September 07, 2023


Ponchielli: Piano Music. Ester Fusar Poli, piano. Brilliant Classics. $12.99.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: 24 Negro Melodies—Nos. 1, 3, 4, 8, 12 and 13; Ulysses Kay: 8 Inventions; Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: Toccata; Nnenna Ogwo: Benediction; Brahms: Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004, arranged for the left hand alone. Nnenna Ogwo, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Valerie Coleman: Fanmi Imèn; Amy Beach: Three Browning Songs; Lili Boulanger: D’un matin de printemps; Delphine von Schauroth: Sechs Lieder ohne Worte; Shulamit Ran: Birds of Paradise. Virginia Broffitt Kunzer, flute; Tammie Walker, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) remains a musical figure of considerable significance in his native city, Cremona, and to a lesser extent throughout Italy. But elsewhere, he is something of a one-hit wonder – actually a fraction of one hit – known for his grand tragic opera La Gioconda and specifically for the light, frothy finale of Act III, the ballet Dance of the Hours. A chance to hear music by Ponchielli outside his specialty in the opera realm is unusual and welcome, and while it would be particularly intriguing to explore his band music – he wrote more than 200 pieces for wind band, including the first-ever concerto for euphonium – a dip into his piano works is also refreshing. This is not to say, however, that the pieces played by Ester Fusar Poli on a new Brilliant Classics release are in any sense undiscovered gems. They are nicely made salon or more-or-less-salon pieces that lie well on the piano and feature some interesting adaptations of operatic approaches to the keyboard, but none of them is genuinely striking. To the extent that any of these mostly brief selections share a sensibility, it is a funerary one, heard in Elegia, Add 9; Elegia, Op. 92; Elegia funebre in onore de Felice Frasi (Ponchielli’s composition teacher); and Marcia funebre per i funerali di Francesco Lucca (a well-known Cremonese publisher). This last is by far the longest work on the disc, lasting nearly 16½ minutes, but it plumbs no greater depths in that time frame than do the shorter pieces. (Ponchielli did have something of a preoccupation with funerary music, even writing a Marcia funebre for himself.) Ponchielli was himself a pianist, but none of these works explores the instrument in unexpected ways – they are workmanlike pieces but little more. There are some small pieces here that lighten the overall mood of the CD, including Tutti ebbri, Improvviso, Gavotte poudrée, Saltellina-polka, and La staffetta di Gambolò, but none of them is especially distinctive or inventive, although all are uniformly well-constructed. The best-known piece on the disc is a shortened version of Dance of the Hours for keyboard, and it sounds fine on piano, but rather thin compared with its familiar orchestral version. The other works on the CD are Il primo affetto, Op. 94; Amicizia, Op. 95; T’amerò sempre, Op. 87; and Notturno,Op. 93. There is nothing here that will prompt listeners to wish for a revival of Ponchielli’s non-operatic music, although it is always worthwhile to be reminded that even a composer whose reputation rests on a single piece created a considerable amount of music in addition to the one work that brought him lasting fame.

