May 02, 2024


Korngold: Suite from “Much Ado about Nothing”; Franz Waxman: Four Scenes of Childhood; Robert Russell Bennett: Hexapoda—Five Studies in Jitteroptera; Heinz Roemheld: Sonatina for Violin and Piano; Jerome Moross: Recitative and Aria for Violin and Piano; Bernard Herrmann: Pastoral (Twilight); Miklós Rózsa: Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song. Patrick Savage, violin; Martin Cousin, piano. Quartz. $18.99.

Edward Cowie and Laura Chislett: Improvisations. Laura Chislett, flutes; Edward Cowie, piano. Métier. $16.

Nicola LeFanu: The Same Day Dawns; Sextet; Piano Trio; The Moth-Ghost. Gemini conducted by Ian Mitchell. Métier. $16.

     The notion that creating works for the film industry is somehow “less” than writing for the concert hall is so deeply ingrained in music circles that very fine composers have again and again felt it necessary to assert their bona fides as “serious” musicians despite being known primarily for works intended for inclusion in movies. Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) felt this dichotomy of expectation and reputation more intensely than most, to such an extent that he created the pseudonym Nic Tomay for his film music and, when he eventually wrote his autobiography, titled it Double Life. But as a new Quartz CD called “The Golden Age of Hollywood” shows, Rózsa and many other film composers were quite as capable in more-classical forms as they were in works too often disparaged (often quite wrongly) as “movie music.” Rózsa’s own contribution to the disc, Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, shows a fine sense not only of style but also of balance between the instruments: the violin tends to dominate, but the piano provides a strong foundation, solidity, and enough flourishes to keep the folk material well-grounded. Patrick Savage and Martin Cousin tackle the music with relish as well as skill; indeed, they seem genuinely to enjoy all the pieces on this very interesting CD, on which the Rózsa work is the conclusion. The disc opens with the four-movement Suite from “Much Ado about Nothing” by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), which is intended to illustrate four specific scenes and does so quite adeptly, whether in the amusingly off-kilter (and parodistically Mahlerian) March of the Watch (Dogberry and Verges) or in the suitable sweetness of Garden Scene. This is followed on the CD by Four Scenes of Childhood by Franz Waxman (1906-1967). The opening Good Morning, most of which lies very high on the violin, introduces a set of wistful portrayals that are something less than saccharine thanks to their frequent dissonances and intriguing instrumental effects – notably in the less-than-a-minute long Playtime. Next on the disc is Hexapoda by Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), famed for orchestrating Broadway shows including Show Boat and Oklahoma! Bennett was also chosen by Rachmaninoff’s widow to complete the unfinished two-piano reduction of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Hexapoda, its title notwithstanding, is in five rather than six movements, and is packed with the jazzlike elements implied by the subtitle, Five Studies in Jitteroptera. Bennett – who, it is worth noting, worked with Gershwin – does not hesitate to create wonderful fiddling material for the violin (in Jane Shakes Her Hair), or to let the piano compete with and complement the violin (in Jim Jives). The result is a wholly delightful set of short exploratory romps that need no visuals to create scenes in a listener’s mind’s eye. The next two composers on this frequently fascinating disc are not as well-known as Rózsa, Korngold, Waxman or Bennett. Heinz Roemheld (1901-1985) is represented by a serious and well-proportioned Sonatina for Violin and Piano with an eerie second movement (Sempre senza vibrato) that contrasts well with a scurrying finale (Very fast). Jerome Moross (1913-1983) offers a Recitative and Aria that, like Roemheld’s piece, is decidedly on the serious side, filled with irregular rhythms and a fantasia-like structure that dips briefly into lyricism and keeps the violin as the dominant voice throughout. The penultimate work on the disc (before the conclusion by Rózsa) is Pastoral (Twilight) by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), who will always be identified with his music for Psycho but who here shows his ability to create exceptionally tender crepuscular music flavored with just enough dissonance to prevent it from sounding cloying. Savage and Cousin prove themselves to be strong advocates for all the music on the CD, and in so doing encourage appreciation of all these works on their own terms, without regard to typecasting of the composers.

