May 19, 2022


Telemann: Fantasias 1-12 for Solo Violin. Tomás Cotik, violin. Centaur. $18.99.

Music from Armenia. Aznavoorian Duo (Ani Aznavoorian, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano). Cedille. $16.

Alex Mincek: Way; Lou Bunk: Field; Catherine Lamb: in (tone). String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, violins). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Samuel Adams: Lyra. The Living Earth Show (Andy Meyerson, percussion; Travis Andrews, guitar). Earthy Records. $12.

     The variety of stringed instruments and the forms in which they can be combined, both with other strings and with instruments of different types, have made possible a nearly infinite-seeming set of pieces taking music in as many directions as it seems possible for it to go. Yet contemporary composers continue to push stringed instruments into new places, often by using unusual combinations or by modifying string sounds in a variety of acoustic and electronic ways. Of course, string explorations are certainly nothing new, with sets of pieces for solo players familiar to many listeners through works by Bach and other Baroque composers. Among such sets, Telemann’s Fantasias, a set of a dozen works dating to 1735, have recently gone through something of a rediscovery and are increasingly being performed by first-rate violinists. One such is Tomás Cotik, whose new Centaur recording of these short works nicely balances heft with levity. Telemann was an instrumental explorer who, not irrelevantly, was self-taught on the violin. In addition to this set of a dozen pieces, he created a dozen for solo viola da gamba and a dozen for solo flute – plus three dozen for solo harpsichord. In each set, Telemann’s interest was not in careful exploration of multiple musical forms along the lines of Bach, but in creating interestingly listenable music that offered a variety of expressive experiences to performers and audience alike. Thus, the solo-violin fantasias do not follow a specific key sequence and are not organized in any obvious way, although the reference in No. 7 to the start of No. 1 could mean that Telemann saw these works as two half-dozens. He did say that six of the pieces include fugues and six are “galanterian” (with dances such as minuets and gavottes), but really, the arrangement of the fantasias does not follow any apparent order in terms of content. The most-effective way to approach the set is therefore simply to consider each piece as an individual work and perform it with attention to its unique qualities – rather than trying to make it sound like an element of something larger. And this individuation is just what Cotik offers. This is, by and large, “light” music of its time, with most of the fantasias lasting about five minutes and only one stretching to eight. Unlike the Italianate works of Vivaldi, Telemann’s fantasias do not follow a specific pattern of movements or even contain a specific number of them, that number ranging from three to six. Telemann does provide some hints of special treatment for certain movements by designating them dolce, soave and in one case piacevolamente (“pleasantly”). But in most cases, it is left to the performer to decide how much pleasantry (a good deal) and how much intensity (not much) will fit individual movements and each fantasia as a whole. Certainly there is feeling in these works from time to time, notably in movements labeled Siciliana or grave, but by and large, as Cotik makes clear, Telemann’s interest here is more in fleeting pleasantries than in extended emoting. Cotik plays the works on a modern violin, but using a Baroque bow, creating an interesting melding of time periods that he carries through by being sensitive to elements of Baroque style without coming across as pedantic. The overall feeling that comes through here is of a performer who genuinely enjoys presenting this music – a nice complement to the strong suspicion that Telemann, far from seeking to impose artificial order or structure on these fantasias, himself genuinely enjoyed creating and then playing them.

     The wider range and greater warmth of the cello, compared with the violin, are highlighted in a number of pieces offered on a (+++) Cedille recording featuring sisters Ani Aznavoorian and, on piano, Marta Aznavoorian. This is a very well-played disc of music that does not entirely repay the gravitas with which it is presented. It is also a disc of limited appeal: listeners with a specific interest in Armenian music, and those with Armenian heritage, will find considerably more to relate to here than will audiences at large. The one composer here who will likely be fairly widely familiar is Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978); but he is accorded just two short works (one an arrangement) that total five minutes of the disc’s 76, so he is clearly not the performers’ main interest. The concerns here are more wide-ranging, including music by seven Armenian composers and one piece about Armenia by an American. The disc opens with five simple, evocatively presented folk songs arranged by Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935). Then come the two Khachaturian works (Ivan Sings and the very expressive Yerevan). Next are Elegy (for piano solo) and Aria & Dance (for cello and piano) by Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), followed on the disc by the longest work in this recital, Sonata for Cello and Piano by Avet Terterian (1929-1994). This is a suitably large-scale three-movement piece with distinctly 20th-century harmonies and some challenging interrelationships between the instruments. After it, the Aznavoorians present more-recent works. These include a love-song arrangement called Sari Siroun Yar by Serouj Kradjian (born 1973); Impromptu by Alexander Arutiunian (1920-2012); and Petrified Dance by Vache Sharafyan (born 1966). The final work on the disc, a world première recording, is by American composer Peter Boyer (born 1970) and was commissioned by the performers. Called Mount Ararat, it is intended as both expressive and Impressionistic in its focus on the twin Armenian peaks well-known from the Bible. All the cello-and-piano pieces on the disc effectively use the string instrument’s considerable warmth of sound to good effect, and the rhythms of Armenian culture and history pervade the CD in both the cello and piano parts. The totality is somewhat scattershot, however: except for Terterian’s sonata and Boyer’s Mount Ararat, nothing on the disc is particularly substantial fare – the feeling is of a once-over-lightly view of Armenian music (and, through it, some Armenian history), but not an exploration that seeks to plumb any particular historical or musical depth.

