January 13, 2022


Dave Flynn: The Cranning; The Cutting; The Keening; Stories form the Old World. ConTempo Quartet; IMO Quartet; Mick O’Brien, uilleann pipes; Breanndán Begley, voice. First Hand Records. $15.

Global Saxophone: Music by Arodi Martínez Serrano, Christian Lauba, Elliott Bark, Perry Goldstein, Lan-In Winnie Yang, and Jean Matitia. Scott Litroff, alto and soprano saxophone; Matthieu Cognet, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Grieg: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano, transcribed for flute by Kaleb Chesnic. Kaleb Chesnic, flute; Nathália Kato, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     More interesting than the question of just what “world music” means for composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is a consideration of whether such music, however defined, is intended to make points or score points. Some composers who still consider themselves “classical” look to music from various corners of the world to enhance and expand upon traditional European models, including European scales, tones, rhythms and harmonies. Other composers seem to be mostly interested in proving their own bona fides as articulators and exponents of music from specific regions or nations. On the basis of a new First Hand Records CD, Dave Flynn (born 1977) is in the latter group. Although two of the four works on the disc use a traditional string quartet, the music even in those two pieces, The Cranning and The Keening, seems focused primarily on showcasing Flynn’s knowledge of and commitment to traditional Irish musical material. The other two pieces on the CD, The Cutting and Stories from the Old World, both employ uilleann pipes – the national bagpipes of Ireland – to complement a string quartet (in The Cutting) and to accompany voice plus string quartet (in Stories from the Old World). This is not so much seeking exoticism for its own sake as it is a matter of Flynn steeping himself in Irish musical traditions and incorporating them into music intended for audiences specifically interested in Ireland and its music. In all these works, Flynn seems to be at pains to showcase “Irish-isms” of the music without any particular regard for how they relate to material from other traditions – that is, all these works are deliberately self-limited by Flynn’s focus on having them sound as Irish as possible. This puts Flynn’s music at the opposite extreme from works labeled with the name of a country even when their relationship to it is minimal or wholly subjective – such as Mendelssohn’s “Italian” and “Scottish” symphonies and, perhaps more to the point, Sullivan’s “Irish” symphony. Yet Flynn never really reaches out beyond national boundaries in the way that, say, Kodály did in his “Marosszék” and “Galánta” dances, or Bartók did in much of his oeuvre. There are a few hints of interest in a wider audience in the earliest work on the CD, The Cranning (2004-2005), which is Flynn’s String Quartet No. 2. The Keening (2007), labeled as String Quartet No. 3, is 50% longer (19 minutes vs. 13) despite being in three movements rather than four, and partakes of all the excesses (or strengths, depending on one’s viewpoint) of minimalist composition, developing its features very slowly and gradually throughout. The Cutting (2008/2020), labeled as Quintet No. 1 for Uilleann Pipes and String Quartet, relegates the strings to the background almost throughout, focusing attention on the pipes’ steady and largely repetitive material. And Stories from the Old World (2008), although given some aural variation by the mere presence of a voice, is spoken entirely in Irish, becoming at once an assertion of the importance of the language and a substantial barrier to understanding and enjoyment by anyone not thoroughly familiar with what is being said. Everything on the CD is performed quite well, and certainly offers listeners exposure to a musical tradition beyond the ordinary (at least in classical-music terms). But the disc is substantially and apparently deliberately self-limited in the assertiveness of Flynn’s compositions in demonstrating just how Irish they and their composer are.

