October 05, 2023


Bach: Sarabandes from Cello Suites Nos. 1, 2 and 4; Gaspar Cassadó: Suite for Cello Solo; Elisenda Fábregas: Danses de la terra (Catalan Dances); Marin Marais: Les Voix Humaines; Marc Migó: Variacions sobre el nom de Casals; Traditional Catalan Song: El cant dels ocells. Roger Morelló Ros, cello. IBS Classical. $16.

Gerald Cohen: Voyagers; Playing for our lives; Preludes and Debka. Cassatt String Quartet (Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; Ah Ling Neu, viola; Elizabeth Anderson, cello); Narek Arutyunian, clarinet and bass clarinet; Colin Williams, trombone. Innova. $15.

Daron Hagen: Dante Fragments; Brian Holmes: There Was an Old Man; Hilary Tann: …Against the Shore; Stacy Garrop: The Solitude of Stars; Michael Scherperel: Merciles Beautè; Edgar Girtain: Three Appalachian Folk Songs. October Sky Ensemble (Brian Thorsett, tenor; John Irrera, violin; Alan Weinstein, cello; Annie Stevens, percussion). MSR Classics. $14.95.

     An interestingly conceptualized tribute to the great cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals (1876-1973), a recent IBS Classics release featuring Roger Morelló Ros (born 1993) offers excellent playing by a cellist who, like Casals, was born in Catalonia. The actual musical presence of Casals on the disc is, however, confined to the arrangement of a traditional Catalan song and Variacions sobre el nom de Casals by Marc Migó (born 1993). The arrangement of the song, whose title translates as The Song of the Birds, is actually by both Casals and Morelló Ros, and it is warm and heartfelt and thoroughly cognizant of the cello’s communicative power. The Migó work, which is in two contrasting movements, focuses as much on techniques such as pizzicato and spiccato as on the musical line, and determinedly uses the higher register of the cello to make some of its points. The connective tissue of this recital, though, is the music of Bach, whose solo sarabandes from three of his cello suites serve as punctuation points for the rest of the music: they are the second, fifth and eighth-and-last offerings on the CD. All are played with warmth and an attractively understated sense of emotive elegance that, however, is somewhat at odds with the forms of expression of some of the other music on the disc. The CD opens with the three-movement Suite for Solo Cello by Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966); the work’s opening Fantasia and bright concluding Danza are particularly attractive. Speaking of dances, Danses de la terra (Catalan Dances) by Elisenda Fábregas (born 1955) are strongly rhythmic and nicely accentuated by Morelló Ros. The bouncy-but-expressive Dansa de rondalla amorosa is particularly attractive. These dances are followed, rather oddly, by Morelló Ros’ arrangement of Les Voix Humaines by Marin Marais (1656-1728), a work originally written for viola da gamba. The gentle beauty and understated elegance of Marais’ work are highly attractive, even if the piece does not quite fit with the more-modern cello works heard here. The playing on the CD is exemplary throughout, but it is really necessary to know about the works’ connections to each other and to Casals to get the disc’s full effect: for instance, Migó’s work is based on the prelude (not the sarabande) from Bach’s first cello suite, and Cassadó was a Casals pupil. Cellists and aficionados of Casals will find considerably more of interest here than will more-casual listeners.

