MICHAEL G. CUNNINGHAM: “Paragonia” [Tracklist follows] – Navona

MICHAEL G. CUNNINGHAM: “Paragonia” = Counter Currents; Trumpet Concerto; Piano Concerto; Transactions; Islands; Schubert Honorarium – Kiev Philharmonic Orch./Robert Ian Winstin, cond./Moravian Symphony Orchestra/Peter Vronsky & Vit Micka, cond./Russian Philharmonic Orch./Ovidiu Marinescu, cond. – Navona Records NV5982, 70:56 (11/11/14)[Distr. by Naxos] ***:

I have written about Michael G. Cunningham before and I remain a big fan of some of his music; most notably his Violin Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto. I had also pointed out that Cunningham is not a “new” name in music. He has been a veteran of the Midwest collegiate scene for a while now, particularly through his work at Wayne State University and as the author of some books on composition and harmony.

Navona and Naxos frequently release collections of music by fairly obscure composers and sometimes (but not always) these collections rise above the level of “legacy album” and showcase music that genuinely deserves to be known. The music in this set is a little bit of a mixed bag in my opinion but there a few genuine gems.

The set opens with Counter Currents for orchestra which is a brief but bracing work that rides a line between an almost cinematic drama and a more abstract neo-tonal mood. The composer’s notes where he indicates that the work is from the “so-called Camelot era, with its waning period of radically modernistic art” lost me. I’ve never heard that expression before but if his point is that this work carries vestiges of the purposefully abstract and leans in the direction of a more accessible sound, I agree.

The Trumpet Concerto from 1967 is a very entertaining three-movement work that has a bit of resemblance to Hindemith. I found the whole work to be very engaging and it seems to place considerable demands on the trumpet soloist, played quite well here by Yuri Kornalov. I was particularly taken by the “night club” vibe of the second movement, “Dulcet”.

The Piano Concerto is also a very attention-getting work with a very diverse set of moods characterizing each of its three movements. For example, the aptly named “Jive” with its jaunty rhythms gives way to the completely different “Requiem.” While I liked this whole work, I especially like the finale, “Toccata.”  Here, too, the soloist (uncredited on the packaging, unfortunately) does a fine job.

This collection concludes with three fairly short orchestral studies in a row and each possesses a somewhat abstract but still interesting demeanor. I found Transactions to be the most rewarding. As Cunningham points out, there are some wonderful and virtuosic moments that occur between the violin section, a solo violin and the rest of the orchestra. Much of Cunningham’s music sounds depictive but, rather, what is at stake are moods and aspects of music; not actual imagery of some sort.  A good example is the brief three movement suite, Islands, where the impressions here are whatever the listener can conjure up; perhaps ‘islands’ but no musical portrait of any actual and specific islands. This is a somewhat thorny and evocative work that might suffer a bit from brevity; the first two movements, in particular, seem to just get involving and then they’re done.

The only work here that truly disappointed me was Schubert Honorarium. As the composer indicates, the title is both leading and somewhat self-explanatory. The two movements are both based on snippets of actual Schubert works but this piece does not really do anything wildly creative with standard classical repertoire but it is also far outside of Michael Cunningham’s usual ‘box.’ I’m sorry to say I thought it was schlock and I could have done without it.

From the several pieces, over four albums, of Cunningham’s music I have heard, it feels to me that he is at his best with concerto structures and even with some wind ensemble repertory. I liked this album (except the Schubert thing!) and especially the Concertos for trumpet and piano. He is a gifted and interesting composer and I do recommend that you hear some of his music.

—Daniel Coombs


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