June 16, 2022


Richard Strauss: Enoch Arden; The Castle by the Sea. Christopher Kent, actor; Gamal Khamis, piano. SOMM. $18.99.

Ed Hughes: Music for the South Downs. New Music Players; Primrose Piano Quartet. Métier. $18.99.

Danny Elfman: Percussion Quartet; Philip Glass: Metamorphosis No. 1; Jlin: Perspective; Flutronix & Third Coast Percussion: Rubix. Third Coast Percussion (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, David Skidmore). Cedille. $16.

     Duets for actor and pianist seem quaint nowadays, but they were not all that uncommon in the 19th century, when Liszt, Schubert and Wagner wrote them. They were a form of melodrama – text spoken with musical accompaniment rather than sung to music – and were thus in the same general line as Berlioz’ narration-with-music Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie, the still-problematic successor to the Symphonie fantastique. Richard Strauss’ two entries in the form pull readers inexorably into late Victorian times and, in the case of Enoch Arden, most decidedly into Victorian England, where Alfred, Lord Tennyson, reigned as poet laureate. Enoch Arden, as both poem and Strauss work, is very much an acquired taste, and one that contemporary audiences will be at pains to acquire if they consider it worth the effort at all. This is a very, very long poem of a type much in favor when Tennyson was, well, in favor: the performance by Christopher Kent and Gamal Khamis lasts more than an hour, with verbiage almost nonstop the entire time. Tennyson’s poetic sensibilities (like the prose ones of Charles Dickens) fit a certain worldview of his time almost perfectly: Enoch Arden is about a sailor who is shipwrecked and lost for 10 years, during which time his wife, believing herself a widow, remarries. Through all his travails, Enoch has kept a lock of the hair of his third, sickly child, who dies while Enoch is at sea; eventually, Enoch finds his way home, but when he sees his wife and children happily settled in a new life, he nobly decides not to reveal his return. On his deathbed, he tells a caregiver his story and produces the lock of hair that will prove his identity after his death. This is hyper-sentimental stuff that happened, in 1897, to fit a specific need for Strauss: he wanted to thank actor Ernst von Possart for helping Strauss become chief conductor at the Munich Opera the year before. Enoch Arden became a vehicle for Possart as speaker and Strauss as pianist, and was so successful that in 1899, Strauss wrote another melodrama for the two to perform: The Castle by the Sea, a much shorter work (about five minutes long) using a poem by Ludwig Uhland. The new SOMM release of both pieces is an admirable one that imbues Enoch Arden with the requisite amount of drama and passion. The Castle by the Sea is here given its first-ever recording in Christopher Kent’s own English translation, which sounds fine: it retains and sustains the air of mystery of Uhland’s poem, which is about a castle glimpsed from afar where something vaguely unsettling is taking place – Uhland never says just what. Strauss’ musical contributions are actually rather interesting in both melodramas. In The Castle by the Sea, the music is atmospheric and harmonically forward-looking, sometimes supporting the words and sometimes deliberately providing a counterbalance to their expressed mood. In Enoch Arden, Strauss uses music to underline feelings rather than action: for example, there is no music at all when Enoch sees his family again after an absence of 10 years – the drama literally speaks for itself. But then, when Enoch reacts to what he has seen and makes the noble decision not to reveal himself, Strauss uses music to emphasize his emotions. These performances of the Strauss melodramas are about as good as any the works are likely to receive, and if there is something faintly distant and musty about the material itself, it is certainly true that Kent and Khamis approach the words and music with respect and with the willingness to journey where the composer wanted his audiences to go.

