August 18, 2022


Music for Viola and Piano by Debussy, Francisco Tárrega, Ravel, Fauré, Albéniz, Akira Nishimura, Pablo Casals, and de Falla. Wenting Kang, viola; Sergei Kvitko, piano. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Jennifer Higdon: In the Shadow of the Mountain; Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: MoonStrike; Pierre Jalbert: L’esprit du Nord. Apollo Chamber Players (Matthew J. Detrick and Anabel Ramirez Detrick, violins; Whitney Bullock, viola; Matthew Dudzik, cello); John Herrington, narrator. Azica. $16.99.

Stephen Barber: Music for Solo Piano. Eric Huebner, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Collections of short, unrelated works designed to highlight the abilities and interests of a performer or performers are longstanding elements of the classical-music world, and if anything seem to have proliferated in recent years. These are, in effect, full CDs of encores, specific pieces having little rationale for being juxtaposed with others with which they share a recording; the discs simply reflect the particular interests, at a particular point in time, of particular musicians. The result is that the recordings can be very appealing to listeners who share the performers’ interests and attitudes or who have a strong interest in hearing these specific musicians play what generally turns out to be light or salon music. But such releases inevitably lack depth and subtlety – no matter how careful and subtle the playing itself may be. The Blue Griffin release of a recital by violist Wenting Kang and pianist Sergei Kvitko is something of a poster child for CDs of this type. There is a not-very-forcefully-argued attempt to present the music of eight composers, most from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as being interrelated because their roots in Spain and France led to a degree of musical cross-pollination at the time when many of these pieces were written. But the nationally distinctive voices of the composers are far more apparent in these little works than any international blend of sensibilities. Indeed, the blend that matters here is that between Kang’s viola and Kvitko’s piano: the viola dominates nearly everything on the disc, but Kvitko supports Kang with such subtlety and care that the sound of the two instruments merges with an unobtrusive elegance that is thoroughly winning. The warmth and beauty of Kang’s viola sound are the main aural reasons for possessing this disc: the music, most of which was not written for the viola in the first place, is either familiar or largely inconsequential, with the chance to hear Kang’s way with it being the primary pleasure of the CD. The viola is tuned a mere fifth below the violin (“violin” actually means “little viola”), but the viola’s sound is so different from that of the violin that there is a real sense of newness to be found in hearing viola versions of violin arrangements such as Debussy’s Beau Soir (originally a Heifetz transcription) and Recuerdo de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909) – originally Ruggiero Ricci’s transcription. The viola not only lies between the violin and cello but also can serve as a bridge from one to the other, as Kang shows in Fauré’s Après un rêve, originally a Pablo Casals transcription. Musically, the most interesting blending and contrast on the disc involves Casals in a different way: his El Cant dels Ocells—Song of the Birds is heard immediately after Fantasia on Song of the Birds by Akira Nishimura (born 1953), which was inspired by the same folk song. Nishimura’s presence on the disc does not fit at all with the provenance of the other composers and their music, rendering the supposed thematic underpinning of the recording meaningless. But there is more of interest in the Nishimura-Casals pairing than in most of the other material on the CD, no matter how beautifully Kang performs Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte or the Siete canciones populares españolas by Manuel de Falla. Taken as a whole, this is a pleasant, unobtrusive disc that showcases two fine performers in well-made music of no great consequence.

