September 23, 2021


Music for Solo Violin from London, 1650-1700. Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Athene. $18.99.

Marc Mellits: No Strings Attached; Black; Red; Troică; Gravity. Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project conducted by Phillip O’Banion. BCM+D Records. $9.99.

Music for Voice, Winds and Strings by Taylor Brook, Heather Stebbins, Eve Beglarian, Reiko Füting, Scott Wollschleger, and Paula Matthusen. loadbang (Jeff Gavett, baritone; Andrew Kozar, trumpet; William Lang, trombone; Adrian Sandi, clarinet). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Sometimes the main reason to listen to a CD is to hear the way the instruments on it are played – not to hear the specific music for which those instruments are employed. A new Athene disc is of this type: the playing by Peter Sheppard Skærved is excellent; the violin used for most of the recording, which dates to 1664 but whose maker is unknown, has a warm and full-bodied sound that is instantly attractive; a second violin, used for a subset of the material, is an absolutely wonderful, even-toned Girolamo Amati instrument from 1629; the composers represented are a kind of “who’s who” of the Baroque era; and the CD’s length of almost an hour and a quarter is generous. However, all these positives are at the service of works that are, truth be told, by and large not terribly interesting. The disc has 44 tracks, with pieces ranging in length from 48 seconds to (in a single case) nearly four minutes; most of these little works are in the one-to-two-minute range. The majority come from a 1705 collection of Preludes & Voluntarys, with 10 (the ones for which the Amati is used) being composed by Thomas Baltzar (c. 1630-1664) – arguably the most-famous violinist of his time. Among the many other composers represented here are Corelli, Torelli, Biber, Albinoni, Pepusch, and Purcell – and there are also works by composers now known only by their last names: Mr. Dean, Mr. Simons, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Hills (they were presumably court musicians). What is noteworthy is the uniformly high quality of the material: every single composer was clearly skilled at writing for solo violin, exploring the instrument’s capabilities within a constricted length, and there is little to distinguish the preludes by the virtually unknown composers from those of the more-famous ones. Skærved, a strong advocate for music of this time period, treats every work here with respect and explores the repertoire with care as well as skill. And it is certainly interesting, from a historical perspective, to learn that there were so many fine composers flourishing at this time and producing works exploring the violin’s capabilities. But the fact remains that nothing here is of any outstanding musical interest in and of itself. Short prelude follows short prelude, with differing keys and tempos but little chance for the composers to establish individuality or produce any work of significance. The Baltzar material is the most interesting, simply because there is enough of it (more than 20 minutes in all) to provide a sense of Baltzar’s compositional and performance skills. But the main focus here, other than history, is the sound of the two violins that Skærved plays – which means that listeners interested in differences among violins, even ones of the same era, will find this material intriguing. On a strictly musical basis, however, the disc is very thin indeed and unlikely to appeal to many people other than violinists or dedicated students of 17th-century string music.

