May 12, 2022


Brahms: Sonata No. 1 for Clarinet or Viola and Piano; Meine Lieder, Op. 106, No. 4; Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, No. 1; Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2; Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op. 105, No. 1; Gerald Finzi: Five Bagatelles. Helen Habershon, clarinet; John Lenehan, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Robin Stevens: Music for Cello and Piano. Nicholas Trygstad, cello; David Jones, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Music for Violin and Piano by Bernstein, Solano, Piazzolla, Khachaturian, Gardel, Still, Granados, Rimsky-Korsakov, Albéniz, and Coleridge-Taylor. Aisha Syed Castro, violin; Martin Labazevitch, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

     Three recent and very different Divine Art recordings manage to show, singly and together, the extent to which the piano – combined with another instrument, whether string or wind – can produce highly personalized recitals of works that sometimes contrast strongly, sometimes seem to exist in parallel, and sometimes seem to be combined in a basically arbitrary way. Exceptionally high-quality playing is a characteristic of all the recordings and is in fact a major reason for listeners to consider owning them. The music offered, however, in the mixtures in which it is presented, tends to be of less interest than the skill of the performers playing it.

     Thus, the exemplary presentation of clarinet-and-piano works by Helen Habershon and John Lenehan is impressive and engaging from start to finish. But the choice of pieces to offer in this recital is simply strange. Brahms’ Op. 120 sonatas for clarinet (or viola) and piano have always been seen as a pair, including by the composer himself, and while there is certainly no mandate to perform both of them, it is hard to understand why a listener would want a disc that offers only No. 1 – and why performers would want to take this work out of its context as the first piece of two. This might be understandable if Habershon or Lenehan had discovered a piece of worth comparable to that of the Brahms sonata and wanted listeners to have a chance to compare and contrast the works. But that is not the case at all. Instead, the performers offer four Lenehan arrangements of late Brahms music that was not written or intended for this instrumental duo; and while Lenehan does a fine job crafting versions of these pieces that are effective in clarinet-and-piano guise, there simply seems to be no reason for doing so beyond being capable of this form of creativity. Again, everything is well-played, but to what purpose? The musical waters are further muddied by the other material on the disc that was written originally for clarinet and piano: Five Bagatelles by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). These are very pleasant, very nicely made, very minor and very evanescent pieces, more like a set of five encores than anything substantial. They fall squarely into the “light music” category, which is a perfectly respectable place to be; but they simply do not fit with the Brahms sonata and the four arrangement oddities transformed by Lenehan from Brahms’ originals. Interestingly, since the entire CD runs just 53 minutes, there would have been plenty of room on it to include both Brahms Op. 120 sonatas and still keep the Finzi and Brahms-arrangement material as, perhaps, curtain raisers and encores. The decision not to do this indicates that the selection of music here is quite deliberate and is in service of – well, what, exactly, is not quite clear. The disc is worth hearing for the quality of the playing but is disappointingly arbitrary in the specific material that Habershon and Lenehan choose to present.

