April 20, 2023


Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131; Missy Mazzoli: Enthusiasm Strategies; Sean Neukom: 19|20. Beo String Quartet (Jason Neukom, violin and percussion; Andrew “Glo” Giordano , violin and whistle; Sean Neukom, viola, keyboard, voice, and electronics; Ryan Ash, cello and keyboard). NeuKraft Records. $22.87.

Shostakovich: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Rachmaninoff: Sonata for Cello and Piano. Carmine Miranda, cello; Robert Marler, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Dorothy Chang: New Stories for Alto Saxophone and Piano; David Biedenbender: Detroit Steel; Stacy Garrop: Wrath; Carter Pann: Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano. Joseph Lulloff, saxophone; Yu-Lien The, piano. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

     How does any ensemble find something new to offer when performing highly familiar music? One approach is to juxtapose the well-known with the little-known, hopefully choosing less-familiar material that in some way sheds light on or at least musically complements a work that audiences are likely to have heard frequently. Thus, the Beo String Quartet – whose members perform on instruments beyond strings, and whose approach takes in a variety of music beyond the classical – has chosen to offer Beethoven’s Op. 131 quartet, one of the greatest works in the classical canon, on the same CD as recent pieces by Missy Mazzoli and the quartet’s own violist, Sean Neukom. Given the quartet’s deliberate self-positioning as wide-ranging in its interests (perhaps the word “quirky” fits as well), and given the fact that NeuKraft Records is the ensemble’s own label, the ability to put together this unusual program is certainly present. A reasonable question for prospective listeners to ask, however, is whether the combination “works” in some way that other performances of Beethoven’s Op. 131 do not – that is, if this combination sheds some sort of interpretative light on the music or produces emotional clarity heretofore missing. Or perhaps that is not quite the right way to think about this musical mixture, given the fact that Neukom’s work is almost the same length as Beethoven’s: it could be that the intent is to produce something of a balancing act between two works separated in their creation by almost 200 years (Beethoven’s dates to 1826). The actual performance of the Beethoven is quite fine: tempos are judiciously chosen, emotional highs and lows are clearly explored, and each of the seven movements is given its own character while still being shown to fit within the work’s overall and very complex conceptualization. The Beo String Quartet has a particularly fine sense of ensemble, with individual players’ sound coming to the fore as needed but with the passages for the complete group being the most impressive. There is nothing especially revelatory in this performance, but it is certainly a very fine one on multiple levels. However, it is unlikely to be most listeners’ first choice for the Beethoven quartet – indeed, this CD seems specifically designed for people who know the Beethoven well already and are interested in hearing it in a new context. The disc opens with Mazzoli’s Enthusiasm Strategies, which is packed with intense dissonance, plenty of harmonics, a brief and surprising drop into near-lyricism midway through, and an eventual accumulation of chords that fades to an inconclusive silence. After this comes Neukom’s extended four-movement 19|20, whose title refers to COVID-19 and the year 2020 – guaranteeing the piece both timeliness and datedness. Certainly Beethoven’s works, including the Op. 131 quartet, are self-referential in many ways, but Beethoven’s genius lies in the way he connects his personal struggles, pains and worries with those of humanity at large. Neukom’s work tries to do this more overtly and directly – the movements are called “Screens,” “Masks,” “Deception,” and “Ashes” – but the result is much less successful in terms of universality and requires much more direct knowledge of and involvement in its inspirational material to be experienced fully. There are impressive moments in Neukom’s work, notably in the off-kilter waltz of the second movement and the distinctly strange viola opening of the finale; but there are also plenty of elements that sound formulaic, such as the fast and highly dissonant notes-tumbling-over-each-other third movement. The piece takes itself quite seriously (despite its almost-jaunty opening), but it is difficult to hear it as a journey through darkness to light, as its very end makes it clear that it is supposed to be. Neither Mazzoli’s piece nor Neukom’s fits in any particularly clear way with Beethoven’s, so this disc will be of interest primarily to listeners who simply want to hear, in close aural proximity, three very different pieces, one of them an undoubted masterpiece, the others examples of how far musical communication has come – or has not come – since Beethoven’s time.

