December 10, 2020


Jan Järvlepp: Pierrot Solaire; Saxophone Quartet; Trio No. 2; Tarantella; Robot Dance; Overture. Navona. $14.99.

Music for Horn, Piano and Other Instruments. Stacie Mickens, horn. MSR Classics. $12.95.

New Music for Trumpet and Piano with Percussion. Jesse Cook, trumpet; Edward Neeman, piano; Ryan Smith and James Klausmeyer, percussion. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     With their willingness to test limits and rethink instrumental combinations, contemporary composers of chamber music can come up with some very interesting-sounding works. Jan Järvlepp (born 1953) also has some very interesting inspirations for the six pieces on a new Navona CD. Pierrot Solaire (1994) is the opposite, more or less, of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the clever title reflecting a piece performed here by Sara Louise Seck (flute), Mark Friedman (violin), Tracy Mortimore (double bass), Ken Simpson (percussion), and Parvaneh Eshghi (piano). The work is clever and rather lighthearted, with elements of humor and folk music and a hint of pop here and there. It somewhat overstays its welcome, but is fun in a sort of good-humored anti-Schoenbergian way. Järvlepp’s three-movement Saxophone Quartet (1996) is played by a group called Saxart (Jean-Guy Brault, soprano saxophone; Noël Samyn, alto saxophone; René Lavoie, tenor saxophone; Peter Smith, baritone saxophone) and uses the traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement of much chamber music. Its second movement even includes some lyrical elements. Its main impression, though, is of jazz, rock and pop music, with an especially energetic finale (“Jig”). Trio No. 2 (1997) is for the unusual and distinctive combination of piccolo (Pascale Margely), viola (Kevin James), and cello (Järvlepp himself). Another three-movement work, this one follows a pattern somewhat akin to that of the Saxophone Quartet, although here the energetic finale (which shows distinct rock-music influence) is marked “Perpetuum Mobile” and certainly lives up to that designation. The piccolo solos in the first movement (“Flights of Fancy”) are genuinely intriguing, while the central “Romance,” like the slow movement for saxophones, allows for a certain degree of warmth and lyrical expressiveness. In Tarantella (1996), Järvlepp overtly throws together (not exactly “blends”) Baroque and contemporary pop material, presenting a short (three-minute) work scored for electric violin (Mark Friedman) and electric guitar (again, Järvlepp himself). The piece feels like a sonic experiment – a mercifully brief one – but does have a nice lilt to it. Robot Dance (1994) also features aural experimentation, being composed for flute (Seck) and double bass (Mortimore) – the musicians for whom Järvlepp wrote the piece. The music is perhaps overly energetic, never really letting up for its full nine minutes: it is a tour de force for the players, but wears a bit thin for listeners well before it concludes – it is interesting but not substantive. The CD concludes with Overture (1999), played by the Ayorama Wind Quintet (Jean-Guy Brault, flute; Angela Casagrande, oboe; Peter Smith, clarinet; Jill Kirwan, horn; Michael Namer, bassoon). Here the instrumental complement is more-or-less straightforward, compared with what is offered elsewhere on the disc. The basic approach of a concert overture is also pretty much what a listener would expect, from the dramatic opening to the mysterious continuation to the rather busy later material. The work has no specific program, but sounds as if it could accompany some not-yet-written drama; and while it lacks the force of a full-orchestra concert overture, it has a strong and effective sound throughout. Järvlepp shows in all the pieces heard here that he has good command of the ranges and capabilities of various instruments, and the willingness to combine them in chamber works that are generally interesting to hear even as they explore sound mixtures beyond what chamber music more typically offers.

