September 02, 2021


CME Presents, Volume 4: Transcriptions for Clarinet and Strings. Graeme Steele Johnson, clarinet; Brian Hong, Rannveig Marta Sarc and Suliman Tekalli, violins; Rosemary Nelis, viola; Nan-Cheng Chen, Samuel DeCaprio and Ari Evan, cellos; Min Kwon, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Barbara Harbach: Chamber Music VI—Civil Civility; Visions of Hildegard; Cuatro Danzas; The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky. St. Louis Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Richards; Stella Markou, soprano; Jennifer Mazzoni, flute; Jane Price and Julia Sakharova, violins; Alla Voskoboynikova, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Chamber music tends to be thought of as tamer than it really is. Many listeners think only of musical complements including two-instrument sonatas, trios, quartets, and quintets, usually with strings the dominant sound, performing well-made and generally well-behaved works of the more-or-less standard repertoire. Leave it to the Center for Musical Excellence to cast matters in a different light. CME, a training ground for talented, up-and-coming musicians from all around the world, in fact goes all around the world – and all around musical genres – for its fourth CD on the MSR Classics label. This is a potpourri – all right, a mishmash – by design: Mozart, Schubert and Dvořák here meet Charles Aznavour and Paul McCartney; arrangements for violin and piano and clarinet and piano meet ones for two cellos and ones for violin, cello and piano; arrangers range from John Williams to some of the performers themselves (Graeme Steele Johnson, Suliman Tekalli). It is reasonable to ask to what purpose all this activity is dedicated – and reasonable to answer that it is a way to showcase the many talents of a number of CME students, with an eye (or an ear) to furthering their musical careers. That is a wholly reasonable goal, but it does create a touch of, um, dissonance in terms of listeners who are not involved with CME or with any of the specific artists on the disc. Certainly the playing here is quite fine, and some of the arrangements stand out: the drama of Schubert’s Erlkönig is impressive, and the bluesy handling of Gershwin’s The Man I Love is effective. Other arrangements, though, miss the mark: the one of part of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 331 is overly romantic and Romantic, the excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story swoon too much, and McCartney’s Hey Jude comes across as a slow-paced lament. There is a generous amount of music here – 75 minutes – but the individual pieces are short, with the disc containing 17 tracks in all. There is nothing wrong with anything here, and certainly nothing wrong with CME’s reason for being or with the playing of its students. But there is simply not much reason to listen to the disc for anyone uninvolved with CME and lacking a compelling interest in one or more of the performers. Nothing unites the music on the CD except that all of it is heard in transcribed form and all of it is nicely played. Those are not particularly good reasons for owning the disc.

     The reason for having another MSR Classics CD is clear enough for a certain group of enthusiasts: to add to one’s growing library of music by Barbara Harbach. This sixth volume of her chamber music and 14th release in an ever-lengthening series of recordings of her creations consists, like a number of earlier releases, entirely of world première recordings. There are four multi-movement works here, for varying complements of performers – with the unity of the material stemming from Harbach’s compositional style. Civil Civility is the longest and most elaborate of the pieces, requiring chamber orchestra plus soprano, flute, violin and piano. Its six movements focus on women whose names and causes are mostly familiar: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Margaret Mead, Ida Wells-Barnett, and Sojourner Truth. Because the sentiments are unsurprising, it is left to the music (which includes some vocalise as well as song) to distinguish the material. By and large, Harbach (born 1946) works in a tonal medium, with instrumental highlights that are effective even when they are a touch obvious (such as the flute solo in the Margaret Mead movement). This is, in essence, “cause” music, skillfully created to make points that have often been made before. Visions of Hildegard for violin and piano is a tribute piece of a different sort, focusing on Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), whose own music has become famous in recent years (especially since she was canonized in 2012). The work’s title is interestingly evocative: Hildegard did have visions, to which the music pays tribute; but in addition, these mostly quiet, elegant movements constitute Harbach’s visions of Hildegard. The music is a touch too placid to sustain well for its full 15 minutes, but it is often thoughtful and moving. Cuatro Danzas for flute and piano is far more on the secular side of things, its four movements by turns jovial, quiescent, dreamlike and hectic (the last of them is called Danza Delirio). The final work on this disc has one of those overdone titles to which some contemporary composers gravitate, although Harbach usually does not. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky is a four-movement work for soprano, violin and piano, and is another “cause” piece, this one focusing on Native American history, Ojibwe in particular. The work’s overall title is also the title of the third movement; all four movements are intended to reflect supposedly purer and better lives in the past, to which the evil response was along the lines of “shut up, shut up” (words that actually appear in the fourth movement). Although heartfelt and, like all Harbach’s music, well-made, the piece is on the obvious side, as so much “cause” music tends to be. Listeners already familiar with Harbach’s work will enjoy having this disc to add to a series that shows no sign of ending anytime soon: Harbach is nothing if not prolific. The music is unlikely to draw a new audience to the composer, but it will likely solidify the enjoyment of those who already gravitate to her compositions.

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