January 05, 2023


Monteverdi: Seventh Book of Madrigals. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Ignaz Moscheles: Etudes, Op. 70. Michele Bolla, fortepianos. Piano Classics. $18.99.

Archibald Joyce: Dances. RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $13.99.

Douglas Hedwig: Music for Brass. Lagniappe Brass and Altus Trumpet Ensemble. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Many composers have found effective ways to communicate in short forms – but it tends to be groupings of short pieces, rather than ones that stand on their own, that come across best, even when the individual works are excellent by themselves. Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals (1619) is an early and very clear example of this. The structure of this grouping, which came five years after the sixth book of madrigals, is different from anything Monteverdi produced before and is fascinating in the theatricality of its design. The seventh book opens with a Prologo and then launches into vocal works for one, two, three, four and six voices – a highly variable structure – and settings of words from multiple sources, from anonymous lyrics to a lovely work for two sopranos using a text by Bernardo Tasso, Ohimé, dov’é il mio ben? Dov’é il mio core? Then the whole production, and it is a production, concludes with vocal-and-instrumental material from Tirsi e Clori, a ballet dating to 1615. Monteverdi’s skill at vocal weavings keeps each brief individual element interesting on its own, but there is more to this Seventh Book of Madrigals, since it also shows the composer’s skill in devising a form encompassing both material to be heard strictly as song and music chosen to produce an overall dramatic arc that creates a totality greater than the sum of its parts. On their own, those parts are very attractive, and as always, Rinaldo Alessandrini leads Concerto Italiano on this two-CD Naïve release with tremendous aplomb, a sure understanding of period style, devotion to historic instruments and practices, and a flair for the dramatic and emotive. There are many individual items of note, such as Tempro la cetra, to a text by Giovan Battista Marino, used at the start of the whole presentation to help set a scene in which a poet – or, because of the nature of this grouping, a composer – communicates feelings and ideas to an audience; and Con che soavità, one of the lengthier compositions here, with text by Giovanni Battista Guarini that is accompanied by complex and unusual instrumentation. Strictly speaking, not everything here is a madrigal, and that is part of what makes this Seventh Book of Madrigals unusual: Monteverdi reaches for dramatic impact in part by stretching or even ignoring the overall title of his work. The unusual elements of this structure will certainly be less apparent to modern, non-specialist listeners than they would have been in Monteverdi’s time, but one thing Alessandrini and his ensemble do so well, again and again, is to produce a strong feeling of connectedness between this 400-year-old music and a modern audience, even when the specific means of attaining the connection are far more evident to the performers than they will likely be to most listeners.

     Another way in which short works may be assembled into a larger whole that carries more freight than do the pieces themselves is through creation of a set intended to explore instrumental capabilities. The Op. 70 Etudes by Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) do this exceptionally well, and Michele Bolla’s performance on the Piano Classics label neatly captures not only the individual pleasures of the two dozen pieces but also the characteristics of the total structure within which they appear. To be sure, these are not really works intended for listening as much as for instruction: they are genuine studies for pianists, expertly crafted by Moscheles to display and encourage specific performance techniques. Nevertheless, these little exercises have a lot to recommend them as auditory bonbons – especially when heard, as intended, on a fortepiano rather than a full-scale modern concert grand. One major attraction of Bolla’s recording is his use of two fine fortepianos: a modern one built by Houston-based Paul McNulty, after an 1819 Conrad Graf original; and a simply wonderful 1844 Erard. The McNulty/Graf instrument has a distinctly clearer and cleaner sound than the Erard, which is altogether deeper, richer and warmer. Neither is “better” or “worse” than the other – that was not the way of fortepianos – and each shows the music in a different light. Just how different is clear from three bonus tracks on the CD, offering Erard versions of Etudes Nos. IX, X and XII – which are played in the main sequence on the McNulty/Graf instrument. As for the music itself, it takes pianists through just about every imaginable technique known at the time Moscheles created these pieces in 1825-27. No. X, for example, is filled with trills, strongly contrasting with the ever-cascading notes of No. XI. There is near-constant note flow of a different kind in No. XIV. No. XVI, a real gem, is marked Adagio ma non troppo but could well be designated con delicatezza. No. XVII displays stepwise motion throughout, while the very dramatic No. XXIII effectively contrasts chordal and arpeggiated sequences. The CD gives the ending of the sequence two numbers, XXIV and XXV, but this is really a prelude-and-fugue pair, more extended in its form than the other etudes, that brings the set to a rousing as well as pianistically difficult conclusion. These etudes were widely admired in their time – by Chopin and Schumann, among others – and remain a challenge for modern pianists, perhaps even more on today’s pianos, with their deeper keys and more-resonant sound than Moscheles wrote for. Bolla’s performance manages to showcase the etudes’ “study” elements very well while also turning this collection of short pieces into a totality worth hearing even for non-pianists.