     The setting is contemporary and the destination a strictly geographical one in Ed Hughes’ Music for the South Downs, an Impressionistic visit and tribute to the 260 square miles of chalk hills in England’s southeast. Hughes has created four three-movement suites about and in response to aspects of the South Downs, for varying instrumental complements. Hughes gives audiences minimal hints of his intentionality from the movement designations. Flint simply contains “Movement 1,” “Movement 2,” and “Movement 3,” with elements ranging from strongly rhythmic dissonance to quiet that is almost lyrical. Nonet has the same movement titles (or non-titles), but additionally marks them Con moto, Tranquil, and Flowing – although, interestingly, those designations are somewhat swappable, with elements of each movement reflecting those of the other two. The third suite is called Lunar and has movements labeled “Lunar 1,” “Lunar 2” and “Chroma.” The first movement here is the most traditionally Impressionistic of any on the CD, having what is essentially the sound of moonlight. The second is considerably bouncier – elves and fairies cavorting in the moonglow, perhaps? In contrast, “Chroma,” at 10 minutes the longest movement on this entire Métier release, is more abstract and dissonant than either of the prior movements. The final suite, The Wood So Wild, once again simply has “Movement 1,” “Movement 2,” and “Movement 3,” but its scoring for piano quartet differentiates it from the other three suites. The implicit wildness here points to the woods being unspoiled rather than wild in any other sense – there is nothing dramatic in any of the movements, all of which have a prepossessing gentleness and sense of meandering flow about them. Hughes does not really attempt to transport listeners to southeastern England in Music for the South Downs, although audiences already familiar with the area may find a number of touchstones here with which to identify. Certainly all the performers treat the music with respect and play it with care and understanding. Music for the South Downs is basically a personal tribute and response to a region with which Hughes feels a strong personal connection – pleasant enough material for those who do not know the geography, although certainly less meaningful than for those who do.

     The works on a new Cedille recording featuring Third Coast Percussion are of varied provenance, but there is an underlying geographical focus here as well: both the ensemble and the label have strong ties to Chicago. The performances of Third Coast Percussion are always first-rate, but the music they offer is always of variable interest except for audiences firmly attuned to pretty much anything that is musically contemporary. There is an unshakable belief in the musical avant-garde that process matters at least as much as outcome. That means that audiences are expected to be engaged not only in what they hear – sometimes not even primarily in what they hear – but in the manner in which a piece has been created, and what it means or is supposed to mean. From the viewpoint (listenpoint?) of audiences in general, Danny Elfman’s Percussion Quartet is the most accessible piece of the four heard on this disc. Elfman presents four contrasting movements that use differing percussion components, mixed in different ways, at varying tempos – as in a sonata, suite or symphony for other complements of instruments. The music is engaging: Elfman has a good sense of the capabilities of the various instruments and knows how to keep matters moving ahead satisfactorily throughout; he even includes some pleasant hints of the sound of the Balinese gamelan. Philip Glass’ Metamorphosis No. 1 is a different matter. This is a solo-piano work arranged by Third Coast Percussion for marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and melodica (a kind of cross between a harmonica and a pump organ). Third Coast Percussion obviously designed the adaptation to take advantage of its members’ particular evocative skills, and the blending of the instruments often fits well with Glass’ repetitive minimalism; but at nearly 10 minutes, the work continues beyond the point where it has much to say. The longest piece on this CD is by Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton): Perspective is a seven-movement, half-hour suite created in collaboration with Third Coast Percussion in 100% electronic form – then adapted and given musical notation by the performers themselves. Considerable work went into figuring out what to play, how to play it, and whether to stick closely to Jlin’s electronic original or vary from it; and as in much aleatoric music (Perspective is not quite aleatoric), listeners are expected to understand that any specific performance, including the one on this CD, may differ substantially from any other. The result of all this is to affirm the centrality of the composer while simultaneously denying it – the sort of mental contortion in which fans of the avant-garde engage with considerable regularity. As for how this particular Perspective sounds and comes across: it sounds fine, giving all the instruments and instrumentalists a suitable workout, but there is nothing particularly rhythmic or thematic for the ear to attach to – by intent, this is collage-like and kaleidoscopic music, and a little of it goes a long way. It is possible to appreciate and even be intrigued by it without necessarily enjoying it very much. The final work on the disc is a collaboration between the flute duo Flutronix (Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull) and the members of Third Coast Percussion. Rubix consists of three movements called “Go,” “Play,” and “Still,” in all of which the sonic opportunities presented by adding two flutes to a percussion ensemble are explored at some length. The movement titles do not really point to the feelings generated, although the third movement does have a greater sense of stasis than do the first two. The main attraction here is strictly an aural one: if the work has anything to say, it is that flutes can be interestingly combined with percussion instruments in an overall collaborative framework. Because all the works on this CD are world première recordings, the disc is intended in part to establish its geographical focus, Chicago, as a center of a certain kind of contemporary music. Whether or not listeners are interested in such a sense of place, it is certainly true that the recording proffers a firm placement in time: it is as much of the 21st century as the melodramas of Richard Strauss are of the late 1800s.

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