February 18, 2021


Berwald: Septet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, violoncello and double bass; Quartet, Op. 1, for piano, clarinet, horn and bassoon; Serenade for clarinet, horn, viola, violoncello, tenor and double bass. Franz Ensemble (Maximilian Krome, clarinet; Rie Koyama, bassoon; Pascal Deuber, horn; Sarah Christian, violin; Yuko Hara, viola; Tristan Cornut, violoncello; Juliane Bruckmann, double bass; Kiveli Doerken, piano); Patrick Vogel, tenor. MDG Scene. $18.99 (SACD).

Brandon Ridenour & Ben Russell: Songs for the End of Time Vol. 1. Founders (Ben Russell, violin/voice; Brandon Ridenour, trumpet/voice; Yoonah Kim, clarinet/voice; Hamilton Berry, cello/voice; Greg Chudzik, bass/voice). Founders Music. $15.

Robert Spillman: Spring Rain—Seven Poems of Sara Teasdale (2018); Four Songs from “Otherwise: Eight Poems of Jane Kenyon” (2016); Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man (2015); Frank La Forge: Seven Songs (1906-1925); Two Pieces for Piano (1912); Lori Laitman: Two Arias from “The Scarlet Letter” (2014). Emily Martin and Ariana Wyatt, sopranos; Richard Masters, piano. Albany Records. $16.99.

     There is certainly nothing new about composers experimenting with previously unknown or at least rarely heard instrumental combinations and sounds. Heinrich Biber did it in Battalia in 1673; Jean-Féry Rebel did it in Les Élémens in 1737; Beethoven did it in Wellington’s Victory in 1813; Tchaikovsky did it in The Nutcracker in 1892 – to such good effect that the then-new celesta (invented only in 1886) quickly became a near-standard not only in classical music but also, over time, in other fields: it is used in Hedwig’s Theme in the Harry Potter films and in the introduction to Won’t You Be My Neighbor in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In all these cases, composers had specific reasons for pushing the limits of what had been previously accepted instrumentation and sounds: Biber and Beethoven sought to reflect warfare, Rebel wanted to give a sonic impression of chaos, and Tchaikovsky was looking for a highly distinctive sound to make the Sugar Plum Fairy stand out as a character and a dancer. There was no self-aggrandizement in these experiments – they were genuine attempts to expand musical horizons and carry the audience to new realms.

     Franz Berwald had similar motivations in some of his unusual chamber-music combinations, which sound refreshingly innovative on a new MDG Scene SACD. Berwald’s music was so forward-looking for its time, especially in the comparative musical backwater of Stockholm, that he was ostracized by the musical establishment and ended up making his living not as a composer or violinist but in such far-afield areas as orthopedics, glass making and lumber. The Septet of 1817 – written when Berwald was 21 – uses a technique that the composer would later apply in his symphonic output as well: instead of a separate Scherzo, he incorporates scherzo-like material into the middle of the three-movement work’s central slow movement, resulting in a movement marked Poco Adagio that adheres to that tempo only at the start and end. On the other hand, the instrumentation of the Septet, unlike its structure, was unexceptional for its time. Not so the combination used by Berwald in his Quartet, Op. 1, which dates to 1819. Mixing the piano with three wind instruments as Berwald did was something genuinely new, and he himself referred to the “rather unfamiliar system” of the work and to “a new way of treating the instrumental texture.” The fact that the piece sounds tame by modern standards is itself testimony to the success of what Berwald attempted: the piano, which could easily dominate the piece, plays a mostly subsidiary role, and in this work as in the earlier Septet, Berwald interpolates a bit of scherzo-like material into the central (and in this case quite short) movement. And then there is the Serenade of 1825, where both structure and instrumentation are genuinely surprising. This is a piece of chamber music featuring a tenor voice and arranged as if it is an operatic scene – and it includes clarinet, horn, and the very unusual string combination of viola (no violin), cello and double bass. Berwald was quite explicit about the emotive effects he sought here, noting dramatically that “the clock strikes four” at one point in the score and, at a piano tremolo, “drums roll.” The tenor’s text makes the singer a sort of heroic Everyman, willing to risk all for his country but himself conquered by love – the only power that can defeat him. Patrick Vogel sings the tenor part with suitable feeling, and the members of the Franz Ensemble, here and throughout the disc, play with plenty of skill and enthusiasm, highlighting Berwald’s innovations without overdoing them or drawing too much attention to the unusual aspects of the music – or to the performers themselves. The result is a recording that effectively explores some little-known music whose experimental elements are only part of what makes its sound so attractive.

     The performances are equally adept, but the experimentation is much less convincing and much more driven by self-involvement on a CD featuring the group called Founders interpreting, or rather reinterpreting and rearranging, Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. In the name of somehow modernizing or expanding or rethinking Messiaen’s religiously driven work, written in a Nazi concentration camp for the performers and instruments available there (clarinet, violin, cello, and piano), Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a deeply felt and, when well performed, transcendent experience, pulling listeners both into Messiaen’s mandated-by-circumstances sound world and into his attempt to rise above his personal situation and bring the performers and any listeners with him. What the members of Founders do, apparently with all due respect and certainly without any insult intended, is turn the music into a hodgepodge of narrative, Sprechstimme, jazz riffs, rock material, and various flourishes and skitters that take the original quartet into areas where it was never intended to go – and, more importantly, that interfere with its communicative potential instead of enhancing it. It is difficult to understand just what, beyond a sort of “look at us and listen to what we’re doing” experience, the members of Founders – led by co-composers Brandon Ridenour and Ben Russell – hope to accomplish with what they have done here. The addition of voices intoning portions of Revelation, which inspired Messiaen, adds nothing to the music, and the form of delivery of the words distracts from the instrumental communication. The repeated lapses into styles distinct from and in some ways hostile to that of Messiaen also pull from rather than add to the communicative quality of the original music: those who already know Quatuor pour la fin du temps are unlikely to get much from this revision, unless they are looking for variety for its own sake. It seems more likely that the Founders group wants to bring Messiaen’s music and feelings to people who have not yet encountered Quatuor pour la fin du temps on their own, and who would be unlikely to pay attention to it if it were not dressed in enough pop-culture musical trappings to lie more easily on their ears than the original would. It is the apparent sincerity of Founders’ intentions, and the uniformly high quality of their performance in the service of what Ridenour and Russell have created, that make this a (+++) release. But it does not really point listeners to the original – if it did, that would be a valuable service, since Quatuor pour la fin du temps very much deserves to be heard and experienced by as many people as possible, both for its sheer musical quality and for the fact that it is a reminder of the circumstances under which Messiaen wrote it. Realistically, though, this new arrangement is unlikely to bring additional people to Messiaen’s original work, and if it does, they will be disappointed to discover that it lacks this version’s bells and whistles (not quite literally, although there is plenty of electronic enhancement in the Ridenour/Russell version). This release is titled “Vol. 1,” and it is hard to imagine what might follow. Something far more attentive to the sound and meaning of the original music would be welcome.

     The contrast between the Founders release and an Albany Records CD featuring songs by three American composers quite clearly shows the limits of sound experiments made largely for their own sake, or for the sake of the performers. Here the music uses the traditional elements of classical songwriting – voice and piano – plus some material for piano alone. Robert Spillman (born 1936) varies the sound world skillfully in Spring Rain, generally by adapting the piano part, having the keyboard instrument do as much scene-setting as accompaniment. Richard Masters takes on this dual role with considerable skill, establishing the songs’ moods – sometimes in only a bar or two – so Emily Martin can sing (actually sing, not declaim) Sara Teasdale’s poetry. In the four Jane Kenyon poems from Otherwise, Martin’s part is more varied and less atmospheric; the matter-of-fact words of the title song are a particularly effective collaborative effort between voice and piano. The blues-inflected Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man is as amusing as would be expected from its title and makes a particularly pleasant conclusion to this disc. The Spillman material contrasts interestingly with works by Frank La Forge (1879-1953), whose Seven Songs are drawn from disparate places – one even comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, that source for so much notable material by Mahler; indeed, the music contains a rather Mahlerian cadence. Ariana Wyatt is the soprano here, delivering the words with considerable drama – in fact, the settings tend to be somewhat overdone on the vocal side, with the piano often serving as a calming influence, bringing some placidity to verbiage that, sometimes in English and sometimes in German, is frequently discomfiting. This is a curious song cycle – although not really a cycle per se, having been created over nearly two decades. So-called “art songs” are something of an acquired taste in classical music, and the specific mixture of material here is odd enough to keep the CD at the (+++) level. The century-plus span of the material, rather unexpectedly, does not result in dramatic aural differences as the disc proceeds. This is partly because Masters effectively grounds the music throughout, although it is hard to understand any particular reason for including La Forge’s Two Pieces for Piano (the first marked Improvisation, the second Gavotte & Musette) on the disc. The chance to hear Masters’ playing on its own rather than in a largely subsidiary role is welcome, confirming the quality he brings to his support of the singers; but the piano-solo music somewhat diffuses the effect of the vocal material. That material also includes two arias from The Scarlet Letter by Lori Laitman (born 1955), sung by Martin. One is from Act I, “Beyond All Price.” The other is from Act II, “This Canopy of Trees.” They are sung and played well enough, but their narrative clearly depends on the plot of the opera, and neither aria feels entirely self-contained, with the result that they fit somewhat uneasily with the rest of the vocal material here. As a whole, the CD is a fine-sounding one that nicely showcases both the singers and the pianist. But it does not really hang together either thematically or musically – indeed, the arrangement of the material works against any cohesiveness, with the works presented in the sequence Spillman/La Forge songs/La Forge piano solo/Spillman/Laitman/Spillman. There are some undeniably attractive sounds here, but the disc as a whole will have a somewhat limited appeal.

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