FLEETING REALMS: Chamber Works • Xiao’an Li3, cond; Vít Mužík2 (vn); Kinga Bacik;3 Nan-Cheng Chen6, Jiří Fajkus2, David Speltz1 (vc); Arielle Burke3 (fl); Michael Norsworthy3 (cl); Daniel Beilman3 (bn); Doug Masek1 (a sax); Lucie Kaucká2,5, SangYoung Kim7,8, Kelly Yu-Chieh Lin6, Martin Smutný5, Louise Thomas1 (pn); Matt Sharrock4 (vib); Kathryn Guthrie7,8 (sop); Neal Ferreira7 (ten); David Salsbery Fry8 (bs) • NAVONA 6107 (75:45 Text and Translation)
BABCOCK 1Irrational Exuberance. J. TANG 2Snowy Landscape. N. MORROW 3Dawn. 4Luca’s Dream. MAKI 5Five Impromptus for Two. C. MORRIS 6Crosscurrents. J. SUMMER 7He Took Me By the Wrist, OS1/10. 8They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier, OS2/2
This is an unusual grab-bag of works—not even all chamber music by the usual definition, since two are opera scenas—for which the label has tried to create some cohesion, citing online its “pervasive uplifting quality,” and “warmth and playfulness” even in the more “dissonant” works. If it doesn’t work—and the argument falls apart well before one gets to Joseph Summer’s settings of Hamlet—that doesn’t diminish a bit the high quality of music and music-making to be found on this intriguing release.
Foremost on the program, though they come at the end, are the two pieces that do not fit at all, the Hamlet settings. They are part of a larger venture, Summer’s four-hour Shakespeare opera, but these are earlier versions of two scenes for voice and piano, part of the composer’s ever growing collection of settings of (primarily) Shakespeare, collectively titled Oxford Songs. He Took Me by the Wrist is Ophelia’s act II complaint to her father, Polonius, regarding Hamlet’s suddenly bizarre behavior towards her, while They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier is her famous act IV mad scene that convinces Laertes that revenge must be taken. Both have been recorded before, in previous releases of Summer’s The Shakespeare Concerts series on this label and Albany. One never tires of hearing his subtle, language-sensitive, and deeply expressive settings. SangYoung Kim offers penetrating if sometimes hard-edged accompaniment. Kathryn Guthrie reprises her naïf and whiney Ophelia with a tantalizing bit of self-awareness, while Neal Ferreira portrays her sheeplike brother with the requisite incomprehension. He Took Me by the Wrist includes, unlike Guthrie’s earlier recording, Polonius’s ad libitum part, taken with apt pomposity by David Salsbery Fry. I’d say this 19 minutes is worth the price of admission, if only as inducement to then explore the other ten releases of Summer’s music.
Happily a limited endorsement is unnecessary, as fêted Hollywood composer Bruce Babcock’s Irrational Exuberance, an unusually scored trio for alto saxophone, cello, and piano, opens the release with an engaging blend of concert hall, Dave Brubeck, and Paul Desmond. The instrumental colors are striking, thanks in part to the fine artists. The rhythmic exuberance depicted may be irrational, as title, notes, and the reflective central section suggest, but the composer’s message of hope in adversity could not be more timely and gratifying. Quite different, but equally appealing, is Hong Kongese composer Joyce Wai-chung Tang’s piano trio, Snowy Landscape, with its icy evocation of Berthe Morisot’s wintery watercolor, Paysage de neige. The use of harmonics at the beginning is breathtakingly—kudos to the wonderful trio—and there is drama, too, as crystalline stillness gives way to a darker malevolence that invades the scene and leaves it unsettled as the stillness returns.
Following perhaps a bit too closely on this are two examples of Nora Morrow’s sweetly naïve, nicely crafted dance music for children. Dawn, a quartet for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and cello—another unexpected but felicitous combination of instrumental sonorities—is a gentle and sunny celebration of movement and innocence. Luca’s Dream is a charming lullaby for solo vibraphone with eventual overtones of mischief and inconsequential peril that (just) prevent it cloying.
David Maki’s improvisational Five Impromptus for Two, for piano four hands, offers its own mischief and charm as well, though less fey than Morrow’s, starting out with aggressive angularity, but exploring as well tenderness, poignancy, and some get-down jazziness. A modified tone row is the basis for Craig Madden Morris’s fascinating Crosscurrents for cello and piano, but the resulting chromatic tonality barely counts as “dissonance” by current standards. In fact, the crosscurrents of the title derive from imitations of the same melodic material—the cello line soaring with the warmth of European Romanticism, and the piano maintaining a certain 20th-century edge. Here, as throughout, the performances by the artists listed above are committed, technically exemplary, and highly expressive.
Bruce Babcock’s trio is also available on another Navona CD dedicated to his work, Time, Still, so if it is your primary interest, that may be the way to go. Otherwise, these performances, and in most cases, works, are unique to this release. The recordings, from a variety of sources and times, are generally excellent, though the miking of the singers in the Summer scenes is not particularly kind to the voices. A tri-fold insert provides composer bios and photos, while the label’s release website offers liner notes, sung texts, scores for several of the works, and information on the performers. Perhaps this release should be treated as a sampler, as the label has made further exploration so easy to do. Given the variety of fine music offered, it’s hard to imagine anyone not making some agreeable discoveries. Ronald E. Grames
This article originally appeared in Issue 41:3 (Jan/Feb 2018) of Fanfare Magazine.