      Of course, composers sometimes create brief works that are intended to be heard on their own, not in groupings; whether they “work” for listeners then depends on the quality and style of each individual piece rather than on the way the parts eventually form a more-cohesive whole. Composers of light music tend to be especially good at short standalone pieces. Some works by Archibald Joyce (1873-1963), a once-popular British light-music creator, show this very clearly on a (+++) Naxos reissue that includes 16 of his creations, dating from as early as 1910 and as late as 1946, all performed quite ably by Andrew Penny and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. One thing a listener will surely notice is that the dates are irrelevant: Joyce showed no real stylistic progress during the more than three decades represented here. That appears to have been by intent: essentially an Edwardian composer, Joyce remained fully focused on the early 20th century in terms of sensibilities, rhythms, harmonies and orchestration. He was a ballroom composer above all, spinning out a large number of waltzes and other dances – especially waltzes of his own design: he was determined to create a British alternative to the Viennese waltz. As leader of a popular dance band, he wanted to give his listeners soft, sweet, dreamy music (the word “dream” appears in many of his works’ titles), music that would engage their rhythmic impulses and footwork without distracting them: most of his pieces were really meant to be danced to, not listened to in a concert setting. As the 20th century moved on and movies came further into vogue, Joyce created music for various silent films, and the transition from his view of the ballroom seemed natural: his film works would not distract from any visuals but would complement them, easing moviegoers into the scenes on the screen. “Easing” is a good description of what most of the Joyce works on this CD – consisting of performances dating to 1994 – are best at doing. Despite sometimes-evocative titles (A Thousand Kisses, Dreams of You, Bohemia), there is little to distinguish any of these trifles from any of the others. Unlike the works of composers such as Eric Coates and Leroy Anderson, Joyce’s pieces have little staying power: indeed, they were so wedded to the ballrooms of his time that most concluded with repetitions of material first heard earlier in the same work – leading to a somewhat unfortunate decision, for this recording, to edit most of the pieces by truncating the repetitive conclusions, resulting in rather abrupt finishes. Joyce had some skill as a tunesmith and orchestrator, and nothing on this CD is less than well-crafted. But the individual works are eminently forgettable – and the totality works better as “mood” or background music than as anything that repays close attention.

     A much-more-recent composer who also creates many short works intended to be heard entirely on their own is Douglas Hedwig, 11 of whose pieces for brass are offered on a (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring the Lagniappe Brass and Altus Trumpet Ensemble. Seven of these pieces by Hedwig (born 1951) are world première recordings, but most listeners will come to all the music anew. Hedwig uses brass adeptly and in widely varying combinations, so the CD will be of interest to performers even though the material will not necessarily please a wider audience – at least not in totality, this being music that is best heard one piece at a time. Onyx, for brass quintet (2007/2015), is essentially a very brief (under-two-minute) fanfare. Heliodor (2022), also for brass quintet, has a similar sound, but at slightly greater length and with elements of canon. Obsidian (2020), for solo trumpet, is another very short work, but here fanfare elements take a back seat to scalar runs and a sense of dissonance. Trombone Sonata: Antarā (2020), in three movements for trombone and piano, is closer to a suite: there is some mood variation among the movements, but little sense of overall cohesiveness. Uddmāya (2021) is for no fewer than six trumpets, but less is made of their intermingling than emerges in the pieces for brass quintet. New Worlds (2020) is a three-movement work for the intriguing combination of soprano, trumpet and piano, but the declamatory setting of the words – and the lack of any apparent attempt to accentuate or underline them with the instruments – make the piece less interesting than it has the potential to be. Mut(e)nt Colors (2021) is another six-trumpet piece, and here the blending of instruments is handled more effectively than in Uddmāya. But Brooklyn Fanfare (1998/2019), for “only” four trumpets, works even better with its smaller instrumental complement and shorter length (it is another under-two-minute piece). As if these eight pieces had not rung enough changes on the size and complement of brass ensembles, the three final ones on the disc take instrumentation into even-less-expected areas. Da Lontano (2022) packs a lot into four minutes, being scored for three trumpets, trombone, three flugelhorns and horn: the sound is a bit of a mishmash (or mashup), but the combinatorial aspects are fascinating even if the musical material itself is rather thin. Its Soul of Music Shed (2005/2016) is for solo flugelhorn and narrator, the words here spoken without any attempt at rhythm and the flugelhorn used to good effect to provide a warm contrast to the dry narrative. Finally, A Certain Slant of Light (2015), on its face the longest work on the disc at almost 18 minutes, is actually another suite-like piece, a set of five movements written for brass quintet, organ and percussion. Although scarcely elegant, the five small tone paintings – essentially, from a musical standpoint, variations on a theme – explore the instrumental possibilities with skill, albeit without taking full advantage of the organ’s expressive capabilities. By and large, the work is deliberately paced; its chorale-like finale most effectively employs the full brass complement, although some of the non-brass touches in the movement are overdone. Hedwig’s brass music, as heard here, is skillfully constructed and will be of as much interest to brass players as Moscheles’ Etudes will be to pianists. But while Moscheles found a way to convey both the character of individual pieces and a totality that does more than sum them up, Hedwig produces a series of two-to-seven-minute items that, despite often-rich orchestration, tend to be forgettable once a listener has heard one piece (or one movement) and moved on to listen to the next.

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