October 12, 2023


Schubert: Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899, and Op. posth. 142, D. 935. Gerardo Teissonnière, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Viola Dinescu: Solo Violin Works. Irina Muresanu, violin. Métier. $18.99.

Music for Quarter-Tone Accordion. Lore Amenabar Larrañaga, accordion. Métier. $18.99.

     The list of great composers who died in their 30s is dishearteningly long: Bellini at 33, Mozart at 35, Bizet and Purcell at 36, Mendelssohn and Gershwin at 38, Chopin and Weber at 39 – and Schubert at 31. Yet Schubert, like Mozart, was amazingly prolific and matured in remarkable ways in his last works, even though his earlier ones had already shown a sure mastery of form and expression. The eight Impromptus – two sets of four – that Schubert wrote the year before his death, in 1827, have become foundations of the piano repertoire and summations of Schubert’s keyboard thinking and innovation. Despite their title, the works are less improvisatory in feeling than similarly labeled ones written around the same time by Liszt, Marschner, Czerny, Moscheles and others. They do, however, fit within the concept of self-contained piano pieces – especially the D. 899 quartet. The D. 935 works share more elements of connection among them (such as the first and last both being in F minor) and have some characteristics of a sonata – one example among many of Schubert blurring structural boundaries in the service of his communicative concerns. The complete set of Schubert’s Impromptus gets a stunning performance by Gerardo Teissonnière on a new Steinway & Sons CD. The works’ contrast of boldness and delicacy, their frequent songlike elements, and their melodic lyricism all come through clearly in these readings, with the pieces’ beauty taking precedence throughout over their unusual qualities (examples: Op. 90, No. 1 starts in minor and ends in major, while No. 2 starts in major and ends in minor; Op. 90, No. 3 is in the rarely used key of G-flat major and is Schubert’s only instrumental work in that key). Intimacy and poetic sensibility are the watchwords here as Teissonnière negotiates the works’ technical complexities without apparent effort, staying always focused on the depth of their emotional expression. The second set of Impromptus is more substantial than the first (42 minutes vs. 31 in Teissonnière’s performances) and includes a lovely theme-and-variations movement whose theme is similar to one that Schubert used in his Rosamunde incidental music. The final work in D. 935 is fascinatingly unpredictable in accentuation and requires close attention to rhythm and complete comfort with wide swings of emotions and notes (including, at one point, a dramatic four-octave keyboard descent). One of the best things about Teissonnière’s playing is the extent to which these structural elements and demanding portions of the music fade into the background and become largely irrelevant to listeners: what matters is how the pianist absorbs the building blocks of the Impromptus and uses their complexity to reach out emotionally and touch the audience. The first-rate technique and clear intellectual understanding that underpin Teissonnière’s performances combine to produce effects that make the death of Schubert at so young an age all the more tragic.

     The piano’s range and expressive capabilities make it ideally suited for single-instrument communication, but other solo works have interesting elements of their own. Romanian composer Violeta Dinescu (born 1953) has created a number of pieces for solo violin, and Irina Muresanu offers a generous selection of them on a new (+++) Métier CD. The disc opens with the extended single-movement Aretusa, which quickly establishes Dinescu’s interest in using the violin’s highest extremes and a potpourri of technical elements in pacing, bowing and fingering to produce as wide-ranging an impression as possible. The piece is technically impressive, and Muresanu plays it very well, but listening to it in its entirety of 16½ minutes is a bit of a chore. It is followed on the disc by a six-movement suite called Vista, whose movement titles, in Italian, are intended to be evocative and perhaps a trifle mysterious: La casa è mia e non è mia, Non è vero? Non è vero? – and so on. There is no clear or obvious connection between the words and the music, but the brevity of the individual pieces, each of which explores a mood without dwelling on it, is welcome. Again, the demonstration of violin technique seems to be a major element of the individual movements and the suite as a whole: pizzicati, glissandi, slides, spiccato and more are proffered and effectively displayed in Muresanu’s playing. There is more of the same technical prowess in the service of technique in the five single-movement pieces that follow the Vista suite. They are called Satya I, Il faudrait d’abord désespérer (which translates as “we should first despair”), Für Uli, À chaque épée de lumière (which translates as “with every sword of light”), and Pour triumpher du soleil. The pieces differ in numerous significant ways, but all are cut from similar cloth in their emphasis on the technical elements of violin playing and the intellectual ones associated with listening to a thorough exploration of the instrument’s sonic capabilities. In all cases, though, any real sense of connectivity with an audience is missing: the works seem to have little to say beyond what their titles assert – and since the relationship between verbiage and sound is never made clear, the music could go as well with other titles as well as with whatever one is assigned to it. The final offering on the disc is a suite of three three-minute pieces collected as De-ale Lupului, which translates from Romanian as “of the wolf.” Once again, despite the title, there is nothing particularly lupine about the material here: it requires considerable skill in everything from double stopping to production of harmonics, but its most-intriguing element is the sudden brief, inexplicable intrusion of human voices amid the violin phrases. Violinists will find Muresanu’s playing well worth contemplating, perhaps even emulating in comparable repertoire, but more-casual listeners will not find a great deal here with which they will be able to connect.

     Another (+++) Métier release offers even-more-rarefied single-instrument sound. It includes eight 21st-century pieces – all written between 2020 and 2023 – for quarter-tone accordion, an instrument whose sound requires even more openness to unusual aural experiences than does that of a violin pushed to its sonic limits. Lore Amenabar Larrañaga has quite clearly mastered this accordion and its quirks, so the question for listeners will be whether they will enjoy or be moved by the sounds emanating from the instrument – whether it sounds like an ordinary accordion, as it does in some of these pieces, or like something more otherworldly, as it does in the works that exploit quarter-tone capabilities to a greater degree. The CD’s first work, Fleeting Puddles by Claudia Molitor (born 1974), is comparatively straightforward aurally; Barafostus Dreame by David Gorton (born 1978), on the other hand, goes out of its way to highlight this accordion’s sonic abilities. My Time Is Your Time by Donald Bousted (1957-2021) has some attractively bouncy quick-step material that, however, is repeatedly interrupted by silences and somewhat foghorn-like sounds. Feast by Mioko Yokoyama (born 1989) wants the accordion to be a percussion instrument: persistent struck woodblock-like sounds are intermingled with a somewhat dancelike rhythm. Permissible Self-Expression by Michael Finnissy (born 1946), at 17 minutes the longest work on the disc, also uses percussive elements and extended silences, while having the accordion itself sound more like electronics than a wind-and-keyboard instrument. Die Stimme der Stadt by Christopher Fox (born 1955) features extended atonal chords forming a kind of sound cloud. Crystalline Air by Electra Perivolaris (born 1996), in contrast, uses individual notes in an extended line that is much-interrupted by silences. Finally, L’eaurelle by Veli Kujala (born 1976) – the shortest work here, running less than five minutes – uses a more-conventional mixture of chordal elements and individual notes, but within a context of atonality as well as the employment of quarter-tone capabilities. The accordion itself is an acquired taste for many audiences, and the quarter-tone tuning makes it even more so. But actually, the works here are by and large typical of contemporary single-instrument music in their exploration of what can be done by a solo player in a modern compositional world where most rules, if not all, have been twisted and reinterpreted, if not discarded. No work on this disc stands out as particularly impressive or worthy of multiple rehearings, but Larrañaga’s playing makes it clear that she respects and appreciates all of them; and for listeners already interested in up-to-the-minute compositions, and with a taste (or an ear) for solo playing on a less commonly heard instrument, the CD will certainly be of considerable interest.

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