The thorny complexity of modernism


Leon Kirchner, Duo No. 2 for Violin and Piano; Roger Sessions, Sonata for Violin; Duo for Violin & Cello; Arnold Schoenberg, Phantasy for Violin Piano Accompaniment, Op. 47.
Elizabeth Chang, violin; Steven Beck, piano; Alberto Parrini, cello
Albany Records TROY 1850

Elizabeth Chang is Professor of Violin at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of the violin and viola faculties of the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School. Her virtuosic technique and love of musical challenge are apparent throughout this performance.

These compositions free the violin from its centuries old role as imitator of, and extension of, the human voice. This music insists on pushing the instrument to extremes, to relentlessly achieve things the human voice cannot. The violin bow becomes a light saber, capable of every conceivable form of attack.

For example, Sessions’s epic Sonata makes extensive use of double-stops, so that Chang becomes a one-person string quartet. The moderato movement calls for dog-whistle harmonics; the molto vivo requires huge intervallic leaps (think kitten chasing a butterfly). Devilishly difficult, un-singable, this. Likewise, Kirchner’s Duo for Violin and Cello calls for humorous burps, farts, coughs, laughs, and Schoenberg’s unsingable Fantasy hiccups its way through a hailstorm of bullets.  In this context the accompanying instrument (piano or cello) conspires to blur the boundaries between leading, accompanying, and supporting.

Danish String Quartet PRISM III

Danish String Quartet
ECM New Series ECM 2563

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 14 in C- sharp minor op. 131; Bartok, String Quartet No. 1 op. 7 Sz. 40; J.S. Bach, Fugue C-sharp minor BWV 849.

I have followed the Danish String Quartet since their 2014 release Woodworks, which presents arrangements of Nordic folk tunes. This ensemble is not only freakishly talented; it is impressively productive. Their 2016 release featured composers Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen. 2017’s Last Leaf collects more Nordic folk melodies; 2018’s Prism I offers Shostakovich’s Quartet 15 and Beethoven’s Quartet 12 in the context of Bach’s Fugue in e-flat major. 2019’s PRISM II offered Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 and Beethoven’s String Quartet op.130/op.133 in the context of Bach’s Fugue in Bb minor BWV 869.

For this release, Bach’s Fugue in C-sharp minor sets the context for Beethoven and Bartok. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 opens with a sense of funereal loss. The Adagio leads on to a dancelike allegro molto, a medieval sounding andante movement and a marchlike allegro. This recording deserves its place alongside those by Quartetto Italiano, the Cypress String Quartet.  

The quartet members like Bartok, in part, because he, like they, loves folk music. His String Quartet No. 1 opens with diminished chord whirls and spins, hinting at dances the composer may have watched during his field recording journeys. The allegretto’s fireworks and the allegro vivace’s sparks and sparkles suggest a dizzying carnival ride. This performance compares favorably with those of the Heath Quartet, the Endellion, Meta4, and the Alexander String Quartet.

An encyclopedic offering

Mirrors celebrates the Lysander Trio’s tenth anniversary with six world premiere recordings of 21st century American piano trios. As does the Kronos Quartet, The Lysander Trio works with living composers from around the world to build new repertoire.

In The Black Mirror, Jakub Ciupinski takes inspiration from a technique in the visual arts, where the painter looks at a vast landscape through a Claude glass, a convex mirror with a blackened surface. The first half suggests a still dawn breaking, with distant sounds of a seagull. The busier second half evokes the intensity of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Soprano Sarah Shafer joins the trio on Jennifer Higdon’s song cycle Love Sweet, a set of five challenging songs on love poems by the American poet, Amy Lowell (1874–1925).  

Reinaldo Moya’s Ghostwritten Variations takes its inspiration from four novels that feature composers as protagonists. In this tone poem one hears a lilting but atonal Fauré, jazzy keyboard clusters worthy of Cecil Taylor, and a resolution into darkness and stasis.

William David Cooper composed An den Wassern zu Babel as a set of variations on the text of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon. In this dark and unsettling piece, one hears a bent Debussy or a warped Ravel. The finale explodes in fireworks worthy of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

Gilad Cohen’s terrifying Around the Cauldron was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The bold, raw melodies suggest Pizaaola, clownish and dancey musical hall thythms, and staccato military marching. I would enjoy seeing modern dance interpret this piece.

