May 19, 2022

(++++) BLUES

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Chen Reiss, soprano; Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov. PentaTone. $19.99.

Camden Reeves: Tangle-Beat Blues; Blue Sounds for Piano; Nine Preludes. Tom Hicks, piano. Métier. $18.99.

Edward Cowie: 24 Preludes for Piano. Philip Mead, piano. Métier. $18.99.

     More than any other Mahler symphony, the Fourth has an identifiable color – and that color is blue, almost to the point of synesthesia. Mahler himself invited thoughts of this color in association with this music, saying that “the undifferentiated blue of the sky…is the basic tone of the whole work,” and that even when the scene becomes overcast, “it is not the sky itself which grows dark, for it shines eternally blue.” It is the mixture of eternity and blueness that pervades this symphony, a (comparative) simplicity and (comparative) straightforwardness of communication that is found nowhere else in Mahler’s symphonic output. There is also a great deal of the folkloric in this music, and that is scarcely a surprise: this is the last of Mahler’s “Wunderhorn” symphonies, concluding with the purity of the lyrics to Das himmlische Leben, a poem that originally bore the very intriguing title Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen, which translates as “The Sky Is Full of Violins,” an altogether wonderful image. What is interesting is the type of folklore echoed here: it has a strong Czech component, Mahler having been born and raised in villages that are now in the Czech Republic. It could be argued that that gives the Czech Philharmonic an inherent affinity for elements of this music – and in fact, this orchestra gave the world première of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. Semyon Bychkov is beginning a Mahler cycle with this ensemble not with No. 7 but with the PentaTone release of No. 4, and the performance certainly bodes well for the sequence as a whole. Bychkov’s pacing is well-considered; his attentiveness to detail is impressive (the sleighbells are quiet, not jangly, in the first movement, but come through with complete clarity); the orchestra’s balance is very fine, with the sound of its brass particularly impressive; and Chen Reiss’ singing in the finale does something crucial by sounding childlike, unforced and naïve – akin, verbally, to having the strings use less vibrato than is common in performances today. The second movement here is scarcely eerie – Mahler rarely misspoke about his music, but thought this movement would come across as spookier than it does – but it sounds just “off” enough through the scordatura tuning of the solo violin so that it communicates a sense of unease, which is laid to rest as soon as the third (and longest) movement begins. Well-paced, well-played, and well-considered throughout, with a just-right fade into the ineffable at its conclusion, this Mahler Fourth shines with the manifest beauties of bright sunlight – it is the sunniest of all Mahler’s symphonies – against the bluest of blue skies.

     “Blue” is not always a positive color, though. Certainly in jazz, in the years after Mahler, “the blues” had a very different connotation from that given by Mahler in his Symphony No. 4. Indeed, “blue” can have multiple meanings in music, and Camden Reeves (born 1974) explores several of them in the works on a (+++) Métier release featuring pianist Tom Hicks. This is a short CD, running just 43 minutes, but it explores both sounds and colors in a wide variety of ways – all within an overall approach that will be familiar to listeners who enjoy 21st-century sounds and techniques. Tangle-Beat Blues (2013) and Blue Sounds for Piano (2019) are rather lengthy, improvisational-sounding meditations/fantasias. The former starts with quieter, more-extended passages interrupted by exclamatory chordal material, then moves into some “tickling the ivories” passages (also subject to exclamations), and repeatedly sounds as if it will break into jazzlike riffs that never quite coalesce. Quieter, if not lyrical, material near the end leads eventually to an uncertain conclusion in which the music simply stops. Blue Sounds for Piano is not dissimilar in structure or in its propensity for strong contrasts between softer material and abruptly introduced chordal exclamations. It is somewhat more meandering in its earlier portions, before becoming animated for a bit and then reverting to a slower and quieter mode – but not an emotional one, never really seeming to try to explore or project feelings beyond the superficial. The Nine Preludes (2015-2016) are more interesting in their brief communicativeness. The eighth of them runs four-and-a-half minutes, but all the others are quite short, mostly lasting less than two minutes – and effectively displaying a specific feeling, attitude or technique within each one’s time frame. The emphatic intensity of No. 2, the watery runs of No. 4, the perpetuum mobile of No. 6 that leads to the dissonant bell-tolling of No. 7 – these are some of the well-executed effects of the music, all of which Hicks brings out very clearly indeed. The color connections of the pieces on this disc, all of them receiving their world première recordings, are less than apparent, but listeners intrigued by contemporary keyboard works performed with genuine flair will find much here to enjoy.

     The “blueness” is present in a different way on another (+++) Métier CD, this one focusing on piano music by Edward Cowie (born 1943) as played by Philip Mead. Unlike Reeves’ atonality, Cowie’s music in 24 Preludes for Piano is expressly tonal – following Bach’s key cycle in his Well-Tempered Clavier, but at the same time using a second organizational principle by grouping the preludes into four groups of six each. Those groups, designated Book 1 through Book 4, represent the old notion of “four elements,” the first being water – which is one place where the “blueness” comes in. But Cowie goes beyond color sensitivity: he has a strong Impressionist streak in this music, so while following Bach’s keys faithfully, he also attempts in each of these 24 works to convey his impressions of specific places around the world. Thus, the “water” book includes, among other things, an Australian blowhole (C minor) and the Tennessee River in the U.S. (D minor), the former containing exclamatory eruptions and the latter with a sense of flow. Book 2 is devoted to air, including the blue sky at 35,000 feet above the Straits of Java (E major) and night breezes above the blue waters of Lake Eacham in Australia (B major). The “blue” elements in these works are implied obliquely rather than presented directly – these preludes are more about scene-setting than color specificity – but the coloristic elements of the music are everywhere present. Book 3, focusing on earth, thus starts with another Australian scene, Uluru (long known as Ayers Rock), which stands out against the sky and is portrayed in a stately F-sharp major. This book also includes Glencoe (Scotland) in C-sharp minor and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia in A-flat minor – again and again, Cowie presents strongly contrasting piano pieces that likely will be fully meaningful only to listeners as familiar with the specific locations as he is, but works whose differing moods are apparent even without knowing just what those moods indicate. The final book, with its focus on fire, actually opens with a passing reference to blue water by portraying sunrise over Loch Carron in Scotland (E-flat major). Perhaps inevitably, the penultimate prelude features fireworks (over Kassel, Germany, in F major), and the very last one is sunset over Dartmoor, Devon, England (F minor), the colors here unclear but certainly crepuscular. Cowie bites off a bit more than he can chew, or than most listeners can chew, in this set of preludes, because of the combination of a specific key sequence with its nod to Bach plus the ongoing Impressionism inherent in all two dozen pieces. But Mead certainly plays everything quite adeptly, bringing out contrasts among the works to good effect; and the music is well-made, well-thought-out, and colorful – in a variety of tones, both visual and auditory – from start to finish.

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