December 22, 2022


William Byrd: Pavans, Galliards, Variations & Grounds. Daniel-Ben Pienaar. AVIE. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Christopher Cerrone: The Air Suspended; Why Was I Born Between Mirrors? Shai Wosner, piano; Argus Quartet; Pat Swoboda, bass; Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. New Focus Recordings. $10.

Music for Brass by Brian Belet, Nathan Wilson Ball, Janice Macaulay, L. Peter Deutsch, and Andrew Lewinter. Navona. $14.99.

     Performers who offer music on instruments very different from the ones for which the music was written may be motivated by the desire to bring audiences great works (as in the case of Bach’s harpsichord music played on piano), may simply be unable to use or even find the original instruments (ophicleides are scarcely common these days), or may have a somewhat more quixotic reason for what they are doing. Daniel-Ben Pienaar falls into this last category in his performances of music by William Byrd (1543-1623) on, of all things, a modern piano. Byrd very definitely did not write with piano in mind – in fact, the harpsichord was just becoming fully established during Byrd’s lifetime, and he wrote a considerable number of pieces for it that helped it gain prominence. Byrd wrote very carefully for the capabilities and limitations of this plucked-string instrument, and his works, to a much greater extent than those of Bach many decades later, fit the harpsichord so well that they mis-sound when modernized through piano performance. Nevertheless, Pienaar gamely puts forth two-and-a-half hours of Byrd on a modern piano, resulting in a recording that is far too exhausting aurally to hear straight through and that, for all the fine playing, ultimately sounds like an encroachment on the composer rather than a tribute to him. The problem is that the piano’s sonorousness and sustaining capabilities do not fit Byrd’s music at all. To the extent that Pienaar uses them, he makes the music into something it is not and was never intended to be. To the extent that he holds back on the pedaling and sound-altering capabilities inherent in a percussion instrument whose strings are struck rather than plucked, the performances simply sound artificial. The works here – 39 of them, a really substantial survey of Byrd’s music – are all performed with enthusiasm, the tempos well-chosen and the ornamentation presented attractively. But everything just plain sounds wrong. In addition to the pavans and galliards, Pienaar includes some variations, grounds, even songs, and he does try to modify the piano’s sound to give different works a different sort of listener connection – as in, for example, the particularly warm sound of the Hornpipe, MB 39. Canons are ably handled, but the essentially harmonic piano simply does not produce them as well as the essentially contrapuntal harpsichord. One thing that Pienaar does show is how effectively Byrd could write at differing lengths: Galliard, the Earl of Salisbury, MB 15b, runs just 56 seconds, while Hugh Ashton’s Ground, MB 20, lasts eight-and-a-half minutes, as does The Second Ground, MB 42. Pienaar certainly tries hard – just listen to what he tries to do with The Bells, MB 38 – but he is hampered by the fact that his chosen instrument simply does not gibe with this music. This is a very well-played release that is about as inauthentic as possible. It may be a labor of love for Pienaar, but the old saying  that you always hurt the one you love seems to fit this recording all too well.

     The piano use is hyper-modern in the concerto by Christopher Cerrone that is offered by New Focus Recordings on a very short disc (running time of 22 minutes). The concerto was as thoroughly tailored to pianist Shai Wosner as Byrd’s works were to the early harpsichord. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, performances of the then-new work were cancelled, leading to a CD in which the concerto is heard with Wosner on piano accompanied by the Argus Quartet and bassist Pat Swoboda. This is essentially a work of minimalism, filled with sustained notes and repetitive sounds. Its three movement titles are intended as evocative but are not connected especially clearly with the music: “From Ground to Cloud,” “Dissolving Margins,” and “Stutter, Like Rain.” Like many other contemporary composers, Cerrone (born 1984) seems to care as much about the literary and sociopolitical gloss of his music as about the music itself. The Air Suspended, as he calls this concerto, is supposed to connect not only to weather in general but also to climate-change concerns. It does not, at least in any reasonably clear way, but the intent to make the connection is an important element to keep in mind when listening to the piece. The basic sound of the work is not unusual for 21st-century music – indeed, the other piece on this disc sounds considerably more unusual. This is Why Was I Born Between Mirrors? Again, this is an intentionally evocative title, but only listeners firmly in the know about Cerrone and this work – or ones willing to research it – will understand that the piece is a response to a novel by Ben Lerner called Leaving the Atocha Station. Thus, as with many modern musical works tied to other art forms, this sextet requires listeners to learn its background and intentions rather than simply to listen to it and thus find out what Cerrone is trying to say. This, of course, seriously limits the likely audience for the piece – which is a bit of s shame, since the inclusion here of tuned flower pots and the use of a prepared rather than standard piano result in a sonic world that is worth experiencing, at least for the seven-minute duration of the music. Like many other contemporary composers, Cerrone creates his works carefully, but without any apparent interest in having them appeal to anybody beyond a core audience that is hungry for whatever the latest and most avant-garde pieces may be.

     The instrumental use is creative in a different way on a Navona CD featuring recent music by five contemporary composers. Of the seven works here, five are for brass quintet and are played by members of the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava. One piece is for solo tuba. And one is for horn and piano. Among them, the seven pieces showcase brass in a variety of guises, combined in ways that tend to be clever as well as nicely put together. Three by Five by Brian Belet has two fugal movements sandwiching one called “More Questions (Still Unanswered),” a nod to Ives’ The Unanswered Question. The blending and contrasting of the two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba is handled well. Nathan Wilson Ball’s Nocturne adds a bass trombone to the brass quintet and sounds crepuscular, if not especially dark or somnolent.  Three short pieces by L. Peter Deutsch also use a quintet to good purpose. 5/4 Fugue in G Major sounds a bit like a throwback – an effective one. Mountain Journey—Toward the Mountains is a single movement of a longer piece, and if it does not really set any particular scene, it does a good job of combining and contrasting the instruments. Twilight Waltz is a pleasant if scarcely danceable blending of sounds. The solo-tuba piece is Tuba Contra Mundum by Janice Macaulay. Composing a solo work for this instrument, even one lasting just four minutes, is a considerable challenge, and if this piece is not really eminently listenable, it does at least explore various techniques and sounds associated with the tuba that listeners will not likely have heard before. The final piece on the disc is Sonata for Horn and Piano by Andrew Lewinter. In the conventional three movements, this is the most pleasantly melodic work on the CD, and inclusion of the piano produces a sound for the piece that differs substantially – and to the work’s benefit – from the sound of everything else on this disc. The final “Theme and Variations” has a particularly jaunty lilt. The Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava players, Jobey Wilson on tuba, James Wilson on horn, and Katherine Cisco on piano, all approach these pieces respectfully and with considerable skill in eliciting the sounds sought by the composers. Listeners intrigued by contemporary handling of brass instruments and brass ensembles will find a great deal to engage them here.

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