July 22, 2021


Music for Solo Harp by Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Cécile Cheminade, Amy Beach, Mel Bonis, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Wieck Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Kati Agócs, Sally Beamish, Freya Waley-Cohen, and Johanna Selleck. Elisabeth Remy Johnson, harp. Albany Records. $16.99.

Eugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Kejia He, violin. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Bach: Partitas Nos. 1, 4 and 5. Haskell Small, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Brahms: Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano; Ligeti: Sonata for Solo Cello; Shostakovich: Sonata for Cello and Piano. John-Henry Crawford, cello; Victor Santiago Asuncion, piano. Orchid Classics. $16.99.

     The pleasures of playing a solo instrument are many. The pleasures of listening to one can be, too, if the performance is high-quality and the music interesting enough to sustain an extended audio experience. Certainly Elisabeth Remy Johnson’s harp playing is top-notch on a new Albany Classics CD, although the repertoire she performs is of somewhat uneven quality. There is more than an hour of solo-harp music here, quite a bit to listen to at one time – and the mixture of very modern material with transcriptions by Remy Johnson of piano works from earlier times is not always a successful one. The four pieces written originally for harp solo are all from the 21st century: John Riley (2006) from Every Lover Is a Warrior by Kati Agócs (born 1975), Pavan (2016) by Sally Beamish (born 1956), Skye (2017) by Freya Waley-Cohen (born 1989), and Spindrift (2008) by Johanna Selleck (born 1959). John Riley is an expansion and reinterpretation of a folk song and retains a naïve, even simplistic quality that is well-balanced by the harp elaboration. Pavan was written for a ballet production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and is suitably airy and evanescent. The title Skye refers to the Isle of Skye; the piece contains folklike elements mixed with impressionistic ones, the work’s slower sections being especially affecting. Spindrift is impressionistic as well – the title refers to the spray blown from waves – and at nine minutes (longer than anything else on the disc) is somewhat overextended, although its contrasts between near-silence and extended arpeggios are effective. There is another 21st-century work on the disc, Quest (2013) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh (born 1992) – written for piano and transcribed here by performer and composer in collaboration. This piece has decidedly pianistic elements throughout and some stylistic echoes of the Baroque, yet it lies well on the harp and has an altogether pleasant sound (its title is not reflected in the music in any way – but has personal relevance for the composer). Remy Johnson has chosen the rest of the pieces on the disc well in terms of their adaptability to solo harp, and since they will be mostly unfamiliar to most listeners, there will be little reason to consider their harp-vs.-piano versions. All these works are miniatures, mostly character pieces or salon items that briefly evoke particular moods. They are Aubade by Cécile Cheminade; A Hermit Thrush at Morn by Amy Beach; five separate short and charming (if inconsequential) pieces by Mel (Mélanie) Bonis (the wistfulness of Desdémona is particularly winning); Mélodie by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; the very delicate Romanze by Clara Wieck Schumann; D’un vieux jardin by Lili Boulanger; and Remy Johnson’s arrangement of the traditional folk song Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies, whose title could stand as an overall description of this collection of fair and tender harp sounds offering music by 11 female composers. The disc has a kind of background-music quality when heard as a whole, but some individual pieces on it are worthy of more-focused attention, and the playing is first-rate throughout.

     The performance is also very fine on a new MSR Classics release featuring the six Op. 27 solo-violin sonatas written in 1923 by Eugène Ysaÿe. These works are a challenge for any violinist – Ysaÿe himself was both a performer and a composer – and many players have taken them up on that basis. The pieces, in one to four movements, are designed to characterize and encapsulate other violinists of the time. But what gives them enduring interest is the way they show as much about the composer as about the people being musically portrayed. The first is dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, the second (“Obsession”) to Jacques Thibaud, the third (“Ballade”) to Georges Enescu, the fourth to Fritz Kreisler, the fifth to Mathieu Crickboom, and the sixth to Manuel Quiroga. Ysaÿe was inspired to write the sonatas after hearing a Bach solo-violin sonata played by Szigeti, and Bach’s spirit permeates the works: No. 2, for example, directly quotes the start of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin in the first movement – and then moves on to a siciliano, a sarabande and a finale quoting the Dies irae from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. What makes the sonatas so interesting is the way they combine Bach’s influence with the style of the 1920s: they are filled with dissonance, and use techniques such as quarter tones and whole-tone scales. They are also technically difficult, designed in part to highlight the special characteristics of the violinists to whom they were dedicated. However, the sonatas need to work on a purely musical basis for audiences that can scarcely be expected to be familiar with the particular abilities and focuses of the original dedicatees. Kejia He knows this, giving very effective performances precisely because he does not treat the sonatas as period pieces or ones focused on individuals’ technical abilities, but as musical offerings that transcend their time and the reasons for their creation. Thus, the Fugato of No. 1 is well-balanced between its Baroque form and 20th-century harmonies; the Sarabande third movement of No. 2, marked Danse des ombres and requiring sensitive pizzicato playing, contrasts well with the double-stop-filled Allegro furioso (“Les furies”) that follows; and the Danse rustique of No. 5, while scarcely danceable, is strongly rhythmic and has well-differentiated legato elements. In many ways, these sonatas are specialty items, endlessly intriguing to violinists but something of an acquired taste for listeners. Those who do consider them a pleasurable listening experience will find He’s sensitive virtuosity very appealing.

