Notable in 2011: Duo Gazzana debuts on ECM (CD Review)

For the rest of 2011, among our coverage will be “notable” recordings, highlighting some of our favorites for the year that we haven’t as yet covered on File Under ?.

Duo Gazzana

Five Pieces: works by Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janacek, and Silvestrov

ECM New Series CD

Despite its already impressively deep catalog, Manfred Eicher’s ECM still finds new perspectives and new interpreters to present on the imprint’s recordings. Sisters violinist Nastascia Gazzana and pianist Raffaella Gazzana have been performing together since the 1990s. But they waited until 2011 to make their recorded debut, in a chamber recital CD. Surprisingly, they are the first Italian chamber group to perform on an ECM release!

The disc features works by four different Twentieth century composers, all of whom are displayed in works that operate from the  more traditional side of the stylistic spectrum. Even Toru Takemitsu’s Distance de fée, from 1951, early in his catalog, displays the composer’s affinity for Impressionism overtly, with only hints of the experiments and polystylism to which he would later turn. Paul Hindemith’s E major Violin Sonata, cast in two movements, features a buoyant allegro movement followed by a sober langsam tinged with melancholy, which abruptly shifts to a brilliant finale. Both the piece, and its interpreters, are able to adjust to these rapid changes of mood without it ever seeming unnatural. Instead we are given a succinct yet complete account of a sonata’a narrative arc – in exquisite miniature. It’s worth mentioning how the shifts in timbre elicited by Nastascia are luminously detailed throughout this work.

Inspired by the clangor and rigors of WWI and begun near the outset of that conflict, Leos Janacek’s Sonata for violin and piano is filled with its own poignant twists and turns. Understandably, it displays considerably more angularity and angst than the Hindemith, and both sisters really dig in to its brash gestures while providing a detailed account of its nuanced articulations ( an aside: both pieces were programmed side by side in 1923, with none other than Hindemith performing the violin part).

But wait, there are four composers: why’s the disc called “Five Pieces?” It’s the title of the last group on the CD, a set of violin/piano duos by Valentin Silvestrov. Although there is certainly an affinity between some of the Eastern European folk inflections found in both the Janacek and Silvestrov works, there is an even wider reaching retrospective quality in the Silvestrov that seems to encompass all of the styles presented on the CD. Indeed, it mines many of the veins of tonally oriented 20th century music, providing an elegiac and Neo-romantic viewpoint that never confuses genuine emotional resonance with bald sentimentality. Raffaella brings out a warmly resonant quality from the pieces’ harmonic progressions, all the while supporting with careful balance and phrasing the long-lined legato playing of Nastascia. And while one can find many grander musical statements in Silvestrov’s oeuvre, he has distilled some of his most affecting music in these five miniatures. Indeed, the lilting Intermezzo and Barcarolle movements are truly magical microcosms.

Displaying consummate musicality, featuring a fascinating program of repertoire that should be heard more widely, with sumptuous sonics to boot, Duo Gazzana’s debut is one of my favorite discs of 2011. Let’s hope the Gazzana sisters get right back into the recording studio with Mr. Eicher in 2012!

Frank Dodge talks Bob Helps (interview; ticket giveaway)

Spectrum Concerts Berlin visits New York

Last week, I met with cellist Frank Dodge at Lincoln Center to discuss the upcoming concert his ensemble Spectrum Concerts Berlin is giving in New York.

At 8 PM on December 7th at Weill Recital Hall, Dodge and his colleagues will present a program that celebrates the works of composer/pianist Robert Helps (1928-2001).

Helps was a virtuoso performer adept at both contemporary repertoire and warhorses from the classical music canon. He also relished championing works that had been overlooked and crafting (often fiendishly challenging) transcriptions for the piano.  More than once, I heard Milton Babbitt suggest that Helps “made the unplayable playable.”

Born in the United States, Dodge relocated to Berlin in the 1980s. But he didn’t forget about his first encounters with Helps: in the late 1960s in Boston as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.

He says, “Bob (Helps) liked to champion pieces that needed looking after. His performances of the music of John Ireland, Felix Mendelssohn, and Poulenc and, of course, his own music were truly very special to hear. We were fortunate to have him visit and perform with us in Berlin twice. I only wish that, before his passing in 2001, we could have collaborated more frequently.”

Dodge’s stewardship has cultivated a group of champions of underrepresented repertoire. Spectrum Concerts Berlin is currently giving its twenty-fourth season of concerts. They have recently released their second recording devoted to Helps’ music: Robert Helps in Berlin (also featuring the ATOS Trio and Helps; Naxos 8.559696-97). A double CD set, it features a number of Helps’s important chamber works, including one of his first mature pieces, the 1957 Piano Trio, as well as one of his last, Piano Trio No. 2, written shortly before his passing. It’s interesting to note his return to the genre after forty years’ absence. My initial impression of the piece is one of leave-taking. I hear its angular lines, brittle articulation, and acerbic harmonies as a defiant kind of valedictory statement. Dodge, on the hand hears the trio showing evidence of new potential directions in Helps’s music; alas, unrealized.

He says, “The second Piano Trio and some of the other late pieces, such as Shall We Dance (1994) and the Piano Quartet and Quintet (both 1997), provide glimpses of Bob considering his compositional approach afresh. I find the discoveries he makes in these works to provide some of his most exciting music.”

