“Groteske” = KIEREN MACMILLAN: Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Charpentier; KORNGOLD: Suite Op. 23, for two violins, cello, and piano left hand – Jonathan Swartz and Mark Fewer, violins /Andrés Díaz, cello /Wendy Chen, piano – Soundset SR 1033, 73:35 [Distr. by Albany] ***:
JÉRÔME BERNEY 3 + 3: Jazz autour de Frank Martin = FRANK MARTIN: Trio sur des mélodies populaire irlandaises; JÉRÔME BERNEY: Effractions – Virginie Faiquet and Alexis Gfeller, piano /Valérie Bernard, violin /Aurélien Ferrette, cello / Fabien Seville, contrabass / Jérôme Berney, percussion – Gallo CD 1330, 46:32 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:
The title of the Soundset disc is taken from the Korngold work, whose obsessive third-movement scherzo is marked Groteske. To give that choice further resonance, the album cover quotes from Victor Hugo: “As a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is the richest source that nature can offer.” I suppose this all makes sense if you believe, as note writer and violinist Jonathan Swartz does, that the following movement, a treatment of Korngold’s song Was Du mir Bist? (“What You Are to Me”), is an example of the sublime. I’m afraid the more I hear of Korngold’s music, I’m reminded of what one wag (critic Irving Kolodin) said of his 1947 Cello Concerto: more corn than gold. Even in this relatively early work (1931), before Korngold turned Hollywood, he sounds like a classically-trained musician who’d rather be working for Flo Ziegfeld or Busby Berkley. The variations finale of the Suite is, for me, an especially sappy blend of the learned and the pop-cultural. To each his own. Korngold admirers will be happy to encounter a largely unsung piece by their composer (although this is far from the first recording). I’m underwhelmed however.
The Suite is one of many works commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. It is interesting to hear the difficulties Korngold built into the piano part—rolled and clustered chords, bounding arpeggios, all handled with aplomb by Wendy Chen—and the piece starts promisingly enough, reminding me a bit of the D Major Concerto that Ravel wrote for Wittgenstein. But after listening for a bit, I find myself woolgathering and realize that Korngold will never fully engage me. Sorry.
Although it’s hardly a classic, I enjoy Toronto-based composer Kieren MacMillan’s Fantasy Variations more. First of all, MacMillan has chosen a great melody to work with, the Ritournelle from Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s In Navitatem D.N.J.C. Canticum. He treats it in ritornello fashion, the original melody returning here and there in Baroque trappings. The variations that MacMillan writes, though, are stylistically all over the board: some sound vaguely Impressionistic; some, like a take on cool jazz, with syncopated pizzicato strings and rocking figures in the piano; some, undoubtedly, like Kieren MacMillan himself – though as the composer himself states, he’s Mr. Eclectic. As he writes in the notes to the recording, “You’re bound to hear Ravel, Prokofiev, Morricone, Mozart, Reich, Barber, Messiaen, Adams, Sondheim, Harbison, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, and even the Funk Brothers.” All of them have in common, I believe, the fact that they happened to write music. Anyway, if you’re up to this hodgepodge of musical influences, you’ll probably enjoy MacMillan’s lighthearted piece.
This disc brings together a number of truly fine musicians. I’m familiar with the work of at least two of them, Andrés Díaz and Wendy Chen. But I’m not sure what the connection among them is; it’s not made clear in the notes to the recording. At any rate, they all found themselves making music together at Katzin Concert Hall of Arizona State University in Tempe, and the result is this recording. It’s recommendable to fanciers of Korngold as well as to those generally who enjoy a little musical fusion now and again. I wish, however, that the sound were on a par with the performances. The recording of the Korngold especially is so close as to impart an occasional fierceness to the strings; there’s even a bit of distortion at one point. You’ll need to play with the volume to find a comfortable listening level. So it’s your call: do you want to run with it or punt?
The disc from Gallo is another matter entirely. Maybe it should be reviewed under the jazz rubric, but that would give short shrift to the musical fusion that Jérôme Berney attempts here. Specifically, he takes a work of Swiss composer Frank Martin with an unimpeachable highbrow pedigree and uses it as a jumping-off point for a series of musical meditations, if you will, that he calls Effractions (“Breaks”). Most, such as Effraction I, are up-tempo and sound like more-or-less sophisticated club jazz. Then there is Effraction II, quiet and inward, with individual contributions by the players one after another that are so reflective and serious that the atmosphere of the club is left behind.
Berney’s Effractions are interpolated among the individual movements of Frank Martin’s Trio sur des mélodies populaire irlandaises. The popular Irish melodies of the title give the original work a natural swing and swagger, which obviously commended the work to Berney. The movements from Martin’s original are mostly played straight by the piano trio of Bernard, Ferrette, and (I presume) Faiquet. Whether the fusion of Martin’s classical trio with Berney’s riffs on it works is a matter of personal taste, I suppose. You’ll have to decide if the point where Berney and Martin collide, in the Gigue movement of Martin’s trio, does more violence to Martin or to Berney’s conception. I’m actually a little disappointed that Berney encourages improvisatory takes on the melody and contributes his own drum riffs here; then again, it’s kind of cool too. But maybe Berney should have let Martin have his say before doing his own thing, in Effractions V and VI, where Martin’s Gigue is given two wholly different spins, the first concentrating on the folksy nature of the theme, the second on the obsessive rhythm.
At any rate, I mostly got a kick out of Berney’s jazz take on Martin’s classic: a weird idea, maybe, but it all works somehow. The live recording, made at L’Espace Guinguette—a jazz bar in Vevey, Switzerland—is dry and two dimensional in the fashion of most studio recordings. Jazz fanciers will feel right at home; classical music buffs will be less than thrilled with the sound I think. [Historically, Europeans have been more into various jazz or even rock versions of classical music than we have in the States…Ed.]
— Lee Passarella
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…