March 11, 2021


Music for Bassoon and Strings by Alexis Ciesla, François Devienne, Barbara Strozzi, Carl Jacobi, Édouard Du Puy, and Clara Schumann. Shannon Lowe, bassoon; Kristin Pfeifer Yu and Ken Davis, violins; Laurel Yu, viola; Steven Taylor, cello; Maurice Belle, double bass. MSR Classics. $12.95.

George Lewis: The Recombinant Trilogy—Emergent, Not Alone, Seismologic. Claire Chase, flute, with Levy Lorenzo, electronics; Seth Parker Woods, cello and electronics; Dana Jessen, bassoon, with Eli Stine, electronics. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Ireland: Fantasy-Sonata for Clarinet and Piano; Sarnia—An Island Sequence; Prokofiev: Sonata, Op. 94a. Phillip O. Paglialonga, clarinet; Richard Masters, piano. Heritage Records. $18.

     Listeners with a taste for wind-plus-something music have a considerable amount of material from which to choose, some originally written for the combination and some arranged for it – often by the performers themselves as they look for new repertoire for their chosen instruments. Bassoonist Shannon Lowe, for example, has arranged two short works from very different eras: La Vendetta by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) and Die gute nacht, die ich dir sage (“the good night that I say to you”) by Clara Schumann (1819-1896). The pieces are expressive in their own, very different ways, and in fact expressiveness lies at the heart of Lowe’s entire recital on MSR Classics: she is one of many bassoonists who see the instrument as warm and pleasant, readily capable of heartfelt emotion quite distant from the more-comic role to which it was often relegated in the past. The Strozzi work has a distinct singing quality to it (Strozzi was a well-known singer), while Clara Schumann’s pretty offering to husband Robert is a lovely little piece, filled with warmth that is tender and never overdone. The remainder of this CD has a distinct aura of potpourri about it, collecting pieces that simply reflect Lowe’s performance interests rather than any particular theme. The disc opens with the most-recent work on offer, Dança de Lisboa by Alexis Ciesla (born 1967), which progresses from the bassoon’s darker register toward a brighter and more vivacious sound as it evolves. The two most-extensive works here are from 18th-century France, a quartet by François Devienne (1759-1803) and a quintet by Édouard Du Puy (1770-1822). Both are in minor keys (G minor and A minor, respectively), but neither aims for or achieves depth, profundity or even melancholy. The Devienne has almost a dual-instrument focus, with violin and bassoon both cooperating and moving to the verge of competition. Du Puy’s work is more virtuosic, giving Lowe plenty of opportunities to shine and having, like Strozzi’s, some elements of vocalizing about it – Du Puy, like Strozzi, was a noted singer. Also on this disc is an intriguing Potpourri on “Zampa” by Carl Jacobi (1791-1852), featuring music from the now-rarely-heard opera by Louis Hérold. Some themes used by Jacobi are recognizable from the work’s still-familiar overture, while others point to just how tuneful the opera is despite an over-the-top plot that has much to do with its fall into obscurity. Lowe plays everything on the CD tastefully and with a fine sense of style, and if nothing here approaches the level of “great” (or even particularly significant) music, everything is certainly enjoyable.

     For a contemporary composer such as George Lewis (born 1952) – especially one who himself performs on electronics – the mixture of acoustic wind instruments with electronic alteration seems to come naturally. New Focus Recordings has released an hour-long disc of three works that Lewis collects as The Recombinant Trilogy. Like much electronic music, this is a matter of taste: those who enjoy digitized sounds and modifications that change the inherent acoustic properties of instruments will become involved in the way Lewis alters the properties of flute, cello and bassoon, while those who are more interested in the instruments’ inherent capabilities will find what Lewis creates overdone and definitely overlong. Certainly these three pieces require considerable virtuosity on the part of the instrumentalists; the question is to what end. If Claire Chase’s flute is turned into something screechy, its sound often on the verge of unpleasantness (by design); if Seth Parker Woods, who both plays the cello and modifies it electronically, creates a sound world in which the instrument’s rich tone and wide range are implied mostly by their absence; if Dana Jessen’s bassoon offers the rumblings of something approximating an earthquake or incipient invasion of the surface world by creatures from below – if all these sounds and modifications occur again and again, in works that grow from a kind of organic conception but without giving listeners any particular themes, rhythms, harmonies or pacing to which they can attach their expectations, then only an audience that actively seeks immersion in an electronic world will experience this material as Lewis intends. Emergent dates to 2014, Not Alone to 2014-15, and Seismologic to 2017, but all use identical sound-manipulative techniques, or at least strongly overlapping ones. The instrumentalists heard here are the ones for whom the works were created, so it is fair to call their performances definitive. It is also fair to ask what Lewis and the performers are trying to communicate, if there is anything beyond the basic notion of manipulable aural elements. Parts of Emergent sound shrill, while others are hollow-sounding and gloomy. Not Alone is filled with escalations and alterations of cello-playing techniques of all sorts. Seismologic extends the solo instrument to an even greater degree, pulling bassoon sounds far lower than they can be when produced naturally, while also creating layering effects that make the instrument sound like various natural phenomena. There is much in The Recombinant Trilogy that is intellectually intriguing; but, as is often the case in contemporary music, there is nothing here that is emotionally gripping – or is intended to be.

     In somewhat older music, though, the emotional connection of a wind instrument such as the clarinet can be substantial, as is clear on a Heritage Records CD featuring clarinetist Phillip O. Paglialonga. There is one work here, by John Ireland, that was written for clarinet, and another, by Prokofiev, that has been arranged for it. Ireland’s Fantasy-Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is the composer’s only piece for solo clarinet, and it covers the instrument’s complete range without ever trying to force it higher or lower than a performer can take it. Although notable for the virtuosity of the clarinet part, this work also asks a great deal of the piano, which partners with the wind instrument to a high degree and, when played with sensitivity, helps create an exceptionally well-balanced piece requiring considerable skill from both players. Paglialonga is very ably partnered here by Richard Masters, whose unerring sense of balance between the instruments prevents the piano from ever overshadowing the clarinet, and whose careful presentation helps give the piece a greater sense of structure than it sometimes seems to have (it is certainly more fantasy than sonata). Masters’ skill with Ireland’s music is also in evidence in the solo-piano work Sarnia, an impressionistic three-movement piece about the island of Guernsey (called Sarnia in Roman times). Although written, like the other works on this CD, during World War II, Sarnia sounds more like an oasis of quiet and peace, perhaps a throwback to more bucolic times, than a piece composed in wartime. There is some of the same feeling in Prokofiev’s Sonata, Op. 94a, an arrangement for violin and piano of the Op. 94 sonata for flute. Paglialonga thus plays an arrangement of an arrangement, but the clarinet version harks back in its lyrical elegance to the original one for flute. The feeling is on the sylvan side in the first of the four movements, although the leaps and bounces of the second movement – with distinct playfulness in both clarinet and piano – offer highly recognizable Prokofiev-wittiness material. The sonata as a whole is rather stately, classically proportioned and, in its finale, with some of the sound of a throwback to the much earlier Classical Symphony. The finale actually sounds especially bright and emphatic on the clarinet, while Masters’ underpinning of the material makes the sonata’s conclusion particularly effective. The works on this CD have little in common except temporally, but they collectively make for a very pleasant listening experience that neatly highlights three separate wind-related approaches: one original composition, one arrangement, and one work where the wind instrument is absent altogether – with all three works played with panache and a convincing degree of emotional connectedness.

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