June 30, 2022


The Guernica Project. Ensemble for These Times. Centaur. $15.99.

Music for Viola by Iranian Composers. Kimia Hesabi, viola. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Steven Ricks: Heavy with Sonata; Reconstructing the Lost Improvisations of Aldo Pilestri (1683-1727); Piece for Mixed Quartet; Assemblage Chamber. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Villa-Lobos: Alma Brasileira; Rudepoêma; Valsa da Dor; Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4; Ciclo Brasileiro. Martha Marchena, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Music that commemorates a specific time, event or place is at best an iffy proposition. Even those who enjoy topic-specific music such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory (for some listeners, both are rather guilty pleasures) like such material in spite of the events that inspired the composers, not because of them. And the inspirations in those two cases are relatively well-known. More often, the underlying time or event is not: how many people realize that Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 was inspired by the Czech political struggles of 1884? Ultimately, all these works and many others like them succeed or fail based on their musical rather than situational validity and quality. And so it is with the works on a new Centaur CD featuring members of Ensemble for These Times – especially pianist Dale Tsang – in pieces commemorating the carpet bombing of the Basque village of Guernica in 1937. Even listeners who know the village’s name (actually Gernika) and the famous Picasso painting associated with it may not know details of the Spanish Civil War air attack by German and Italian fighter planes in support of Francisco Franco’s forces. The painting itself certainly communicates scenes of horror in Picasso’s memorable style, but the specifics of his theme will be obscure to many people hearing the works on this disc. That does not make the music any less interesting – or any more so. And that is the point: the topic of the composers heard here gives all of them a foundation on which to build music, but acceptance and enjoyment of these works (“enjoyment” actually not being their primary point) depend on the pieces themselves and the effectiveness with which they are wrought. The four composers of the seven pieces on the disc all approach the topic with respect and an attempt to be sensitive to the specific war and culture that lie at the center of the CD’s concept. But each composer looks at the topic somewhat differently. Mercedes Zavala contributes La colección de haikus, eight very short voice-and-piano movements in which Spanish-language haikus are read and then commented upon by Tsang’s piano – although the connection between words and notes is somewhat less than clear. Jeffrey Hoover contributes more music to this project than anyone else: two pieces lasting more than half an hour, one explicitly connected with the topic and one tacked onto it. Guernica is a four-movement impressionistic piece for soprano (Nanette McGuinness), violin (Ilana Blumberg), cello (Anne Lerner), and piano (Tsang). Here the words relate more clearly to the music than in Zavala’s piece, although there is nothing unexpected in Hoover’s portrayal of the town and the reasons for remembering it – as seen through the lens of Picasso’s painting, with each movement representing part of the art work and the verbal elements being offered in no fewer than six languages. Hoover also contributes a marginally relevant work called Burning Giraffe, written for cello and piano (Lerner and Tsang) and focused on a famous Salvador Dali painting whose connection to Guernica is less than clear. After the Hoover works on the CD comes the short Alta mar by Mario Carro, for soprano and cello (McGuinness and Lerner). The relevance of this song to Guernica is that the words are by a Spanish poet named Ernestina de Champourcin, who went into exile during the Spanish Civil War – but the connection is tenuous and seems tacked-on. The three remaining pieces on the disc are by David Garner. Two short ones are piano solos: Ricercar on Pablo Picasso, whose connection to Guernica is quite clear (although the way it is based on an encryption of letters from Picasso’s name is abstruse in the extreme); and Albeniz (from Garner’s Cinq Hommages), which is a pleasant-enough work but has no topical relevance at all. Garner’s longest piece on the CD is El alma y la memoria for soprano and piano (McGuinness and Tsang), a song cycle set to words by another poet displaced by the Spanish Civil War, Antonio Machado. Every work on this CD is well-crafted, sincere, and performed with sensitivity. But the fact remains that the disc, by insisting the music speak within a highly specific context, limits its own reach to people who feel a particular relationship with Guernica and have a special interest in art related to that village in a time of war.

