March 31, 2022


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (1874 version). Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $17.99.

Sullivan: Incidental Music to “Macbeth,” “King Arthur” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Maggie McDonald, mezzo-soprano; RTÉ Chamber Choir and RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $13.99.

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Legends and Light, Vol. 2—Works for Orchestra by Helen MacKinnon, Nan Avant, Richard E. Brown, Deborah Kavasch, Anthony Wilson, Ben Marino, and Kim Diehnelt. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Watkin; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Pavel Šnajdr. Navona. $14.99.

     The wonderfully wide tonal palette of a full symphony orchestra gives composers unmatched ability to use sound as a way of expressing their personalities and their structural and communicative concerns. And a composer’s use of orchestral sound can vary significantly from piece to piece – even in different versions of the same piece. That is just one important discovery inherent in Gerd Schaller’s recording for Profil of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 – in a version that very few listeners are likely ever to have heard. This is the original, 1874 version of the symphony, not the 1878/1880 version played nearly 100% of the time (even Georg Tintner, whose Bruckner cycle included several original versions and an alternative to the usually performed finale of No. 4, did not essay the 1874 form of this work). Schaller is engaged in the fascinating and somewhat quixotic quest to record all the versions of all the Bruckner symphonies by the time of the bicentennial of Bruckner’s birth in 2024. The 1874 version of the “Romantic” symphony is part of that endeavor. And the performance is genuinely revelatory. Philharmonie Festiva, which Schaller himself founded, is a marvelous Bruckner orchestra and as supple an ensemble as any in Europe; and Schaller is as sensitive, committed and thoughtful a Bruckner conductor as will be found anywhere in the world. What this performance shows is that the much-revised “Romantic” symphony (so styled by the composer himself) ended up being, in effect, at least two separate works (much as was to occur later with one of Prokofiev’s symphonies – his No. 4). The substitution of the famous “Hunting” scherzo for the original 1874 one is the most-obvious aural difference, but there are so many other alterations that Schaller’s performance is basically one surprise after another for an hour and a quarter. The earlier Fourth is, like the first version of the Third, more expansive than the final version; it is more harmonically daring and more rhythmically complex; and the orchestral sound – that matter of the tonal palette – is fuller to the point of sometimes seeming overdone (compare Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 – what is it about Fourths? – in the familiar later version with the more-transparent, more lightly scored earlier version, which was actually the second symphony that Schumann completed). The 1874 version of Bruckner’s Fourth simply sounds very different from the more-familiar later symphony, and nowhere more so than in the original scherzo, which has a cragginess approaching crudity, in contrast to the warmth and sumptuous sound of the later “Hunting” scherzo. Schaller and his Philharmonie Festiva make an excellent, completely convincing case for the 1874 Bruckner Fourth, which surely will not supplant the later version but just as surely is a highly deserving work in its own right and certainly ought to be performed more frequently.

     The non-Savoy music of Sir Arthur Sullivan – that is, Sullivan without Gilbert – is also worthy of far more frequent performance, as Andrew Penny made clear in a series of recordings in the 1990s with Ireland’s RTÉ Concert Orchestra. A Naxos re-release of one such recording, with performances from 1993, stands the test of time very well indeed. Of the 17 tracks on the disc, 16 were world première recordings – plenty of testimony to the rarity of hearing Sullivan’s non-Savoy stage music. The excellent performances here, and the appeal of the music itself, together make a strong case for re-examining this aspect of Sullivan’s career. The only item on this disc that had been previously recorded is the Macbeth overture, which shows Sullivan in rare serious-and-intense form, quite different from what operetta lovers are accustomed to – although some individual musical elements do have the ring of familiarity from time to time. There are six other Macbeth pieces here, and all of them reflect the mood of the play and the general darkness and magical elements of Shakespeare’s scenario quite successfully. Sullivan’s personal style is unmistakable throughout, but in the one-minute Chorus of Spirits of the Air, he also channels Mendelssohn to quite an extraordinary degree: this may be the most “elfin” music Sullivan ever wrote. The Macbeth music dates to 1888, but the other Shakespeare incidental-music suite heard here, for The Merry Wives of Windsor, is from the same year as the first version of Bruckner’s Fourth: 1874. This is an ebullient, five-movement, dance-focused work in which Sullivan cleverly makes even the “fairy” music considerably less light-footed and transparent than is the Macbeth music, since the tragedy involves genuine magical elements while the comedy has mortals posing as supernatural beings. Sullivan proves quite adept at capturing the playful mood of The Merry Wives of Windsor, incorporating into the suite two songs (sung with clarity and expressiveness by mezzo-soprano Maggie McDonald) and, in the finale, a chorus (the fine RTÉ Chamber Choir). This very welcome CD reissue also includes an unusual vocal-only suite of five choruses from King Arthur, a blank-verse drama for which Sullivan provided the choral material in 1895. Sullivan did not arrange these choruses as a suite himself – that was done after Sullivan’s death in 1900 by his secretary, Wilfred Bendall – but the sequence does show how well Sullivan, toward the end of his life, used choral forces to communicate serious moods effectively. Sullivan’s skill with both vocal and orchestral settings is very much in evidence throughout this interesting and unusual CD.

