March 28, 2024


Grieg: Lyric Pieces (excerpts). Daniel Gortler, piano. Prospero. $23.

Music for Organ by Bach, Brahms, Franck, Widor, Louis Marchand, Michelangelo Rossi, and Joyce Jones. Barbara Bruns, organ. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Music for Viola by Lycia de Biase Bidart, Tigran Mansurian, Jeanne Behrend, Andrea Clearfield, Jessie Montgomery, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Olivier Toni, and Reena Esmali. AVS. $12.

     Although the use of multiple instruments opens up a wide range of sounds and colors with which composers can communicate their thoughts and feelings, there are times when a single instrument, sensitively used, can be every bit as effective as an ensemble. Small-scale works with a sense of intimacy are particularly congenial territory for single-instrument presentation, and Grieg’s 66 Lyric Pieces certainly fit that description. Composed during a 35-year period (1866-1901), these poetic miniatures were collected in 10 books: Opp. 12, 38, 43, 47, 54, 57, 62, 65, 68 and 71. The total set does have a circularity of sorts: Grieg reuses the theme of the opening Arietta, Op. 12, No. 1, in the concluding Remembrances, Op. 71, No. 7. But within the overall compilation of works, there is no particular structure: the pieces are musical thoughts of various kinds that sound as good independently as they do when heard as a group (or 10 groups). This circumstance has long opened the door to pianists who want to present a selection of these technically undemanding but emotionally captivating pieces – and Daniel Gortler does a particularly nice job in this regard in his recital on the Prospero label. Gortler offers 21 of the Lyric Pieces arranged simply for their individual and collective effect, not with any attempt to impose orderliness on them. Starting with Arietta, he proceeds to Berceuse, Op. 38, No. 1, to continue a similar mood, then changes impressions with March of the Trolls, Op. 54, No. 3 (here called “March of the Dwarfs” for some reason). As the recital continues, the individual works’ moods are quickly established, nicely summed up through Gortler’s sensitive playing, and then rapidly erased – so the feelings of the next piece in line can complement or contrast with the one just heard. Vanished Days, Op. 57, No. 1 is followed by Brooklet, Op. 62, No. 4; Solitary Traveller, Op. 43, No. 2; To the Spring, Op. 43, No. 6; Norwegian Dance, Op. 47, No. 4; At Your Feet, Op. 68, No. 3; Butterfly, Op. 43, No. 1; Melody, Op. 47, No. 3; Gade, Op. 57, No. 2; Album Leaf, Op. 47, No. 2; Ballad, Op. 65, No. 5; Summer’s Eve, Op. 71, No. 2; Little Bird, Op. 43, No. 4; Peasant’s Song, Op. 65, No. 2; Notturno, Op. 54, No. 4; At the Cradle, Op. 68, No. 5; Puck, Op. 71, No. 3; and finally Peace of the Woods, Op. 71, No. 4. In fact, it is the most peaceful and pleasantly lyrical of the Lyric Pieces in which Gortler excels – Album Leaf, Summer’s Eve, Notturno and Peace of the Woods are standouts. Taken as a whole, the 66 Lyric Pieces show an element of Grieg’s musical personality that remained largely unchanged for more than three decades. Gortler expertly communicates the stylistic similarities among the 21 pieces he selects, while at the same time bringing forth the small but telling ways in which Grieg differentiates each from all the others. The sensitivity with which Gortler uses the piano’s communicative potential makes this a disc full of warmth and beauty.

