May 27, 2021


Hafliði Hallgrímsson: Klee Sketches, Op. 32, Books One and Two; Offerto (in memoriam Karl Kvaran), Op. 13. Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Métier. $17.99.

Bach: Cello Suites Nos. 1, 2 and 4, arranged for bass clarinet. Joshua Ranz, bass clarinet. Navona. $14.99.

Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13; Clara Schumann: Piano Sonata in G Minor. Inna Faliks, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Ensueños de Cuba (Daydreams of Cuba). Elena Casanova, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Since Icelandic composer Hafliði Hallgrímsson (born 1941) is also a fine cellist, it would be reasonable to expect string-solo music by him to focus on the cello. But a new Métier CD with Peter Sheppard Skærved instead features the solo violin – and shows Hallgrímsson to be quite adept in writing for it. There are two multi-movement suites here called Klee Sketches, both dedicated to Skærved and both showing  fine command of the violin’s solo capabilities – along with some rather esoteric tone-painting and equally abstruse wit and humor. Hallgrímsson’s musical sound here is approachable and often genuinely interesting, although some familiarity with the art of Paul Klee (1879-1940) is certainly needed to get the full flavor of movements with titles such as “Klee Experimenting with a New Scale,” “Do Not Neglect Your Pizzicato Herr Klee,” “Klee Sounds Out an Etching He Is Contemplating,” and “Klee Entertaining Kandinsky” – that movement referring to Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), who, along with Klee, was one of the artistic group known as Die Blaue Vier (“The Blue Four”). Hallgrímsson clearly draws inspiration from Klee’s very personal stylistic mixture of cubism, surrealism and expressionism, and seems to have no trouble producing 15 movements (between the two solo-violin suites) with references (admittedly sometimes oblique) to Klee – who, it is worth noting, himself created some 9,000 works, leaving plenty for Hallgrímsson to be inspired by. The two Klee suites are interestingly complemented by the earlier (1991) Offerto (in memoriam Karl Kvaran), which Hallgrímsson created in memory of his friend, an artist who lived from 1924 to 1989. Unlike Klee, Kvaran is not internationally known, but interestingly, Hallgrímsson’s four-movement Kvaran memorial suite speaks more directly and universally than do his more-rarefied Klee Sketches. The movement titles in Offerto are not entirely reflective of the music’s sound, but do show the contemplative nature of the material: “Written in Sand,” “Lines without Words,” “The Flight of Time,” and “Almost a Hymn.” Skærved plays all the material on this disc knowingly, idiomatically and expressively, emphasizing now the music’s dissonant and overtly “modern” elements, now its more-lyrical and emotional ones. Hallgrímsson’s music is something of an acquired taste, but this release shows it to be interesting and involving enough to be worthwhile for more people to acquire.

     The cello is also central to, yet absent from, a new Navona disc featuring Joshua Ranz on bass clarinet. Ranz, perhaps quixotically, has arranged three of Bach’s suites for solo cello for his own instrument, and the results are – well, odd. It has often been said that Bach’s music has such perfection and purity that it can be played with equal effect on any instrument, and Ranz’s arrangements and performances certainly put that assertion to the test. The clarinet itself is an instrument of wide range, with considerable warmth and depth in its low chalumeau register, but the bass clarinet is a darker and expressively more-limited instrument. It comes across quite well in the Sarabande of the first suite, for example, but somewhat more awkwardly in the two Minuets that follow, as well as in the concluding Gigue, which Ranz tries hard to make jaunty but which actually sounds a bit off-balance. The disc stays in the major key after the first, G major suite – No. 4 is in E-flat – and here the opening Prelude is particularly impressively played, although again it is the fourth-movement Sarabande that fits the tonal and emotive qualities of the bass clarinet best. Suite No. 2, in D minor, concludes the CD and is particularly intriguing for the way its moods complement the capabilities of the bass clarinet – which Ranz plays especially well here, notably in the very deepest notes, which have substantial resonance. The speedy Courante of this suite nearly over-matches the instrument, although yet again the Sarabande that follows it is especially impressive. The Gigue that ends this suite and the entire disc neatly sums up the pluses and minuses of the whole endeavor: it is rhythmic and very well-played, but lacks the bounce that it has on the cello, and the wider leaps sound a trifle awkward. This is certainly an interesting way to hear some familiar Bach music, and clarinetists are sure to enjoy it: there was no bass clarinet in Bach’s time, but as an experiment in what-might-have-been, Ranz’s arrangements of these suites are impressively unusual.