     Combining Shostakovich with Rachmaninoff is less of a leap than mixing Beethoven with two contemporary composers, but the specific mixture of cello sonatas by Shostakovich (from 1934) and Rachmaninoff (from 1901) is not especially common – although the works share intriguing similarities and differences, as do their composers. Rachmaninoff fled the then-new Soviet Union and never returned, while Shostakovich stayed in his homeland and endured many years of artistic and personal depredations as a result. The two composers’ underlying sensibilities are parallel in many ways – yet as different as the fact that Shostakovich called his work a sonata for cello and piano, while Rachmaninoff originally labeled his as being for piano and cello. A new Navona CD features first-rate performances of both works by Carmine Miranda and Robert Marler. The long lines of the first movement of the Shostakovich come through to very fine effect and are particularly neatly contrasted with the emergent sarcasm of the very short (three-minute) second movement. The third movement is deeply heartfelt, to the point of being depressive, while the brief finale (three-and-a-half minutes) contrasts so strongly with the third that it almost seems to belong in a different piece altogether. Miranda’s rich cello sound is dominant throughout in this piece – but in the Rachmaninoff, as the composer’s original title indicated, cello and piano are essentially equal, with piano perhaps actually being in the forefront more often than not. There are beauties aplenty in this hyper-Romantic sonata, but it has a tendency to sprawl, and Miranda and Marler do not always keep it fully under control: the first and longest movement, in particular, seems somewhat disconnected. The second lives up to its Allegro scherzando designation without the underlying wry qualities of Shostakovich. The third, slow movement – surprisingly, the shortest in the sonata – is beautifully spun-out in the style that Rachmaninoff was later to perfect and even exploit, and emerges here as the emotional heart of the piece. Despite the substantial piano part, this Andante is wholly in the realm of the cello, whose expressive warmth comes through from start to finish. The finale has an almost martial air about it, and the interplay of the instruments is handled with aplomb. The complementary nature of these two minor-key sonatas (Shostakovich’s in D minor, Rachmaninoff’s in G minor) is apparent in these performances, and the disc will certainly be of interest to listeners who may have heard one or the other of these works in the past but may not have considered the intriguing ways in which they have similarities and differences.

     The four world premières on a Blue Griffin Recordings CD featuring Joseph Lulloff on saxophone and Yu-Lien The on piano are also packed with similar and different elements, but here the differences are more apparent than the similarities. New Stories for Alto Saxophone and Piano (2013) by Dorothy Chang has four movements intended to explore Eastern and Western influences and, to some extent, conflate them. “Floating Worlds” builds to increasing complexity as it progresses, then returns to the simplicity of its opening. “A Tall Tale Told” has a sense of stop-and-start rhythm (or tale-telling) in which flowing and shrill elements combine. “Reflection” is mostly given over to the saxophone, which is reflective more in the thoughtful sense than in that of a mirror. “Folksong” concludes the suite with intricate rhythms and a more-upbeat tempo for both instruments than is present in the other movements. Detroit Steel (2019) by David Biedenbender is a single-movement work that almost has overtones of musique concrète – it is for unaccompanied saxophone and gives Lulloff plenty of opportunities to explore his instrument’s range, rhythmic qualities and differing sound capabilities. Wrath (2019) by Stacy Garrop is in three movements called “Menace,” “Shock” and “Amok,” and uses the saxophone in some very interesting ways: it actually growls in the first movement, sounds a bit tipsy (if not “shocky”) in the second, and zips about like an out-of-control clarinet in the third (although it is somewhat too controlled to be said to be running amok). Last on the CD is Carter Pann’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano (2016), a highly varied and frequently intriguing work that is not really tightly knit enough to be called a sonata but is more along the lines of a suite. Certainly it flits through many moods, many tempo changes and many forms of required virtuosity for Lulloff (the saxophone is very definitely the lead instrument here). The first movement, “The Black Cat,” is more emphatic and dramatic than feline. The second is a collection of “Three Songs Without Words,” the first pleasant and rather sweet, the second partly frenetic and partly gentle, the third slow and heartfelt. The third movement, “Cuppa Joe,” is short (less than two minutes) but contains enough notes for triple its length – a veritable barrage of them, tumbling over each other in what seems to be a hyper-caffeinated frenzy. The finale is an in memoriam movement called “Epilogue: Lacrimosa in memory of Joel Hastings,” and remembers a close friend of the composer more with wistfulness and regret than with deep grief. Pann’s work as a whole is multifaceted and not really cohesive, but Lulloff follows its every twist and turn, and The, to the extent possible with a comparatively limited piano part, is supportive and engaged as well. This piece is, in effect, a microcosm of the entire CD, neatly showcasing the many capabilities of the saxophone and of Lulloff’s abilities – a treat for fans of this specific instrument and of contemporary music written for it, even though the works themselves never really attain (or appear to seek) any significant level of communicative profundity along the lines of those by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.

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