March 24, 2022


Samuel Adler: Chamber and Instrumental Music. Michelle Ross, violin; Michael Brown, piano; Cassatt Quartet (Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; An Ling Neu, viola; Elizabeth Anderson, cello). Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Laurence Lowe: Music for Violin and Piano. Aubrey Smith Woods and Alexander Woods, violin; Rex Woods, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Music for Saxophone and Piano by Amanda Harberg, John David Lamb, Percy Grainger, Rodney Rogers, Robert Sibbing, Jeff Scott, and Carlos Franzetti. Paul Cohen, soprano and alto saxophone; Allison Brewster Franzetti and Lois Anderson, piano; Kathleen Nester, piccolo. Ravello. $14.99.

Monica Gurak: Humoresque; Romance Sonámbulo; A Story; My Country; Scenes from a Life. Michael Davidson, vibraphone; Emma Colette Moss and Scott Downing, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Music for Percussion and Piano by Evan Chapman, Alison Yun-Fei Jiang, Alyssa Weinberg, Finola Merivale, and Alan Hankers. Pathos Trio (Marcellina Suchocka and Felix Reyes, percussion; Alan Hankers, piano). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The piano’s amazing versatility and unusual structure as a percussion instrument with enormous melodic capabilities have long allowed composers to incorporate it into soundscapes as accompanist or coequal with one or more other instruments – whether those instruments be strings, winds or brass. Samuel Adler (born 1928) has used the piano in many chamber works for well over half a century. A selection of those pieces on a new Toccata Classics CD shows just how adeptly Adler has incorporated the piano’s attributes into expressive music of various types. The works were composed between 1956 and 2014, the earliest being the three-movement Violin Sonata No. 2, whose blend of midcentury acerbity with extended lyrical sections and a genuinely touching second movement conveys considerable sensitivity throughout. Violin Sonata No. 3 (1965) is an extended single-movement work with a more modern (or modernistic) feeling about it in its use of the extremes of the violin’s range and its inclusion of the piano primarily for rhythmic rather than thematic purposes. Chronologically, the next work on this uniformly well-played CD is Thy Song Expands My Spirit for piano solo, which dates to 1980 and has a hymnlike and surprisingly (although incompletely) tonal structure. Violin Sonata No. 4 (1989) is another three-movement work, and here the piano is in the forefront as often as it is heard as accompaniment. The second movement, marked Quiet & Dream-Like, has both instruments showing off their expressive capabilities in an atmosphere of quietude, while the finale places them in more competitive than cooperative guise. Festschrift: A Celebration for Solo Piano (2007) is another work reminiscent of hymns, although not harmonized as one, while In Memory of Milton for Violin Solo (2012) allows the string player a chance for expressiveness bordering on the lyrical, despite some wide leaps in the writing. The other two pieces here both date to 2014. Fantasy for Piano Solo contrasts the chordal and emphatic with pizzicato-like exclamations, while the single-movement String Quartet No. 10 is also a study in contrasts, with two sections marked Very slowly succeeded in turn by ones labeled Fast and very agitated and Fast and with abandon. Taken as a whole, these eight works are a showcase for Adler’s compositional skill for piano and strings, both in combination and on their own, and they are evidence of an always-distinctive style – albeit one that does not seem to have developed noticeably over the years.

     Laurence Lowe (born 1956) has, in the 21st-century works on an MSR Classics disc, his own way of combining violin and piano sounds. All these pieces are world première recordings. Sonata for Violin and Piano (2011) is quite extended – its three movements last more than 24 minutes – and shows a considerable ability to evoke emotions from various ranges of both instruments: piano and violin tend to present differing material, almost as if playing distinct works, but Lowe then combines the elements in well-thought-out ways. Adagio and Celtic Dance (2017) is for two violins and piano, an interesting combination that Lowe uses to accentuate the warmth of which the two stringed instruments are capable, while also allowing the violins to play contrasting material that can be effectively layered atop the piano elements. In the same year, Lowe composed …On Contemplating Loss, one of those works with an ellipsis at the start of the title. This is for single violin and piano and features the violin unfolding long lines that the piano picks up or underlines, the totality being an attractive-sounding contemplative whole. Elegy for Two Violins and Piano (2020) has a similar mood and is equally involving for listeners: Lowe does not hesitate to allow both strings and piano to plumb some emotional depths that, if not quite Romantic harmonically, are not far from the works of that time period in terms of feeling. The final work on the CD, Inspired by Emily, is for single violin and piano, and it remains in the emotional world of the two prior pieces – whose admitted beauties are, at this point, wearing a bit thin, simply because the sound world of all three works is so similar. There is considerable beauty in these pieces, but hearing them one right after the other makes them seem a bit redundant.