     One instrument with a longstanding association with multiple forms of expressiveness is the piano, and just how far pianistic moods stretch can be seen, or rather heard, on two recent releases from MSR Classics. Inna Faliks offers attentive, nuanced and beautifully balanced readings of major works by both Schumanns, Robert and Clara, on a CD titled “The Schumann Project, Volume 1” – implying that there are more such juxtapositions to come. They will be most welcome if they continue in the same vein as this initial disc. Clara’s G minor sonata dates to 1841-42, but she never played it in public and, indeed, neither did anyone else. It was not published until as recently as 1991. The very short third-movement Scherzo did turn up in her Quatre Pièces Fugitives, Op. 15, but the rest of the work lay fallow. This is not a great sonata or evidence of Clara’s full development as a composer – in fact, her development in that vein remained arrested throughout her lifetime as she focused on performance and on promoting Robert’s music. However, the sonata is quite well-constructed, its first movement being the most broadly conceived and its second, slow movement hinting at emotional connections that it is somewhat too short to convey fully. The little Scherzo and brisk concluding Rondo are pleasant if somewhat superficial; the work as a whole breaks no new ground, but certainly shows Clara’s ability to create music that is worthwhile both to perform and to hear. Nevertheless, Robert’s Symphonic Etudes dominates Faliks’ disc. Largely in variation form – but in the sense of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, within which the theme is often so transformed as to disappear almost completely – the Symphonic Etudes hark back to Bach in their polyphony and use of canonic effects, while existing fully within the Romantic era through their extended exploration of technique and of the piano’s ability to become a Lisztian “orchestra in miniature.” Like most pianists today, Faliks includes the five posthumously published etudes along with the original 12, placing the first two after Etude III, the third after Etude V, the fourth after Etude VIII, and the fifth just before the finale (Etude XII). This arrangement works well, and the inclusion of the posthumous material broadens the scope of this already-large work even further, resulting in a performance lasting 34 minutes and exploring, within that time frame, pretty much all the ups and downs, ins and outs that intrigued Robert early in his career. The Symphonic Etudes date to 1834, when Robert was 24 and not yet involved with Clara – in fact, in the year of this work’s composition, he had been engaged to Ernestine von Fricken, making her Estrella in his Carnaval. And it was her father who created the theme on which most of the etudes are based. There will surely be more obscure-but-fascinating biographical connections of this sort as Faliks continues juxtaposing works by Robert and Clara – and hopefully playing them with as much understanding and skill as she brings to these two.

     The piano can, of course, express moods through miniatures as well as large-scale pieces – in fact, some of the attraction of the Symphonic Etudes and similar works comes from their use of small-scale pieces that, in totality, become part of a larger canvas, the whole being more than the sum of its parts. In some piano music, though, small pieces are entirely self-contained and are designed to encapsulate just one feeling, attitude or thought. Elena Casanova offers a heaping helping of them on a disc called Ensueños de Cuba, which has no fewer than 44 tracks lasting 70 minutes – meaning the average piece here is just about a minute and a half long. Yet the works are quite evocative within their limited time span – and all of them speak of Cuba, its history and turmoil and beauty and grace and above all its dances. Casanova was born in Cuba, and for her this recital is a tribute to her homeland – but for anyone of any background, it will evoke feelings of nostalgia and memory even if the specific memories Casanova celebrates through this material are not a listener’s own. The composers here will scarcely be household names for a wide audience, with some of them so obscure that not even their birth and death years are known. They include Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), perhaps the best-known; Miguel Faílde Pérez (1852-1921); Pedro Garcia (dates unknown); Silvano Boudet (1828-1863); José Fernández de Coca (dates unknown); Gaspar D. Villate (1851-1891); Felipe B. Valdés (dates unknown); Jorge Anckermann (1877-1941); Enrique Guerrero (1818-1887); Manuel Saumell (1818-1870); Maria Matilde Alea (1903-1989); Maria Emma Botet (1903-?); Harold Gramatges (1918-2008); Andres Alen (born 1950); Cesar Perez Sentenat (1896-1973); and Rene Touzet (1916-2003). Their works are quite different, but are united in this recital by their encapsulation within a very short time span of a single feeling, desire, emotion or hope. Sometimes the time of a work is very short: Botet’s four Dancitas de Ayer last a total of two-and-a-half minutes – all four combined. Saumell’s Seis Contradanzas are somewhat lengthier, their total time being 12 minutes, but again they give the impression of being here and gone quickly, leaving only a wisp of melody and feeling behind. The longest work on the disc, 19 minutes, is Alea’s Miniaturas Ritmicas Cubanas No. 2, but in keeping with the approach of the entire CD, it contains no fewer than 17 movements. Casanova plays the whole disc with nicely understated technique, bringing out emotions without laying them on too thickly, allowing the composers’ evocations of Cuba to flow naturally and pleasantly from one to the next. The material may be a bit much for non-Cubans to sit through from start to finish: there is a degree of repetitiveness in the evoked feelings and, to some extent, in the style of some pieces from similar time periods. But it is perfectly possible to dip into the disc for a while, go do something else, and return to it to pick up where you left off – resuming an evocative musical program that shows the piano’s ability to bring forth a pleasantly nostalgic set of thoughts, feelings and moods.

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