     The traditional bounds of the symphony orchestra were not always enough for composers as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, and composers’ overall handling of symphonic forces underwent changes both evolutionary and on the extreme side. Particularly in his later music, Bartók stretched the bounds of the orchestra in numerous ways, creating distinctive sound worlds both through his expectations of performers’ playing and through his emphasis on bringing percussion to the forefront. Although scarcely the only (or first) composer to do this, Bartók used his highly personal feeling for orchestra color in ways that still sound unmistakably his. This is especially notable in the two works on a superbly recorded SACD from BIS, featuring the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki. Both the Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta are familiar orchestral showpieces nowadays, but in the best performances – including the ones here – they still sound fresh and new, thanks in large part to the way Bartók creates a sound world encompassing but not beholden to earlier approaches to large-ensemble playing. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has a bland title that conceals very considerable creativity: this is a four-movement work that is essentially two sets of two movements, each containing a slower piece followed by a speedier one. But the characteristics of the slower movements are dramatically different, and the way Bartók employs specific orchestral sections gives individual movements completely different characters. The dominance of the strings in the very first movement has given way by the fourth movement to percussion being front-and-center, but this is by no means a straight-line progression – and one thing Mälkki does particularly well is to give each section of the ensemble just the right level of prominence throughout individual movements and within the overall work. This actually makes Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta sound a bit like a preparatory piece for Concerto for Orchestra, written seven years later (in 1943). That is not quite true, but certainly some of the instrumental balancing acts in the earlier work appear again, in related but different guise, in the later one. Concerto for Orchestra is a surprisingly upbeat piece for a work written in wartime by a composer in failing health. Indeed, it is a work filled with humor even though its central Elegia is serious, passionate and deeply lyrical. Mälkki and the Helsinki players handle the piece’s manifest difficulties without any apparent trouble at all, and the final Presto is as impressive a display of orchestral togetherness as listeners are likely to hear anywhere. What is missing here, however, if only to a slight degree, is the very humor that helps make this piece so unusual. Neither the Giuocco delle coppie nor the really funny Intermezzo interrotto is as forthright in delight as in some other performances: everything is impeccably played but a touch further on the serious side than is really necessary. Still, the playing itself is so good that the performance as a whole does a first-rate job of showing just how effectively Bartók used this work to showcase both his attitudes toward orchestral sound and the ability of an orchestra to transmit those feelings with clarity and skill.