Sofia Belimova’s brief Titania and Her Suite also draws upon Shakespeare, by way of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One visualizes fairies in flight, chasing fireflies and confetti.

The Lysander Piano Trio formed at The Juilliard School in 2009. It has earned top honors at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, the Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition, and the J. C. Arriaga Chamber Music Competition.

Mendelssohn, Visconti and Golijov

Jasper String Quartet
Jupiter String Quartet
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20; Dan Visconti: Eternal Breath; Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round.
Marquis Classics MAR 613

This remarkable set of performances includes a gem from the standard repertoire and engaging pieces by two contemporary composers.          

Felix Mendelssohn accepted Goethe’s many invitations to visit him in Weimar and over time the two became close friends. Goethe may have heard a performance of Mendelssohn’s 1825 Octet, which here receives gorgeous treatment by the combined forces of the Jasper and Jupiter Quartets. The work foreshadows of Mendelssohn’s later e Minor Violin Concerto, the Hebrides Overture, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even hints of old man Handel.

If the Mendelssohn Octet sparkles, Dan Visconti’s Eternal Breath sighs from within an incense-laced temple in South Asia, where Hindustani and Carnatic melodic lines float into the humid air. After a peaceful meditation, it condenses into sounds of congested urban traffic and dancing snakes before returning to the stasis of a lone harmonium.

Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round takes its energy from memories of a crowded boxing match. Hinting at his masterpiece Isaac the Blind, Golijov employs sputtering chords that pop and fall, smearing and streaming to the floor like drops of sweat.  The peaceful second movement begins dirge-like, before a luscious major key theme hints at Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

These two ensembles blend into one majestic music making miracle.

From the Inferno

Erkki-Sven Tüür 

ECM 2666

Harry Traksmann and Florian Donderer, violins; Leho Karin and Tanja Tetzlaff, cellos; Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann, piano. Signum Quartett.

This is the first of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür’s New Series recordings devoted entirely to his chamber music. These compositions take us to from pastoral romance to the churning horrors of hell fire.

His string quartet Lost Prayers presents pianissimos worthy of Morton Feldman and a naturescape right out of Appalachian Spring. But soon we fall into the darkness of Hades, where giants crush living beings underfoot.

Never have I experienced a torture chamber nor survived a storm at sea, but I’d expect either to resemble the soundscape of Fata Morgana, whose churning, energy thrashes and howls until it peters out into a tiny puddle.

The duet for cello and violin Synergie pits instruments against each other in a spirited conversation whose extremes in volume echo off the walls of a subterranean cavern. This work, and the piano trio Lichttürme, result from what Tüür calls vectorial writing: “different angles of seemingly parallel movements in the melodies and how I am building up  these spiral-like, constantly changing  harmonic results.” In Lichttürme musical motives stairstep upwards, in rising clusters and popping smears. Metallic clangs resound through the room, before Glassian arpeggios give way to light beams illuminating a cottage yard. In its post apocalyptic conclusion, poisoned water steams and drips.

Erkki-Sven Tüür was born in Estonia in 1959. He studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatoire and electronic music in Karlsruhe.  His ECM releases began with Crystallisatio (1996).

Beauty from Armenia

Con Anima

ECM 2687

Kim Kashkashian and Teng Li, violas; Movses Pogossian and Varty Manouelian, violins; Boris Allakhverdyan, clarinet; Michael Kaufman and Karen Ouzounian, cellos; Steven Vanhauwaert and Tatevik Mokatsian, pianos.

This release marks the occasion of Tigran Mansurian’s 80th birthday. The collection emphasizes his new chamber music; only the Third String Quartet dates from the 20th century. It contains some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard.

The son of Armenian parents, Mansurian was born 1939 in Beirut. He studied composition at the Yerevan Conservatory, where he subsequently taught music analysis and contemporary composition. Although this music is distinctively his, one hears strains of Bartok, Shostakovich, Komitas and, I would say, Steve Reich.

The String Trio is simply so rich and lovely you just don’t want it to stop. It searches thoughtfully, it slides down a water slide, it hikes up a mountain, then runs back down before taking rest.

The beautiful Agnus Dei offers beauty and peace. The clarinet recalls Appalachian Spring, while shimmering strings restful suggest nocturnes. Sonata in Chiesa, for cello and piano, evolves from darkness and atonality to simmering lyricism. stridency gives way to quiet questioning and lovely singing tones.

