Three CDs that appeared in the mailbox

Music from the last Romantic generation to the latest electronica

By Peter Alexander Sept. 6 at 3:30 p.m.

One of the perks of my work is that people send me CDs in the hopes I will write about them. Sometimes they are offered, by artists or recording companies, and I accept them when they have a Boulder connection—CU faculty, artists who have appeared here, or recordings from Boulder’s Starkland label—or the recording especially appeals to my interests; and sometimes they just show up in my mailbox.

My Life In Music: Ruth Slenczynska. CD. Ruth Slenczynska, piano. Decca Classics B0035173-02.

One of the latter was “My Life in Music,” recorded by the remarkable 97-year-old pianist Ruth Slenczynska. Born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1925, she studied with a virtual who’s-who of early-20th-century pianists, including Josef Hoffman, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, Egon Petri and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Because the recording was conceived as a narrative of the pianist’s life story, the program comprises pieces that have some connection to her teachers or people she knew. Unsurprisingly, the are pieces by Rachmaninoff, who was her teacher; Samuel Baber, whom she met when she was five; Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,” which she first heard performed by another of her teachers, Josef Hofmann. Chopin is heavily represented as a nod to Slenczynska’s Polish heritage.

Her playing on the recoding is elegant, restrained and always marked by the utmost clarity. Throughout she plays with a restrained Romantic spirit marked by stylistic freedom that never descends into excess, but the air of restraint that marks her playing fits some pieces better than others.

Chopin’s Grande valse brillante, for example, is so controlled and carefully played as to be almost pallid. This approach fits Rachmaninoff’s “Daisies,” Barber’s Nocturne (“Homage to John Field)” and Debussy’s La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) better than a piece titled “brillante.”

My favorite tracks were “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,” Chopin’s Etude in E major, op. 10 no. 3, and the adjacent track, the Fantasie in F minor, op. 49. In all of these Slenczynska brought out the contrasts in the score well, showing great control and surprising strength for a pianist of 97. The clarity of her playing was especially welcome in the fugue of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp major that closes the album.

This remarkable collection is highly recommended, both for the precise quality of playing and for the fascinating collection of pieces that are important to a great artist from a generation that has almost disappeared. Here is the full track listing as it appears on the CD:

Rachmaninoff: “Daisies,” op. 38 no. 3
—Prelude in G, op/ 32 no. 5
Samuel Barber: Nocturne (“Homage to John Field),” op. 33
—“Let’s Sit it Out: I’d Rather Watch” from “Fresh from West Chester
Chopin: Grande valse brillante, Op. 18
—Berceuse in D-flat, op. 57
Grieg: “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”
Debussy: La Fille aux cheveux de lin  (The girl with the flaxen hair)
Chopin: etude in E major, op. 10 no. 3
—Fantasie in F minor, op. 4
—Prelude in F major, op. 29 no. 23
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp, BWV 848

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Brazilian Landscapes: Music for solo violin from piano. CD. Mariama Alcântara, violin. Da Vinci Classics C00501.

One of the recordings that came to my attention due to a Boulder connection is “Brazilian Landscapes,” a stunning collection of music for solo violin recorded by Mariama Alcântara, a doctoral graduate of CU Boulder where she studied violin with Harumi Rhodes. Born in Brazil, Alcântara has studied in the US and performed here as well as in Austria, France, and her native country.

The recording features two extensive works: the eye-opening 26 Prelúdios Caracteristicos e Concertantes para Violino Só (26 Characteristic and Concertante Preludes for Solo Violin) by Flausino Vale, a Brazilian violinist/composer form the first half of the 20th century; and the world-premiere recording of Partita para Violino Solo, a suite modeled on Bach’s partitas for solo violin that was commissioned by Alcântara from composer André Mehmari.

Ranging in length from one to two-and-a-half minutes, Vale’s preludes are violin showpieces comparable to Paganini’s caprices and other encore favorites. They make use of a wide variety of string techniques, including strumming (marked “alla guitarra”), left-hand pizzicato, harmonics, rapid arpeggiation and wide leaps across the fingerboard. 

The interest of these pieces lies in the rhythmic impulse—most are in faster tempos—and the variety of playing techniques, rather than pure melody. The individual preludes were inspired in part by the landscapes of Minas Gerais, the mountainous Brazilian state where Vale lived. Musically they draw on indigenous Brazilian rhythms and styles, particularly Caipira, a style associated with the rural life of Minas Gerais.

