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A Grumpy Ramble

Grant Chu Covell

[July 2024.]

[A ramble wherein I stray past at least one of criticism’s cardinal boundaries, namely, to reveal more about oneself than the topic at hand.]

Luxembourg Contemporary Music 3.” Luc GRETHEN: Upswing (2016). Gast WALTZING: Princesses Don’t Grow Old (2019). Ernie HAMMES: Concertino No. 1 for Piccolo Trumpet, Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra (2019); Booboo (2017); Tuna Melt (2017/19); West End Avenue (2018/19). Catherine KONTZ: The Waves (2020). Olivier DARTEVELLE: Nouvelle Antigone (2021). Ernie Hammes (pic trpt, trpt), David Ascani (sax), Boris Schmidt (cbs), Pierre-Alain Goualch (pno), Niels Engel (perc), Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, Christoph König (cond.). Naxos 8.579138 (1 CD). (www.naxos.com).

I’m comfortable with the concept that modern refers to some unspecified time, perhaps just beyond recent memory, but probably not yesterday or today. Contemporary ought to denote today, or maybe yesterday at a stretch. In my day, contemporary also indicated content which might take time to get used to, perhaps something difficult or wholly new. (But then again, everything will be new to somebody.)

I took a spin through this release and wanted the pieces to fall into the late 1930s or maybe even the late 1960s when irony could be sparingly dispensed. However, consulting the back cover, I was astonished to note that the earliest piece comes from 2016, and that the composers were born between 1956 and ‘76. Here contemporary indicates time of creation. I was naïve to expect challenging sounds or structures.

That doesn’t mean this is a bad release in a misguided series, just don’t expect anything that will change your world. Grethen’s Upswing put me into the modern mindset, with tonality and rhythms of a 1930s ballet score. A few themes take a stroll, the orchestra shines here and there. Waltzing’s Princesses Don’t Grow Old continues the vein, maybe departing mid-century Europe for an American film score. The one-sentence program note asserts its title explains all. As much as I loathe digressive program notes (I’m a repeat offender), the declaration that music speaks for itself grates more.

Hammes swings over to the jazz side, wrapping his Concertino in Baroque parody before straying off the path. The three short pieces with descriptive titles continue the fantasy. Kontz’ The Waves launches from Woolf’s story, explicitly invoking the 1930s. I wish Kontz’ technique had been more innovative harmonically and formally. I sense the Solistes Européens struggled a bit with this one. Dartevelle returns to the not-quite-modern, not just because Antigone’s story is by Sophocles, but because the quickly moving material and modal harmonies suggest art deco motifs.

Suono.” Edith CANAT DE CHIZY: Suono (2020)1; Sailing (2020)2; Prélude et silence (2010)3; Cinq miniatures pour violon et piano (2013)4; Mobiles immobiles (1998)5; Vega (2022; arr. Duo Xamp)6; Arcanes (2021)7. Karol Mossakowski1 (org), Duo Xamp1,6,7: Fanny Vincens, Jean-Etienne Sotty (accordions), Dana Ciocarlie2,3,4 (pno), Marianne Piketty3 (vln). Signature Radio-France SIG11122 (1 CD) (www.radiofrance.com).

How did I know Canat de Chizy before this. She has two releases on Aeon: Times from 2011 and Moving from 2009. I thought I knew Aeon fairly well (having covered their Pesson, Pécou, Kagel, etc. and et al.). As a public service, here’s some notes on the 2023 Suono.

The title piece is for organ and two microtonal accordions. It’s one of the most beguiling things I’ve heard recently, especially notable as it requires human performers. Where might the organ end and the accordions begin? Such cavorting and eerie sounds.

It is a relief to hear crystalline pieces for piano (Sailing and Prélude et silence) and violin plus piano (Cinq miniatures). Perhaps I respond to the brevity, recognizing gestures that recall Debussy or Webern, the pleasure of a few nicely turned phrases, maybe the efficient development of a single idea, and then an abrupt stop before anything grows stale.

The contrast between the traditional violin and piano against the wheezing microtonal accordions could not be more invigorating. The piano and violin works might start from traditional places, but the accordion pieces are otherworldly, dispensing fresh sounds. Originally for organ, Vega is arranged for two accordions. Arcanes adds electronics to the reedy pair.

The American Project.” Michael TILSON THOMAS: You Come Here Often? (2016). Teddy ABRAMS: Piano Concerto (2022). Yuja Wang (pno), Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams (cond.). DG B0037313-02 (1 CD) (www.deutschegrammophon.com).

We start with Tilson Thomas’ appetizer, a short solo piece which might function as an encore. Then we lurch into the sprawling Abrams Concerto, a pleasant patchwork of transitional material. There are cadenzas, solos, several big group moments, but it’s not clear where we are going, or how we might know when we get there. If the imperturbable Wang weren’t in the front seat, this could be a delayed commute with backtracks and detours. Abrams can’t seem to shake Gershwin’s influence, however, that’s hardly a reason to call this “The American Project.” Yes, it makes sense that Tilson Thomas was programmed first: That tidbit would have confused following the soupy Abrams.

Seppo POHJOLA: Symphony No. 1 (2002); Symphony No. 2 (2006). Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (cond.). Alba ABCD 339 (1 CD) (www.alba.fi).

After a stealth opening which would doom airing this on most radio stations (it seems that nothing is happening for nearly a minute), No. 1’s warm textures make way for a collage of quotes (Beethoven, the Dies Irae, Stravinsky, etc.). Yet Pohjola has more going on. With confidence he offers bright and arresting material, a less obsessive Shostakovich, maybe cooler like late Bartók. Well scored and rivetingly presented, both symphonies are four movement works and comfortable sidestepping traditional forms. No. 2 manipulates sound and texture not unlike Ligeti or the Spectralists despite the consonant tonality. There are passages which sound like tonal Xenakis, if such a concept makes any sense.

Christopher BROWN: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 99 (2019); Baroquery, Op. 105 (2019). Nathan Williamson (pno). Lyrita SRCD 2431 (3 CDs) (www.lyrita.co.uk).

It’s a high summit: 24 pairs in every key, evenly grouped into four books. Brown starts with B-flat minor, the first prelude and fugue of each book spelling out B-A-C-H. The six preludes of Book 2 can be extracted into a Dance Suite, offered as Brown’s Op. 105, reprised at the end. Brown acknowledges Shostakovich’s influence, and throughout we will hear not just the B-A-C-H cipher, but D-S-C-H as well as C-B.

But is it a mountain worth climbing? Despite Brown’s quotations of his own works and others’ (friends and commissioners suggested tunes, etc.), the style remains earnestly consistent across two-and-a-half hours (Baroquery brings the collection to just over three hours). The similarities grow wearying, not every prelude needs to run as long. Preludes and fugues invite fussy analysis: A prelude in ternary form with a subsequent fugue has an extra recap. There were many pairs where I had wanted the fugue to have begun earlier. The Bach 48 and Shostakovich 24 stand out not just for their emotional range but also because they employed extensive rhythmic and emotional variety. Yet to read Brown’s notes, there is a lot going on, homages to colleagues and relatives, and references to the longstanding British choral repertoire which are completely lost on this listener.

 

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