     The seven contemporary composers whose works appear on a new (+++) Navona CD called Legends and Light, Vol. 2, also have their own ideas about tonal color and the use of specific instruments to expand and extend traditional orchestral sound. Helen MacKinnon’s The Rinns of Islay is an old-fashioned kind of piece, a musical travelogue paying tribute to an island in the Hebrides where earlier generations of her family lived. Less atmospheric than Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides, and not focused on a single place as Mendelssohn’s overture is on Fingal’s Cave, MacKinnon’s work is also considerably longer, its five movement lasting more than 20 minutes and collectively portraying elements of the island (the work’s title refers to a specific peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean). This is a large-scale and unashamedly Romantic work that treats the orchestra respectfully and includes some clever instrumental effects, such as the use of pizzicato strings and a glockenspiel in a section about a time when it rained for nearly three months straight. Nan Avant’s Tributum: For Celtic Bagpipes and Orchestra relies more heavily on instruments not usually found in orchestras, including both Scottish Great Highland Bagpipes (the familiar ones with their unique sound and a nine-note range) and Irish Uilleann Pipes (which have a two-octave range and greater flexibility).Tributum is a nine-minute work in three sections, all of them very much dominated by the sound of the pipes, which really do sound like nothing else in the orchestra – for better or worse. Avant writes broad, sweeping themes that would not be out of place in film music, and the piece itself sounds as if it could represent scenes from Scottish and Irish history as shown on a movie screen. Richard E. Brown’s Voices of the Night: A Nocturnal Fantasy for Orchestra is another work in three parts, slightly longer than Avant’s and using more-conventional instrumentation – nothing more exotic than a vibraphone. Like Avant’s work, Brown’s sounds a bit like film music, seeming to portray suspenseful dance-like scenes that are eventually resolved soothingly, more or less the way Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain resolves in Disney’s Fantasia. Deborah Kavasch’s Lost Voices follows a similar sequence, but with greater drama, moving from dissonance and brass exclamations that almost sound like attacks, through periods of grieving exemplified by strings and winds, to an eventual calm conclusion that seems at least resigned, if not quite optimistic. These four works are ably handled by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Watkin. The other three pieces on the disc are well-played by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra under Pavel Šnajdr. Anthony Wilson’s Manannán – Legend of the Sea intends to evoke both the power and beauty of the sea and the relationship it has with a character from Irish mythology who is not of the sea as Poseidon is but is able to harness the sea’s power and majesty. This is a skillfully structured piece that uses the orchestra well in mostly conventional ways; it does not give an especially strong impression of the sea (along the lines of Debussy’s La Mer), but it does have a well-measured propulsive pace. Ben Marino’s Yrast 2.0, the shortest work on this disc, has a clever title based on a technical term in nuclear physics, and Marino has the orchestra sound as if it is representing a series of building and crashing waves – actually more like the sea than is the ensemble in Wilson’s work. But Marino here tries to illustrate (more or less) the intense whirling energy within an atomic nucleus. The concept is intriguing and the unceasing repetitiveness of the piece is explained by its illustrative purpose, but even at four minutes, it seems to take a long time to go nowhere in particular (while, however, sounding good as it goes there). Finally, Kim Diehnelt’s Striadica: A Symphonic Passage, full of grand gestures and percussion in contrast to delicate and even lyrical sections, comes across as neither more nor less than a tour of the orchestra’s sections and their varying abilities to produce differing but complementary aural worlds. Well-constructed, as are all the works here, it does not have a particularly clear or convincing argument, but it is effective in showing the orchestra’s varying capabilities in terms of both sound and emotion. As usual with anthology discs, the pieces on this CD are of varying levels of interest, but what they all have in common is their creators’ skill in composing for a mostly traditional orchestra and discovering that it remains quite possible in the 21st century to use large groups of musicians for variegated and emotionally satisfying communication with an audience.


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Andrew Rangell, piano. Bridge Records. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).

C.P.E. Bach: Württemberg Sonatas Nos. 4-6; W.F. Bach: Keyboard Sonata, FK NV8. David Murray, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor; John Ireland: Piano Sonata; Charles Villiers Stanford: 24 Preludes, Op. 163—Nos. 5 and 24; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Three-Fours, Op. 71—Waltz No. 2; Rebecca Clarke: Cortège. Tom Hicks, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Mark John McEncroe: Reflections & Recollections, Volume 4. Van-Anh Nguyen, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     There will never be a definitive answer to the question of the best instrument to use for Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and other of his keyboard works, because all the people on all sides of the matter have too much at stake. There is no question that clavier in Bach’s time meant harpsichord or clavichord (less often, organ), and certainly did not mean piano, but pianists continue to insist that their instrument brings out elements of the music that Bach put into it but could not fully realize through the keyboards of his time. Or at least some pianists insist that is so – others simply want to play the music, which is so inviting on so many levels that even some non-keyboard performers find ways to offer it on a variety of instruments, frequently shedding new light in the process. It is not Bach’s light, but it is light nonetheless. And then there are pianists who are curious about ways in which The Well-Tempered Clavier can be subsumed within a modern instrument, one whose inherent design makes the expressiveness and the overall sound of the preludes and fugues entirely different from anything Bach could have imagined. Andrew Rangell is one of those performers who are thoroughly unashamed of using the piano’s capabilities to deliver Bach’s music in ways the composer never intended. Fifteen years ago, Rangell recorded Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier in a way that could charitably be described as quirky: it frequently did not sound much like Bach at all, using the piano’s range, pedals and aural capabilities, including the sound inherent in struck rather than plucked strings, to produce a highly personal interpretation filled with flashes of insight and long stretches of wrongheadedness. The recording remains available on Bridge Records and is more than a curiosity: it is a very unusual approach by a highly skilled performer who is clearly unafraid to rethink a major work in the classical-music canon – and the sound of the discs is clear and warm in a way that captures Rangell’s unexpected turns of phrase, tempo alterations, and unusual handling of ornamentation cleanly and distinctly. The performance sounds really good and also really strange: it is highly unlikely that this should be any listener’s first or even primary version of The Well-Tempered Clavier, but it has so many unusual elements – which, even when overdone, never seem merely capricious – that it accomplishes the goal of getting those who already know and greatly admire The Well-Tempered Clavier to think about the work in a very different and often enlightening way.