     The music of Gerald Cohen (born 1960) on a recent Innova release uses the cello, and other strings, both on their own in quartet form and in combination with additional instruments. Cohen uses the wider tonal palette thus made available for three works of widely varying purpose. Voyagers is a four-movement piece for string quartet with clarinet and bass clarinet, inspired by the audio included on the so-called Golden Record carried by the two Voyager spacecraft that were launched in 1977. The audio on that record is quite varied and so, as a result, is Cohen’s work. The first movement, based on Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, combines Ivesian “vastness” elements with more-energetic material. The second movement is generally quiet and thoughtful; the third is bouncy and rhythmic (it is based on a Renaissance dance); and the fourth is a kind of recollection of the first three, with the emphasis on the first and its evocation of the vast expanse of space. Strings alone are the vehicle for Playing for our lives, which was written for the Cassatt String Quartet and designed as a memorial to composers who were interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. Pervaded by themes used by composers kept in the camp or by music associated with those composers or their circumstances, the three-movement piece opens, unsurprisingly, with intensely dissonant chords, then moves through a wide range of themes, pacing and emotion, with the second movement, Brundibar, being especially warm and expressive in a manner reminiscent of Dvořák (the movement’s title refers to an opera performed by children that was very popular in Theresienstadt). The finale, again unsurprisingly, is called Dies Irae. It includes excerpts from Verdi’s Requiem and is intended as a defiant message aimed at the Nazis – but that is a “meta” commentary on the concentration camp rather than anything actually expressed there. The quartet is certainly well-meant and heartfelt, and the performers’ intensity is welcome here as it is throughout the disc. But the music consists mostly of expected gestures and commentary on a gigantic atrocity that has been explored many, many times before. It is worthy material but does not really have anything to say that has not already been said. Preludes and Debka, like Voyagers, expands the string complement, this time with a trombone. It is an intriguing single-movement, four-section work focusing on the debka, a Middle Eastern dance. From its mysterious opening to its final variations on the debka tune, the work is engaging – lighter than either of the other pieces on the CD, but all the more effective because it is less fraught with attempts to convey specific meanings through the music. All three pieces on the disc are carefully structured and well-thought-out, and all contain memorable elements. But only Preludes and Debka, the least-self-important of them, sustains well from start to finish.

     The trombone-and-strings combination is an unusual one, but the mixture on an MSR Classics release is even more so: this CD consists entirely of world première recordings of pieces for tenor, violin, cello and percussion. The sound world created by the instruments – the voice is best thought of here, in most cases, as an instrumental component – is intriguing, although the six works performed by the October Sky Ensemble are very much a mixed bag. Dante Fragments by Daron Hagen (born 1961) consists of three quietly melancholic songs, the third of which uses percussion to especially good effect. In strong contrast, There Was an Old Man by Brian Holmes (born 1946) includes no fewer than eight Edward Lear limericks in a total time of less than eight minutes. The musical structure here is voice-plus-violin; the words are more crucial than in some other works on the CD; and the humor of the verbiage is well-complemented instrumentally throughout. The plucking associated with “There was a Young Lady whose chin” is especially apt and especially funny (this young lady has her chin sharpened so she can use it to play the harp); and the falsetto opening of the particularly silly “There was an Old Person of Wick” is a highlight. The next work on the disc, …Against the Shore (the ellipsis is part of the title) by Hilary Tann (1947-2023), is much more extended (11½ minutes) and considerably more serious, indeed somewhat overly serious, in its setting of words by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Solitude of Stars by Stacy Garrop (born 1949) has some of the same otherworldly feeling as Gerald Cohen’s Voyagers, with percussive expressiveness the dominant effect here. Much more down-to-earth are the three settings of Chaucer in Merciles Beautè by Michael Scherperel (born 1947). The Middle English words, delivered in less-than-straightforward fashion, will be difficult for most listeners to fathom, but there are several well-done musical effects here, such as the unusual rhythmic use of the cello in the second and third songs. The disc concludes with Three Appalachian Folk Songs by Edgar Girtain (born 1988) – a work whose plainspoken modern words provide a strong contrast to those of Chaucer. Girtain sandwiches a very extended setting of Barbara Allen (a full 10 minutes long) between two much shorter songs (each under three minutes) – a structure that comes across as somewhat unbalanced, although it gives the instruments more opportunities for scene-setting and underlining the words in the longest song. Art songs in general, never mind ones for unusual instrumental groupings, are something of an acquired taste, and while the notable contrasts of mood on this disc keep it from becoming tedious, it turns out that Brian Holmes’ light and silly settings provide the most consistently engaging experience.

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