     Although activated by a keyboard, the organ is essentially a wind instrument, just as the piano is in the percussion family because its sound is produced by hammers striking strings. The organ, though, has so many sound worlds within its pipes and registrations that it can sound like a collection of instruments rather than a single one. Barbara Bruns brings out much of the organ’s coloristic potential on an MSR Classics CD that includes music ranging from the 17th century to the 21st – all of it fitting the instrument very well despite the many stylistic differences among the pieces. Unsurprisingly, the composer whose works take up the largest portion of the disc is Bach: Bruns plays the Chorale Prelude, BWV 662, “Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr" and the Prelude & Fugue in E flat, BWV 552, “St Anne,” with care and sensitivity. These are not back-to-back offerings, however: like Gortler’s CD, Bruns’ is a personal exploration, in her case one that spans centuries and moves back and forth through time to provide complementarity and contrast throughout the disc. Thus, the CD opens not with Bach but with the uplifting and strongly rhythmic Grand Dialogue by Louis Marchand (1669-1732). Then, after Bach’s Allein Gott, Bruns plays Toccata Settima by Michelangelo Rossi (c. 1602-1656), finding in this work a compelling mixture of uplift and virtuosity. Next Bruns offers a short piece by Brahms, who is scarcely thought of as a composer for the organ but whose very last compositions were for the instrument. It is one of those pieces offered here: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, Op. 122, No. 5. This is a work of elegance and simplicity with a pervasive churchlike feeling about it, even though Brahms was scarcely a traditionally religious person. Next on Bruns’ program is Franck’s Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18, less emotional than Brahms’ work but more substantial. After this comes the most-recent piece on the CD, Improvisation on "Aka Tonbo" (Red Dragonfly) by Joyce Jones (1933-2022). The piece somewhat surprisingly shares some of the sensibilities of that by Brahms, although its harmonies are considerably more modern (but scarcely avant-garde). Bruns then concludes her presentation with two excerpts from the organ symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor: the Andante from No. 9 and the Toccata from No. 5. The former is elegant and heartfelt, the latter ebullient and more propulsive than anything else on the disc – it is scarcely surprising that this movement is so well-known. The sincerity of feeling that Bruns communicates throughout the disc is matched by the sensitivity of her playing and her understanding of the various composers’ stylistic approaches. The back-and-forth of concepts and eras does somewhat undermine the overall effectiveness of this (+++) release, however, depriving it of the sort of emotive unity that Gortler elicits from his Grieg recital. Yet Bruns’ combination of lyricism and expressiveness will be highly attractive to listeners who enjoy hearing a mixture of more-familiar and less-known organ works.

     All the music is unfamiliar on a new recording from the American Viola Society – and the attraction here is only partly in the works themselves, the balance coming from the opportunity to hear multiple pieces focusing on the viola, which remains less often heard in solo works than the violin or cello. Four of the eight pieces on this (+++) CD are for solo viola, one is for viola duo, and three are for viola and piano – and the eight works are all played by different violists, giving audiences a chance to hear the similarities and differences among multiple performers’ styles. Unfortunately, the pieces themselves are not especially distinctive, even though all use the viola well and give performers plenty of chances to show their expressiveness as well as virtuosity. The four solo-viola works are the most interesting in the ways they explore the instrument’s capabilities. They are Rhapsody No. 1 by Jessie Montgomery (played by Alyssa Warcup), Fantasy for Solo Viola by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (played by Mary Moran), Improviso para Viola Solo by Olivier Toni (played by Rafael Videira), and Varsha (Rain) by Reena Esmail (played by Vijay Chalasani). Toni’s brief work, which lasts less than two minutes, is as expressive as the other three, which are three to four times as long. As for the other pieces here, Lachrymae by Tigran Mansurian offers some interesting two-viola elements (it is played by the Tallā Rouge Duo). The three viola-and-piano pieces are Viola do Céu by Lycia de Biase Bidart (played by Fabio Saggin and Mauren Frey), Lamentation for Viola and Piano by Jeanne Behrend (played by Jacob Adams and Paul Lee), and Convergence for Viola and Piano by Andrea Clearfield (played by Sheila Browne and Julie Nishimura). Bidart’s piece is the most warmly lyrical work on the CD and hews most closely to the traditional emotional evocativeness of the viola. At just over two minutes, it is the second-shortest work on the disc; Clearfield’s piece, which runs 12½ minutes, is the longest and in some ways the most self-consciously contemporary – more in the piano’s part than in the viola’s. Certainly there are recognizable stylistic differences among the composers – and recognizable performance differences among the violists. The disc as a whole, though, comes across as offering material of no great emotional range and no particularly compelling performance characteristics. On the other hand, all the pieces are well-made and thoughtful, and all the performances are nicely proportioned and fit the music well. This CD may not reach out to a wide audience, but it will likely have significant appeal to violists and those intrigued by contemporary approaches to music, especially solo music, for the instrument.

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