     There are no strings at all in the performances of music by Marc Mellits on a new CD on the BCM+D Records label. In fact, the disc has the overall title “No Strings Attached,” which is also the title of one of the works presented. Like many contemporary composers, Mellits has a strong interest in the sound of the instruments for which he writes – and the percussionists who perform the works on this disc (from the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University) are enthusiastic about combining their instruments as well as having individual ones stand out from time to time. All this, however, begs the question of what is worth hearing in the music itself, rather than the sounds as sounds. The work with the title No Strings Attached, for example, is an arrangement for two vibraphones and two marimbas of a piece written for a modern fortepiano that was created for the express purpose of sounding like a mixture of the 18th-century instrument with a 1970s synthesizer. Thus, instrumental sound was always front-and-center in this work, and is certainly so in the arrangement heard here. As is so common in self-consciously avant-garde music, the work has movements with overly clever titles whose reference to the music is obscure at best: “Splifficated Mustard” and “Curried Kafka,” among others. The initially interesting merger of instruments becomes tiresome rather quickly, and the piece wears out its welcome well before its 14 minutes are up. The central movement, “This Side of Twilight,” is the most engaging in its delicacy, although even here, there is simply too much repetitiveness for the work to be fully effective. There is also repetition aplenty – although with somewhat greater variety – in Black, a piece heard here on four marimbas and also existing in other focus-on-the-instruments arrangements, including its original one for two bass clarinets. Black offers some rhythmically different sections that make the comparative monotony of some of its portions more tolerable. Red, a longer, six-movement work, uses only two marimbas, and the interplay of the performers is well-done – but here too, the listening experience is primarily focused on sound for its own sake, most noticeably in the minimalist fourth movement (“Slow, with motion”) and the intense finale (“Fast, Obsessive, Bombastic, Red”). A somewhat different sound combination appears in Troică, which is performed on vibraphone, marimba and bass marimba: inspired by the sound of bells on horses pulling a sled, the piece interweaves the instruments effectively, although it does not really have enough inherent variety to justify its seven-minute length. Gravity uses the same instruments as Troică but ups the sonic ante by using two vibraphones, two marimbas, and a bass marimba. Gravity goes on even longer than Troică – 10 minutes – and has elements of accelerando to provide forward momentum as the instruments mingle. It is easy to see how performers on these instruments would find Gravity and the other works on this CD congenial: Mellits provides plenty of opportunities for them to showcase their skills and bring out the unique and contrasting sounds of their superficially similar instruments. For non-performers, the disc will be mainly interesting simply for offering the chance to hear the ways these various percussion instruments sound when expressing themselves in different combinations. This is certainly involving for a while, but there is a monotony to the overall sound of the material – exacerbated by Mellits’ fondness for extended sections at the same tempo and volume – that makes the CD less than engaging from a musical (as opposed to sonic) standpoint.

     If the sound of Mellits’ works tends to the monochromatic, that of the works played by loadbang (no capital letter – a typical affectation in the avant-garde) is intended to go to the opposite extreme. The quartet includes baritone, trumpet, trombone and clarinet – certainly a very unusual sound combination. And on a recent New Focus Recordings release, these four sounds are joined by those of strings (a chamber ensemble including six violins, three violas, two cellos and double bass) to extend the aural palette. The six works here, by six different composers, are very different in many ways – but the underlying similarity among them is that their preoccupation with using the specific sound combinations made available by loadbang results in music that draws more attention to how it sounds than to what it says. Taylor Brook’s Tarantism actually does this effectively, offering narration consisting of English versions of 16th- and 17th-century Italian texts about tarantula bites and their treatment. The dissonance of the sound picture mixes with rhythmic dancing – tarantula reactions are the source of the tarantella – as the story moves toward eventual exhaustion. Heather Stebbins’ Riven adds electronics to the mixture of loadbang and strings to create a sound world that is dense, often to the point of impenetrability, but not particularly revelatory of anything. Eve Beglarian’s You See Where This Is Going should beware of its title, because anyone who has sampled contemporary music will indeed see where this mixture of vocal gymnastics and largely arbitrary instrumental interjections is going: toward a kind of portentousness that does not lead up to anything particularly significant or moving. The most-peculiar title of a work here – another avant-garde affectation – is that of Reiko Füting’s mo(nu)ment for C/Palimpsest (ah, yes, no capital letter at the start of the complexly punctuated title). Whispered verbal fragments and standard outbursts from both voice and instruments (individual and grouped) create a soundscape of no particular direction or import – and the work continues in this vein for 13 minutes. It is, however, not as long as Scott Wollschleger’s 17-minute CVS, which uses intonation of the drugstore chain’s name and other, very different phrases to create an extended soundscape in which everything said, everything played, seems at the same level as everything else – which appears to be the point. The point of Paula Matthusen’s Such Is Now the Necessity seems to be to contrast long sonic lines with short ones and staccato material with legato, overlaying everything on everything else to create sound that accumulates rather than actually building into anything structural. Only Brook’s Tarantism, driven as it is by audible narrative, goes beyond the purely aural effects to which loadbang is clearly devoted to produce a work that seems to have something to say beyond “listen!” Of course, the point of music is to listen, but the reason for listening matters: if the only purpose of doing so is to hear sonic combinations, then music, however carefully constructed, offers nothing worth hearing again – after the novelty of the sound exploration has worn off.

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