January 06, 2022

(++++) TWO BY TWO

Egon Kornauth: Viola Sonata, Op. 3; Robert Fuchs: Sechs Phantasiestücke, Op. 117; Viola Sonata, Op. 89; Traditional, arr. Stephen Hough: Arirang (Korean folk song). Litton Duo (Katharina Kang Litton, viola; Andrew Litton, piano). BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Ernest Bloch: From Jewish Life; Suite Hébraïque; Two Pieces (Meditation and Processional); Suite. Yevgeny Dokshansky, clarinet; Richard Masters, piano. Heritage Records. $18.

From Rags to Riches: 100 Years of American Song. Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; William Burden, tenor; Steven Blier, piano. NYFOS Records. $20.

Wonderful World: An Ode to Nature. Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello; Sabine Devieilhe and Patricia Petibon, sopranos; Michel Portal, clarinet; Thomas Enhco, Thierry Escaich, Nathanaël Gouin, and Baptiste Trotignon, piano; Félicien Brut, accordion; Édouard Macarez, double bass; Lilly Wood & the Prick, voice and guitar; members of L’orchestre de Paris. Naïve. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     Anyone seeking a small silver lining amid the numerous dark clouds of COVID-19 can take a look (or, better, a listen) to the Litton Duo, which exists only because of the pandemic. To be accurate, it exists as a musical duo only on that basis, since Andrew and Katharina Kang Litton are husband and wife and are fine musicians on their own: Andrew as a conductor and Katharina as principal violist at the New York City Ballet. Their desire to communicate musically with each other and, eventually, with others outside their pandemic-induced lockdown pod led them to perform viola-and-piano works beyond the very few such pieces that are reasonably well-known, such as the viola versions of Brahms’ clarinet sonatas. In fact, the pieces on a new BIS recording are very decidedly Brahmsian in many ways – indeed, they have direct or indirect ties to Brahms himself: Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) knew Brahms and was well-regarded by him as a musician, and Egon Kornauth (1891-1959) was one of Fuchs’ students. Few listeners will likely know the music of Fuchs or Kornauth, but many will find these viola-and-piano pieces absorbing and quite moving, since both composers clearly understood the emotional intensity of which the viola is capable, and both wrote in sure-handed Romantic style even though the works, by date, are post-Romantic. Fuchs’ Sechs Phantasiestücke dates to 1927 but scarcely sounds like music by an 80-year-old. It is freshly conceived, highly lyrical, heartfelt, and very expressive – and played quite beautifully: the fourth movement, Andante sostenuto con espressione, is a real gem, and the final Allegretto con delicatezza has a winning crepuscular quality. And the third movement, Leicht bewegt, is as Brahmsian as can be. Fuchs’ viola sonata is somewhat earlier, dating to 1909, and more broadly conceived, with an impassioned first movement, a lilting and slightly melancholy second, and a pleasantly balanced finale. Kornauth’s sonata dates to 1912 and is one of the composer’s early works (Op. 3). Here the Brahms influence, whether direct or indirect, is quite pronounced, not only in the overall sound but also in the intensity of the material and the relative importance of the two instruments (with the piano quite prominent) – the opening of the second movement actually sounds like something from Brahms. The two Litton Duo members have tremendous involvement in all these works and play them with a sure grasp of the music’s style and the level of emotion suitable for Romantic-era conceptions. The SACD concludes with a nice little personal tribute: Stephen Hough’s arrangement of a traditional Korean folk song, which Hough gave the performers as a wedding gift.

     Everything is an arrangement on a new Heritage Records disc featuring clarinetist Yevgeny Dokshansky and pianist Richard Masters. The reason for this is simple: Ernest Bloch wrote no works for solo clarinet. But he did write a number of evocative pieces for viola, and as the Brahms clarinet/viola sonatas show so well, many pieces that are suitable for the violin’s larger cousin lie very well indeed on the clarinet. Suite Hébraïque and Two Pieces (both from 1951), as well as the Suite of 1919, were originally for viola; From Jewish Life (1924) was written for cello and requires somewhat more adaptation to work as a clarinet-and-piano piece. Dokshansky made all the adaptations heard on this CD, and did so with admirable respect for the originals as well as a fine sense of the clarinet’s expressive capabilities. Bloch is usually thought of as an American composer, but he was born in Switzerland and influenced musically by Jewish music he heard in Geneva. This is quite explicit in From Jewish Life, whose three movements are “Prayer,” “Supplication,” and “Jewish Song,” all performed with considerable feeling by Dokshansky and Masters. Two Pieces (“Meditation” and “Procession”) is cut from somewhat similar cloth, the two works here being nicely contrasted with each other and the use of the solo clarinet at the start of the first piece being especially effective. Suite Hébraïque, one of Bloch’s better-known works, consists of “Rapsodie,” “Processional,” and “Affirmation,” and is more strongly emotive and somewhat more intense – and less melancholy – than From Jewish Life or Two Pieces. The finale manages to be upbeat and positive without being overly celebratory – an emotional tightrope that the performers here walk very well. The simply titled Suite features a distinctly jazzy Allegro ironico opening that fits the clarinet especially well, a central Lento whose piano moodiness is foundational to an almost-lamenting quality, and a concluding Molto vivo that is nearly as long as the first two movements together and that has a bright bounciness bordering at times on the frenetic. Whatever the foundational Jewish influences of these four works may be – and they are stronger and clearer in some places than in others – the pieces provide considerable opportunities for the two performers to showcase their ability to handle the back-and-forth of some well-constructed music that flows from a specific religious/ethnic tradition but, in Bloch’s hands, reaches out effectively to a much wider audience.

