December 29, 2022


Albéniz: Suite from “The Magic Opal”; Ravel: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée; Enrique Granados: Cinco Pièzas Populares; Joaquín Turina: Poema en Forma de Canciones; Manuel de Falla: Cuatro Pièzas Españolas. The Great Necks Guitar Trio (Adam Levin, Scott Borg and Matthew Rohde). Navona. $14.99.

Georges Raillard: Guitar Music. David William Ross, guitar. Navona. $14.99.

20 for 20: New Music for Cello. Inbal Segev, cello. AVIE. $27.99 (2 CDs).

     The guitar is irrevocably linked to Spain and Spanish music, and to the music of Spain-influenced or formerly Spain-ruled parts of the world – but the Great Necks Guitar Trio, in addition to having an especially clever name, clearly believes there is not quite enough guitar music by Spanish composers or associated with the nation. Hence their delightful Navona CD featuring three-guitar arrangements of suites by five composers who were well-versed in the Spanish musical idiom, whether by birth or adoption. Pirates, ghosts and the usual-for-the-stage impossible love are the plot elements of Isaac Albéniz’ The Magic Opal, a two-act comic opera dating to 1893. Albéniz is not often thought of as a major composer for the stage, but his music for The Magic Opal has just the right light touch for the material, as the three excerpts here show – and the interplay among the guitars in this arrangement is quite effective, especially in the extended “Intermezzo” and the bouncy “Ballet.” Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée is the composer’s final completed work (1932-33), and this three-song cycle translates more effectively than might be expected to guitar trio: each song is brief and has a picturesque quality that the performers communicate effectively. Granados’ Cinco Pièzas Populares are all more extended than any of the three Ravel pieces, and present a pleasantly evocative set of interpretations of dance forms, with “Zapateado” and “Moresque” using the three-guitar arrangement to particularly good effect. Turina’s Poema en Forma de Canciones, a five-song cycle from 1918, adapts somewhat less well to three-guitar format than Ravel’s more-atmospheric song cycle. Like all the music on the disc, it is played very well indeed, but in this case the absence of a voice does not serve the music to particularly good effect. The well-known Cuatro Pièzas Españolas by Manuel de Falla, on the other hand, come across exceptionally well here. These works have a clear resemblance to the music of Albéniz, to whom they were dedicated, but they are harmonically inventive and filled with elegant contrapuntal passages that fit the three-guitar arrangement very nicely. Although 70 minutes of short pieces arranged for three guitars will be a bit much for many listeners, the first-rate performances and the chance to hear some distinctly Spanish-sounding music in attractive (if not original) guise will make this CD enjoyable for many audiences.

     The enjoyment is a bit more attenuated on another guitar-focused Navona disc, this one featuring 10 contemporary single-guitar pieces by Georges Raillard (born 1957). Almost as long as the Great Necks Trio’s recording, this CD featuring David William Ross shows the limitations of a single guitar in comparison to a guitar trio: once again the material is played with great skill, but the solo-guitar sound wears thin rather quickly, especially since Raillard does not use the instrument nearly as evocatively as do the composers whose arrangements appear on the three-guitar disc. Rapsodia costera ambles along; the five-movement En el pinar varies from a near-static presentation to a sprightlier one and back again; Fading Sounds does not so much fade as go through a series of stops-and-starts; Cut Flowers, a two-and-a-half-minute miniature, is pleasant rather than expressly evocative; and the two-movement Winter Threat sounds neither particularly wintry nor particularly threatening. Longer than those two movements together, the single-movement Diverging Spirits uses the guitar’s sound in some interesting ways, although it tends to make the same point over and over again, while Lighthouse, another two-and-a-half-minute work, also meanders but also uses various guitar sonorities well. Stray Thoughts differs a bit from the other pieces on the disc through its quotidian focus: its three movements are “Digging in the Backgrounds,” “Escaping Bird,” and “Indian Siesta.” The titles directly invite listeners to envision specific scenes – but unfortunately the music does seem especially closely connected to those scenes, although the final movement does have a certain soporific quality. The last two pieces on the disc contrast significantly with each other. Feverish Freezing (Nocturne) features a pleasant rocking motion, although its thematic material is not particularly relaxing, while Alive perks things up to a considerable degree. Ross’ admirable handling of all these works cannot conceal the fact that the music itself is rather thin, and while elements of many pieces are intermittently interesting, there is very little here that sustains well or sounds like something with ongoing appeal except to guitar aficionados in search of contemporary, most likely unfamiliar music.

