September 02, 2021


Debussy: Images, Books 1 and 2; Estampes; Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’isle joyeuse. Mathilde Handelsman, piano. Sheva Collection. $20.

Van Stiefel: Music for Guitar. Van Stiefel, guitar. Panoramic Recordings. $16.99.

Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 13 in A, D. 664; Czerny: Variations on a Theme by Rode; Robert Schumann: Papillons; Noveletten, Op. 21—No. 8, Sehr Lebhaft; Clara Schumann: Soirées musicales, Op. 6—No. 2, Notturno. Andrea Botticelli, fortepiano. Céleste Music. $18.

Music for Snare Drum by Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko. Michael Compitello, snare drum. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Many composers have been intrigued by the ability of unusual instruments to produce sonic palettes that would be useful for specific purposes, or would provide a touch of previously unheard color to a piece – essentially, aural special effects. Some composers’ experiments led to widespread adoption of the instrument involved (Tchaikovsky and the celesta); others did not (Beethoven and the panharmonicon). But sometimes composers stick with a tried-and-true instrument and look for ways to have it express new thoughts, feelings and sounds. That is what Debussy did in much of his Impressionistic piano music, including the works presented in nicely nuanced interpretations by Mathilde Handelsman on a new Sheva Collection CD. There is limpid beauty throughout the recording, almost as if this is higher-class salon music designed for background perception rather than active listening. Handelsman seems thoroughly comfortable with all the works, which date to the years 1903-1907 and partake of a sensibility that used to be called “effete” before that word became critical rather than simply descriptive. Handelsman is especially good at lulling listeners into a particular mood, usually a gentle and quiet one, and then snapping them out of it – as she does with Mouvement from the first book of Images in the wake of the two prior, very relaxing pieces. Similarly, the delicacy of the first and second movements from the second book of Images comes through very well – and the glimmering of Poissons d’or then provides very effective contrast. All three movements of Estampes are atmospheric and sensitively phrased, the gradations of their dynamics as subtle as those of their rhythms. Jardins sous la pluie offers particularly effective scene-painting. The three individual works offered to complement the sets of Images and Estampes are fine character pieces, all their technical challenges seeming to give Handelsman not a moment’s pause. D’un cahier d’esquisses is practically static in both tempo and temperament, nicely placed between the somewhat hectic Masques and the rhythmically complex L’isle joyeuse. Handelsman is certainly a fine Debussy interpreter – but it is a bit of a shame that this Sheva Collection disc contains nothing even slightly out of the ordinary. Debussy did invent or refine piano sounds different from those known in earlier times, but he did more than that. Hearing some of his most-familiar works yet again is a pleasure, but Handelsman certainly has the technical capacity to go a bit farther afield with Debussy’s music, and with other Impressionistic works, if she so chooses.

     Like the modern piano, the modern acoustic guitar can be used to produce sounds beyond those normally heard from it – and like the Impressionists of the early 20th century, some composers in the 21st have figured out how to produce “characteristic pieces” designed to evoke particular moods, places or emotions. That is what Van Stiefel tries to do with the 14 works on a new Panoramic Recordings CD. His interest, though, is less in the expressiveness of the acoustic guitar itself than in ways to modify, layer, expand and otherwise alter the instrument to produce aural experiences beyond those available by simply sitting down with a guitar (as Handelsman does with a piano) and presenting music directly from composer through performer to listener. So the actual sound of Stiefel’s works on this disc is what will attract or repel an audience – not the supposed evocation of  everything from an object (Jewel Tree) to a feeling (Solace) to a state of being (Luminescence) to something paranormal (Clairvoyance). Stiefel is fascinated by the technological capabilities of guitar supplementation and modification, but less so by the notion of connecting emotionally with listeners who have only the music itself to go on and are not aware of what went into creating it. The pings and pops in King of Cups, the distinct (but not distinctive) computer sounds of Memory Jug, the sostenuto and reverb of Spirits – all are certainly carefully thought through and carefully assembled, but they do not reach out very far beyond being sonically intriguing in and of themselves. Stiefel’s works here cover a wide spectrum of durations, from Acquiescence at a minute and a half to Harbor at nearly 11 minutes; but it is difficult to see, or rather to hear, what is so fascinating that it needs extended presentation, and what so clear or cogent that it can make its point quickly and decisively. In many ways, the most-interesting piece here is the final one, Ground, which is written for no fewer than five guitars but retains a forward momentum and clarity of communication that are superior to most elements of the other pieces on the CD. In its contrast to those works, Ground comes across as the aural equivalent of a breath of fresh air: after all the alterations of guitar sounds and instrumental supplementation (electronic and not) that has come before, there is genuine pleasure in simply hearing a guitar grouping that does not aspire to be more than it is.

