Slices - A Cross-section of Classsical Wlorks For Small Ensemble BURNS: Carnival. SAINSBURY: Soliloquy. SUNDIN: Daugava. BAKKER: Duo for Violin and Clarinet. BEELER: Cadenzas. Flute, Clarinet, Viola, & Piano Quartet No. 2. RUSNAK: Kyripo. FLETCHER: Avalokiteshvara's Taxi.
Moravian Philharmonic Winds; Vit Muząík (violin); Karolina Rojahn (piano); Mark Berger (viola); Yhasmin Valenzuela (clarinet); Lina Hennessy (flute).
Navona Records NV5874 TT: 54:32

Smorgasbord. I suppose when most people hear the phrase "contemporary music," their jaws clench, mainly because they have in their heads a certain narrow sliver of contemporary music. I must admit that I don't like some contemporary music, but in no higher proportion than music of any other time. After all, I can give a miss to almost entire sections of the Nineteenth Century (bel canto opera, for example). Nobody likes everything. On the other hand, I've always felt it important to like or dislike individual works, rather than genres or periods. Composers often pleasantly surprise me, and ideally, I want to love a work of art, rather than attend to it out of duty. I can love some difficult music – Schoenberg, Bartók, Webern, Lutoslawski, Reich, Babbitt -- usually because it moves me in such a way that the difficulty becomes secondary.

Few things give me greater joy than discovering a wonderful score for the first time. That's why I appreciate sampler recordings like this one. They give me the opportunity to meet many different composers and therefore many different types of music. Of course, it doesn't always work out, but this particular collection doesn't miss often. Furthermore, all the composers here are new to me. The big surprise here was how many of them have a jazz background, although none of the works sound particularly jazzy.

Reynard Burns's Carnival mines the vein of American neoclassicism, with a light, witty score which lives up to its title. Burns talks about a "dark side" to the piece, but unless he's talking merely about the use of minor mode or the occasional slower tempo, I don't hear it. What he thinks of as dark, I consider contemplative.

Håkan Sundin, a Swede, comes up with a tribute to the Daugava, a Latvian river which flows through Riga. Unlike Smetana's Moldau, Sundin's score is a miniature for flute and clarinet, with the two instruments proceeding largely in contrapuntal imitation.

The Dutch Hans Bakker contributes another duo, in three movements, ostensibly for violin and clarinet. Bakker however says that he has written "instrument-neutral" music, so that a number of combinations can perform the piece – an interesting example of Gebrauchsmusik. The first and third movements are canonic.

Alan Beeler, the oldest composer here, also writes the most familiar music – familiar, that is, to listeners who paid attention to the "hard music" from after World War II through the Seventies. In many ways, it typifies what went on in the academy during that period. Cadenzas, inspired by the asynchrony of John Cage, Beeler conceived as a graphic score. Wanting it to have a life after he was no longer around to explain to musicians what he intended, he rewrote it in conventional notation. It's very well done of its type, but it doesn't differ significantly from other such works. Furthermore, I sense that the asynchrony, rather than some overwhelming need to express oneself, was the point.

I like the quartet better. It's not only less rigid, but there's mellow humor and warmth. I also hear in its harmonies some affinity with jazz. My favorite movement is the slow second, filled with many poetic moments, especially a passage where each instrument plays entirely by itself.

Christina Rusnak's Kyripo fails to make any impression on me, so I can't talk about it, other than to say it's a sectional piece, modal in style, which alternates ostinato-like passages with chorale.

From his liner notes, I infer William A. Fletcher's maverick sensibility, a bit like the Nairopa Institute composer William Douglas. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara represents compassion – the "lord who looks down," an intercessor. I have no idea what the title Avaloktieshvara's Taxi means and, in good Buddhist fashion, don't particularly care. This little wind quartet (minus horn) makes a little country jaunt, even and refreshing, with the occasional beep of the car horn.

for me, Lionel Sainsbury's Soliloquy for solo violin constitutes the big item on the program, even at only slightly less seven minutes. For a listener, that's a bit of a stretch to stick with only one instrument (incidentally, Bach's famous chaconne runs twice as long). To me, a piece for solo melody instrument truly tests a composer, since he can't resort to harmony, major change of instrumental color, or counterpoint to keep interest. A string instrument like the violin offers some alleviation. It can occasionally produce chords, although a "chorale" passage lies outside of idiomatic writing. An artful composer can trick the ear into hearing counterpoint, but really the writing remains mainly a single line. Can a composer's melody sustain interest over the long haul? Some well-known composers have failed to write solo sonatas that convinced a listener as music.

The work begins maestoso with a fanfare idea which alternates with a more lyric modal passage. Both ideas have strong profiles, and you tend to remember them. This allows Sainsbury to build a relatively large structure, ingeniously varying those ideas. Its drama grips the listener. A difficult piece to play, it seems to me something virtuosi are looking for. This piece introduces Sainsbury to me. I'll be looking out for more by him.

The performers deliver at a high level. I have to single out Vit Muząík, concertmaster of the Moravian Philharmonic, for a magnificent rendering of the Sainsbury. The engineers have come up with an ideal chamber sound. Navona also gives you extended-content goodies if you put into a computer's CD drive: scores to all the pieces, ringtones of some of the music (believe it or not), and a full set of liner notes. Unfortunately, no printed booklet, which may save trees but also cuts out those without computers.

S.G.S. (October 2013)