June 06, 2024

(++++) TWO AT A TIME

Elgar: Violin Sonata in E Minor; Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Luíz Barbosa: Romance for Violin and Piano; Ivan Moody: Ascent for Violin and Piano; Ravel: Tzigane—Rapsodie de Concert for Violin and Piano. Bruno Monteiro, violin; João Paulo Santos, piano. Et’cetera Records. $15.

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Promenade “Walking the Dog”; Lili Boulanger: Nocturne et Cortège; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—excerpts; Debussy: Rapsodie; Milhaud: Scaramouche; Ravel: Vocalise-Étude en Forme de Habanera; Jean Françaix: Cinq Danses Exotiques. Andreas Mader, saxophones; Joseph Moog, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

     The pleasant, often intricate dualities of music invite particularly trenchant exploration in the form of duets – sometimes pieces composed specifically for two performers, sometimes ones arranged so two players can delve into them together. When works are well-presented for their complementarity and contrast, both approaches can be highly successful. A new Et’cetera Records release featuring a balanced, thoughtful collaboration between violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos explores pieces written for their instruments – including two world première recordings, one of them of a piece dedicated to Monteiro. Elgar’s 1918 Violin Sonata in E Minor, which opens the recital, is an introspective, crepuscular work, its pervasive melancholy likely explaining why it is not among the composer’s more-popular compositions. The strangely hesitant central movement, although labeled Romance, is particularly uncertain in approach, although Monteiro and Santos plumb its underlying lyricism to good effect once they uncover it. The elegance of the concluding Allegro non troppo is the most-attractive element here, even though the movement’s flow is repeatedly interrupted, as if Elgar pulls his thoughts up short from time to time. Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano is from the same time period (1917) and was the composer’s last major composition. It shares some of the atmosphere of Elgar’s work (Debussy’s piece is in G minor, Elgar’s in E minor) but is more compressed, atmospheric and intermittently passionate. Monteiro and Santos take an expansive view of the sonata: the opening Allegro vivo, in particular, is paced quite moderately, generating considerable expressiveness. The dissonant, cadenza-like portions of the central movement, quite aptly labeled fantasque et léger, make a particularly strong impression in this performance, and the passionate elements of the finale come through quite well. The remaining works on this interestingly multifaceted CD are single-movement ones. Romance for Violin and Piano by Luíz Barbosa (1887-1952) is one of the disc’s world premières. A pleasant three-and-a-half-minute bit of salon-like expressiveness, it is enjoyable but not particularly memorable. Ascent for Violin and Piano by Ivan Moody (1963-2024), the other première and the work dedicated to Monteiro, is considerably more extended (12 minutes) and strongly contrasting in sensibility: while Barbosa is concerned mainly with how the violin and piano combine, Moody is much more interested in how they contrast – at times they seem to play independently of each other, coming together almost as if by coincidence. Moody’s contemporary harmonic language also contrasts strongly with the Romantic one of Barbosa. Moody’s piece does not really sustain throughout: it repeatedly sounds as if it is evaporating, only to have a phrase re-emerge from the quiet or near-quiet. It is, however, interesting for the many ways in which its approach to violin-and-piano music contrasts differs from that of Barbosa – and, for that matter, from the approaches of the other composers on this disc. The CD concludes with a work that is about the length of Moody’s but is very different in almost every way: Ravel’s Tzigane. Better known in its violin-and-orchestra form, Tzigane was originally written for violin and piano – the latter with a now-obsolete attachment called the luthéal that changed the instrument’s tone color. The music is “Gypsy-ish” in that it does not use any actual Gypsy melodies, and it gives the violinist considerable scope for expressiveness and technical display – indeed, the first half is an extended violin solo, which Monteiro plays with considerable panache. The work’s second half comes across equally well, the two performers’ melodies interwoven into a pleasant sonic tapestry that brings this very well-played disc to a highly effective conclusion.

     A new Naïve release featuring saxophonist Andreas Mader and pianist Joseph Moog also offers a potent display of the power of duets – but here that power is offered in part through works that were never intended for this particular combination. This is immediately obvious with the disc’s opening work, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which does contain important saxophone material in Ferde Grofé’s first-rate orchestration, but which was not intended specifically to feature that instrument – although the opening clarinet solo sounds just fine on sax. Mader and Moog play the adaptation by Jun Nagao with suitable flair and apparent enjoyment, and if this duet version will never supplant the original, it still makes for a pleasant listening experience for those who know the piece well and would like to hear a different “take” on it. Actually, that applies for several of the works on this CD. Lili Boulanger’s Two Pieces for Violin and Piano sounds a bit odd in Mader’s adaptation: it is not particularly difficult to play the violin part on a saxophone, but the character of the pieces changes to a much mellower one – agreeable enough but a trifle strange. The seven excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are stranger still, notably Juliet as a Young Girl and Dance of the Knights, the latter here sounding distinctly spooky. On the other hand, Mader and Moog are spot-on in their handling of Debussy’s Rapsodie for Saxophone, using a new arrangement by Mader even though the work’s original 1911 version was created for this combination of instruments (although the 1919 form, orchestrated by Jean Roger-Ducasse, is much better known). The mellow saxophone sound and delicacy of the piano blend beautifully here. They also merge and contrast to excellent effect in Milhaud’s Scaramouche suite, which the composer arranged for saxophone and orchestra or piano in 1937 after originally writing the work for piano duet. The ebullient concluding Brasileira—Mouvement de Samba gets a wonderfully bright and upbeat reading here. This stands in strong contrast to Ravel’s Vocalise-Étude en Forme de Habanera, where the saxophone’s ability to convey the human voice’s expressiveness is well-displayed. This is followed by Cinq Danses Exotiques by Jean Françaix, all of which give Mader plenty of opportunities to display the multifaceted nature of the saxophone’s communicative abilities. These little gems, 30 to 120 seconds long, may not be of much consequence musically, but as pleasantries both for listeners and for performers, they are standouts. The tiny concluding Merengue is especially notable. The CD then ends as it began, with Gershwin, as Mader and Moog offer Promenade “Walking the Dog” from the 1937 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle, Shall We Dance. It is a suitably frothy, amusing and rhythmically pleasant ending to a disc that focuses on the performers and their instrumental combination as much as it does on the music – and showcases the many enjoyable ways in which this particular duet of instruments can be mixed and matched.

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