     It is the saxophone, usually the soprano sax, that is called on to interact with the piano on a new Ravello CD featuring works of seven very different composers. Percy Grainger (1882-1961) is by far the best known of them. His piece, Arrival Platform Humlet, is a 2021 arrangement of a work originally written for viola in 1906 – and later arranged by the composer for oboe and sarrusophone (the latter actually invented as a competitor for the saxophone). Paul Cohen made the saxophone arrangement that he plays here, and makes a very good case for the music in this guise: like many Grainger works, this one is filled with contrasting musical ideas played at a variety of speeds, the whole giving a strong feeling of narrative propulsion in less than three minutes. This is in fact the shortest work on the CD, but not the only one with distinct playful elements. Feathers and Sax (2019) by Amanda Harberg (born 1973) was also originally for a different instrument – flute – and is a musical retelling of the flight of Icarus, its emphasis on the joy of being airborne rather than the tale’s tragic conclusion. Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and Piano (1988) by John David Lamb (born 1935) is in three movements and is a more-expansive piece, although here too there is considerable lightness and bounce, especially in the concluding Scherzo. Rodney Rogers’ Lessons of the Sky (1985) is more concerned with saxophone-piano interplay than other works here: Rogers (born 1953) gives each instrument solo opportunities as well as joining the two in conversational style as the players introduce ideas, toss them back and forth, and share them expansively. Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and Piano (1973) by Robert Sibbing (1929-2017) also gives the instruments largely equal weight, but for a different purpose. This is a mostly serious three-movement work that lightens only in its finale. The saxophone’s richly melodious lower register is of considerable importance throughout, with the piano tending to comment on what the saxophone proffers – often in the keyboard’s mid-to-upper register, thus providing some contrast to the saxophone’s thematic darkness. Only in the finale does the saxophone’s upper register get used to a significant degree; when it does, the piano tends to counter with its own highest notes, uniting the instruments to a greater degree than in the first two movements. The Gift of Life was adapted in 2021 from a work by Jeff Scott (born 1965) that was originally for piccolo and saxophone quartet. The version heard on this CD still includes the piccolo, plus both soprano and alto saxophone – and piano. The 10-minute work, in three short movements, is most notable for the deliberate use of the high range of the already-high piccolo, in contrast with the more-midrange saxophone, with the piano underlining the wind instruments’ back-and-forth interplay. After the opening Overture, the proclamatory second movement, Tragedy and Ascent, contrasts well with the concluding Celebration of Life, whose enthusiasm is infectious. The disc concludes with Serenata (2019) by Carlos Franzetti (born 1948), originally written for clarinet and piano in 1989 and subsequently arranged several different ways. Consisting of multiple dance rhythms, it makes an effective ending to a disc that presents the saxophone in numerous guises, with interestingly different forms of piano accompaniment in several of the pieces.

