March 12, 2020


Beethoven: Music for Mandolin and Piano—Adagio ma non troppo, WoO 43b; Sonatina in C minor, WoO 43a; Sonata in C, WoO 44a; Andante con variazioni, WoO 44b; Allegretto from Symphony No. 7; Hummel: Grande Sonata for Mandolin and Piano; Corentin Apparailly: Lettre à l’immortelle bien-aimée; Fritz Kreisler: Rondino on a Theme of Beethoven; Walter Murphy: A Fifth of Beethoven. Julien Martineau, mandolin; Vanessa Benelli Mosell, piano; Yann Dubost, double bass; José Fillatreau, drums. Naïve. $16.99.

Reza Vali: Three Romantic Songs for Violin and Piano; Calligraphy No. 14— Âshoob; Calligraphy No. 15—Raak; Love Drunk for Violin and Piano; Ormavi—String Quartet No. 4. Carpe Diem String Quartet (Charles Wetherbee and Amy Galluzzo, violins; Korine Fujiwara, viola; Carol Ou, cello); David Korevaar, piano; Dariush Saghafi, santoor. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The mandolin is scarcely an instrument usually associated with Beethoven. Indeed, even listeners who are highly familiar with his music are often surprised to discover that he wrote four works for it, with piano accompaniment, early in his career. The pieces were never formally published, but mandolin players know them well, and now the four works have become the jumping-off point for an unusual and rather quirky Naïve CD featuring Julien Martineau and pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell. The playing here is excellent, but anyone expecting fidelity to historic practices will be roundly disappointed: Martineau and Mosell delve deeply into the emotional subtext of the music, pulling it further into the Romantic era than, objectively speaking, it really needs to go. Mosell’s use of a modern concert grand, and her willingness to have the piano’s emotive capabilities in the forefront, make these slight pieces – all four together run just 23 minutes – expressive in a way that reaches beyond their time without fitting fully into ours. But there is method to this not-quite-madness, and it starts to become clear in the Martineau/Mosell performance of Hans Sitt’s arrangement of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This is a genuinely strange-sounding arrangement that includes all the notes of the movement and very little of its sensibility: listeners need to don a different set of ears from the one they would usually use for this music if they are to appreciate the gentle undulations and very intimate emotional compass of this performance. This is exceptionally tender music that, however, bears only a passing resemblance to what Beethoven intended. Indeed, Beethoven’s centrality to this disc shines through more in its non-Beethoven works than in those by Beethoven himself. The gem of the recording is Hummel’s sonata, a finely crafted three-movement work that partakes distinctly of Beethoven’s spirit – the two composers were sometimes friends, sometimes rivals – but that goes well beyond Beethoven’s little pieces to showcase the potential of a genuine mandolin-fortepiano partnership. Yes, fortepiano: Hummel’s sonata dates to about 1810, some 15 years after Beethoven wrote his mandolin works, but this was still the age of the fortepiano, not anything approaching the modern piano – so in the Hummel as in the Beethoven, Mosell’s warmth and expressiveness convey more sentiment than the music actually contains. Still, all these pieces are technically played very well indeed, and Martineau’s sensitivity to the mandolin’s sound and capabilities is exceptional. However, the real heart of this CD, for the performers, seems to lie in the three works most distant in time from the age of Beethoven and Hummel. One of those is a mandolin-and-piano arrangement of the little violin-and-piano Rondino by Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), a tiny delicacy (running two-and-a-half minutes) that is gone almost before it has conveyed what feeling it possesses. Much more recent is a work of the 21st century, a musical Lettre attempting to convey some sense of Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” and here receiving its world première recording. This piece is by Corentin Apparailly (born 1995) and sounds a great deal like romantic-film music, especially in the grandly sweeping central portion. It is suitably lyrical and, indeed, somewhat old-fashioned in a heart-on-sleeve way. It could have served as an encore for the disc; so could Kreisler’s Rondino. But the actual finale here, and the work to which the entire CD seems to build, is an elaboration by Bruno Fontaine of the 1976 disco hit, A Fifth of Beethoven, by Walter Murphy (born 1952). The arrangement adds double bass and drums to mandolin and piano and, in all, sounds rather weird – intriguing, but weird. Murphy’s original has become well-known, and it still possesses a level of attractive crudity in its use of Beethoven themes with a disco beat. The Fontaine version turns the heat up a notch to produce a highly jazzy and deliberately odd-sounding piece whose relationship to Beethoven – and certainly to Beethoven’s own mandolin music – is less than intimate. This entire CD comes across as a kind of playground for Martineau and Mosell, a foray into less-known Beethoven that is less an exploration of the unfamiliar than a use of a romanticized view of Beethoven’s music as an entry point to a patchwork quilt of other material.

     If the sound of the mandolin is not usually associated with Beethoven, that of the santoor or santur – a hammered dulcimer of ancient provenance – is not usually, if ever, associated with that of a string quartet. But that combination is exactly what the music of Iranian composer Reza Vali (born 1952) offers – among other things – in a set of world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD. The mandolin’s gentleness can be difficult to juxtapose effectively against the piano (although it works much better against a fortepiano), but the santoor’s rather harsh and percussive sound certainly makes it stand out against Western strings. However, Vali here offers some music with the santoor and considerably more music that seeks exotic sounds without it. The most conservative piece on the disc, Three Romantic Songs (2011), is a short suite written solely for violin and piano and intended as homage to Brahms – whose warmth and sumptuous sound the work more or less replicates, but without plumbing comparable emotional depths. It is more gestural than heartfelt. Love Drunk (2014) is also a violin-and-piano work; its overall title is also the title of its final, shortest movement. The suite is subtitled “Folk Songs, Set No. 16B,” and its movements do partake of and reflect folk music from Reza’s home region. Again here, the intent to communicate emotionally is clear enough, but the music lacks genuine emotive power and speaks mainly on a surface level. The disc is dominated by two string quartets. No. 4, Ormavi (2017), has sounds ranging from the fairly traditional Western to the faintly exotic Iranian/Persian-influenced. Its eight movements offer varying moods and tempos but little feeling of depth. The other quartet, called Raak (2016) and written as a single extended movement, opens rather cacophonously and remains unsettled-feeling throughout. Although the instruments sometimes emerge individually from the massed sound, this is primarily an ensemble piece – one in which the performers do not so much have a conversation as an attempt to overlay each one’s impression of the material on all the others. Sometimes the music descends into cliché, as in a series of rising and falling scales near the midpoint; at other times it indulges in atonality and arrhythmia to no particular end. Raak contains some interesting material, but not enough to sustain it as an 18-plus-minute movement. All these works use only strings or strings plus piano, but all emulate the sound of less-familiar-to-Western-ears instruments. And Raak, in addition to being a string quartet, is one of the three works here given the subtitle Calligraphy, being designated No. 15. It is in No. 14 of the Calligraphy series that Vali shows most clearly how he sees Western instruments and sounds in complement to and contrast with others. No. 14 is called Âshoob and is heard in two versions, one for string quartet alone (2015) and one for quartet plus santoor (2014). The essential music is the same in both cases, but where the expressiveness of the quartet version lies in the dramatic loud/soft contrasts and the use of specific techniques of emphasis, such as pizzicato, the version including santoor subsumes all four string players beneath the insistent santoor sound – even when that sound appears intended to blend with that of the quartet. The themes and their working-out seem more thoroughly at home in the santoor version than in the one for strings alone: the dulcimer emphasizes the exotic-to-Western-ears nature of the material in a way beyond what is done by the strings alone. There remains a certain comparatively empty feeling to the music – the insistent concluding portion, for instance, is apparently intended as dramatic but comes across mainly as repetitive. But the addition of the santoor seems to bring the material closer to the form of expressiveness that Vali seeks. Indeed, the CD might have been of greater interest if it had included more material using the santoor and less using only strings and piano to produce sounds that do not always lie comfortably on those instruments.

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