     The single-instrument-plus-piano approach, on the other hand, is pretty much what an audience would expect in a chamber-music recital, and two of the four pieces on a new MSR Classics CD fit that mold. The specific instrument that goes with the piano, however, is not one often heard in chamber material: the horn. Stacie Mickens first plays a five-movement suite called Ages (2008) by Susan Mutter (born 1962) – with each movement given a number corresponding to the age it is supposed to represent (6, 15, 34, 66 and 92). The lilting, basically carefree first movement gives way to an emphatic, declamatory and rather dramatic second, intended to reflect the teen years. The third movement is propulsive and insistent; the fourth is more tentative and halting, but with considerable warmth in the horn part; and the fifth (which lasts less than 90 seconds) veers between the fragmented and the lyrical. The pianist here is Diane Yazvac, who accompanies Mickens effectively. So does James Wilding (born 1973), who plays piano for his own Distill (2015). The horn primarily has long, flowing lines here, with piano arabesques flowing underneath and with melodic material that mixes consonance with dissonance. Both these works use horn and piano in generally unsurprising ways. But the other two on the CD add instruments that enhance the sound palette. One of those two is also by Wilding: Melencolia (2013), which is for horn, tuba (Ken Heinlein), and piano (Caroline Oltmanns). The natural horn looks a bit like a smaller tuba (although the modern valved horn does not), and what interests Wilding here is the way the sound of the instruments can reinforce a mood that is more pensive than truly downbeat. The interplay of the two brass, and the way the piano underlines and mingles their expressions, is well-structured, although the piece is emotionally somewhat monochromatic and as a result does not sustain as well as it might: at 16 minutes, it just continues too long after making its points. The final work on this all-world-première-recordings CD is also a 16-minute venture, but it is more interesting by virtue of the instruments it uses and its more-varied emotional tapestry. It is When Penguins Fly (2018) by David Morgan (born 1957). Originally written for horn and wind ensemble, it is heard here in a version for horn, guitar (François Fowler), bass (Morgan himself), piano (D. Jack Ciarniello), and percussion (Rex Benincasa). This instrumental combination opens up all sorts of sound possibilities, and Morgan explores them cleverly, if with a bit too much emphasis on rock-and-pop-style drumbeats and cymbal swooshes. The horn carries much of the melodic freight here, but what is interesting are the ways it interacts with instruments that sound quite different from it and from each other (guitar and bass), and how the totality of the ensemble comes together from time to time to reinforce the passages in which individual players, or duos, present the material. When Penguins Fly is a bit on the superficial side – its intriguing title is in some ways its most-interesting element – but it does show ways in which the horn can not only be used in a chamber-music setting but also be set against some unexpected instrumental combinations in a very engaging way.

     Another brass instrument not often heard in chamber music, the trumpet, is front-and-center on another MSR Classics release, this one also featuring a full disc of world première recordings of music by living composers. Four of the five pieces are for trumpet and piano; the fifth is for trumpet and percussion. The percussion work is Ridge Runner: An Uninterrupted Suite (2012) by Libby Larsen (born 1950). This is a five-short-movement piece (the third and fourth movements played attacca) in which tuned and untuned percussion initially takes the lead, trumpet then soars above, and most of the time, the brass instrument and the percussive ones go in different and largely unrelated directions – until, in the final and most-convincing movement, everyone explodes into a flurry of bouncy rhythmic and melodic material that unites the differing sounds to very fine effect. As for the trumpet-and-piano works, the first on the disc is Puck (2008) by Michael Djupstrom (born 1980; his name is misspelled “Djumptrom” on the CD). This is not a Mendelssohnian Puck but a rather reserved and thoughtful one: the composer intended the piece to memorialize a deceased friend and clearly interpreted or reinterpreted Puck accordingly. The result is music that is warmer and more lyrical than its title reference would suggest. Next on the disc is Imagined Conversations (2017) by Zack Stanton (born 1983), a 20-minute, three-movement, jazz-inflected and moderately jazz-influenced work whose dissonances and insistent piano chordal passages seem overly studied and whose trumpet parts tend to seem tacked-on rather than integral to the musical argument. Then there is Rhapsody (2012) by David Sterrett (born 1988), which actually does offer rhapsodic (if not terribly lyrical) elements in both trumpet and piano, and which gives both instruments a chance to display some emotional depth and a greater degree of warmth than is typically found in contemporary compositions. The other work on this disc is the only one likely to be familiar to at least some listeners: Trumpet Concerto (1996) by John Williams (born 1938) – here receiving its world première recording in a version for trumpet and piano. Williams is a highly skilled orchestrator, and this form of the concerto is altogether less effective than the one for trumpet and orchestra. But the trademark cinematic characteristics of Williams’ music certainly come through clearly, including clarion calls from the trumpet and a pacing that ranges from the grandiose to the hectic (including some satisfyingly speedy runs and exciting proclamations for both instruments in the concluding Allegro Deciso). The very fine playing here does not make this version of the Williams concerto a better choice than the one with orchestra, but fans of first-rate trumpet performances will certainly enjoy it – as, indeed, they will enjoy at least some elements of all the pieces on the CD.

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