June 16, 2022


Ástor Piazzolla: Variations on Buenos Aires—arrangements by Isabelle van Keulen. Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble (Isabelle van Keulen, violin; Christian Gerber, bandoneon; Rüdiger Ludwig, bass; Ulrike Payer, piano) and Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss am Rhein. Berlin Classics. $18.99.

Music for Violin and Piano by Liszt, Schumann, Massenet, Rachmaninoff, Bach/Gounod, Kreisler, Kreisler/Rimsky-Korsakov, Dushkin/Paradis, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Chopin. Maya Magub, violin; Hsin-I Huang, piano. CRD Records. $18.99.

Alyssa Morris: Four Personalities; Forecast; Ruminations; Parable of a Stormy Sea; 27-72. Alyssa Morris, oboe; Amanda Arrington, piano; Kansas State University Percussion Ensemble; Heather Baxter, second oboe; Sara Renner, English horn. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     There is an implicit partnership between composer and performer, with an understanding that the former creates a road map (with varying degrees of precision) and the latter actually takes listeners along the route (with varying degrees of exploration of sonic byways). Things get interesting, though, when skilled composers become important interpreters of their own works (e.g., Stravinsky); when skilled performers who are also composers bring their compositional sensibilities into performance spaces (e.g., Mahler redoing Bruckner); and when composers who are also performers invite modification of their works by creating multiple versions on their own (e.g., Ástor Piazzolla). Piazzolla’s penchant for self-rewriting – which was scarcely a new phenomenon, having much earlier been the common practice of Handel, among others – resulted in some pieces that bore the same title through multiple iterations, and others that incorporated bits of prior works and remade them into something new. It is on this basis that Isabelle van Keulen and her eponymous ensemble, abetted by the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss am Rhein, offer nine Piazzolla-ish pieces on a Berlin Classics recording. These are essentially arrangements for bandoneon, solo violin, piano, and string orchestra, but they are also reflections of van Keulen’s thoughts on the tango as Piazzolla recast it for the concert hall: her group is a tango ensemble, and the dance form is integral to its approach to performance. The subtleties of Piazzolla’s interpretation of the form are not lost on the performers, but neither are the elements of harshness, dissonance, and incorporation of non-classical sounds and rhythms, especially those of jazz. Thus, the ominous qualities of Tangazo, the substantial dissonance and rhythmic irregularity of Tres Minutos con la Realidad, the pop-music flavor of Oblivion, and the rough and untamed sound of Camorra are all brought to the fore here. Van Keulen arranges and in effect re-composes every piece on the disc to highlight the particular skills of her group and her sense of what Piazzolla was trying to emphasize. Homenaje a Córdoba has a straightforward warmth that is immediately winning; Adiós Nonino, always very emotive, is so melancholy here as to be heart-wrenching; Soledad has especially effective contrast between and blending of piano and bandoneon; Fugata is all bounce and ebullience; and Tangata ends the disc with a high level of wistfulness and unusually moving instrumental blending. Van Keulen manages to keep all the music Piazzolla’s while making it hers at the same time, producing performances that travel the routes the composer laid out while spending some time along the way admiring unexpected and always interesting portions of the aural scenery.