     Even more rarefied and self-limited, despite its good intentions, is a New Focus Recordings CD featuring viola works by Iranian composers, performed by Kimia Hesabi either alone or in partnership with voice, a second instrument, or electronics. Although this CD could certainly be used to introduce contemporary Iranian music to new listeners, it is more realistic to feel that it is aimed at an audience already familiar with the Iranian diaspora and at least some of the composers represented here. The works certainly have an up-to-date sound, but the extent to which they are reflective of Iran, past or present, is unlikely to be generally clear to listeners. Songs and Whispers by Gity Razaz, written for Hesabi, tries to juxtapose typical modern string sounds – lots of harmonics, tremolos, etc. – with snippets of melody tied to Iran. Two works by Alireza Mashayekhi, Variant and Sonata for Viola and Piano, are of roughly the same length even though the first is in one movement and the second in three. Variant actually has some of the familiar sound of Western classical music. The sonata, in which Hesabi is joined by pianist Ying-Shan Su, seems more self-consciously avant-garde in technique – for instance, in a middle movement largely consisting of plucked and struck individual notes separated by silence, and a finale whose extensions of viola sounds seem designed to showcase ways in which the instrument can lose its usual warmth, while the piano pounds away atonally. Kamalto, a work by Showan Tavakol, features Hesabi with mezzo-soprano Lori Şen, and uses words by the poet Rumi in a cadence that does have an Iranian sound to it; but the viola’s skittering, irregular rhythms bear no clear relationship to those words. The solo-viola work Tombstone by Bahar Royaee is another piece that wants the viola to sound like something other than a viola: everything is extended range and modified technique, the sound often unpleasant – perhaps a reflection of the work being based on a poem about Death, but even if so, that is not something of which most audiences would be cognizant. Veiled by Niloufar Nourbakhsh is an extended piece for viola and electronics with a specific sociopolitical point to make: it is a reaction to a series of protests by Iranian women in 2017 against the compulsory hijab. Listeners who know of those events may find ways to connect the sounds heard here with the violence to which the protests led, but this is scarcely a general-interest piece. Hani and Sheh Mureed takes its title from 15th-century folklore: composer Mozhgan Chahian’s music is more textured and lyrical than most on this disc, as Chahian recounts and interprets a story of lovers separated for three decades by a corrupt ruler. How well the music reflects and underlines the material, however, will be clear only to those well-versed in the culture and history of Belochistan, from which the tale is taken. Hesabi’s sincere dedication to all this music is apparent in her finely nuanced playing, but the fact remains that this is very narrowly focused material that will be of interest only to a very small slice of any potential audience.

     The four Steven Ricks works on another New Focus Recordings CD are also blends of influences, although Ricks seeks to engage an audience by incorporating references to Baroque music – and some actual Baroque music – into pieces that in several cases include harpsichord. But make no mistake: this is very decidedly contemporary avant-garde material, from its odd titles of pieces and movements to its use of electronics as well as acoustic elements. Heavy with Sonata, which opens the disc, is for violin (Aubrey Woods), viola (Alex Woods), and harpsichord (Jason Hardink), and actually starts its first movement with the rhythm of a French overture, played on the harpsichord. But the harmony, instrumental combinations and techniques, and overall approach are very decidedly contemporary, as are the movement titles: “Plotting Our Next (Dance) Move,” “Sarah’s Gigabit Broadband,” and “I’ll Amend the Current Trend.” Actually, at least on one level, this is all pretty silly, subverting the sort-of-Baroque elements and the harpsichord sound itself by inviting listeners to hear material that was never used or intended to be used in this way. But of course that is often the point of some composers today: to take the past and stretch it beyond recognizability while supposedly paying homage to it. Ricks actually takes this even further in Reconstructing the Lost Improvisations of Aldo Pilestri (1683-1727), managing to incorporate a quotation from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons into a work filled with thoroughly modern pops and plucks and snaps and unusual instrumental juxtapositions: it is written for guitar and prepared guitar (Daniel Lippel), violin (Miranda Cuckson), viola (Jessica Meyer), cello (Caleb van der Swaagh), and bass clarinet (Benjamin Fingland). Actually, a number of elements of this piece are fun to hear simply as sound-world snippets, but at more than 14 minutes, the work – the longest on the disc – just does not sustain. Harpsichord is again part of the ensemble in Piece for Mixed Quartet, and again played by Hardink; the two-movement composition also includes violins (Gerald Elias and Hasse Borup) and cello (Walter Haman). This is a piece that never actually goes anywhere: this-and-that contrast with that-and-this, and there is even a tiny passage that genuinely sounds Baroque, but the main point here is setting the instruments in conflict with each other. The disc ends with an extended work for electronics, performed by Ricks himself, that is called Assemblage Chamber. It incorporates snippets of the snippets of material from other works on the CD, mixing them in the usual electronic way that so many contemporary composers favor. The main conclusion seems to be that the whole, as assembled in this piece, is less than the sum of its parts.