     The blending of the recent compositions performed by Apollo Chamber Players on an Azica release is of a different sort and is integral to each of the works. The music here is deliberately multicultural in orientation – all three pieces were commissioned by Apollo Chamber Players on that specific basis – and all of it incorporates folk or folklike material that has particular appeal to the composers. Jennifer Higdon’s In the Shadow of the Mountain (2020) is expertly fashioned as an extended (16-minute) tone poem focusing on Appalachia – the people of the region and the natural features found there. Higdon brings a sure knowledge of the capabilities of a string quartet to this meditation and exploration of a specific geographical region, with sections whose majesty seems to reflect the natural world and others that approximate “fiddlin’” more than traditional classical string performance. This is a choppy piece, in which sections end and begin abruptly, but in that respect it is in some very fine American compositional company, notably that of Ives – whose hymnlike tunes seem to lurk in the background of some of Higdon’s atmospheric material. The work is impressive, and so is the performance, which is poised and well-blended throughout. MoonStrike (2019) by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is a very different sort of work, a seven-movement celebration of Tate’s Chickasaw heritage featuring John Herrington, an astronaut who is himself a Chickasaw, as narrator. The three movements that make up the core of the piece are Chickasaw legends regarding the moon, and Herrington’s plainspoken delivery of the stories fits the material well – rather better than Tate’s music, which tends to overshadow the words and which is somewhat too dissonant to accompany mythic material that has been part of Chickasaw culture for a very long time. Indeed, there is inherent dissonance between the simplicity of the folk tales and the decidedly un-folklike music that Tate creates to underline them – although when the music serves as interludes and introductions, it comes across to better effect than when it is used during Herrington’s actual tale-telling. Folk material also permeates L’esprit du Nord (“Spirit of the North”) by Pierre Jalbert. The three-movement work, which dates to 2019, uses folk material throughout, presenting and transforming old tunes into more-modern guise that does not fit them particularly well but that does produce some intriguing sounds – notably at the start and end of the second movement, which incorporates declaimed words from a 1940s field recording. However, it is the jovial and rather silly final “Fiddle Dance” that most effectively melds folk traditions with those of a classical-music recital. Performing with enthusiasm throughout, the members of Apollo Chamber Players make the best possible case for all three works on the CD, a disc that – especially in the case of Higdon’s piece – transcends its foundational “make it intercultural” reason for being to present some music that has the capacity to reach out beyond its specific points of origin.

     There is a sense of the outdoors in the music of Stephen Barber on a New Focus Recordings disc, but not really one of folk music – here the blend is of musical genres, with Barber’s interests being rather hard to pin down in terms of traditional classical approaches compared with those of popular and film music. Just as the natural world looms large in the Apollo Chamber Players CD, so it is ubiquitous here, but it may be better to say it “looms small,” since Barber seems primarily interested in small things characterized through very brief pieces (there are 13 on the disc, which lasts only 40 minutes). Yellow Warbler, Fireflies and In Garden Bright are all pleasant divertissements, although the third of them sounds more like fireflies flitting about than does the second. Eric Huebner plays all the pieces on the CD with a suitably light touch and, where appropriate, bits of humor, warmth, and delicacy. Different pieces here reflect different personal elements for the composer, but the works are better heard as small character delineations – contemporary versions of the sort of salon music heard on the Kang/Kvitko disc – than as anything significantly autobiographical, much less profound. The titles of the pieces are interestingly if not precisely evocative: Through a Dog Star Gaze into Sirius, Stop, Twilight in Tahiti (whose pervasive quietude is winning), Circo Massimo (where chordal drama dominates), Electra 88 (where the overall impression is of disconnectedness), Falling Water, Opium-White Fur, Easter (in which gentle rocking is pervasive), Slow Dripping Beast (strangely titled, politically motivated and thoroughly overdone), and Earth (a lovely conclusion to the disc, bringing a sense of peace and consonance). These pieces, individually and collectively, are pleasant enough and never overstay their welcome; none of them aspires to any level of profundity. And that is actually a pleasure, given the portentous nature of so much contemporary music: Barber is content in these works to produce engaging trifles that Huebner can present with panache and without attempting to make them seem to be of greater importance than they are. This is not the sort of disc that will likely bear frequent re-listening – the material is just too slight – but it is a CD that is welcome for the way it shows a contemporary composer willingly mixing genres and musical approaches without feeling the need to extend or belabor his points or to produce music of high intensity or high drama.

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