     Like van Keulen, Maya Magub is a violinist who has some personal concepts about music’s communicative power and her own role in expressing it. To further her ideas, Magub has assembled a bit of a hodgepodge for a (+++) CRD Records release, including material she has herself modified into violin-and-piano form for performance with Hsin-I Huang. Magub gives the whole recital the title “Consolations,” a word drawn from the longest work played here, Liszt’s six-piece solo-piano set, Consolations. The third of these brief works was transcribed for violin and piano by Nathan Milstein; Magub herself made the arrangements of the other five. There is a pleasant warmth and comparatively (for Liszt) understated emotion in these works, and they sound fine in violin-and-piano guise, with Magub nicely bringing out the music’s singing qualities while allowing the instruments to be conversational partners rather than dominant-and-dominated. All Liszt’s Consolations are moderate-tempo works (as befits their intent), except for the last, marked Allegro sempre cantabile to retain the emotional sensitivity of the sequence. Magub and Huang play the pieces well, without overstatement, lending them grace rather than trying to impose depth that the music does not possess. The concern with this recording is that nothing on it really reaches much beyond the ordinary: this is a disc largely dedicated to calm and placidity through pleasant-enough readings of well-known music. Few listeners will discover anything surprising here: there is a pervasive mildness that may well prove consolatory for anyone whose sensibilities parallel those of Magub, but that may come across as a touch cloying for anyone who does not see eye-to-eye (or hear ear-to-ear) with her. In addition to arranging five of the Liszt pieces, Magub has created her own versions of transcriptions of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria; Handel’s Largo from Xerxes; and Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song. She and Huang also play Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Op. 19, No. 1; Schumann’s Abendlied and Träumerei; a rather treacly version of the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs; Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise; Kreisler’s Liebeslied and his arrangement of the Chant Hindou from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko; Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15; and the Sicilienne formerly attributed to Maria Theresia von Paradis but now deemed to have been written by Samuel Dushkin. One and all, these are short works: the six by Liszt take 19 minutes and the remaining dozen only 46. The result is a disc that comes across as a somewhat random collection of heartfelt, rather sweet encores offered in no particular order – consolatory, perhaps, at least in small doses, but a bit “much of a muchness” for anyone who does not share Magub’s and Huang’s personal communicative orientation.

     Van Keulen makes a moderate compositional contribution to her CD, Magub a smaller one to hers – but Alyssa Morris is 100% composer-plus-performer on a (+++) release from MSR Classics. Morris wrote all five of the varied works on this disc, and she performs them all on her chosen instrument, the oboe. These 21st-century works all have interesting elements, including the fact that every movement of every single one has its own evocative title. Thus, for example, in the jazzy and pleasant Four Personalities (2007), for oboe and piano, the movements are called “Yellow” (whose basic feeling is upbeat), “White” (which is sinuous), “Blue” (songful), and “Red” (propulsive). This sonata – that is essentially what it is – is the only piece on the disc that is not a world première recording; all four others are offered for the first time. The scoring is intriguing in Forecast (2009), which Morris writes for oboe and four percussionists – managing to keep her own instrument in the forefront much of the time, despite the obvious potential for an entirely percussion-dominated sound world. This four-movement work is weather-dominated – portraying clouds, rain, a whirlwind, and a storm – and mostly extroverted; the tone painting tends to be on the obvious side, especially in the finale. The three-movement Ruminations for Solo Oboe (2021), on the other hand, looks mainly inward. The piece lies well on the oboe, and Morris certainly plays it with commitment, but its emotionalism is on the superficial side – with its concluding movement, “Enough’s Enough,” sounding mostly like an exercise in extended technique. Parable of a Stormy Sea (2016), for two oboes and English horn, takes the titles of its four movements from Biblical passages: Jonah 2:3-5, Job 6:2, Mark 4:37-38, and Mark 4:39-40. The instrumental mix is fascinating and very well-handled, although the tone-painting is, as in other works on this disc, somewhat unsurprising. The last and longest work on the disc is a four-movement oboe-and-piano sonata called 27-72 (2019), commissioned by oboe students of Baylor University professor Doris DeLoach to celebrate her 45-year career at the school. The title is an “in” reference to DeLoach, who turned 27 on her first birthday at Baylor (in 1972) and retired at 72 (in 2018). The titles of the work and its individual movements make it clear that this is an occasional piece for a specific audience, and the work itself seems to reflect that, from its use of dramatic piano chords in the first movement, to its lyrically jazzy second, its sometimes strained-sounding third (which is about reed making), and its suitably wistful,  thanks-from-your-students finale, “Guide Us as We Onward Go.” Morris and the other performers on the disc play all the works with skill and engagement, and oboists, from Baylor or elsewhere, will certainly find much of interest here. Listeners in general are more likely to discover sporadic movements or portions of movements that are attractively engaging, while others will be found mostly surface-level in what they have to say.

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