     If Ricks rather uneasily melds Baroque and modern sounds, while Hesabi plays pieces that (also rather uneasily) mix fairly familiar acoustic material with themes and rhythms drawn from Iranian history, there is at least no question about either the time period or geographic location of a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Martha Marchena. This disc is all about Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s, as perceived by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959). It is interesting to hear ways in which Villa-Lobos followed some of the same approaches as more-recent composers, doing so in a manner making a clearer connection between the works he was creating and those of earlier times. This is especially apparent in all nine of the Bachianas Brasileiras, which are Bach-inspired Brazilian pieces but not works that extensively incorporate Bach’s music or other Baroque elements. Some of them, including No. 4, do make reference to Baroque techniques: the second movement of No. 4 includes chorale-like textures typical of Bach. And sometimes Villa-Lobos draws on specific folk material from individual regions, developing it in his own way: that same second movement, and the third as well, are based on material from Brazil’s northeast. Marchena is quite comfortable performing the piano version of this Bachiana Brasileira, which is more often heard in its later orchestral guise. The concluding dance movement is not as colorful or exotic-sounding here as in the orchestral version, but Marchena handles the rhythms and ebullience well. She is in fact a considerable stylist in all the music on this disc. The CD opens with the Choros No. 5, which Villa-Lobos called Alma Brasileira, “Soul of Brazil.” Marchena plays it with warm expansiveness, then follows it with the very extended Rudepoêma (“Savage Poem”) that the composer dedicated to pianist Arthur Rubinstein. This is a complex, sprawling work whose 20-minute length can make it difficult to hold together – but Marchena succeeds admirably, intertwining the varying sections while making it clear that the many inherent contrasts of the movement are all part of a larger whole, a greater vision. After this, Marchena plays something much more modest, Valsa da Dor (“Waltz of Sorrow”), which comes across here as wistful and thoughtful rather than deeply sorrowful, much less tragic – this is no Sibelius Valse Triste, but a work with its own quiet mournfulness, which Marchena communicates very well. The CD concludes with the four-movement Ciclo Brasileiro (“Brazilian Cycle”), although it could certainly be argued that the disc itself, in its entirety, is a Brazilian cycle. In any case, this piece has some especially effective pianistic elements, such as the contrast between low and high key ranges in the opening Plantio do Caboclo (“Native Planting Song”) and the use of pedaling to accentuate rather than blur the rhythms of the third movement, Festo No Sertão (“Jungle Festival”). Marchena is thoroughly at home with the changing sounds and rhythms throughout this work, and indeed throughout the entire CD. Villa-Lobos’ piano music is not especially well-known, but it deserves more currency than it tends to receive, and Marchena makes an impressive case for all the pieces she presents on a disc that is also distinguished by being well-recorded to display the full and elegant tone of the specific instrument that the pianist uses here.

No comments:

Post a Comment