     Matters of repertoire are considerably clearer on a cello-and-piano disc featuring Nicholas Trygstad and David Jones: the entire CD is devoted to music of Robin Stevens (born 1958). This is a disc of generous length – 78 minutes; and that raises the question of what sort of audience is expected to want this amount of chamber music by this single composer. This is not to say that Stevens’ cello-and-piano music (or solo-cello music, some of which is also included here) is uninteresting. In fact, much of it is quite listenable and seems genuinely to have things to say. On the other hand, a number of the pieces here are trifles, not all that different conceptually from the Five Bagatelles of fellow British composer Finzi, although Stevens’ harmonic language is more distinctly modern (if not, in and of itself, more distinctive). Eleven of the dozen works on this CD were created in the 21st century; all are world première recordings. And so the question is raised again: for whom is the disc intended? It begins with by far the most substantial composition offered here: Sonata Romantica (2019), an extended (indeed, somewhat overextended) 27-minute foray into expressiveness that is in fact Romantic in some ways while being post-Romantic in others and pseudo-Romantic in still others. There is a lot of material here, and Stevens is determined to present all of it with seriousness – which is how Trygstad and Jones perform it. The earnestness is undoubted, but the work as a whole is a bit “much of a muchness,” interesting to hear once but not the sort of piece to which listeners are likely to return again and again. Indeed, Stevens is more effective and often more expressive when he creates in miniature. No other piece on the CD lasts as long as seven minutes, and nine works or movements are less than two minutes long. Two of those nine do not last even 60 seconds. They are movements of the earliest work here, Three Epigrams (1994), which immediately follows the sprawling Sonata Romantica and provides the strongest possible contrast to it. The epigrams are designated “Foreboding,” “Gentle Lament,” and “Clockwork Toy,” and their straightforward simplicity is winning, as is Stevens’ willingness here to make small points and then simply stop. The remaining pieces on the CD are of various types. Carried on a Whimsy (2016/2020), for solo cello, is followed by Three Character Pieces (2004/2021) – another triple helping of brief, focused cello-and-piano works. Sospiri (2016) for solo cello sighs appropriately; On the Wild Side (2018/2020) for cello and piano is actually fairly well-behaved; A Probing Exchange (2016) for solo cello is short and amusing. This is followed by the five-short-movement Balmoral Suite (2017) for cello and piano – yet another collection of effective little pieces, this one with a strong family orientation that is well-described by the movement titles: “The Family Gathers,” “Grandpa Hankers for the Past,” “A Graceful Beauty,” “Enter Great-Grandpa,” and “Rough and Tumble in the Nursery.” Stevens is particularly adept at encapsulating the portraits of family members of various ages, with the final and shortest movement providing a suitably upbeat and enthusiastic conclusion. This suite would have made a fine conclusion to the CD, but there are still four pieces to come. One for solo cello, complete with ellipsis in its title, is Much Ado About …? (2016). It is a short character piece, not unlike several others here, but is a standalone rather than part of a suite. Say Yes to Life (2005), for cello and piano, is somewhat more substantial (five-and-a-half minutes) and more serious, if not exactly deep; Unfailing Stream (2016), for solo cello, is even longer (this is the almost-seven-minute work), and it is sincere and involving, if perhaps a bit overstated. The disc concludes in appropriately lighthearted form with A Birthday Trifle (2018) for cello and piano, which shows in less than two minutes just how skillfully Stevens writes for these instruments and just how neatly he can keep matters on the lighter side when he is not trying a touch too hard to be important and expressively earnest. Many listeners will find material to enjoy on this disc, although its totality will likely be a bit much for most.

     If the diversity of material on the Stevens disc showcases the composer’s interests and predilections, the hodgepodge offered by violinist Aisha Syed Castro and pianist Martin Labazevitch strictly reflects the performers’ concerns. That is, it reflects those of Castro (born 1989), who is clearly the driving force behind this recording. She is a violinist of considerable feeling, one quite unashamed of wearing her heart on her instrument’s sleeve, and one as comfortable with melodious pop-style music as with melodious classical pieces. Of the 13 works on this disc, 12 are essentially encores, pieces to display Castro’s technique at spinning musical stories and, from time to time, allowing her to offer virtuosity for its own sake. The extent to which the CD’s arrangement is capricious – or, more accurately, highly personal, based on Castro’s predilections – is shown by her inclusion of three separate excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which are the first, ninth and 11th works on the disc. Her interest in this theater music is obvious; her lack of interest in any cohesiveness in presenting it is equally clear. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with this: the CD is a showcase for Castro (with Labazevitch backing her up ably and suitably unobtrusively), and the idea is clearly to appeal to listeners interested in some fine violin playing and not overly concerned about the repertoire on display. Certainly Castro has an eclectic taste in short, not-especially-deep music. There is a little here from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and from Khachaturian’s Gayaneh. There are Kreisler’s arrangements of a Granados Spanish dance and a tango by Albéniz (Kreisler also did the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement). There is an arrangement by pianist Labazevitch of the traditional Aisha’s Prayer, clearly chosen because the title reflects the violinist’s name. And there is one piece here that is slightly more than an encore: the three-movement Suite for Violin and Piano by William Grant Still, which appears midway through the recording and provides a welcome chance to hear Castro perform music of somewhat greater length and depth than is offered on the rest of the CD. There are some less-familiar pieces here to complement the better-known ones, and everything is handled with assured style and a strong sense of Castro’s personal engagement with the material. The disc is not really very satisfying on a musical basis, but it will appeal to listeners already familiar with Castro and to those whose enjoyment comes more from engaging with very well-done performances than from what specifically is performed.

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