     It is the piano’s inherent percussive nature that seems especially to interest composer Monika Gurak, at least on the basis of the works on a new Navona CD. What Gurak does here is unusual: she pairs the piano with another percussion instrument, the vibraphone, for a series of 15 short pieces collectively called Humoresque. The first part of that word, “humor,” is very much in evidence here. These tiny trifles – the longest lasts less than 90 seconds – are bright, bouncy, upbeat and a great deal of fun. The vibraphone’s sonic palette is different enough from the piano’s to make the instrumental combination a very intriguing one, and the fact that all the pieces are thoroughly inconsequential is a large part of their charm. They sound like extensions of electronic sounds – such as the sorts of tones used to announce incoming cell-phone text messages – but they are logically developed and make clever use of the differing sonorities of the two instruments. Inevitably, there is a certain aural exhaustion factor to hearing the entire 16-minute piece – imagine listening to cell-phone sounds for a quarter of an hour – but the overall cleverness of the design and the enjoyable use of humor (still a rarity in classical music) make Humoresque both unusual and a great deal of fun. The four other pieces on the disc are somewhat less engaging, although here too Gurak knows what she wants from the piano: she accompanies it, in effect, with itself, by writing these works for piano four hands. Romance Sonámbulo is mostly delicate and thoughtful. The three-movement A Story (2020) percolates along in the first movement, relaxes and becomes more expansive in the second, and is suitably upbeat (if rather simplistic in its scalar approach) in the third. My Country is also a three-movement work, and a more-emotive one. It seems both to reflect nostalgia and to look forward to a new life. Although somewhat on the repetitive side, it is well-written for piano four hands and presents a nicely considered emotional palette. Scenes from a Life, yet another three-movement piece, concludes the CD in a somewhat similar mood, the final movement bringing a sense of relief – although, in truth, neither of the other movements presents any significant sense of difficulty or hardship. On this disc, Gurak shows herself to be an effective miniaturist, not only in Humoresque but also in all the piano-four-hands pieces: no single movement of those runs as long as four minutes, but each encapsulates a set of feelings and emotions effectively – and with good understanding of and attention to the capabilities of the piano to go beyond its percussive underpinnings to become a source of emotional involvement.

     The notion of percussive piano plus other percussion instruments comes through even more strongly, indeed is foundational, on a New Focus Recordings CD featuring the Pathos Trio playing five avant-garde works by different contemporary composers. These pieces, all Pathos Trio commissions, have no chance of reaching out to any audience hoping for emotional rather than intellectual engagement. And as usual in consciously as-new-as-possible creations, the material is designed to push the capabilities of the performers as well as any audience to new levels. Thus, Evan Chapman’s fiction of light (all-lower-case title, commonplace in avant-garde pieces) includes an ongoing repetitive ostinato with a wide variety of sounds, both pianistic and from percussion instruments, woven above and around it. Prayer Variations by Alison Yun-Fei Jiang has some of the delicacy and repetitiveness of minimalist music, combined with exclamatory material that becomes increasingly insistent later in the work, before the evanescent sounds return at the conclusion. Delirious Phenomena by Alyssa Weinberg starts by using the piano in a percussive manner in John Cage style – plucking the strings by hand, tapping and banging on the case, and so forth. A fairly solid rhythm is developed this way, but soon Weinberg has the performers stretch the piano’s capabilities even further by threading string-instrument strings through the piano’s strings and then essentially strumming the piano – or damping its strings to the point of near-inaudibility. In this piece and to some extent all of those on the disc, the sense is of a visual performance rather than an auditory experience: without being able to see what the performers are doing, some of the impact of the music (however “impact” may be defined) is lost. So it goes as well with Finola Merivale’s oblivious/oblivion (another lower-case-titled piece) and Distance Between Places by Pathos Trio pianist Alan Hankers – the Hankers piece being another in which the piano is played with mallets on the strings and with other extensions of what is usually keyboard technique, although in this case piano chords are used as well, to complement the various struck instruments wielded by the other members of the group. Potential listeners to this sort of CD already know who they are and will self-select themselves as cognoscenti who truly care about the absolute latest in musical creation and performance, while anyone not already firmly committed to displays of the avant-garde in composition and presentation will have no interest at all in the disc. It is, however, a particularly interesting example of the way in which the piano, already a percussion instrument, can become even more of one through techniques that, depending on one’s viewpoint, either violate the instrument’s basic structure and reason for being – or extend them into new realms of sound.

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