The Sonata and Con Anima recall the dark music of priest-composer-folklorist Komitas and Steve Reich; it draws inspiration from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13. Mansurian’s animated String Quartet No 3 calls to mind Schönberg, Shostakovich, and Bartok, and pictures the tensions and displacements caused by World War II. Odd time signatures in Die Tänzerin suggest eastern European folk dances; hiccups and jumps accent the melodic flow.

Mansurin’s music debuted on ECM’s New Series with Hayren (recorded in 2000) and has been followed by half a dozen more releases, focusing on chamber orchestra, choral ensembles, and small string ensembles.

Spanning 300 Years

Jennifer Koh
Bach & Beyond Part 3
Cedille CDR 90000 199

The third installment of Jennifer Koh’s Bach & Beyond series for Cedille records offers compositions spanning 300 years. In Part 1 Koh invited us to hear Bach through the musical lenses of Eugène Ysaÿe, Kaija Saariaho, and Missy Mazzoli, while Part 2 presented Bach in the context of Bela Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin Sz. 117. Now in Part 3 we hear Bach filtered and refracted through the lens of Luciano Berio and John Harbison, both of whom cite his Partitas as influence.

Spanning two compact discs, this sequencing of Bach – Berio – Harbison – Bach suggests a cycle of stasis, fracture, synthesis, resolution. The haunting and brooding Sonata 2 in a minor (1720) falls to the onslaught of  Berio’s manic, driven Sequenza VIII (1976), filters into Harbison’s 7-movement dance suite For Violin Alone (2019, composed for Koh), and regains stately cathedral-like presence in Bach’s Sonata No 3 in C major.

From Armenia to Argentina

Piano Trios: Babadjanian Chebotaryan Piazzola
Trio de l’
Divine Art dda 25211

Pianist Patil Harboyan is a scholar of Armenian music. Due in part to her urging, Trio de l’Île incorporates the work of two Armenian composers on this lovely disc, including that of St Petersburg Conservatory-trained Gayané Chebotaryan (d. 1998). Her one-movement Trio (1945) combines elements of Armenian folk music and the Russian classical tradition. To my ears, its lyricism suggests Dvorak and Mendelssohn, and its rolling forward motion movement Chopin.

Soviet-Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian (d. 1983) composed his trio in F sharp minor in 1952. As in the Chebotaryan, we taste bittersweet strains of folk music, along with hints of Shostakovich and Borodin, Debussy and Ravel. 

Many credit Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (d. 1992) with creating the “Nuevo Tango,” a fusion of tango, popular song, and traditional classical forms. He composed his popular Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas for quintet; it since has been rearranged for several combinations of instruments. The challenge for the trio here is to suggest the timbres of violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandeon. I appreciate their success, and the perfect intonation of violin and cello, the joyful glissandi, the execution of intense dynamic changes, and of Piazzola’s humorous sound-painting of weather patterns.

This recording bodes well for the Trio and represents yet another first-rate release from Divine Art.

Shimmering Beethoven

Dover Quartet
Cedille CDR 90000198

This performance shimmers.

Almost as an antidote to the dark times in which we live, this double-disc set includes Beethoven’s six Opus 18 Quartets, each given enlightening commentary in program notes by musicologist and author Nancy November. The Dover Quartet serves as quartet-in-residence for several organizations, including the Kennedy Center, the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, and Chamber Music Northwest. Their previous Cedille Records discs include the highly regarded Mozart Tribute and Voices of Defiance, compositions of the 1940s by Viktor Ullmann, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Szymon Laks.

Soul and Fireworks

Rachmaninoff, Barber
Cello Sonatas
Jonah Kim, cello
Sean Kennard, piano
Delos DE 3570

This disc could serve well as a sales piece for Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Samuel Barber completed his Cello Sonata in 1932 while he was a student at Curtis and performed it the following year with cellist Orlando Cole.

Cellist Jonah Kim and pianist Sean Kennard met as young Curtis students. Their preparation for the Barber sonata was nurtured, coincidentally, by the same Orlando Cole.

Both Kim and Kennard graduated from Curtis and from Juilliard. Kim has won two Grammy awards and plays with Ensemble San Francisco. Kennard has won several international prizes. His debut album for Delos, American Classics, includes works by Barber and Copland. He is professor of piano at Stetson University.

The two make powerful statements on this disc and I hope to hear more from them.