     There are also two performers on a new Métier CD with the title “In Two Minds,” but the duality here goes deeper, since the same duo of Edward Cowie and Laura Chislett that performs the eight works on the disc also created them. The two call themselves “Duo Menurida,” the second word being the Latin family name of the Australian lyrebird. And that bit of exotic esotericism is only one element of this joint venture. The pieces heard on the disc reflect both composer/performers’ interests in nature in Cowie’s homeland of Great Britain and Chislett’s of Australia. All the works are improvisatory excursions into a shared mindspace that is accessible only in broad terms to an audience beyond Cowie and Chislett themselves. The pieces’ titles reflect inspirations of greater or lesser specificity: Pre Dawn and Dawn—Australian Bell Birds; Guten Morgan [sic], Herr Kandinsky! (Point and Line to Plane); Boom Time-Bitterns at Leighton Moss; New York-New York Mark Rothko-Jackson Pollock; Ornitharia (Flute Solo); Stonehenge Thunderstorm and Skylark (Solo Piano); Lake Eacham Blue; and Dusk / Night Lyrebirds. Familiarity with the specific wildlife and specific artists referenced in the titles is a requirement for reasonably full appreciation of the music, although even then, it is simply not possible for non-participants in these creation-performances to plumb the depths of the artists’ intents and feelings. It is possible simply to enjoy the various sounds of flute and piano throughout the CD – the amusing pointillism of the Kandinsky exploration, the foghorn-like evocation of bitterns, the dynamic thunderstorm impression associated with Stonehenge, and so on. Still, 55 minutes of this collaboration is a bit much, and many of the various evocations are somewhat imprecise unless, of course, one is thoroughly familiar with the inspirations and the artists’ conceptual worlds. It is hard to see this (+++) disc as being more than a self-involved, self-proclamatory bit of self-aware self-advocacy offered to a wider audience without a strong expectation that it will be fully accepted and appreciated by anyone other than Cowie and Chislett themselves. The primary thing that is evoked here is the sense that the “two minds” of Cowie and Chislett are kindred spirits in some important ways with which a wider group of potential listeners is not and cannot be fully conversant.

     There is one work for two performers on another new Métier CD, this disc devoted to music by Nicola LeFanu. It is the concluding piece on the CD, The Moth-Ghost (2020) for soprano and piano. Here the communicative intention is clear throughout: the work is based on the myth of the sea goddess Thetis, and LeFanu’s piece is a mother’s lament: Thetis bemoans, at length, the fate of Achilles, a victim of the Trojan War. Soprano Clara Barbier Serrano delivers the extended scena intensely, while pianist Aleksander Szram underlines the emotions to good effect; and if the whole thing is a bit overdone, it fits the larger-than-life mythic setting well. The other works on the disc call for more performers, all of them members of the contemporary-music ensemble Gemini. Piano Trio (2003) is a single extended movement filled with varying textures amid comparatively straightforward contemporary rhythmic and harmonic elements. Sextet (1996), also in one movement, is intended to be evocative of various natural scenes in Ireland. It features some intriguing use of percussion and an episodic structure that is designed to represent the various natural features it seeks to capture – none of which an audience unfamiliar with Ireland’s landscapes will have any way to recognize. And then there is a work that is quite different from those in one movement, being in no fewer than 17 sections: The Same Day Dawns (1974). Scored for soprano and five instruments, this piece is barely longer in totality than the sextet and trio, and it partakes of some of the same sensibilities incorporated into The Moth-Ghost nearly half a century later. The Same Day Dawns includes not only English declamation but also verses from poetry in Tamil, Chinese, Japanese, Kannada, and Akkadian. The micro-miniatures heard here – nine of which last one minute or less – get varying accompaniments, the percussive touches being the most notable, although winds and strings also figure prominently. With its combination of Sprechstimme, forthright narrative, breathy declamation and other forms of vocal delivery, the work presents a variegated totality within the thematic target expressed by its title. It is not, though, especially compelling either in content or in orchestration: LeFanu uses the instruments (including the voice) well enough but not particularly distinctively. Taken as a whole, the four pieces on this (+++) CD provide a worthwhile portrayal of this composer’s musical thinking, showing ways in which it has evolved – and failed to evolve – over a considerable time period. Existing aficionados of LeFanu are more likely to enjoy the disc than are audiences not already familiar with her work.

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