The CD also includes a live recording of Helps at the piano; performing a recital that includes some of his aforementioned favorites: Mendelssohn, Ireland, Poulenc, Shall We Dance, and Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Etudes (or, as one of my professors used to like to call them, Chopin on steroids!). One is struck by his exquisite touch and seemingly effortless virtuosity of Helps’ playing.

The impressive array of compositions and music-making displayed on the Naxos disc raises a question. Why isn’t Helps a household name here? Why don’t American-based ensembles perform more Helps and why don’t more composers know him as an important figure?

When I pose this question to Dodge, he says, “Bob did zero self-promotion: none. Even though he taught all over and was very well respected, he had a difficult time with the conventional ‘career building’ activities that many musicians take for granted as part of the business. And he also had considerable personal struggles during his lifetime, with illnesses and other challenges. There were long periods of silence, where he didn’t play or compose at all. Fortunately, these gave way to great bursts of creativity.”

“So, Helps isn’t a household name … yet! Things will change. Sometimes, when a figure is hyped during his or her lifetime, but their work is nothing special, they fade away rather quickly. With Helps, the opposite can be true. It is durable work, and its legacy will only grow. The strength of his music is what will bring performers and listeners to it over time.”

My take: if you’re in the New York area, don’t miss out on this chance to hear Spectrum Concerts Berlin on 12/7. They will make you a convert to Helps’s music in nothing flat.

Ticket Giveaway

In a very generous gesture, the ensemble is offering 20 FREE tickets to S21 readers.  If you’re interested in attending the show, email Paula Mlyn at: paula@a440arts.com with your name. She will put aside a ticket for you for the December 7 performance.

One Sunday at Tanglewood

After all this music, maybe a hike?

Three Concerts in One Day! Twelve pieces, including two one-act operas: 6 1/2 hours of music.

Here’s what we heard:

10 AM

Fantasia for String Trio …Irving Fine

Ten Miniatures for Solo Piano … Helen Grime

Circles … Luciano Berio

Piece pour piano et quatuor de cordes … Oliver Messiaen

Since Brass, nor Stone … Alexander Goehr

Design School … Michael Gandolfi

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2:30 PM (BSO in the Shed)

An American in Paris … George Gershwin

Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee … Gunther Schuller

Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs … Leonard Bernstein

Piano Concerto in F … George Gershwin

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8 PM Two one-act operas

Full Moon in March … John Harbison

Where the Wild Things Are … Oliver Knussen

Christian’s Top Three

Knussen – a momentous experience to hear this piece live!

Fine – Beautiful performance. Makes me want to know his work better.

Schuller – His best piece: hands down.

Kay’s Top Three

Knussen – I loved how he evoked the different locations & moods — and the barbershop quartet near the end!

Gershwin – An American in Paris – It transports me to Paris every time I hear it. It was stunning to hear it played so beautifully by the BSO (in terrific seats!)

Messiaen – Unexpected sound qualities from the instruments – hearing a piano quintet played in such an exciting, colorful, and fresh way.

We both also enjoyed Helen Grime’s music a great deal. She’s a special talent – keep an eye out for her!

Tomorrow – Elliott Carter premiere!

RIAS Kammerchor: new Krenek CD

Ernst Krenek

Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka; Choral Works

RIAS Kammerchor; Hans-Christopher Rademann

Harmonia Mundi CD 902049

Ernst Krenek’s Lamentations of Jeremiah is a work that I admire a great deal. A pivotal 12-tone composition, it proved greatly influential to a number of American composers and, reputedly, Igor Stravinsky. Indeed, Krenek is one of the first to discuss the use of a rotation as a serial permutation; a technique that would prove valuable to Stravinsky during his own late spate of 12-tone works.

The recording  of Krenek’s Lamentations by RIAS Kammerchor (also on HM) was widely acclaimed as a near-flawless rendition of this famously challenging, dissonantly thorny a cappella work. Sechs Motetten is a worthy follow-up to the previous disc. It includes a wide range of Krenek’s shorter choral pieces, ranging in date of composition from 1923 to 1959. There is a disjunct, angular quality to the Kafka settings that seems to resonate well with the author’s legendarily terse and often tart prose. The RIAS singers perform with superlative control; one is particularly taken with the nuanced renderings of detailed dynamic shifts and articulations. Both sopranos and tenors negotiate an often high-lying tessitura with nary a flinch.

The CD also includes an arrangement of Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa; it isn’t realized with a particularly informed sense of period practice, but retains Monteverdi’s nimble rhythms and canny word inflections. Also winning is the Op. 132 Kantate von der Vergänglichkeit des Irdischen. It pits twelve-tone writing against free harmonic progressions, both post-tonal and pantonal, as well as effects: frequent glissandi and passages of sprechstimme. Caroline Stein performs the virtuosic soprano solo with dazzling runs and warm tone; pianist Philip Mayers is equally impressive in his own limpid filigrees. Five Prayers (Op. 97) demonstrates Krenek’s talent for finely knit contrapuntal writing. A bit less forbidding in harmonic language, the Prayers demonstrate a sumptuousness that is almost startling when heard in such close proximity to the Kafka Motetten. Thus, the disc provides an overall impression of the composer as he should rightly be remembered: as an adroit creator in a wide range of compositional styles.