Month: June 2021

  • Deubner Performs New Music for Viola

    Violist looking to explore new repertoire will be well-served by checking out a couple of recent releases from Navona featuring Brett Deubner.  The internationally-known soloist debuted with the New Jersey Symphony performing a new piece written for him by Lalo Schifrin.  He has performed with numerous orchestras throughout the world and currently teaches at Queen's College in New York City.  He is a frequent performer at the Round Top Music Festival in Texas as well.

    Stanley Grill: Remember (Navona NV 6338)

    Those coming to Stanley Grill's music for the first time will be struck by its innate beauty.  His music has a gentle lyricism that is particularly well-suited for the viola's warm timbre.  This comes to the forefront in the opening title work, Remember (5 Intermezzi for Earth) which features five reflective movements.  In O, Mystery!, Grill provides echoes of ancient music with more modal inflections and a spun-out idea that grows into a more energetic central section before stepping back in awe.  The centerpiece here is also the most substantial work running just under 20 minutes.  Aphorisms II opens with a gorgeous romantic line that will morph into new ideas in a more stream-of-conscious piece of different slightly-connected episodes.  It is in one sense like a train of thought that leads from one moment to the next, sometimes reflective, sometimes more impassioned.  All couched in traditional musical language that makes it quite accessible and a welcome addition to the repertoire for the instrument.  More angular righting coupled with folkish gestures appears in the three-movement In Memory.  The outer movements provide some interesting rhythmic and virtuosic material with a somber central movement for contrast.  Finally, there are 2 quite stunning movements in Civil War Songs.  The first is a set of variations on "Ashokan Farewell".  Grill's style here is quite in keeping with traditional Americana harmonic styles with a bit of modernism against the lyrical, familiar tune from the Ken Burn's PBS series.  The second movement is a setting of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic".  This is a rather gorgeous collection of music for viola that features some equally fine committed performances.  Thomas Steigerwald serves as the accompanist here making for an equal interpretive partner.

    Mother Earth: Works for Viola and Piano (Navona NV 6351) 

    Deubner's second album incorporates several works written and some other contemporary pieces.  Two 1970s works by Arvo Part are perhaps the more "familiar" of the works here.  The album includes the meditative Fratres (1977, with its chant-like style) and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) which will wrap up the album with a final reflective bent.  After a very brief opening work by Polina Nazaykinskaya (For Zayd and Zizi, 2017), Deubner turns to the first work written for him.  Samarthana (2020) is a musical response by Johan Hugosson to the Nepalese earthquake in 2015.  It is a musical moment that invites listeners to reflect on this devastation.  Judith Markovich's Remember, also from 2020, is a result of the recent pandemic and is another chance to look back on important moments in our lives.  It is interesting as well for its addition of a chime to the texture.  Amanda Harberg's Loss (2007) moves us to a more poignant musical language to contemplate the death of someone dear (in this case it was written after the death of her piano teacher). The album takes its title from Maurizio Bignone's 2017 piece.  Programmatically, it serves to connect the other pieces here to our own recent pandemic lockdown and how the earth rejuvenates itself when humanity is somewhat removed from contributing to any number of harmful activities.  Here it helps provide another moment to think about how we might move forward as we return to a new normal.  Stone Rose (2014) is a three-movement work that depicts different aspects of New York according to its composer Ola Gjeilo.  That makes this an interesting companion to these pandemic-related works with that city being one of the American epicenters.  Performances here are excellent and Allison Brewster Franzetti serves as a quite able accompanist for these contemporary reflections on the world and our own place and interaction with it.  The program invites us to contemplate how we respond to these senses of destruction, loss, and connect it to our own stories.  Certainly an interesting collection to explore.

  • Quest for Harp Music


    Elizabeth Remy Johnson, harp.
    Albany Records TROY 1863
    Total Time:  61:16
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Emily Remy Johnson’s new album Quest takes its title from the opening work on the album.  Composed by Niloufar Nourbakhsh in 2013, the piece has a tenuous exploration of traditional harmony with some subtle dissonance and interesting harmonic diversions.  It is one of just several modern works for the instrument featured on this new release from Albany Records.  Those pieces make up the second half of this ample program that highlights work by female composers.

    The first portion consists of new arrangements by Johnson of some unique piano literature.  First is Cecil Chaminade’s delightful Aubade (1911) which keeps us in slightly modern to late-Romantic style.  It and  D’un vieux Jardin (1914) provide fine bookends for a series of brief pieces from the period.  Amy Beach’s A Hermit Thrush At Morn (1921) is another unique miniature exploring bird songs the composer heard on a trip in New Hampshire.  It is a quite delicate little work.  The center piece, and rather wonderful discovery are the Cinq Morceaux (1894-1927) by Mel Bonis (1858-1937).  She was a promising student invited by Franck to study at the Paris Conservatory, but her parents pulled her from her studies to avoid a developing affair with another student.  Married off, she eventually returned to composing and the selection here demonstrates her brilliant harmonic and melodic gifts in five stunning works.  This is followed by Fanny Hensel’s Melodie (1846) and the somewhat familiar little Romance (1853) by Clara Schumann.  Each of the works here are quite engaging and performed brilliantly by Johnson whose interpretations and transcriptions feel fairly faithful to the original keyboard works, though they tend to take on a more magical, reflective quality.  As a transition, Johnson has chosen a little folk song to wrap up the portion of the album (Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies).

    Four works for harp help round off the album to further illustrate the musical capabilities of the instrument and its versatility while maintaining a folkish theme.  The first of these is a reflective piece by Katie Agocs that explores an Appalachian folk song, “John Riley”.  An excellent programming transition from the traditional folk song that precedes it.  In Sally Beamish’s Pavane (2016), we are back in the world of reflection and post-Impressionism recalling the earlier works on the album.  The qualities of Scotchish folk-harp music inform Freya Waley-Cohen’s Skye (2017) which transports the listener to the isle.  The final piece, Spindrift (2008), is inspired by the legend of Odysseus and Leukothea.  The work by Johann Selleck is a more substantial miniature tone poem for harp.

    Quest is an album of often subtle harp work that provides a window into the beautiful qualities of the instrument with the more contemporary works all maintaining an accessible musical language.  The arrangements of piano literature work quite well here in a collection of fairly restrained pieces that invite reflection.  How the album is sequences also shows a great deal of thought that helps move well through the program allowing listeners to make additional connections to the narrative aspects that inspired the composers represented.  The album is a bit on the quiet side which makes for a relaxed listen of quite compelling music worth hearing and exploring further.