     Songs and other vocal works reach out in a different way, the human voice giving them a form of connection distinct from that possessed by purely instrumental works. The New York Festival of Song, on a new CD on its own label, makes this point through works that are, in the main, for two performers – either mezzo-soprano or tenor plus piano. The pianist is NYFOS Artistic Director Steven Blier, and the entire (+++) disc clearly reflects his predilections and interests. The songs are not arranged chronologically – the oldest actually appears last: Robert Lowry’s 1868 How Can I Keep from Singing? The newest song, New York Lights by William Bolcom, is an aria from an operatic version of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and dates to 1999; this is the 15th track of 17 on the CD. So although the disc does include a century of American songs – more than that, in fact – it does not do so in any way pointing to musical or societal progress during that century-plus. Nor is the disc arranged by genre: some songs are operatic, some are jazzy, and some come from musical theater, with no particular sequencing; in fact, mixing things up chronologically and musically seems to be one of Blier’s main interests here. Stephanie Blythe and Willian Burden split the soloist-plus-piano songs, with five by Blythe and eight by Burden, the remaining four tracks being presented by “The Company.” Again, though, the rationale for the sequence of material is unclear. As for the composers, they include Scott Joplin, Will Marion Cook, Charles Griffes, George Gershwin, Marc Blitzstein, Eubie Blake, Samuel Barber, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, Thelonius Monk, Stephen Sondheim, Jonathan Larson, and Chris de Blasio, in addition to Lowry and Bolcom. The songs are not uniformly interesting but are one and all very well-performed, and Blier’s pianism fits the various musical circumstances adeptly and provides greater continuity to the CD than does anything else. Blier is also the arranger of eight of the songs. The disc would seem to be something of a vanity project if the whole thing did not sound so darned good – the material may be arranged willy-nilly and may be a confusing mixture of musical styles and types, but listeners who simply want to hear a bunch of American songs from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the 20th will find a great deal to enjoy here. Listening to the disc straight through does create a kind of musical whiplash, however – the CD is better heard in small doses unless, of course, one listens purely for the sake of hearing whatever unpredictable turn it may take next. If there is one recurring theme to the disc, albeit one that, again, shows up at unpredictable times, it is a kind of social consciousness: Cook’s My Lady Frog is about race, Larson’s Hosing the Furniture about feminism, Blitzstein’s Nickel under the Foot about classism, and Bolcom’s aria about the immigrant experience. The topics are handled very differently, but that may be the main point here: the variegated American musical-song experience.

     Social and societal issues are the be-all and end-all of a two-CD Naïve release featuring cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca and titled Wonderful World. Like Blier’s song collection, this recording features lots of unrelated music thrown together helter-skelter in the name of showcasing musical appreciations or interpretations of nature as a whole or individual natural phenomena of various kinds. La Marca, like Blier, mixes genres pretty much nonstop: the 29 tracks on the two discs include an arrangement of Over the Rainbow, one of Gershwin’s Summertime, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, an improvisation called Awake of Nature and another called Between Man and Nature, an orchestral arrangement of the Prayer from Bloch’s From Jewish Life that works much less well than Dokshansky’s arrangement for clarinet and piano, plus pieces by Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns – plus Moon River, the second of Piazzolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas, a traditional Celtic Valse, and more. The connections among some of these pieces and the stated goal of providing an “Ode to Nature” are tenuous at best, and as with the Blier recording, the sequence apparently flows from a single source – La Marca in this case – and is not really apparent when one listens to the music. This is certainly an opportunity to hear a considerable amount of fine cello playing, mostly of very short works: Piazzolla’s, at seven minutes, is the longest, but two-to-three-minute duration is the norm here. Nature in all its guises is of course a longstanding inspiration to artists – painters and poets as well as musicians – and so, on the broadest scale, everything on this release connects to everything else. But this (+++) recording does not really have any significant point to make or, indeed, any significant reason for being. It is a feel-good release that allows La Marca and the other participants to do something on behalf of their art, and certainly that is an unexceptionable goal; and since one euro from the sale of each two-disc set is being donated to a group called the GoodPlanet Foundation, supporters of that organization may find their enjoyment of the material enhanced by the knowledge that some of what they pay for Wonderful World is going to a cause that they support. The idea that people should contribute to causes in which they believe by using their particular knowledge and talents is a very good one, and certainly the mixed-up mass of music here is performed well, with individual pieces more enjoyable than the recording is if heard from start to finish. There is, however, little more than a somewhat generic “cause” holding this release together – that, plus La Marca’s apparent sincerity and the quality of his cello playing. If those elements are enough for you, then you are a member of the target audience for this recording.

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