     The sonorous nature of the cello and its fundamentally warm and beautiful tone make it easier to compose works with emotional connection than is the case when writing for guitar. But contemporary composers are as likely to write “against” the cello’s inherent sound as for it – although it is worth remembering just how wrongheaded conductor Josef Hellmesberger now seems with his quip that Brahms' Violin Concerto was "a concerto not for, but against the violin." A new two-CD set from AVIE, featuring cellist Inbal Segev, provides a highly unusual opportunity to hear how 20 of today's composers regard the instrument –and also how they connect music to the world around them, since Segev commissioned them to use music to document the world's current difficult times. This is a tall order and not one especially well-suited to music, but the project is nevertheless an interesting one, in part because of its sheer difficulty and overreach. Segev performs the music here on two cellos, a 1673 Ruggieri and a 1957 Becker, and actually combines the two instruments intriguingly, through overdubbing, for the opening work, Room to Move for cello octet, by Viet Cuong (born 1990). The other composers here are Fernando Otero (born 1972), James Lee III (born 1975), Timo Andres (born 1985), Sophia Bass (born 1996), Bruce Wolosoff (born 1955), Avner Dorman (born 1975), Vijay Iyer (born 1971), Christopher Cerrone (born 1984), Angélica Negrón (born 1981), John Luther Adams (born 1953), Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941), Gloria Coates (born 1938), Agata Zubel (born 1978), Christopher Tyler Nickel (born 1978), Molly Joyce (born 1992), Camille el Bacha (born 1989), Oscar Bettison (born 1975), Immanuel Wilkins (born 1998), and Stewart Goodyear (born 1978). A 21st "bonus" composition called Beyond is by Segev herself, and features a cello quartet including Segev, Caleb van der Swaagh, Karen Ouzonian, and Brook Speltz. The vast majority of these composers will be wholly unknown to most listeners; and as is inevitable in an extended anthology, some of the music will be far more congenial for some listeners while other works will be more appealing to different people. The pieces are all short, ranging from just under three minutes to just under 10, so anyone who happens not to care for a particular work will not have long to wait for the next – which may make it worthwhile to hear pieces all the way through instead of skipping those whose earlier sections prove less than engaging. Most of the pieces are self-contained, although Otero's is an arrangement for cello, string quartet, and double bass of his Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra. The way composers combine the cello with other instruments is one of the most-intriguing elements of this project: Bass' Taal-Naad Naman is for cello, tabla and tanpura; Dorman's Elegy for the Victims of Indifference is for cello and accordion; Negrón's Ruta Panorámica is for cello, bandoneón and electronics; Adams' A Weeping of Doves is for eight cellos; Hailstork's Hora is for cello and marimba; Zubel's Unisono III incorporates voice as well as cello and electronics; and so on. The occasional work for cello solo (e.g., Coates' Berceuse) becomes a welcome pause in the multiple colorations offered in the other music, and several pieces for cello and piano help ground the whole project reasonably firmly in more-traditional treatment of such a rich-sounding stringed instrument. Some of these pieces insist on their relevance through titles intended to reflect the circumstances of the commission: Nickel's Fractures of Solitude and Joyce's It Has Not Taken Long, for instance, as well as the pieces by Adams and Dorman. Other titles are more enigmatic but are also intended to reflect the composers' views of recent world events: Iyer's The Window, Wolosoff's Lacrymae, and Cerrone's The Pleasure at Being the Cause, for example. There is no single work that stands out here as highly memorable, although every piece is well-constructed and appears to have been thoughtfully created to reflect Segev's commission and, in many cases, her thoughtful and often-elegant performance style. The reality is that none of these pieces is really a standalone work: each can be heard entirely on its own, but the whole point of this multifaceted collection is not to hear them that way, but to listen to the totality of the music and thus have a sense of how these composers have absorbed and reflected the circumstances of the world in which they created this material. This is a very, very rarefied release that will inevitably become dated quite quickly – at which point it will be easier to hear the works as individual pieces. But for now, it is something to produce enjoyment and thoughtfulness for listeners who want to contemplate, on their own, the difficult recent circumstances through which they and these composers have lived, with at best some measure of solace to be taken from Segev's playing and her cello's interactions with a variety of other instruments.

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