     Could that have been Rangell’s intention – to change the way people have “always” heard The Well-Tempered Clavier and show that there are other legitimate if historically inauthentic ways to experience it? Rangell has had many years to live with and think about this music – The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of those pieces that performers and audiences alike contemplate and experience throughout a lifetime. And now we have the summation of Rangell’s current thoughts on Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. He has produced a performance, on the Steinway & Sons label, with much the same sensibility that he brought to Book I; but the new recording is not quite as divisive as his version of Book I, or perhaps events of the past 15 years simply make it seem less outré. Still, it requires listeners to set aside their preconceptions of this music (and their familiarity with other, more-historically-informed performances) in order to appreciate and enjoy Rangell’s approach. There is enjoyment here, and Rangell has certainly thought carefully about this music and made a long set of conscious decisions to present it with the rhythm and tempo variations, the pedaling, and the unusual emphases that he brings to the work. The notes are all there, but the careful Baroque structure, the edifice built on regularity and attentiveness to detail, here becomes a much more personal construction, one in which Rangell feels the music and lets his feelings determine the speed, emphasis, rubato, two-hand balance, ornamentation, and pedaling that he employs. This makes it seem as if Rangell’s performance is a throwback to the era in which Bach was played with Romantic-era flair, by performers who had no knowledge of Baroque practices and simply wanted to use the piano’s capabilities to expound and color The Well-Tempered Clavier in much the same way that they would a work by, say, Liszt. But this is not quite the case with Rangell, whose performance shows that he does know what Bach created and what was expected in the Baroque, but chooses to take Bach’s preludes and fugues as a starting point for a kind of rumination on the music. Thus, he seems more comfortable with preludes such as No. 2 in C minor, which has little ornamentation, and No. 12 in F minor, which is akin to a theme and variations, than to ones that adhere more closely to Baroque norms of structure and ornament (Rangell often seems impatient with ornamentation). The fugues are a mixed bag, their more-stately elements tending to be downplayed in favor of unwarranted but sometimes intriguing changes in pacing and emphasis as the pieces progress. The sound in this recording is a touch thinner and cooler than the sound in Rangell’s Book I, befitting a reading that itself is a touch less preoccupied with deviations from the norm in this music – although the reading is not really more reserved. It is true that Rangell’s alterations of Bach’s pacing and structure are less extreme in Book II than in Book I, but this remains a very personal view of the music, one most suitable for listeners who already know The Well-Tempered Clavier well (and know it played on clavier!) and are looking for a distinctive, unusual, if sometimes rather misguided modern interpretation of this second set of 24 preludes and fugues.