     The works played by pianist Nnenna Ogwo on an MSR Classics release are also mostly brief, but they cover a wider emotional range than do those of Ponchielli. The excerpts from 24 Negro Melodies by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) are by turns impassioned and lyrical, with No. 1, At the Dawn of the Day, and No. 3, Take Nabandji, relying on contrasts of mood for their effects, while No. 4, They Would Not Lend Me a Child, uses a gentle, rocking rhythm to good effect. No. 8, The Bamboula, is a brightly rhythmic dance; No. 12, Don’t Be Weary, Traveler, is expressive and heartfelt; and No. 13, Going Up, is pensive and rhythmically irregular. Contrasts also abound in 8 Inventions by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995). The influence of Bach peeks through often in each one-to-two-minute work, while the harmonies are those of the 20th century without being insistently dissonant or aurally over-demanding. Scherzando has some especially notable étude-like qualities; Grave and Larghetto hint at emotional depths without delving fully into them; and the two Moderato entries effectively serve as intermezzos. Also here is a short Toccata by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), with somewhat more acerbic harmonies and dissonances and multiple flickering rhythmic changes. Ogwo (born 1970) offers her own Benediction for Piano, which is soft, gentle and lullaby-like in its soothing rhythms. The disc concludes with its longest work by far, and the one associated with composers of much greater fame than any others on the CD. Yet the piece itself is a rarity: it is Brahms’ arrangement for left hand of the 16-minute Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004. This movement, in D minor, is the most famous of all those in Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for violin solo – and Brahms the pianist arranged it for left hand alone to try to approximate the framework of the original, restricted as it was by the inherent capabilities of the violin. There is a much-better-known Busoni arrangement of the Chaconne, but Brahms in his work was seeking neither virtuosity nor elaboration – he was trying, pianistically, to approximate the world of the small four-stringed instrument through whose intimacy Bach communicated so many thoughts, feelings and expressions. Ogwo’s inclusion of this massive and profound work with so many smaller and less ambitious ones is somewhat curious, although she plays the Brahms with the same attentiveness and focus on detail that she brings to rest of the music here. Indeed, the Brahms arrangement overshadows the remainder of the disc, whose smaller and more-obvious pieces pale before the careful construction and reverential nature of Brahms’ handling of the Chaconne. The result is a somewhat uneven CD that displays Ogwo’s performance skill throughout, yet offers a compilation of musical thoughts that work well enough individually but do not meld particularly well in terms of producing a coherent overall effect.

     The unevenness of another MSR Classics CD, this one pairing piano with flute, is largely a matter of intention: the composers heard here date from one born in 1814 to several who are still working today. The stylistic incongruities of the material exist because the disc’s focus is on the composers’ gender – a not-uncommon organizational technique for some recordings, but not one that does much to help listeners focus on the music. Virginia Broffitt Kunzer and Tammie Walker themselves arranged two of the works here: Three Browning Songs by Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Sechs Lieder ohne Worte by Delphine von Schauroth (1814-1887). Both the pieces are collections of small parts, and in both cases the arrangements are handled with pleasant professionalism and a good sense of balance between the wind instrument and the percussive one. Beach’s work was written for high voice, and its vocal line translates almost directly to the flute – listeners who know Robert Browning’s poems will be able to hear their cadences clearly in the flute part. Von Schauroth’s six pieces, on the other hand, were designed from the start as songs without words in the Mendelssohn manner; here the performers’ arrangement balances the two instruments more evenly than in Beach’s work. Both Beach’s piece (which dates to 1899-1900) and von Schauroth’s are firmly rooted in Romantic sensibilities, and both offer lyrical expressiveness compressed within a series of small packages: the individual movements stand on their own while also coming across effectively as parts of a larger whole. Von Schauroth’s gently lilting Innig und seelenvoll and its interestingly contrasted and more-dramatic successor, Rasch und feurig, are especially appealing. There is one other multi-movement piece here: Birds of Paradise by Shulamit Ran (born 1949). It is in three movements that, unsurprisingly, offer a distinct “birds” focus through the flute part. The slow middle movement, which is the longest of the three, proves particularly interesting, using aspects of the flute’s lower range in combination with a very spare piano part to produce a rather sinuous feeling of mystery. The other works on the CD are individual ones rather than groupings. Fanmi Imèn (“Human Family” in Haitian Creole) by Valerie Coleman (born 1970) is delicate, Impressionistic and expressive. D’un matin de printemps (“Of a Spring morning”) by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) produces a clear feeling of awakening and growth. And there are two pieces here by Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931). Allegro Rustico is bright, perky and restless, the instruments skipping along as if on a brisk walk that constantly sounds as if it will soon become a dance. Sounds of the Forest is more traditionally Impressionistic in its representational sounds of birds (flute) and various small earthbound creatures (piano). All the performances are enthusiastic and nicely balanced, and although the differing styles of the music make hearing the disc straight through occasionally jarring, no discomfort of any kind is evident in the playing: it is always assured, rhythmically aware and emotionally sensitive. Since the pieces are presented in no particular order and do not match stylistically or chronologically, this is one of those discs most effective if heard a bit at a time, so the listener can pay attention to the music’s communicativeness and the effectiveness of the presentation rather than to the gender of the composers.

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