Tootle & Pick
* Beaser: Mountain Songs (excerpts)
* Tower: Snow Dreams
* Riley: Cantos Desiertos
* Liebermann: Sonata for Flute and Guitar, op. 25
* Schickele: Windows, 3 Pieces for Flute and Guitar
Alexandra Hawley, flute
Jeffrey McFadden, guitar
Naxos 8.559146 Total time: 64:51
Summary for the Busy Executive: Music to kick back by.
It turns out that two of the oldest instruments in the world go very
well together. The music written for them generally shows an attractive
intimacy, which the works here don't belie.
Robert Beaser has unfortunately come off as a fine craftsman amounting
to very little in other works I've heard. Paula Robison and Eliot Fisk,
the dedicatees, performed the complete Mountain Songs, arrangements of
traditional tunes, for the Musical Heritage Society (still available,
by the way). I found the complete set a bit dull, but these excerpts
fare much better: "Barbara Allen," "The House Carpenter," "He's Gone
Away," and "Cindy." Hawley and McFadden have skimmed the cream, and to
me this pruning gives the set considerable life. Constant Lambert once
wrote that the only thing you can do with a folk tune is to repeat it
louder. Not quite the truth, it nevertheless points to the danger of
working with material in which the music doesn't change from stanza to
stanza. A folk tune depends for much of its variety on words and story.
When you take these away, what can a composer do to make up for the lack?
Rarely is the tune in itself so good that it can bear all by itself more
than two repetitions. For variety, Beaser inserts subtle changes in the
accompaniments and in the melodies themselves as well as extended, related
interludes between stanzas. With the sure-fire slow-fast-slow-fast
progression of movements, this becomes one attractive set.
The time has come to stop regarding Joan Tower as a woman composer.
She's a composer of considerable strength, when she puts her mind to it.
For me, her work divides in two: music that proceeds "pictorially," and
music that proceeds by "narrative" or argument. In general, I greatly
prefer the latter, since her pictures often make for static music. Snow
Dreams does have its inspiration in a scene, but it doesn't bog down.
First, it captures the crisp isolation of winter, where the mental ear
becomes sensitive to every sound. Second, she finds and exploits the
tonal variety in two fairly limited instruments, and she creates, in my
opinion, the most sophisticated and complex conversation between the two
parts. Each player gets a couple of extended solos as well as ensemble
passages. The opening phrase, for solo guitar, repeated twice, calls
for three different colors. Yet at no point does Tower take the easy
way out by resorting to the bizarre. The atmosphere throughout a fairly
long movement is meditative, and yet interest never flags.
Many consider Terry Riley, along with LaMonte Young, one of the founders
of Minimalism. Certainly, Riley's In C may be one of the most influential
compositions of the postwar period, a milestone in the breaking up of
postwar dodecaphonic hegemony. Steve Reich and John Adams have acknowledged
its inspiration. Cantos Desiertos shows the composer three decades
later, mellower, less aching to prove something and more interested in
making music. The Cantos consist of dances inflected with Latin-American
rhythms: samba, tango, and so on. Minimalism has left its traces in the
simplicity of structure, the paring down of notes, the ease with literal
repetition (although not maniacal repetition). I can pay the score no
higher compliment than to say that these dances sound like Latin music
written by an insider, someone so at home in the idioms that he avoids
the obvious cliche or boilerplate imitation and instead can play around
in the neighborhood.
Like much of neo-Romantic Lowell Liebermann's music, the ambitious Sonata
for flute and guitar - another Robison-Fisk commission - demands great
virtuosity from the players in both of its movements: a nocturne followed
by a gigue. Unfortunately, I simply don't care. The music seems to me
second-hand and facile. I miss a personal point of view or a strong
personality behind the notes.
Peter Schickele's Windows, on the other hand, does much more with fewer
means. The composer wrote them as a wedding present to his brother (a
violinist) and his bride (an amateur on the guitar). The guitar part
proved too difficult for his sister-in-law, and Schickele arranged the
piece twice, once with flute and then with clarinet. Schickele has
always struck me as carrying a torch for the musical enthusiasms of the
Sixties: jazz, soul, blues, Renaissance and Medieval, folk (traditional,
world, and modern urban), Baroque, and Ives, as well as the beginnings
of HIP performance. Windows exemplifies these loves with a modal "Pavane,"
an urban-folk "Cantilena," and a "Refrain" that evokes African music.
The pieces are short, but pungent. I find the "Pavane" especially
beautiful. This is, I suppose, neo-Romanticism, but one without an
Hawley and McFadden are a sensitive duo. McFadden, an extremely musical
guitarist, lets you hear music, rather than guitar-playing. Hawley plays
her flute at the same level. They advocate the virtues of all these
pieces and indeed more strongly than the formidable Robison and Fisk in
the Beaser. The Tower, the most substantial piece, fittingly receives
the most thoughtful account. Overall, the CD puts out a relaxed vibe,
just the thing to fire up in the evening after a hard day at work.
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