     For two-performer works, it is common to combine a string instrument with piano, but less so to combine one violin with another. Contemporary composers, when seeking sounds beyond the traditional, therefore may gravitate to this less-common sound mixture. There are three examples on a (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring the violin duo known as String Noise. That may be an unfortunate name for drawing in listeners not already enamored of contemporary music – who may regard much of it as noise already. And indeed, that opinion may be reinforced by some of the material in the three works on this CD. All the composers here have elaborate compositional schemata that are designed to structure their works along specific lines that are intended to enhance a certain form and level of communication. None of the pieces, however, is immediately intelligible as having accomplished what its composer planned – except for audience members who have looked into the intent and compositional processes of the creators before hearing the music. Thus, Alex Mincek’s very extended Way, which runs nearly half an hour, moves from non-pitch to pitched sounds and then explores a very wide variety of pitch relationships, frequently using microtonal discrepancies that listeners unfamiliar with microtones may find difficult or even unpleasant to hear. The piece is full of signature sounds in contemporary composition, from frequent use of the violins’ highest register to deliberate imperfections in the rhythm – all of this designed in some way to reflect the various life paths that an individual can take, each different from all the others. The question here is whether listeners can pick up that theme from this almost wholly athematic piece without having to do advance study of the composer, the music, and the work’s inspiration (a poem by Anthony Machado). That is a lot to ask of an audience; only a limited group will likely find the effort needed for comprehension to be worthwhile. Lou Bunk’s Field is a five-movement work that generally sounds like an étude exploring modern composers’ interest in instrumental technique rather than audience communication. Like Mincek, Field pulls contemporary-standard sounds from the two violins, focusing on harmonics, glissandi, non-pitched material, and varying emphases that include contrasts between silence and overt stridency. The work is gestural and tends to paint its sound world in broad-brush fashion – contrasting in this way with Catherine Lamb’s lower-case-titled in (tone), which is all about minute differentiation within soundscapes and between sound and silence. This work is, in effect, a minimalist approach to minimalism, with a number of unusual-sounding sections whose meaning is less than obvious (and is clearly intended not to be obvious). The performers handle the complexities of all three pieces quite well, but it is asking a lot to expect listeners beyond a core committed-to-the-avant-garde audience to invest the time and effort needed to appreciate these works.

     The same situation applies to Samuel Adams’ Lyra on a new (+++) CD from Earthy Records. In fact, this work is even more rarefied than the pieces played by String Noise. The reason is that the CD is only one portion of a larger production – a presentation filled with theatrical elements, film, dance, spatial engagement and more. And the audience needs to study, understand and respond to the immersive entirety of Lyra when listening to the disc – a distinctly difficult matter for anyone who has not seen/heard/experienced the totality of the elements of which the material on the CD is but one part. It is thus very difficult indeed to know for whom this CD is intended – except perhaps as a souvenir item for those who have attended Lyra, the disc is bound to be of little meaning or effect. What is offered here is essentially the soundtrack for a very specific experience – and if one has not had the experience, the soundtrack is virtually meaningless. One small element of this is that the music for Lyra is designed to be projected through 75 speakers surrounding the audience – a clear impossibility for any CD. The strings-plus element here, in performance, skews heavily toward the “plus,” with the primary instrument using strings being the guitar and the primary acoustic instruments mixed with it being percussion of all sorts. Inevitably, there is plenty of electronic enhancement/alteration, lots of computer-generated sound/noise, and all sorts of referents that the audience absolutely has to understand for the entire concoction to have any meaning whatsoever (the story is a version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, using Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo as a by-no-means-clear referent and touchstone). What will the uninitiated listener discover by simply placing the Lyra disc in a CD player? There are eight tracks labeled Wedding and 11 further tracks, three of them called Interlude, and in the absence of visuals, there is no way whatsoever to know what the acoustic/electronic, string/percussion sonic mixtures are intended to elucidate or illustrate. Certainly there are audible differences between, for example, Hades and Persephone (which is filled with bell-like tones) and River (featuring an unendingly repetitious use of a drum set). But what exactly is being shown, or commented upon, or expanded, through the use of a particular musical element, is entirely unclear to anyone who has not experienced Lyra as the avant-garde theatre/film/dance production that it is meant to be. Indeed, the work’s title itself needs elucidation: Adams wants the guitar-and-percussion combination (as enhanced/altered/expanded) to be perceived as a 21st-century lyre, thus tying the whole production back to the instrument of Orpheus in Greek mythology. This is the level of understanding that an audience must have in order to appreciate, not to mention enjoy, the material on this CD. It is a fair bet that only a very, very few listeners will have the requisite knowledge, interest and experience to get from this music even a small fraction of what the composer and performers have endeavored to put into it.

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