Three Intriguing New Releases Span the Decades
The intriguing, crisply performed new album, Airy: John McDonald Music for Violin and Piano is just out from Bridge Records with the composer at the keys along with Joanna Kurkowicz on violin. It’s a series of mainly short, wary, acerbic, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes incisive works written between 1985 and 2008. A handful of them are etudes. Minimalism is the usual but not always defining idiom here. Moments of virtual silence are pierced by anxiously leaping motives; subtle humor occasionally breaks the surface.
The duo open with a graceful, austere waltz interrupted by a fleeting. macabre piano cadenza. The second piece has calm violin contrasting with menacingly Schoenbergian piano, meant to evoke the nocturnal alienation of a Samuel Beckett poem. A Brief Pastiche of a Theme by Schoenberg is aggresively lively and rhythmic, punctuated by moments of stillness lit only by pianissimo overtones from the violin.
Four Single-Minded Miniatures range from tensely dancing, to bell-like and funereal, to a pillowy/jagged dichotomy and a bit of a fugal interlude between the two instruments. After a blip of a Mad Dance, there’s Lily Events – a Suite of Seven Little Studies, a wryly furtive, cinematic suite: they go slowly out into the water, pick the plants vigorously, wash the mud off and then retreat to a dry place. What anyone actually does with the lilies is unknown.
Kurkowicz negotiates the tricky tempos, understatedly edgy riffs and hypnotic ambience of McDonald’s Sonata for Solo Violin with a steady focus and deftly subtle variations in tone and dynamics. A Suite of Six Curt Pieces parses a Satie-esque creepiness more methodically than jarringly. which segues well into Lines After Keats. The album’s title track reverts to the occasionally turbulent juxtapositions of the opening piece.
Bridge Records, who put this one out, also has two very enjoyable, relatively new releases featuring the clarinet. The first is one of the label’s many archival rediscoveries, a reissue of the Stuyvesant Quartet‘s 1947 recording of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the crystalline-toned Alfred Gallodoro as soloist, in addition to two lively 1951 recordings of Mozart D major string quartets, K. 499 and 575, respectively. Active on and off from 1938 until 1965, the Stuyvesant Quartet was notable for being one of the first all-American string quartets (the old-world name is both completely honest and a bit disingenuous at the same time). The remastering – from pristine original vinyl – doesn’t lose the wonderful natural reverb of the church on the Westchester/Bronx border where the Mozart was recorded. It makes you wonder how many people might have seen a copy of the original Philharmonia record at a yard or library sale and passed up what’s probably now worth hundreds of dollars. And a somewhat more modern new release, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra‘s recording of Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 plus his Concerto for Clarinet conducted by Martin West, with Alexander Fiterstein as soloist, merges a velvety lushness with an agile, aptly dancing quality.
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