     The focus is less on the composers and more on the performer on an MSR Classics release in which the world-music concept is explored partly with an eye toward investigating little-known contemporary material and partly with the intent of offering works written or commissioned by saxophonist Scott Litroff. Arrullo Caprichoso (2019) by Arodi Martínez Serrano (born 1977) and Garden by the Stream (2019) by Lan-In Winnie Yang (born 1980)  are single-movement alto-saxophone works written for Litroff; the former has a certain degree of swing to its rhythms, while the latter is quieter, more impressionistic, and thoughtful in its use of the saxophone’s lower range. The three-movement Three Places in South Korea (2020) by Elliott Bark (born 1980) was commissioned by Litroff, and this too is impressionistic music, focusing first on the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, then on a sense of quiet permeating the harbor city of Busan, and finally on the hustle and bustle of Seoul – jazz influence is pronounced throughout the work. Also on the disc is Just a Song (2019) by Christian Lauba (born 1952), a bluesy and emotionally somewhat heart-on-sleeve exploration of the saxophone’s warmth; the two-movement Heaven (2007) by Perry Goldstein (born 1952), which opens with an extended saxophone solo and eventually contrasts a quiet and somewhat ponderous movement with one that expresses yearning at perhaps too great a length; and Crazy Rag (2008) by Jean Matitia (born 1952), a brief encore that concludes the CD with delightful ebullience that is entirely absent from the rest of the recording. Litroff plays everything with exceptional breath control and an excellent sense of pacing, and pianist Matthieu Cognet accepts his instrument’s secondary role throughout with good grace, providing top-notch backup without ever taking the limelight away from its intended recipient. Despite the varied provenances of the works here, there is in fact a certain sameness to their handling of the saxophone, a tendency to bow in the direction of jazz at any and all opportunities, producing music that lies well on the instrument but does less in the way of breaking new ground than listeners might expect from the very recent time frame within which all the music was written. Still, there is something salutary in recognizing the ability and desire of some contemporary composers, wherever they hail from and whatever their topics may be, being interested in producing music that fits an instrument well and has the potential to reach out to an audience interested in hearing some new material for that instrument.

     The music of Grieg is in many ways as Norwegian as that of Flynn is Irish, but it is far better-known – yet there is nevertheless a pleasant exploratory element to an MSR Classics release featuring Grieg’s three violin sonatas. This is actually a CD of world première recordings, because the sonatas are heard here in transcriptions newly prepared by flautist Kaleb Chesnic and performed by him with pianist Nathália Kato. Like Cognet on the disc featuring Litroff, Kato on this one knows enough to strive to remain in a supporting role, although she has a fair amount to do here simply by virtue of the way Grieg wrote the music. There is considerable nationalism inherent in these sonatas, especially the second, but Grieg uses the material expressively and it therefore reaches out well beyond Norway to an extent that Flynn has not accomplished if his desire is to get through to audiences beyond Ireland. Grieg’s first two sonatas date to the mid-1860s and are in some significant ways complementary: the first, in F, is generally bright even though it has its share of intense and troubled moments, while the second, in G, is deeper and darker and has a stronger sense of Norwegian identity. The third sonata is a much later work than the first two, dating to 1886, and is the most successful blend of strictly Norwegian elements (it uses folk melodies and rhythms as effective building blocks) with a wider scope that reaches out well beyond Norway’s borders. For example, the bleakness of the very end of the first movement, which comes at the conclusion of an otherwise lyrical coda, seems at once Norwegian and universal. Chesnic’s flute transcriptions are attractive and sensitive to the nuances of the material, and his playing is strong and assured throughout. Use of the flute is, however, considerably more successful in the first two sonatas than in the third. Lyricism is pervasive, in somewhat different guises, in the first and second sonatas, and Chesnic’s playing has an involving, at times soulful sound that fits the material very well. Even the Lento doloroso opening of the first movement of No. 2 sounds fine on the flute, precisely because Chesnic does not overdo the pathos of the passage; similarly, the gently lilting second movement of the second sonata fits the flute quite well. But the third sonata, In C minor, is less satisfactory as a work for flute and piano. The flute simply does not offer the tonal variety needed to, for example, contrast the lovely opening of the slow movement (in E) with the darkly brooding central section (in the tonic minor). There is nothing particularly wrong with Chesnic’s transcription, and certainly no deficiency in his playing, but the heartfelt nature of the third sonata, and its contrasts between light and dark passages, are simply not communicated as effectively by flute as by violin. This is a CD that flautists will certainly enjoy and that listeners who already know the sonatas may find a worthwhile alternative experience – once, anyway. But the main thing it does is to confirm just how well Grieg’s three violin sonatas, especially the third, fit the instruments for which they were originally written.

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