     Many modern listeners are unaware that “old Bach,” as Johann Sebastian was known, was less popular among audiences in the 18th century than his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788). C.P.E. Bach was a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical eras: his willingness to embrace new musical styles and incorporate more harmony and less counterpoint into his works, more emotion and fewer fugues, proved highly attractive to forward-looking audiences who found “old Bach” rather too staid and old-fashioned. C.P.E. Bach’s works were already finding considerable success while his father was writing his own later music. The six Württemberg Sonatas date to 1742-43 and were published in 1744 – before J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue. But the C.P.E. Bach pieces, although written for harpsichord, sound almost as if they are moving in the direction of the fortepiano – although not as far in a strictly pianistic direction as David Murray takes three of them on a new MSR Classics CD. Murray plays Nos. 4-6 adeptly and with closer attention to the style of the mid-18th century than Rangell brings to The Well-Tempered Clavier. But still, these are not piano sonatas, their three-movement form clearly harking back to the approach of “old Bach” and Vivaldi. Sonata No. 4 is distinguished by an almost Haydnesque lightness in its finale, but the sonata that most clearly shows C.P.E. Bach as an important transitional composer is No. 6, which includes a recitative-like introduction, a complex and emotional Adagio non molto, and a highly contrapuntal conclusion. These sonatas are all interesting works, their comparative “modernity” by 18th-century standards emphasized by Murray’s use of a piano rather than a harpsichord – although they really do sound stylistically clearer on the older instrument. This is even truer of the additional keyboard sonata that Murray plays, which is by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784). W.F. Bach has never been as popular as his younger brother: his music has a studied feel about it, structurally close to that of his father but with less elegance and lacking the same sense of flow and structural cohesion. The sonata chosen by Murray is well-made and in the same three-movement form as those by C.P.E. Bach, but it is less engaging and altogether less memorable. It also fits the piano less well – this is very clearly a piece that belongs on harpsichord, no matter how much Murray and other pianists enjoy performing repertoire from this time period.

     On the other hand, Tom Hicks’ new CD on the Divine Art label is 100% for, about and featuring the piano, in a recital that is somewhat uneven in the interest level of the pieces but certainly very varied in presentation. Liszt’s well-known and massive B minor sonata gets a broad, committed, intense performance here, with Hicks delving deeply into the somewhat overdone emotionalism of the piece and presenting its varied and contrasting sections with strength and solidity. The sonata tends to sprawl, and Hicks lets it do so, capturing the differing moods of its movements and sections-within-movements while still making clear that it is a unified whole. The contrast with John Ireland’s sonata is a fascinating one. The two works are separated by most of a century – Liszt’s dates to 1853, Ireland’s to 1918-20. But Ireland’s seriousness and expansiveness compare very well with Liszt’s, although Liszt is more gestural in his emoting and Ireland more heartfelt (his sonata is in part a response to the Great War). Ireland’s sonata makes some of its points through a level of dissonance that Liszt never employed, and Ireland’s stately central movement is in a style all his own – one that Hicks clearly finds quite congenial. The Ireland sonata is a major work that is filled with intensity and expressiveness that Hicks brings out with considerable skill – this is a very involved and knowing performance. A bit oddly, the two sonatas appear at the conclusion of the CD, following Hicks’ playing of four short encore-like pieces. Two preludes by Charles Villiers Stanford open the disc and go by pretty much in a flash – together they last barely three minutes. Next comes an attractive, small-scale slow waltz by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and then a serious (but also small-scale) Cortège by Rebecca Clarke, which nicely sets up the mood of the Ireland sonata that follows it. Everything is well-played and attractive, although the mixture of music is a trifle on the odd side. The fine renditions of the major works by Liszt and Ireland are very much the primary attractions here.

     A new Navona CD is strictly for existing fans of the music of Mark John McEncroe (born 1947): it is the fourth and last in a piano-music series called Reflections and Recollections. The works here, all ably handled by Van-Anh Nguyen, are original pieces for piano, not the reductions of larger pieces often offered by McEncroe as piano music. There are eight works in all on the disc. In a Dorian Mood flows gently and evenly throughout. And the Congregation Goes – Amen has a quiet, responsive feeling at the beginning, then continues in a mostly tranquil mood. A Celtic Andante is slightly more upbeat than the first two works and has at most a mild Irish/Scottish flavor. Into the Realm of Dark Matter is a more-emphatic piece – welcome after three comparatively unassuming ones – and offers greater contrast among sections and a somewhat more-dissonant sonic palette. For Cecile – A Slow Waltz is rather sweet and endearing, perhaps a bit cloying, but not especially waltzlike, at least in the sense of being danceable. Fanfare – A Tribute to the Wilderness, rather surprisingly in light of its title, starts quietly and tentatively, and although it does have a somewhat sylvan quality, it is on the bland side musically. The Medieval Connection & Now has nothing particularly old-fashioned about it and not much “new-fashioned,” either, coming across as a kind of middle-of-the-road lounge-music offering. Echoes in the Night’s Silence concludes the CD with much the same quietude and delicacy that are pervasive in most of the other works – nothing here, or anywhere on the disc, offers high drama or deep emotion, with all the works seemingly partaking of a kind of quiet observational nostalgia that makes them sound much the same. The pieces presumably have specific personal meanings for the composer, but even though Nguyen plays them feelingly, not very much in the way of communicative emotion ever comes through. The works, singly and collectively, are certainly pleasant enough, and for some listeners, especially ones already familiar with McEncroe’s music, that will be enough.


