CD Reviews

FIVE AS ONE • Sunderman Ww Qnt • CON BRIO 21852 (51:14)SKOLNIK Serenade. C. MCDOWALL Subject to the Weather. HAAS Quintetto. RUNNING Aria. R.COHEN Calder’s Circus

This absolutely delightful disc made me smile from beginning to end. The music here is attractive, often light-hearted, sometimes merely beautiful, and always well written for wind instruments. Three of the composers are American, one is British, and one Czech. The Sunderman Woodwind Quintet consists of faculty members from Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and they offer a compelling demonstration of the high level of talent that can be found in U.S. conservatories, playing with spirit, a lovely sound, tight ensemble, and real personality. 

 Walter Skolnik is an American composer born in 1934 and now living in New York City, with a long history of writing for wind instruments. His five-movement Serenade balances nicely the perky with the lyrical. A third-movement Romanza is warm and poetic, the waltz movement has a natural lilt, and the finale is a lively toe-tapper, played with infectious rhythmic snap in this performance.

 Cecilia McDowall is a British composer, born in 1951, whose website describes her as one of a “new generation of highly communicative musicians who favor writing which, without being in any way facile, is brightly cogent, freshly witty and expressive in its own right.” Subject to the Weather has all of those qualities. It was inspired by the beauty of the Welsh Border Marches,  the site of a 19th-century Methodist communal farm. The title refers to the fact that no other occupation is as subject to the weather as farming. The music, after a lively dance-like section, seems to be inspired by Welsh and Scottish folk tunes, and is quite beautiful.  

Pavel Haas was a Czech composer (1899–1944), a student of Janáček and a victim of the Holocaust (he was interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and died when its inmates were sent to Auschwitz). His work is strongly influenced by Czech and Moravian folk music, and also by the style of his teacher. One can hear some similarities between Haas’s quintet (composed in 1929) and Janáček’s Concertino for Piano and Chamber Ensemble (1925) and the Capriccio for Piano and Winds (1926).  

 Arne Running (1943–2016) was an American composer and clarinetist active in Philadelphia. This recording must have been completed and published prior to his death, because the notes give no indication that Running had died.  His Aria, as the title suggests, is an extremely lyrical piece, with the flute and oboe singing the melody and the lower instruments providing the introduction and accompaniment. It is quite an attractive work, and at four and half minutes would make a very successful encore for any woodwind quintet program.  

 Robert S. Cohen is another American, born in 1945 and a composer of many works in a wide range of genres. Calder’s Circus, as you might guess, was inspired by an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York of Alexander Calder’s playful wire circus sculptures. The titles of the four movement suite hint at its wit and carefree mood: “Big Top Parade,” “Rigoulot, the Strong Man,” “Lion Lullaby (with Mouse),” and “Doze Friggin’ Clowns.” Cohen demonstrates genuine tongue-in-cheek humor, and the Sunderman players perform with a smile, right up to the raspberry with which it ends! The idiom sounds just the way we imagine circus music should sound and makes a wonderful conclusion to the disc.  

 In fact, a smile is my predominant takeaway from these performances. The music may not plumb profound depths of human emotion, but charm is a quality in short supply these days (in music and in life, I fear), which makes this release all the more welcome. Warm, clear, well-balanced recorded sound rounds everything out. The accompanying notes are rather short, but they provide enough information. This is one case where all you need to do is sit back and enjoy.      Henry Fogel

This article originally appeared in Issue 42:2 (Nov/Dec 2018) of Fanfare Magazine

 

Wind music by a clutch of contemporary composers (four of the five works are premiere recordings) meets Pavel Haas’s superb Wind Quintet in this most entertaining disc. 

 There is a palpable freshness to Walter Skolnik’s Serenade (1994). The first movement, “Pastorale,” says exactly what it needs to, not a jot more, while the sliver of a Scherzo has a lovely agile part for horn, beautifully delivered by Kenneth Bell. The Waltz, the fourth movement, is particularly intriguing, more of an exploration of the concept of a waltz, as if the players are holding up the material they present for consideration; pitted against this is the helter-skelter finale in which the virtuosity of the flute, clarinet, and oboe are foregrounded. 

I enjoyed a complete disc of music by Cecilia McDowall on the Dutton label (reviewed in Fanfare 33:3). Her Subject to the Weather, written in 2010 and given its U.S. premiere in 2014 by the present ensemble, offers more complex fare than the Skolnik. The title references the effect of the weather on farming and inspires McDowall to some highly beautiful harmonic writing. Crucial to those harmonies is a finely developed sense of tuning, and that is exactly what is provided here. 

