September 28, 2023


Harry Ore: Piano Works based on Eastern and Latvian Folk Tunes. Zhaoyi Long, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Villa-Lobos: Valsa da dor for solo piano; João de Souza Lima: Chorinho for viola and piano; Osvaldo Lacerda: Appassionato, Cantilena, e Toccata for viola and piano; Ernani Aguiar: Meloritmas No. 5 for solo viola; Lindembergue Cardoso: Pequeno Estudio for solo viola; Brenno Blauth: Sonata for viola and piano; Chiquinha Gonzaga: Lua branca from the operetta “O Forrobodó.” Georgina Isabel Rossi, viola; Silvie Cheng, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Britten: Eight Folksong Arrangements for High Voice and Harp; Vaughan Williams: Along the Field; Ivor Gurney: Five Elizabethan Songs; Roger Quilter: Four Songs, Op. 14; Gerald Finzi: Let Us Garlands Bring, Op. 18. Scott Robert Shaw, tenor; Emilie Bastens, harp; Eva de Vries, violin; Luba Podgayskaya, William Drakett, and James Williams, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

     Composers can carry listeners to pretty much any geographic area. They do not have to visit the locations themselves to do so if they study and absorb a region’s music and culture and then incorporate them into their own compositional creations. There are nowadays all sorts of overdone worries about “cultural appropriation” in such circumstances, as if only people from a particular place can create and/or perform music from or associated with that place. But again and again, audiences worldwide are enriched by exposure to music from regions with which they may not be familiar – and it is at best an academic point to argue, for example, whether Brahms or Bartók is a “better” composer when it comes to the use of Hungarian melodies and rhythms. Thus, it will hopefully be possible to enjoy the piano works of Harry Ore (1885-1972) on an MSR Classics CD without twisting oneself into knots wondering about levels of “authenticity” associated with them. Ore was Latvian, so the three pieces here that are derived from Latvian folk tunes draw on his own background. First Rhapsody and Second Rhapsody are both variegated works with nicely contrasting sections that range from the bright and dancelike to the more-serious and often surprisingly dissonant. The third Latvian-derived piece, Two Bagatelles, neatly contrasts a short and sweet Adagio cantabile with an even shorter, bright and very catchy Prestissimo. Zhaoyi Long plays all the works with enthusiasm and a particularly strong emphasis on their rhythmic intensity (sometimes, however, bordering on pounding the keyboard). But the Latvian material makes up less than half of this disc. The rest draws on Ore’s wide-ranging travel throughout the Orient – to China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and especially Hong Kong and Macau, where he eventually settled and lived for more than half a century. Long plays a fair selection of the music that Ore wrote based on the folk songs and melodies of these lands. South China Fantasy: The Lady and the Flowerseller, Op. 17, No. 1 has a clear Oriental cast to its tunes and rhythms, but its overall impression is that of a pleasant salon-like miniature. Five South Chinese Folksongs, Op. 17, No. 2 includes straightforwardly harmonized, rather foursquare presentations of the melodies, with the delicate scene-painting of The Autumnal Moon as Seen from a Palace and the amusing stop-and-start motion of The Hungry Horse Rings the Bell being especially attractive. Two Southern Chinese Melodies, Op. 18, are quite short and nicely contrasted, the impressionistic A Thunderstorm in Fair Weather seeming, however, to be more of a gentle spring shower. Macau Lullaby, Op. 19, is quite slow and quiet and lacks any real sense of exoticism within its tenderness. The most-interesting of these pieces is the four-movement Concert Suite Based on Oriental Music, Op. 23, whose movements draw, respectively, on Japan, South China, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Here Ore does a fine job of absorbing the nations’ varying musical elements and making them his own through arrangements that explore but do not exploit the sounds he encountered and lived with during his travels and residences. The overall impression of the CD is of pleasant, nicely played salon music with some unusual thematic, harmonic and rhythmic elements – nothing overly challenging to the ear, but a well-performed recital of not-quite-trifles that draw effectively on a variety of geographical and cultural sources.

