“Sprezzatura” = PAUL CHIHARA: Sonata for Viola and Piano; PAUL SISKIND: Etwas für Bratsche (etwas rasch!); BRITTEN: Lachrymae, Op. 48; HINDEMITH: Sonata for Viola and Piano – Shelly Tramposh, viola/ Cullan Bryant, piano – Ravello Records RR7818, 60:24 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Since the booklet accompanying this release doesn’t provide a definition of sprezzatura, and since some will be in the dark about its meaning (I was until I looked it up), here is a definition from Richard Nordquist at About.com: “The rehearsed spontaneity, studied carelessness, and well-practiced naturalness that underlies persuasive discourse. (The opposite of sprezzatura is affectazione—affectation.)” The term was coined by Baldassare Castiglione in his 1528 how-to tome for the arriviste, The Book of the Courtier (one of those famous books, like Don Quixote, that nobody bothers to read). I think the term covers pretty well this program of music for viola and piano. There is no grandstanding, no point-making here, just a cultivated discourse between two urbane friends. And just as good conversation is rarely dull, there is hardly a dull moment here—this is music of a very high order.
Two of the pieces (Britten and Hindemith) are well-known classics. I’m not sure the other two are classics-to-be, but they are certainly important works worth knowing. Paul Chihara is among those contemporary composers who, like George Rochberg, underwent a conversion experience, turning from a post-Weberian serialist to a post-modern neo-Romanticist. In the case of Chihara, his extensive work as a film composer (nearly one hundred scores to his credit) was the impetus for his change of direction. But even in his early serialist work such as Windsong for cello and orchestra, Chihara was interested in using subtle instrumental effects to capture the sounds of nature. That abiding interest in coloristic effects carries over to his 1994 Viola Sonata, where the two instruments take turns spinning a rich legato melody against an edgier, more brittle accompaniment.
Chihara writes of the music that it was composed for his violist wife Carol Landon though he wound up gravely ill in the hospital before he could complete it. He finished the work, or at least in a two-movement version, while still in hospital; the depressing circumstance under which it was written inform the melancholy second movement “with references to Mozart’s sorrowful ‘Minuet’ from his A minor Violin Sonata. . . . The dance-like third movement was added in 2009, as a happy return to health.” Since I like happy endings, I’m sincerely glad that Chihara regained his health and added this last movement, bounding with good spirits and graced with an attractive “big tune” that wouldn’t be out of place in a film score. If pressed to say what the music sounds like, I’d call it an interesting amalgam of neo-Romantic tunefulness and hairpin chromaticism; I’m reminded in places of Prokofiev and in others, of Barber, though I mention those composers only to give my appraisal of Chihara’s style some context. This is music of individuality and real beauty.
Paul Susskind’s Etwas für Bratsche (etwas rasch!), commissioned by Shelly Tramposh and given its premiere recording here, is a very different affair, in large part because Tramposh specifically asked Siskind not to “write yet another Elegy for Viola for us.” So, as the title promises, this “Something for Viola” is somewhat fast (etwas rasch)—“flashy and virtuosic,” in Siskind’s words. But also, with its spooky arpeggiated harmonics in the viola, answered by the piano, it has a kind of haunted quality that helps the piece stay in the memory. A short work (just over six minutes), it’s still quite eventful.
Britten’s Lacrymae and Hindemith’s Sonata need little introduction; each is a modern masterpiece but different in character and compositional technique. Britten’s work is an unusual set of variations on John Dowland’s song “If my complaints could passions move,” unusual because, as Shelly Tromposh explains in her detailed notes, “it is more a reflection on the Renaissance original. This is because although each variation seems long enough to include the whole Dowland song, Britten actually saves the second half of the original for the very last, in the coda.” As one might expect, Britten’s homage to Dowland includes some complex contrapuntal writing but also some quirky edgy modernist musings that take us far away from the Renaissance. Hindemith’s Sonata includes a set of variations as its last movement; like Britten’s variations, they’re quirky as well but in a more lighthearted vein, even humorous in spots. Stylistically, the work is in Hindemith’s typical stern, not to say severe, neoclassical style, though the composer manages to crack a smile in the second movement scherzo as well as in the finale. As a violist himself, Hindemith writes with great authority, the viola part thoroughly idiomatic, geared to show off all the instrument’s tricks of the trade and the range of color and timbral effects it’s capable of.
Shelley Tromposh and pianist Cullan Bryant have been playing as a team for the last five years, and their obvious rapport shows in this program, where the ensemble playing is very fine indeed. Both artists make their instruments sing in their different ways; Tromposh has beautiful tone production and control, while Bryant shows himself to be a keyboard colorist of the first order. This is an intelligently chosen, totally engaging program that I am happy to recommend to all chamber music enthusiasts.
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre