Wendy Putnam, violin; Thomas Martin, clarinet;
Vylas Baksys, piano; Owen Young, cello; Lawrence Wolfe, bass; Daniel Bauch, percussion (in Brubeck); Putnam, Martin, Baksys (in Gandolfi); Putnam, Baksys (in Foss)
is almost always a pejorative word in a review, a classic case of damning with
faint praise. But Reference Recordings' vivid-sounding new CD of contemporary
chamber music would be "deeply pleasant" if such a thing could be said — we can
settle on "highly pleasing." Chris Brubeck and Michael Gandolfi, both in their
late 50s, contribute genial works, jazz-and-pop-inflected, that work well
together and are followed neatly by an "urban bluegrass" piece by the recently
deceased, constantly self-reinventing Lukas Foss.
Boston Symphony violinist Wendy Putnam, founder
of the Concord Chamber Music Society, appears in all three works, along with
pianist Vylas Baksys. But we move, or dwindle, from the larger-scale work by
Brubeck — 6-piece ensemble, 30 minutes — to the 23-minute Gandolfi trio
(clarinet-violin-piano) and close with Foss' playful 10-and-a-half-minute duo.
As one expects from RR, the recording is of very high quality, with a clear
spatial sense of the players and warm, natural sound for each instrument.
The three-movement Danzadel Soul (2006) by Chris Brubeck (yes, son of/collaborator with Dave, the jazz master) has a theatrical component — a sort of reversal of the finale of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony — that is only partly captured on the disc, and a good thing it's partial. A composer's note in the booklet describes the "Introductions and Flirtations" movement as opening with the clarinetist sitting alone onstage "before the audience is fully settled in their seats." The violinist begins to play offstage, breaking up the "reverie" of the clarinetist, who "looks increasingly annoyed…. One can hear the violinist walking on stage" and playing nicely in duet "until the cellist comes running out to join the party." Later the bassist and then percussionist enter the stage and finally the pianist "followed by the out-of-breath page turner." All this is to "allow the musicians to establish a more personal rapport with the audience" and cause the latter to "enjoy the music from a fresher perspective." But surely, when players are both talented and raring to go, this will provide all the "freshness" any audience needs. In any case, RR's recording engineers place Wendy Putnam distantly offstage to the left for her first passages, before she seemingly floats in to join the clarinet, but we get no audience buzz, footsteps or panting page turners. Amusingly, the movement starts out with the clarinetist seeming to tune on concert "A," but this very quickly leads to mellow improvisation-like noodling's, while the offstage violin music has a more Spanish cast to it. The idea of the piece is that all the instruments soon interact harmoniously with one another — though the piano does play a long solo passage, following which the clarinet tries to interject a klezmer or perhaps Zorba-the-Greek flavor, but the Latin mood takes over again.
The second movement, nicely titled "The Loneliness of Secrets," is a dreamy, melancholy quartet for cello, clarinet, violin and piano, with discreet backing by plucked bass and even more discreet percussion. The lively finale, "Celebraçion de Vida," is again Spanish-flavored and most like a piece for jazz combo. All the players acquit themselves extremely well, with the clarinet of Thomas Martin (Associate Principal with the BSO) a standout, his tone sweet even in the brightest passages.
The five Line
Drawings (2009) of Michael Gandolfi — arranged as a
fast-slow-fast-slow-fast suite — were inspired by drawings of Picasso, and
like them intended to be "concise, clear, [with] sureness of ‘stroke,' light
and ‘airy.'" Melody and counterpoint prevail, the counterpoint especially in
the first piece, a tight but complex canon. Each of the five pieces has a
special character; perhaps my favorite is the third, "Hidden Variable," said to
have a "staple of the repertoire" embedded in its "hybrid variation-form." I
couldn't guess the "staple" (conceivably Beethoven's Grosse
Fuge?) but I liked its jagged melodic leaps and irregular rhythms.
The fourth "drawing," an "Obbligato Aria," is lovely in its slow pace and
interweaving of the three parts.
Park Reel, a relatively late work (1987), has a playful title meant
to suggest both urbanity (New York) and bluegrass (the "reel"). The violin
fiddles away, with frequent rhythmic lurches; to be sure (we're not too far from
the world of Copland's "Hoedown"), while the piano provides some unusual sounds,
like strumming of the strings on occasion. The piece does go on for quite a bit
longer than seems necessary, but maybe it would be more fun to watch in the
concert hall. Foss proposed an optional ending in which an electronic playback,
delayed by two beats, accompanies the last couple of minutes of the live
performance in a kind of crazy canon. The CD applies this option by simple
overdubbing of the recording, creating a jangling finale with an abrupt close
that Charles Ives would have enjoyed.