September 24, 2020


Geoffrey Allen: Sonata for bassoon and piano; Outback Sketches, for clarinet and piano; Pastorale, for bassoon and piano; Sonatina for bassoon and piano; Fantasy Trio for flute, clarinet and piano. Allan Meyer, clarinet; Michael Waye, flute; Katherine Walpole, bassoon; David Wickham, piano. Métier. $18.99.

Music for Trumpet and Piano by Jeffrey Holmes, Eric Ewazen, Anthony Plog, Joseph Turrin, Jacques Castérède, and Herbert L. Clarke. Eric Berlin, trumpet; Greg Spiridopoulos, trombone; Ludmila Krasin, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Songs for Sir John: A Tribute to Sir John Manduell. Lesley-Jane Rogers, soprano; John Turner and Laura Robinson, recorders; Richard Simpson, oboe; Benedict Holland, violin; Susie Mészáros, viola; Nicholas Trygstad, cello; Keith Swallow, piano; Richard Baker, narrator. Divine Art. $18.99.

Vanishing. Fides Krucker, vocalist; Tim Motzer, acoustic-electric guitar, electronics, bow. 1K Recordings. $15.

     Geoffrey Allen (born 1927) is one of many modern composers looking for ways to take the bassoon beyond the “clown of the orchestra” role with which it was saddled for many years after it had been used for its serious virtuoso capabilities by composers from Vivaldi to Mozart. Allen’s 1964 Sonata for bassoon and piano, Op. 9, is actually as interesting for its complex piano part as for its bassoon elements, which are comparatively straightforward mid-20th-century in sound. This is one of three bassoon-focused chamber works on a very well-played new Métier recording, and it is the earliest by far. The Pastorale and Sonatina both date to 1998 and are Nos. 1 and 2 of Allen’s Op. 34. These are not intended as particularly virtuosic works – they were written in response to a call for music suitable for high-school or slightly more-advanced performers – but both have a pleasant sound about them, and in fact both partake of pastoral elements. There is gentle rocking motion throughout the brief Pastorale, while the Sonatina has a similar first-movement texture, followed by an expressive but not overdone Adagietto and a finale whose light bounciness brings the bassoon closest to a bright and slightly comical role, albeit not without expressive passages that show the instrument’s lyrical capabilities. The bassoon-and-piano works are combined on this CD with other essays in modern wind writing by Allen. Outback Sketches, Op. 58 (2004-05) includes three impressions of Australia, where Allen, who is from Great Britain, lived for a decade and thereafter continued working through a series of appointments and projects. The three movements of this impressionistic work for clarinet and piano are Aubade, Desert Noon, and Bush Sundown. The first is soft and gentle, giving the clarinet plenty of opportunities for expressiveness. The second offers the most-effective tone painting, with a spare and dry, often piercing sound reflective of the aridity of a great deal of Australia: the whole center of the country is desert. The finale features stillness of a different, warmer kind. The whole work is slow-to-moderate in pace, giving the impression of torpidity and a kind of placid acceptance of a harsh environment. The four-movement Fantasy Trio, Op. 70 (2007) is considerably more varied. The first movement’s sensibility is close to that of the Outback Sketches, but the second is a good deal more lively, and the interplay between the two winds is handled effectively – with the piano cementing their relationship. The third movement is interestingly marked Andante di sogno, and dreamlike it is – spun out at some length, with the two wind instruments mainly going in different directions but both reflecting a kind of gently contemplative world. The finale is the most colorful and rhythmically varied movement, encompassing moods from the rhapsodic to the mildly martial, and giving the winds more chances to intermingle than they have had through much of the piece. The performers are very fine throughout this well-made recording, which contains no truly outstanding music – there is a faint, persistent feeling of having heard material much like this before – but which provides an interesting chance to hear an accomplished composer’s way of handling woodwinds in a modern chamber-music context.

     A new MSR Classics release offers insight into how six different composers handled chamber works for winds – in this case, brass instruments rather than woodwinds – over more than a century, up to the present day. The earliest work here is Cousins (1904) by Herbert L. Clarke (1867-1945), and it offers a nice blending of trumpet and trombone with the sprightly feeling of some popular music of its time. The Concertino by Jacques Castérède (1926-2014) dates to 1958 and partakes of mid-20th-century esthetics in its harmonies and the way the instruments are contrasted. The slow second movement has the sound of folk or film music, while the third features irregular rhythms, unexpected entries and a mostly jovial attitude. A later 20th-century work here is the 1999 Concertino by Anthony Plog (born 1947). This is more like a five-movement suite, with a bubbly first movement, a gently moving second with a prominent piano part, a hectic and exclamatory third, and a fourth marked Valse triste that lurches a bit too much to seem like genuine dance music. None of these movements lasts longer than two-and-a-half minutes. The finale is a touch longer, at three-and-a-half minutes, and has a kind of percolating quality to the phrases and the irregularly spaced entries of trumpet and trombone. The Fandango by Joseph Turrin (born 1947) dates to one year later than Plog’s piece (2000) and does feature some elements of the dance of its title, although much of its interest comes from the places where an instrument interrupts the music’s regular flow. The two remaining works here both date to 2012. Continuum by Jeffrey Holmes (born 1955) actually has little feeling of continuity – trumpet and trombone simply intersect from time to time, with what continuous material there is being offered mainly by the piano. The Double Concerto by Eric Ewazen (born 1954) is the largest-scale and most ambitious work on this disc. The piano actually strives for grandeur in the first movement, with trumpet and trombone playing forcefully above it. The second movement is an extended and expanded chorale for the brass, with some nicely developed lyricism. The third movement is more dissonant than the others and fits somewhat uneasily with them, and its trumpet and trombone calls are more pedestrian than the instruments’ material earlier in the work. This is nevertheless a well-developed piece that, like all the music on this nicely played and well-recorded CD, offers the chance to experience repertoire that is not often heard, by composers of some talent but without a wide-ranging reputation.