Edward Cowie: Where Song Was Born—24 Australian Bird Portraits. Sara Minelli, flute; Roderick Chadwick, piano. Métier. $18.99.

Music for the Afro-Brazilian Berimbau Musical Bow by Jeremy Muller, Gregory Beyer, Matt Ulery, and Alexandre Lunsqui. Arcomusical. Panoramic Recordings. $16.99.

Chris Votek: Memories of a Shadow; Bhimpalasi—Chota Khyal. Chris Votek, cello; Wild Up (Andrew Tholl and Adrianne Pope, violins; Ben Bartelt, viola; Derek Stein, cello); Neelamjit Dhillon, tabla. MicroFest Records. $14.95.

     Contemporary composers, even within the loosely defined “classical” world (whose definition becomes looser all the time), are only too willing to look afar and sometimes askance in their search for new forms of inspiration and new sounds with which to experiment. Sometimes, however, the “new” sounds turn out to be very old ones indeed, as in Edward Cowie’s birdsong-inspired hour-plus chamber suites. Cowie (born 1943), a painter and author of books on nature as well as a musician, was the first Artist in Residence with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Great Britain; accordingly, he produced a 24-movement suite called Bird Portraits based on British birds – creating music designed to comment on the avian species and their environment, not to duplicate their songs. In addition to that suite, for violin and piano, Cowie has created one for flute and piano, available on the Métier label and called Where Song Was Born – also in 24 movements, but this time based on the birds of Australia. The flute would seem a more-natural fit for birdsong than the violin, but that is not quite the way things turn out in Cowie’s work, since Where Song Was Born is another attempt to comment on birds and place them in their various environments, not to duplicate or expand upon their actual songs. This means, for example, that Sara Minelli’s flute is deliberately a bit screechy for “Australian Masked Plover,” while “Eastern Whipbird” is portrayed more by Roderick Chadwick’s piano, which also takes the lead for “Willy Wagtail.” Australia has many bird species that are unique to the continent, and a few that are world-famous, including “Kookaburra” (for which both piano and flute skip about here and there, with some well-placed trills) and “Lyrebird” (which seems genuinely strange on the basis of the flute sounds that Cowie employs). Non-birders will enjoy simply learning the names of some of the birds portrayed here, such as “Wampoo Pigeon,” “Tawny Frogmouth” and “Pied Currawong.” As in his suite on British birds – and as will presumably be true of two additional suites that Cowie plans to write, on birds of Africa and the Americas – the music in Where Song Was Born will be of greater interest to birders than to a general audience: if you do not already know what birds these are, what they look like, where they live, how they sing and put on displays, and how they fit into the overall environment, then the music associated with them by Cowie will be no more than intermittently interesting. If you do enjoy avian studies, however, you will find these musical bird portraits quite intriguing.