I urge all violinists to consider adding these pieces to their repertoire as encores. They are as enticing and entertaining as anything by Paganini but with an added element of Brazilian exoticism. I particularly liked No. 1 (“Batuque”), opening with an alla guitarra flourish, followed by rapid arpeggios and left-hand pizzicato; No. 5 (“Tico Tico”), with virtuoso arpeggiation over a repeated pedal note and a surprise ending that features extremely high harmonics disappearing into the stratosphere; No. 10 (“Interrogando o Destino”), an intriguing mix of stylistic ideas; and the sentimental No. 23 (“Implorando”). There is enough variety in those alone to capture the imagination or fill out any program; the whole set is wondrously varied.

Mehmari’s Partita comprises seven movements that draw on diverse Brazilian styles, just as Bach’s partitas draw on Baroque dances. This is a more serious work than Vale’s set, going deeper into the expression of each individual movement. It opens with a meandering, improvisatory movement titled Devaneio (Fantasy), a Bachian prelude re-imagined.

That is followed by Choro (Lament), a Brazilian genre marked by improvisation and, despite the title, fast tempos and a cheerful affect. Both the movements marked Furioso and Moto Perpetuo are effective displays of virtuosity, virtuosically played. Árida na Quarta Corda (Arid on the fourth string, a play on the popular title of Bach’s “Air on the G string”) is a beautifully played, haunting movement that pays homage to Brazil’s arid Northeast.

A native Brazilian, Alcântara is completely at home with the Brazilian styles of both works, and she handles the virtuoso flourishes with aplomb. Her graceful, stylish phrasing is always a treat. These are splendid recordings, worth investigating and revisiting over time. 

“Brazilian Landscapes” can be purchased here.

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Kotoka Suzuki: Shimmer, Tree. CD. Starkland ST-236. Available Sept. 22 from Bandcamp. 

Boulder’s Starkland label has released a new recording, a fascinating and creative collection of pieces by Japanese-born composer Kotoka Suzuki with the enticing title “Shimmer Tree.” A graduate of Indiana University and Stanford University, Suzuki currently is on the faculty of the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Her official bio describes Suzuki as a “composer and sound artist,” whose work “frequently investigates the relationship between visual elements and sound, often crossing into theater.” This suggests that a sound recording only captures part of her compositions, which is the same impression I received listening to “Shimmer Tree.”

The seven pieces on the disc (see full list below) are purely electronic (three), electronic with live performance (three), and one for string quartet. They all unfold at a generally slow pace that is both dreamy and alluring. The listener has time to feel their way into Suzuki’s highly individual aural landscapes.

The opening track, “Epiphyllum Oxypetalum (Queen of the Night),” is a purely electronic piece for 14 speakers. It takes its name from a species of cactus that only blooms at night—a fitting reference, since the piece itself is inspired by imaginary places from Suzuki’s dreams.

The music emerges from and returns to silence, just as our dreams emerge from and return to emptiness. The sounds Suzuki has created are highly evocative of the specific scenes she describes in her notes, “a jungle landscape of moving trees” and “a deep, dark sea.” Throughout there seems to be an unknown threat, ominous movements just out of sight. If you awoke to hear this in the night, it would be more terrifying then wonderful, although the effect for a fully awake listener is more alluring.

“Minyo” (Japanese for folk song) uses the instruments of the string quartet to suggest the sounds of Japanese instruments, including Koto and taiko drums. Played convincingly by the recently dissolved Spektral Quartet, the score ranges from isolated wisps of sound to full chords.

“Automata” is a phantasmagorical audio tour through—according to the subtitle—a “Mechanical Garden.” Rapid ticking sounds, fragments of mechanical toy noises, music boxes, the ringing of bells and quacks are all embedded in an electronic soup. It all stimulates the imagination to visualize the garden with all of its entertaining and noisy devices.

If ”Automata” is the most delightful piece on the disc, the following track, “Reservoir,” is the most disturbing. A text taken from a Web page, now long disappeared, that appears to be instructions for suicide is alternately spoken, whispered and sung in both tenor and countertenor registers. Javier Hagen gives a virtuoso performance of all the vocal styles required, but no performance can erase the creepy climate created by the text.

The title track, written in memory of Suzuki’s teacher Jonathan Harvey rounds out the disc . The combination of ruminative piano (evocatively performed by Cristina Valdes) and electronic sounds suggests a space just beyond consciousness. Musical fragments that never quite coalesce create a dreamy sense of floating in that undefined space, which in effect takes us back to the opening piece on the album.

If you enjoy electronic music and pieces that suggest more than they define, this is a disc you will want to hear. It is recommended for that limited but committed audience.

Shimmer, Tree track list

1.    Epiphyllum Oxypetalum (Queen of the Night)
2.    In Praise of Shadows. Performed by Suzuki with paper instrument
3.    Minyo. Performed by Spektral Quartet
4.    Automata (Mechanical Garden)
5.    Reservoir. Performed by Javier Hagen, tenor/countertenor
6.    Sagiso¯
7.    Shimmer, Tree. Performed by Cristina Valdes, piano

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