     The winds heard on a new Divine Art recording of music by no fewer than 16 composers are used in the service of a particular concept: a tribute in chamber music to Sir John Manduell (1928-2017), a well-known producer, teacher, and artistic director in Great Britain, and a composer as well. Manduell is virtually unknown in the United States in any of his roles, in all of which he functioned in the United Kingdom, and while he is famed within the music profession in Europe, he is not exactly a household name outside the music field, even there. So the CD called Songs for Sir John, although certainly well-meaning and assembled in exemplary fashion, reaches out to a very limited audience indeed. The composers themselves are scarcely household names: Robin Stevens (born 1958), Elis Pehkonen (born 1942), Martin Bussey (born 1958), Geoffrey Poole (born 1949), Sally Beamish (born 1956), Michael Ball (born 1946), David Home (born 1970), David Matthews (born 1943), Kevin Malone (born 1958), Gary Carpenter (born 1951), Peter Dickinson (born 1934), Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), Robin Walker (born 1953), Jeremy Pike (born 1955), Nicholas Marshall (born 1942), and Naji Hakim (born 1955). To the extent that the disc has a theme – and a level of interest beyond that of tribute – it lies in the use by many of the composers of the poetry of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939),whose works were chosen because Yeats was Manduell’s favorite poet. The various Yeats settings use instruments in different ways and different combinations: Stevens and Pehkonen, for example, combine soprano with recorder, oboe, violin and cello; Bussey omits the oboe; Beamish contributes an instrumental Yeats Interlude for recorder, oboe, violin and cello; Dickinson turns to a contemporary of Yeats, James Joyce, for a work for soprano, recorder, violin and cello; Berkeley, who of course was not alive at Manduell’s death, is represented by Three Duets for Two Recorders, which are attractive and very short pieces; Walker sets Four Nursery Rhymes, which are certainly not by Yeats, for narrator, recorder and piano. The comparatively limited instrumental complement is employed skillfully by all the composers, and both the singing and the playing are very fine, although the works that stand out most clearly are the ones not using Yeats’ poetry – simply because they offer verbal coloration of a different kind. The composers’ writing for winds as well as strings is quite good throughout the disc, and even though this is scarcely a CD that will have wide appeal, it is one that offers a considerable number of well-thought-through settings that provide listeners who have a taste for modern British chamber music with the chance to hear quite a few interesting examples of it. 

     Vocals that are even more specialized, and even more of an acquired taste, are offered by the voice-and-guitar combination of Fides Krucker and Tim Motzer on a new CD from 1K Recordings. This is an hour of avowedly and straightforwardly avant-garde material, presented as six works called Scintilla, Vanishing, Ruins, Rime, Density and Eema. The phrase “straightforwardly avant-garde” is not a contradiction in terms: both the proponents of this type of music and those who do not care for it will immediately recognize the sound. Much of the vocalizing is chromatic vocalise, with Motzer’s instrumental material wending its way into, around and through Krucker’s voice. Two of the longest tracks here, Vanishing at 11½ minutes and Density at 18½, also include drums and metals, added by Jeremy Carlstedt. The entire disc has an improvised feel, as does much hyper-contemporary music – and in this case that is entirely apt, since the compositions were created spontaneously, with one participant starting something, the other reacting to it, the first re-reacting, the second re-re-reacting, and so forth. Then the entirety was, at least in some cases, re-edited and altered to enhance one or another of its effects. This is not easily describable music, occupying as it does a sound world that is closer to repetitive chant, Eastern notions of silence, and Western thinking about the “music of the spheres,” than to anything usually heard in a concert or recital. That is to say that the CD flows naturally from John Cage’s notion that silence itself is a kind of music, that a performer listening to the audience is every bit as involved in “making music” as when the same performer does something-or-other with some sound-producing item. The rhythms and sounds of Krucker and Motzer are frequently hypnotic, whether Krucker is expressing only sound units rather than meaningful words or is, as in Ruins, saying words that listeners will almost certainly find simultaneously clear and unintelligible. The disc often partakes of a minimalist aesthetic, at times reveling in the production of what are essentially sounds of emptiness, as in Rime. It also functions as “background music” of a sort, the kind of sound that one might hear faintly in an ashram, an auditory canvas inviting the absorption of thought and feeling; or, on another level, it can be an invitation to focus on a sonic experience beyond the ordinary – Density seems particularly evocative in this regard. Nevertheless, those seeking specific, defined “meaning” in these pieces will be disappointed and will miss the essential experiential point: like a great deal of avant-garde material, the offerings by Krucker and Motzer are not designed to push listeners in specific directions but to pull them, lead them, in directions of their own choosing. This CD is very definitely not a mass-market item – but it will connect with a certain specific group of listeners in definite and meaningful ways.

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