     The source of inspiration is Africa and Brazil for the music on a Panoramic Recordings disc featuring the ensemble Arcomusical. This group has a specific focus and purpose: music for the berimbau, a single-string percussion instrument that originated in Africa but is now more closely associated with Brazil and specifically with the martial art known as capoeira. The instrument is a four-to-five-foot wooden bow with a tight steel string running from one end to the other, and a dried and hollowed-out gourd attached at the bottom as a resonator. The string is played by being struck with a small stone or coin; the sound is basically rhythmic. The berimbau is sufficiently unusual to have attracted a number of international composers and performers, one of whom is Arcomusical’s leader, Gregory Beyer. Beyer (born 1973) is a percussionist who here holds forth not only on berimbau but also on glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba and other instruments, combining them intriguingly in the three works of his own on this disc: Fios e linhas, Berimbau Duo No. 3 “for Adam and Jess,” and Berimbau Duo No. 4 “Sakura Park.” The first of these is a combinatorial work, the second a duo, and the third (despite its title) a solo piece. Among them, these three works show a number of different ways in which the berimbau can be used to complement other instruments and to provide some surprisingly expressive sound. Pieces by three other composers – two shorter works and one long one – are also on this disc. The extended piece is Emigre and Exile, a six-movement suite by Matt Ulery (born 1981), who performs on the double bass along with a sextet of berimbaus. The work is impressive in the breadth of its ambition, creating a wide variety of melodies and interlocking rhythms for what is essentially a very simple instrument (even when there are six of them). The berimbau’s basic sound, however, does not stand up particularly well through an entire 25-minute work: individual movements and, even more, portions of individual movements, provide sit-up-and-take-notice moments, but as a whole, the piece somewhat overstays its welcome. Singularity by Jeremy Muller (born 1982) is also a berimbau-ensemble piece, but its focus is regularity of pacing and presentation rather than any attempt to create multiple types of music and combinations of berimbau sounds. Repercussio by Alexandre Lunsqui (born 1969), which closes the disc, is a work that is intellectually interesting in its contrasts between chords and individual notes, between pitched and unpitched sounds, but most of it sounds like an experiment rather than anything musically involving: it basically seems to be about the berimbau, more of a demonstration piece than an engaging one. Actually, the CD as a whole may be thought of as an exploration of what the berimbau is and how it can be used in a concert-musical context rather than its more-usual role in capoeira. Listeners seeking something on the musically exotic side will find at least portions of this disc worth their time, although hearing its full 54 minutes straight through can be somewhat wearing.

     There is also considerable sameness of sound – in this case by intention – on a MicroFest Records CD featuring composer/cellist Chris Votek. What matters here is that the disc does not feature Votek as a cellist, at least in any traditional sense. Votek’s interest here is the thorough exploration of Indian ragas, both with traditional Western instruments and with his cello in combination with the two-drum set called tabla (whose method of playing and wide potential range of about 30 different tones make the tabla sound bear little resemblance to that of any drums in Western music). While Arcomusical’s focus is a specific instrument with which many listeners will be unfamiliar, Votek’s is a form of music that is quite different from what Western audiences typically hear – presented by him, however, largely through the use of a familiar orchestral and solo instrument. Whether Votek’s approach works is very much a matter of listeners’ personal taste. There are just two works on his CD, the three-movement Memories of a Shadow, which runs nearly half an hour and utilizes a string quartet plus Votek’s own cello; and the extended single-movement Bhimpalasi—Chota Khyal, a duet for Votek with Neelamjit Dhillon on tabla. Indian ragas pervade both these pieces. Votek calls Memories of a Shadow a “string quintet based on raga melody and medieval polyphony,” while Bhimpalasi is explained as a “traditional Hindustani raga in singing style gayaki-ang,” meaning a specific style of singing that reproduces the nuances of the human voice on an instrument. Clearly this is a disc of very esoteric appeal, aimed at those connoisseurs of Indian music who will appreciate the way ragas are used with Western instruments as well as with Indian ones. The material here needs to be studied and understood to have its intended effect; it is not (at least for ears accustomed to Western music) simply to be heard and enjoyed. Indeed, “enjoyment” may not be quite the right word – “appreciated” and “engaged with” seem better to express what Votek is hoping will result here. The three movements of Memories of a Shadow are called “Serpents,” “Fossil Dance,” and “Migration of the Fires,” but while the titles are evocative, they are so in unexpected ways. The first movement has nothing particularly sinuous about it, the second nothing whatsoever of fossils in Carnival of the Animals terms, and the third nothing flaming. Votek certainly understands string technique and has figured out how to combine specific elements of individual ragas with European material such as plainchant – indeed, the most-interesting material here is in “Fossil Dance,” where peaceful and uplifting Western church music is contrasted with faster and more intense raga-derived material. The overall feeling of Memories of a Shadow, though, is of a work constructed by Votek and largely for Votek and those who are strongly in tune (so to speak) with his personal sensibilities and interests in the music of India. As for Bhimpalasi—Chota Khyal, although it is not minimalist music, it produces some of the same effects, using repetitive phrases and a constant pulse almost throughout, with the tabla sounds continuously underlining Votek’s cello in such a way as to carry a single mood almost throughout the piece’s entire 23 minutes. As an exploration and an effort to combine differing musical cultures into an aural amalgam, Votek’s disc is certainly of interest, but it is hard to imagine it being highly attractive to any considerable number of listeners: it is quite rarefied, and reaches out only to people seeking a particular kind of multilateral musical engagement that includes Europe, India, and Votek himself.