     The specific source is Brazil for the music on a Navona disc featuring Georgina Isabel Rossi and Silvie Cheng – and that means, not surprisingly, the inclusion of a work by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959). But the solo-piano Valsa da dor is deliberately placed midway through the disc, as the fourth of seven pieces, so that the recording essentially revolves around its best-known composer but does not over-emphasize him. The five-and-a-half-minute piece itself is a nicely harmonized, rather melancholic dance that sways gently and does not rigidly adhere to any specific dance rhythm; Cheng plays it with good pacing and fluid rhythm. Villa-Lobos is the only composer on the CD who will likely be familiar to most listeners. The disc, which intermingles solo and dual-instrument pieces throughout, opens with Chorinho for viola and piano by João de Souza Lima (1898-1982). This is a well-proportioned duet in which the viola is more lyrical, the piano more acerbic. Next is Appassionato, Cantilena, e Toccata for viola and piano by Osvaldo Lacerda (1927-2011). The work’s three movements reflect their titles almost too precisely – not quite to the point of parody, but certainly to that of precision labeling. Then there is Meloritmas No. 5 for solo viola by Ernani Aguiar (born 1950). The piece’s three movements give Rossi ample opportunity to explore the sonic and expressive capabilities of her instrument and engage with sonorities that run the gamut from expressive to incisive. The Villa-Lobos solo-piano piece follows, after which there is Pequeno Estudio for solo viola by Lindembergue Cardoso (1939-1989). This proves to be a work that employs silence to the same extent as sound, and that engages more with string technique than with any particular attempt at audience connection. In contrast, Sonata for viola and piano by Brenno Blauth (1931-1993) is in traditional three-movement form and, while scarcely eschewing modern compositional elements, does seem designed to communicate with listeners while also giving the performers something of a workout in the outer movements – this and the Villa-Lobos piece are the most appealing on the disc. The CD concludes with a two-minute encore in the form of an operetta excerpt called Lua branca, by Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1936) – arranged by the performers. It has a stronger flavor of Brazil than anything else on the disc except for the Villa-Lobos item, and makes for a pleasant conclusion to a recording that gives some insight into Brazilian composers but less into the influence on them of Brazilian folk or indigenous material.

     The musical flavor is entirely British on a new Divine Art CD featuring tenor Scott Robert Shaw performing no fewer than 30 songs in five cycles, mostly folksong-inspired. Art song is always a specialty item, so it is no surprise that these works are not particularly well-known even though several of their composers certainly are. The disc opens, however, with some less-than-familiar material: Five Elizabethan Songs by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). Shaw quickly establishes his bona fides with clear pronunciation, accurate accentuation, and warm expression that does not overdo vibrato – the straightforward declamation fits these settings well. The third and shortest song, Under the Greenwood Tree, with its bouncy piano introduction (played by Luba Podgayskaya), is especially pleasant. Each song cycle here gives Shaw a different accompanist. Gurney’s set is followed by Vaughan Williams’ Along the Field, which has eight parts, four of them lasting fewer than 90 seconds each; here the accompaniment is provided by violinist Eva de Vries. The voice-and-violin mixture produces an unusual sonority, and Vaughan Williams’ restraint in use of the instrument means that some of the songs are almost spoken, albeit with singsong delivery. The amount of dissonance in some songs, such as The Half-Moon Westers Low and The Sigh That Heaves the Grass, is somewhat surprising, although not out of keeping in works of this vintage (1927); and the use of the violin is quite nicely proportioned, from its near-absence in some songs to its importance in complementing the voice in Good-Bye and Fancy’s Knell. This cycle contrasts interestingly with Four Songs, Op. 14 by Roger Quilter (1877-1953). Here Shaw’s accompanist is pianist William Drakett, who is particularly sensitive to the scene-setting that is given over to his instrument. A kind of quiet melancholy pervades this cycle, and Shaw nicely conveys the sense of longing underlining the mood. Next on the disc is its most intriguing offering, Britten’s Eight Folksong Arrangements for High Voice and Harp, with Shaw accompanied by Emilie Bastens. Like Vaughan Williams in his voice-and-violin songs, Britten clearly intends the unusual instrumentation of this cycle to contribute significantly to its impact, and so it does: the gently lilting harp envelops the voice throughout without ever competing with it. The songs in which voice and harp seem to go in different directions (Lemady, Bird Scarer’s Song) are especially interesting, but those in which the harp plays an additive emotional role (I Was Lonely and Forlorn, David of the White Rock) are equally effective in a different way. The CD concludes with Let Us Garlands Bring, Op. 18 by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956); here the pianist is James Williams. The mood of these five songs is mostly on the dour side, although Who Is Sylvia and O Mistress Mine, the shortest song settings, offer at least a degree of bright contrast. There is enough similarity among most of the cycles to make this disc a treat for aficionados of folksong-based art song and interpretations in general, and 20th-century British music in particular. Listeners who enjoy the chance to be immersed in this nation’s folk material and this compositional time period will be more than pleased by the disc – and although that means the CD will have only limited appeal, it also indicates that it will be accepted enthusiastically by members of that specific audience.

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