The Haas Quintet is the only piece that has competition, some six versions available at the time of writing. My preference has lain with the Musica Rediviva disc on Orfeo performed by the Stuttgart Wind Quintet (an all-Haas disc), but the Supraphon disc of quintets by Haas, Janáček, and Foerster performed by the Belfiato Quartet certainly holds an appeal. This performance by the Sunderman Wind Quintet, though, is expert. One of the first works by Haas to be recognized outside the then-Czechoslovakia, the Quintet occupies a pungent sound world. One can certainly feel the sense of fun from the players in the “Ballo ecentrico”; the work ends on a slightly quizzical note. 

The short “lyrical song” that is Aria by Arne Running actually has a partner piece (a quodlibet) that is not included here. However, the piece is skillful: Long melodies soar over a chorale lower down. Running does not overplay his hand, and the piece is all the stronger for it. 

Finally, Calder’s Circus by Robert S. Cohen, which brings us back full circle to the freshness of the Skolnik Serenade. The Sunderman Wind Quintet premiered this piece in 2016 at the request of the composer. Inspired by the circus sculptures of Alexander Calder at the Whitney Museum in New York, and indeed by a film of Calder acting as ringmaster for his own sculptures, the result is a brilliantly written tour de force. No missing the circus elements of “Big Top Parade,” the first movement; the gestures of “Rigoulot, the Strong Man” could hardly be more illustrative. The charmingly entitled slow movement, “Lion Lullaby (with Mouse)” sings its song quietly, tenderly, before  “Doze Friggin’ Clowns” finds its angular way onto the scene. This is terrific fun, performed with real confidence and verve.

 The disc is well recorded throughout.  Colin Clarke  

 This article originally appeared in Issue 42:2 (Nov/Dec 2018) of Fanfare Magazine

 

 

The following review appears in The Horn Call, October, 2018.

The Sunderman Wind Quintet of Gettysburg College has a fresh and fun new recording to share. Composed of Sunderman Conservatory wind faculty, the quintet has compiled five works, four of which are premier recordings.

 Walter Skolnik’s Serenade is a premier recording so new it has not yet been listed on Skolnik’s web site. It has five movements and is an apt one to supplement a recital program if you’re looking for new repertoire. It opens with a lovely Pastorale, like a pentatonic sunrise. Don’t get used to the scenery

as the texture and harmonies change like a sunset. The Scherzo movement has some hints of Milhaud, and its ending will make you smile. Sometimes the articulations in this movement don’t quite match between instruments but it’s a minor point. The Romanza has some Nielsen-esque harmonies, and the high-register bassoon is impressive, as is the extended horn solo. The Waltz sounds careful, like a hazy summer day when you feel a little listless. This waltz seems more about color than adventure. In the Finale, the energy returns!

Subject to Weather  by Cecilia McDowall, a British composer born in 1951, captures impressions of a 19th-century communal farm in the stunning landscape of the Welsh Border Marshes. As with all farms, the weather can make or break you. The piece has a cool groove reminiscent of Ligeti’s septuplet ostinato movement in his Six Bagatelles.  Above the grooving ostinato are fetching lyrical flute lines, eventually turning into a flute cadenza with extended techniques (note bending, flutter-tonguing). Coming out of the cadenza you could swear the existence of a lost track from the film score to Titanic. The rich harmonies and nostalgic longing create an enchanting moment. This piece is moving.

 Pavel Haas’s Quintetto is the only work that isn’t a premier. This four-movement composition should be a quintet standard if it is not already. It makes a good centerpiece for an album or a recital program, although it is a little dark and mordant at times. The flute and clarinet unison lines in the Preludio areeerie, a wonderfully chilling sound. Add to that the flute and horn in octaves ‒ an interesting color, especially with the busy oboe and clarinet work underneath. The tight, crisp flourishes at the end between the flute and oboe feel like a thumbed nose(or worse) due to some ill-timed road rage. Preghiera  is a Latin root word for “precarious.” It is a barren wasteland with sinister flashes of lightning, a possible musical metaphor for political unrest. The full-ensemble decrescendo at the conclusion of the movement is effective. The Ballo Eccentrico reminds one of a festive parade, announcing a troupe of, say, thespians coming to town to perform. The horn is impressively high and confident-sounding. Epilogo is foreboding, anxious, and angry until the last chord, a Picardy-effect that gives us all some hope.

Arne Running’s Aria  is a beautiful piece. The composer qualifies his work by admitting that he does not have timeto write more. Well, we want more Running! Sometimes, especially noticeable in this track, Sunderman Quintet is not precisely in tune but oh-so very nearly. This is especially perceptible in the unison passage toward the end of the movement,  also in certain cadences throughout. This ensemble will sparkle with only minor adjustments, possibly all to do with balance. It is possible that the horn is often too present and tends to dominate its colleagues.

Calder’s Circus  has all the hallmarks of a Francaix work with its energy and humor, mutes and trills. