March 25, 2021


Liszt: Grande Paraphrase de la Marche de Giuseppe Donizetti; Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor; Introduction et Polonaise de l’opéra I Puritani de Bellini; Erlkönig (after Schubert); Magyar Dalok (Hungarian Melodies); Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini; Chopin: Mazurka in B minor, Op. 33, No. 4; Weber: Invitation to the Dance. Zeynep Ucbasaran, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

BAMA: Alabama String Quartets. Amernet String Quartet (Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violins; Michael Klotz, viola; Jason Calloway, cello). MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

     Why not use geography as the unifying element of a recital, concert or recording? Performers and producers are always looking for ways to make disparate music seem related, to give a theme of some sort to a particular performance, so why not pick a geographical relationship among the works being played as a way to draw the audience into a totality that might otherwise seem completely scattershot? Well, the answer is that the effectiveness of the geographical connection ultimately depends both on the music played and on the extent to which the geography is truly germane to the performance. In the case of a new Divine Art recording featuring a mostly-Liszt recital by Zeynep Ucbasaran – and not a particularly new recital, since it was recorded in 2012 after broadcasts in 2011 – the geographical tie-in is tenuous at best. The works heard on this disc were among those performed by Liszt during a month-long visit to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1847, where the great composer/pianist played two concerts in the Sultan’s palace and gave a number of performances elsewhere. But aside from the fact that this means all the works here date to 1847 or earlier, there is little to unite the material by focusing on the venue where Liszt performed these pieces. On the other hand, the Liszt/Istanbul connection surely seemed more aptly serious to Ucbasaran and Divine Art than the more-accurate description of this material, which would be something along the lines of “Wretched Excess That Sounds Great.” These are almost all pieces designed to showcase (and show off) pianistic prowess, not to communicate any particular level of emotional involvement, much less intensity, to an audience. Thus, Grande Paraphrase de la Marche de Giuseppe Donizetti is so over-the-top as to be almost humorous. Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor piles complexity on complexity in a display of showmanship that surely delighted Liszt’s audiences – and should delight Ucbasaran’s – but that, objectively speaking, does considerable violence to the underlying music. Similarly, the two Bellini-based pieces, while filled with fireworks and requiring substantial pianistic élan, have almost nothing to do with the warm bel canto material on which they are (rather loosely) based. And Liszt’s handling of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance turns this pleasant and rather sweet piece into a tour de force that is anything but danceable – even though it is very listenable indeed. Liszt is not quite so extreme in his handling of a Chopin Mazurka and Schubert’s Erlkönig, but neither of those works comes off as well in Liszt’s version as they do in the originals. However, there is one piece in Ucbasaran’s recital that does show a somewhat less extreme Liszt: Magyar Dalok, an effective melodic display in which the pianistic requirements are at the service of an understanding of the musical material. Playing this recital must have been exhausting, for Ucbasaran if not necessarily for Liszt; listening to it, however, is mostly simply fun, and even rather thrilling from time to time. The CD is superficial pretty much from start to finish, but then so – apparently – was Liszt’s sojourn in Constantinople in 1847. Certainly the trip cemented and, if anything, added to Liszt’s already formidable reputation as a performer. Somewhat ironically, 1847 ended up being Liszt’s final year as a virtuoso performer, as the European revolutions of 1848 upended his career along with so much else.

     The geographical connection is more integral to the music in a two-CD release from MSR Classics that features 15 chamber works commissioned by or connected to the Birmingham Art Music Alliance (hence the overall title of the release, BAMA – which, of course, is also shorthand for the state of Alabama). Whether or not the 13 composers here are household names in Alabama itself, they will likely be thoroughly unfamiliar to listeners in general, even ones interested in contemporary quartet music. The works are uniformly well-made without ever being especially distinctive in approach. Bird Quartet by Cynthia Miller (born 1950) is suitably evocative and imitative. String Quartet No. 2 by Brian Moon (born 1975) consists of a mere five minutes of rather obsessional rhythm. Twine ’Mid the Ringlets by Monroe Golden (born 1959) atonally contrasts the extremes of the strings’ range. Ascension for String Quartet by Lawren Brianna Ware (born 1994) dwells at some length in the lower registers. The first movement from String Quartet No. 4 by Matthew Scott Phillips (born1977) is more evocative, emotive and expressive than most of the other works offered here. String Quartet (2003) by Andrew Raffo Dewar (born 1975) includes open-string and harmonic effects in the instruments’ higher and lower ranges. Tempus Fugit by Tom Reiner (born 1969) moves with intensity, although not toward any certain destination. Quartet for Strings by Mark Lackey (born 1966) is a rather well-proportioned three-movement piece that focuses as much on individual instruments as on ensemble playing, and has some genuine bounce in its finale. String Quartet No. 1 by Michael Coleman (born 1955) moves along smartly and covers a fair amount of ground, both emotionally and in terms of performance, in its single seven-and-a-half-minute movement. Follows from Hummingbird by Holland Hopson (born 1971) is mostly concerned with creating unusual string sounds and with contrasting abundant glissandi with individual notes. Ketiga by Tom Reiner (born 1969) features a somewhat dancelike first movement, a surprisingly lyrical second, and a strongly accented if rather inconclusive finale. Lines and Curves, a second work by Moon, jumps about hither and thither to somewhat humorous effect. String Quartet, a second offering from Golden, is filled with harmonics and a constant feeling of stop-and-start pacing. Imagery: Thomas Hardy on Death by Chris Steele (born 1980) uses three very short movements (less than two minutes apiece) in surprisingly expressive ways, sounding like a throwback harmonically but connecting emotionally to fine effect. And String Quartet No. 1, “Vespers,” by Joel Scott Davis (born 1982), also a three-movement piece and at 23 minutes by far the longest work in this release, extracts some sonic special effects from the strings but never quite makes the aural connection between those sounds and movements supposedly relating to “proclamations,” “benedictions” and “jubilations.” The Amernet String Quartet plays all the music very well indeed, making the strongest possible case for all these works. And most of the pieces show structural solidity and considerable mastery of the string-quartet form. Nevertheless, this (+++) release is unlikely to reach out beyond a small core audience – one interested not only in contemporary string-quartet writing but also in the specific ways in which such writing is produced and/or reflected in the state of Alabama. The CDs may be most useful in the academic sphere – for demonstrating to potential conservatory students that Alabama has a vibrant contemporary-classical-music life.

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