Not your typical Deutsche Grammaphon release, this disc is of a genre in which classical musicians toy with pop music arrangements (in this case two violins, piano, and bass) as well as a few showpieces. Such novelties when done carelessly (evidence the plethora of string quartet arrangements of rock music) it can be tedious but with clever arrangements and energetic musicians they can be marvelously entertaining. This disc is in the latter category.
This traverses some of the territory of the late great Yehudi Menuhin and his collaborations with the likes of Stephane Grappelli among others. This spirit of exploring the fun side of classical music (so to say) is very much present here. The virtuosity of the selections by Fritz Kreisler and Henryk Wieniawski are contrasted with virtuosity of variations written and arranged by the Janoskas. Add a cello and I’d love to hear these guys do the Schubert Trout Quintet. They rock in their way.
Here are the track names:
The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
Yesterday (Lennon and McCartney)
Praeludium and Allegro in the style of G. Pugnani (Kreisler)
Hello Prince! (Roman Janoska)
Len’s Dance (Frantisek Janowska)
Night and Day (Porter)
Penny Lane (Lennon and McCartney)
Variations on an Original Theme (Wieniawski)
Let it Be (Lennon and McCartney)
The ensemble consists of Ondrej Janoska, violin; Roman Janoska, violin; Frantisek Janoska, piano; and Julius Darvas, double bass. Nothing truly “revolutionary” here except for the title but fun and entertainment certainly are.
I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung. This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music. William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.
Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label. It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work. All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.
There are four pieces on 12 tracks. The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work. It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.
The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto. There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child. It is for piano with chamber ensemble. Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly. Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture. Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part. It works very well.
He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry. Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.
The arrestingly beautiful portrait that graces the cover of this album should be enough of a cover to judge this release favorably. Just the presence of these two women suggests that you’re in for some serious music making. Add to that the fact that this is one of those impeccable Cedille releases and you know that you, the listener, will not be disappointed. Here is another offering for Women’s History Month (even though the disc was released in November, 2018).
Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) is possibly the hottest composer to come out of Finland since Sibelius. Her career has steadily grown and she has written for chamber ensemble, stage, and orchestra. It is somehow satisfying to have this little portrait of her work. (This reviewer’s first encounter with the composer was in 1987 when the Kronos Quartet premiered her Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.) Five works are selected here and, if you don’t know this composer’s work, think Debussy, Takemitsu, and their ilk. No electronics on this disc though. Her work is a unique expression and pretty much listener friendly whether or not she uses electronics.
There are four chamber music pieces and a nice new performance of her masterful violin concerto, “Graal Théâtre”. Saariaho is so prolific such that one can only do a sort of “snapshot” selection of her work on a single CD. A decent retrospective would likely require several more discs.
Jennifer Koh is without doubt one of the finest violinists working today, especially in contemporary music. She even broke ground in one of the coolest blind castings in contemporary performance playing Einstein in Glass’ opera, “Einstein on the Beach”. For those who are unfamiliar the role of Einstein requires a violinist wearing a wig who plays some mighty difficult violin music at different points during the opera. This writer heard her in performance of this role at the revival in Berkeley a few years ago and it is a mark of Koh’s expertise that she made the role her own. Her range (which includes more conventional repertoire like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc.) is simply astounding and her technical ability puts her in competition for an ever growing list of commissions and other works she has added to her repertoire.
On this CD we get to hear Koh in the intimate settings of chamber music where the skills of listening to others is so critical as the individual voices weave their parts though the texture. While Saariaho is basically a well trained modernist romanticism and perhaps impressionism still remain a part of her palette. Joining Koh in the chamber pieces are: Nicholas Hodges, piano; Hsin Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Anssi Karttunen, cello;
Of course the big showpiece here is the violin concerto from 1994. This large scale work is actually as lucid and detailed as her chamber music, albeit with a larger range of sounds. It is a masterful composition and this appears to be the second recording it has received though apparently the first recording of the version with reduced orchestra played by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington (another reason to want this album). I wasn’t able to locate the other recording with Gidon Kremer but it is a good sign when you have more than one top soloist recording your work. Brava Ms. Koh and Ms. Saariaho! This is a collaboration blessed by the Gods. Saariaho x Koh = bliss.