     Another enjoyable experience for listeners inclined to a certain type of interpretation will be found on another MSR Classics release, featuring three Bach partitas played on piano by composer/performer Haskell Small. As always, playing these works on a modern piano is a matter of taste, and the validity of doing so a matter of opinion; certainly the CD will not appeal to listeners interested in historically correct interpretation. But Small ‘s sensitivity to the nuances of the music helps compensate for the inappropriately modern sound of the instrument and the inauthentic way the piano’s action carries the sounds of each hand’s notes into those of the other. The brighter movements fare especially well in Small’s performances: the Allemande and Giga of Partita No. 1, the Courante and Gigue of No. 4, and the Corrente and Tempo di Minuetto of No. 5. The slower and more-expressive movements are more a matter of taste: the Sarabande of No. 1 is somewhat overly Romantic, although not done in full-blown 19th-century style; the gentleness of the very extended Allemande of No. 4 is a touch overdone, and the emotive nature of the Sarabande is a bit overemphasized; the pastoral feeling of the Allemande in No. 5 is pleasant, but the piano’s sound is just too warm for the music, and here too the Sarabande is a bit too emotionally expressive – although always in good taste, with Small never overdoing matters. There are many very fine piano performances of these works, and this one certainly belongs among them, but Small does not bring anything especially new or unexpected to his interpretations; and while the sheer sound of the piano is never overwhelming, neither is it ever fully convincing in works for which it was not originally intended.

     The one solo-instrument work offered by John-Henry Crawford on a new Orchid Classics CD is as different as can be from those by Bach and Ysaÿe. Ligeti’s two-movement Sonata for Solo Cello begins, ironically, with a movement marked Dialogo, and is filled with Romantic-era gestures and harmonies; the movement’s title refers to conversation-like elements in its structure. Written between 1948 and 1953, this solo sonata is more accessible in sound than other Ligeti works from the 1940s. The first movement has something of a folklike feeling in parts. Capriccio, the second movement, is more virtuosic than the first movement and more intense, giving the cellist as much of a workout as the solo violinist receives in Ysaÿe’s sonatas. Crawford masters the music without apparent difficulty, and his exuberant handling of the second movement makes it just the sort of tour de force that Ligeti sought. This solo-cello piece appears in the middle of a disc that is otherwise devoted to longer and musically somewhat meatier cello-and-piano works. The challenges for the cellist in these Brahms and Shostakovich works are different. In the Brahms, what is needed is a true partnership with the pianist, who is in fact given ample opportunities to overwhelm the string instrument. The balancing act is complicated for Crawford by the interesting fact that he performs on a cello made long before any work on this disc, including the Brahms, was composed: the instrument dates to about 1790. This means that the cello is better-suited for matching with a fortepiano or early (Beethoven-era) piano than with the modern one played by Victor Santiago Asuncion. It is to the pianist’s credit – and to the credit of the well-wrought partnership between both performers – that the mergers of and distinctions between the instruments come through so effectively in the Brahms sonata. The exchanges in the opening movement are especially effective here: there is a certain combativeness between the performers that needs to be resolved through a sensitivity to the overall shape of the music – and that is well-managed in this recording. Crawford and Asuncion do a fine job with the somewhat odd moodiness of the sonata: the intense, scherzo-like third movement, which surprisingly is more-extended than the work’s slow movement, is succeeded by a brief finale that is considerably lighter than anything that has come before. Both the instrumental balance and the interpretative understanding are quite accomplished here. The performers are also well-matched in Shostakovich’s early cello-and-piano sonata, which is quite unlike the Brahms sonata in every way except for the disparate moods of its four movements. The challenge for performers here is to create a totality into which the individual movements can fit despite their emotional distinctions and their substantially different lengths – the second movement, for example, is only one-fourth as long as the first. The opening movement actually has Brahmsian elements, while the second is more of a perpetuum mobile than a sarcastic “Shostakovich scherzo.” The third, impressionistic and bleak, is followed by a finale that is almost playful and does look ahead to scherzo-like elements in the composer’s later works. The sonata is not really a unified whole, and does not come across as one in this performance, but it has many effective elements of comparison and contrast between the instruments, and gives both cello and piano plenty of opportunities to carry the weight of the material. As a totality, this CD is very well-played and showcases two fine performers – but the selection of music is somewhat on the capricious side, or at least is so highly personalized that the disc will be of interest mainly to listeners who are intrigued by this specific mixture of music and/or by the stylish way in which Crawford and Asuncion present all the works.

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