     An instrument that was scarcely unusual in the early Romantic era but that now sounds exotic enough to offer listeners a new perspective on familiar music is the fortepiano. Like Handelsman on her CD, Andrea Botticelli on a new disc from Céleste Music plays mostly well-worn repertoire, and does so with sensitivity and more than a touch of élan. What makes this CD especially interesting, though, is not so much the performances as what the performances are done on: a recent replica of an 1830s Viennese fortepiano. Pianos were evolving rapidly in the age of Schubert, Czerny, and Robert and Clara Schumann, only reaching their modern, massive and sonorous form later in the 19th century – in concurrence with the demands both of composer/pianists for greater range and stronger sound (Alkan, Liszt) and of impresarios for instruments capable of projecting to ever-larger concert venues and being used with ever-bigger orchestras. Generally, the fortepiano was more delicate than what came later, often having specialty pedals to allow evocation of particular sound qualities (a system derived from the fortepiano’s direct predecessor, the harpsichord); and with keys generally smaller, placed closer together and having less vertical travel than those on a modern piano, fortepianos encouraged a level of lightness and transparency among performers and composers alike. Because it is the least-known work played by Botticelli, Carl Czerny’s Variations on a Theme by Rode (known as “La Ricordanza”) offers an especially apt exploration of the fortepiano’s qualities. There is a distinct difference in the tonal quality between the lower and upper ranges of the instrument that Botticelli integrates skillfully into her performance: the sound itself becomes an interpretative matter (again, in line with the registration options of the harpsichord). Some of the trickier fingerings required by Czerny fit the fortepiano particularly well – they would be more of a reach (literally) on a modern piano. This piece is more “parlor music” than profound, but it lies quite well on the instrument Botticelli uses and offers a pleasant chance to engage with a less-familiar sound world. Botticelli also does a fine job with the more-substantive fare here, especially the Schubert sonata, which has lightness of texture and a fine flowing motion that Botticelli communicates particularly well. There is intensity here, to be sure, but it is kept in check by the inherent qualities of the fortepiano, with the result that the sonata’s emotive sensitivity becomes its most salient characteristic. The other pieces on the disc are, on the whole, lighter fare, all sounding mild and agreeable enough, if no more consequential than they would on any other keyboard instrument. They are pleasantries, and the pleasant sound of the fortepiano fits them very well indeed. Hearing all this material on fortepiano casts the works in a different light from that usually focused on them in performance – a dimmer light, perhaps, but one that encourages less-explored elements of their beauty to shine forth.

     The fortepiano is a specialty instrument nowadays; other instruments – especially ones that, like those in the piano family, are percussion – also have specific, narrow roles to fill, and move outside their realm only very rarely. This means that when they do go beyond what is normal and expected for them, the result can be very striking indeed. Thus, when Carl Nielsen included an ad libitum section for the snare drum in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony, instructing the performer to interfere at all costs with the progress of the orchestra, he was doing something genuinely new and very surprising – and that symphony retains its power in part because of this very unusual snare-drum section. A contemporary snare drummer, Michael Compitello, tries to go on beyond Nielsen (without ever paying direct tribute to the Danish composer) by having four modern composers create works for solo snare drum – ones that explore the instrument in ways that are far from the norm for it. The result is a New Focus Recordings CD that is quite short, at 38 minutes, but quite extended at the same time, in terms of the result of so much solo-snare-drum material. The four composers deserve credit for even attempting compositions that would appear, on their face, to be so outlandish. By the same token, listeners deserve credit for sitting through this entire disc. It is full of intermittently interesting material but, as a whole, simply cries out “experimentation” as loudly as possible (even when the snare drum itself is being played quietly). Electronic delay and sonic alteration are important elements of Nina C. Young’s Heart.throb, which has nothing apparent to do with the heart or, for that matter, with throbbing. At 11-and-a-half minutes, it is the longest work here, although Tonia Ko’s Negative Magic is only 45 seconds shorter. Ko requires that the drum be tuned and retuned during her piece, thus changing its sound and allowing juxtaposition and contrast of material performed on different parts of the instrument. This mainly calls attention (again and again) to the reality that it helps, in a solo-snare-drum work, to make the piece sound as if it is not a solo. The shortest piece on the disc is Start by Hannah Lash, and it is also the most interesting work here, changing the drum’s sound not through tuning changes but through use of differing implements with which the drum is played. Nevertheless, this wears thin well before the almost-seven-minute work approaches its conclusion. The fourth piece here, which runs nine-and-a-quarter minutes, is Ghost in the Machine by Amy Beth Kirsten. This also uses varying implements to elicit sounds from the snare drum, but draws attention more to what the drum is played with than to the drum’s actual sound – although that, come to think of it, is not an entirely bad thing. There is an underlying sense of amusement, of esoteric fun, throughout this disc, and certainly people who play the snare drum will enjoy a great deal of the CD. It is, however, a bit much for everyday listeners to encompass, and it serves mainly, in the end, to confirm that the snare drum is not really a very good solo instrument – although it can be mighty impressive and striking when set against a full orchestra whose progress it is trying to impede.

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