano arrangement of three movements from Petrouchka in 1921 for pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and the movements scintillate throughout while providing plenty of challenges for the performer. Moutouzkine seems quite unfazed by the difficulties: the many rapid jumps and frequent polyrhythms appear to give him no difficulty at all. He and Kiffer are both impressive technically on this recording, whose only real failing is that the selection of music makes it come across as something of a pastiche rather than a fully thought-through and well-integrated recital.
Certainly plenty of thoughtfulness has gone into a new Cedille disc featuring the Civitas Ensemble and several guest artists in performances of works by contemporary Chinese composers – including three pieces that are world première recordings and two heard here in new arrangements. The moving spirit of this musical mixture – which is given the overall title Jin Yin, meaning “Golden Tone” – is violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, one of the founders of Civitas Ensemble, who was born in Shanghai. This is not music for everyone, certainly not for those primarily interested in Western musical sounds, since all five composers spend considerable time and effort incorporating the sensibilities (and sometimes the instruments) of Chinese music into their works. The approach is in especially strong evidence in Zhou Long’s Five Elements, an extended suite whose depictions of metal, wood, water, fire and earth are often intensely (and impressively) percussive, and are pervaded by the sound of the lute-like pipa. Whether or not Western listeners will feel that the movements adequately reflect the “elements” they depict, an audience will likely be entranced by the sheer sonic variety of the music and the intriguing way different elements – musical elements, that is – are brought together and contrasted. The arrangement here was made especially for Civitas Ensemble. So was that of Chen Yi’s poetry-inspired Night Thoughts, a less-down-to-earth and more-evanescent piece that contrasts, among other things, the violin’s and piano’s very high ranges. Lu Pei’s Scenes Through Window has a sound that may be somewhat more readily accessible to a Western audience, and its speedier and more-propulsive elements have a folk-dance-like quality that alternates to good effect with sections whose lyricism is well-proportioned. Vivian Fung’s Bird Song is a violin-and-piano duet whose avian elements appear at the start and finish, with the middle given over to a well-thought-through blending and contrast of the two instruments. The seven-movement Emanations of Tara by Yao Chen concludes the CD in an expansive manner that parallels that of Five Elements at the disc’s beginning. Tara is a highly respected figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and this work – written for the Civitas Ensemble – is suitably mystical, respectful and evocative. It also has a pervasively Chinese sound and sensibility, thanks largely (as in Long’s work) to the prominence of the pipa. At the same time, Chen uses contemporary compositional techniques – atonality, pervasive dissonance, and a degree of minimalism – to communicate various internal states. Whether the music does so satisfactorily is very much a matter of opinion: much of the work sounds somewhat forced and overdone, striving (for example) for “mysterious, deepened emotion” through sounds that are not much different from those intended to be “extremely undertoned but with burning sensation inside.” The very last section, marked “extremely quiet,” is suitably esoteric and mystical, but its plucked strings and bells convey a lesser sense of the mystic realm than, say, the final movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. As a whole, this is an impressive-sounding disc – the word sounding being worth emphasizing, since it is the aural impression of the mixed instruments that is most likely to reach out to a wider audience, even one that may not find itself fully in tune with the philosophical underpinnings of each of the works heard here.