• New Arrangements for Violin and Guitar


    Wild Dance
    Duo Sonidos
    (William Knuth, violin. Adam Levin, guitar.)
    Naxos Records 8.574045
    Total Time:  51:07
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Duo Sonidos launches a three-disc survey of new arrangements for violin and guitar.  The pieces here are mostly arranged by guitarist Gregg Nestor who may be familiar to film music fans as a soloist and arranger.  He has also released albums of his film music arrangements for guitar.  The collection here features his work for various pieces from across the musical spectrum of 20th-Century music.

    Two familiar selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess open the album and invite us into a blend of jazz and classical style first with “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and then with a brief cover of “Summertime”.  The latter moves us into a rather beautiful piece by Szymanowski, “Dawn” (1925) written with and for violinist Paul Kochanski (1887-1934)—the arrangement here is by Allen Krantz.  It is followed by a work from the same year that also lends the album its title, ”Wild Dance”.  These pieces give us a little window into the blend of aesthetics influencing Symanowski’s style coupled with references to Polish folk music.  The violin takes on the lyrical vocal lines that populate Rodrigo’s Four Sephardic Songs (1965).  The piece is balanced then with a similar approach in Ravel’s Two Hebraic Melodies (1914).  Here one gets a good sense of the more modern style of the former with the chant-like impressions heard in the latter.  Korngold arranged music from his Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Op. 11 (1919) for violin and piano to increase its ability for a wider audience.  The Duo includes the gorgeous intermezzo and the hornpipe.  Two more popular pieces then follow with a transcription of Ponce’s beautiful Estrellita, a common occurrence for guitar recitals, and an arrangement of John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List.  The latter is a rather interesting experience that creates an almost folk-like expression of this music in an equally moving performance.  Lukas Foss’ Three American Pieces (1944) comes from that period when Americana explorations were quite abundant in American concert music and that can certainly be heard in the pieces here along with the composer’s sense of wit and integration of folk melodies.

    The program here flows from moments of lyricism to dance and back again.  Other connections can be heard as well from the exploration of Hebraic and Sephardic melodies to other folk melodies.  In many ways, the album explores these various folkish pieces in a way that provides an accessible window into even the less familiar pieces here.  That is what helps make the release a bit more unique as well.  For a transcription to work, the listener must be convinced that this music falls naturally for the forces here.  Indeed, the emotional interpretations of the lyric lines really help to communicate well with this music.  Knuth has a gorgeous tone here that brings a real warmth here when needed and there are a few moments when a little more technical virtuosity is allowed to shine as well.  The guitar becomes both an integral component for harmonic support as well as having times to add even more subtle shaping.  Selections here allow for a wide range of musical experience and taste, many which may invite exploration of other music as well.  The result is a moving program that bodes well for the next two releases.


  • Breaking the Silence: "Banned Music"

     Breaking the Silence: Schulhoff, Ullmann, Korngold, and Zehavi

    Clarion String Quartet
    klanglogo 1415
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The Clarion Quartet are all members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and make their debut recording with this collection of pieces from “banned” composers of WWII.  The album was the result of their own trip to the concentration camp at Terezin.  Composer Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was deported to that concentration camp and was killed at Auschwitz days after his arrival.  A similar fate befell Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) who died from tuberculosis in the camps.  Both men’s works were part of the music that was banned by the Nazi party.  Over the past couple of decades, some of this music has come to light and begun to be more widely performed and recorded.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) managed to flee to American where he would carve out a career writing some of the finest film scores of the Golden Age.  These works present to us the unique individual styles and voices of these composers serving as a reminder of what culture loses on so many levels when prejudice, stereotypes, and insanity become the rule of the day.

    Schulhoff was perhaps the epitome of the early 20th-Centuries wide range of styles.  His music tends to pull from a variety of aesthetical approaches with often flirtations with jazz (he would perform under a pseudonym to get work after 1939).  He eventually would become a citizen of the Soviet Union which would lead to his arrest and subsequent early death.  The Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) are firmly in his more modernist style exploring a variety of folk dance rhythms and musical inflections.  The “Alla Serenata” tends toward a more expressionist dissonance that marks it as a certainly more intense musical discourse that lends this work its more serious musical nature.  This continues a bit more in the “Czech Dance” with its angular ideas and jagged rhythmic edges.

    The Third String Quartet of Viktor Ullmann was composed while he was interred at Terezin in 1942.  A student of Schoenberg, one anticipates how his own exploration of tone rows will unfold, heard most in the slower “movement” of the work.  Though in a single movement, the work has an internal structure that moves through four unique sections held together by motivic connections.  The opening has a waltz-like idea that feels as if it is heard through a gauze of reflection and unattainability.  There is a bittersweetness to the chromaticism here that feels somewhat twisted and tortured as it gains in intensity.  The resulting fugue also adds to this sense a bit before moving into a brutal formal rondo.  It is a striking and intriguing piece that pulls along through a variety of sonic images that seem to move between the more Romantic and lyrical and the more brutal and angular dissonance.

    The literature and repertoire for the 20th Century string quartet tends to hinge around those of Bartok and Shostakovich.  So it is equally telling to note that Korngold wrote his first two essays in this genre while the former composer was working on his own second and third quartets.  Korngold’s first two works are firmly rooted in the post-Romanticism of Zemlinsky perhaps most closely.  The third quartet was one of the first absolute works the composer began after being a very successful film music composer.  Begun in 1944 and completed the following year, the work was the first to mine themes from his film works.  The opening movement explores the interval of a major seventh which also is a unifying factor throughout the work.  It is cast in a more traditional sonata form and seems to imply a tinge of regret.  The scherzo bears perhaps the closest parallel to that of Bartok’s style.  The music breaks at the center to explore the lyrical theme from Between Two Worlds.  The harmonic theme from The Sea Wolf finds its way into the folkish third movement.  For the finale, music from Devotion, also appears.  Though pulled from his other musical life, Korngold explores and develops these themes still further creating deeply emotional and intimate work.  Themes also recur in the conclusion to bring a larger unity to the piece.  One gets the sense that Korngold felt these great themes needed to be cast in more serious settings so that they would have a new life and not be forgotten.  It is as if he is reflecting on the sort of international serious work that his early music had promised, and which had been shattered to become a Hollywood composer and the negative connotations that went with it.

    As a sort of final encore, the quartet has chosen an arrangement of the hymn-like A Walk to Caesarea.  The piece was originally written to a poem by Hannah Szenes (herself a victim of the holocaust) and set to music by David Zehavi in 1945.  The quartet plays a version arranged by Boris Pigovat.  Hence, the album closes with a piece that honors these oft-ignored and silenced pieces.

    The group plays these pieces with great attention to detail and articulation.  The performances here are marked by excellent rhythmic ensemble coupled with quite beautiful lyricism when called for throughout the performance.  The acoustic is a bit on the dry side lending the sound a more immediate and closer feel.  The inclusion of the Korngold will likely grab the attention of the casual browser and they will be rewarded with a fine performance of that quartet, but many will relish the discovery of these Schulhoff and Ullmann works the most.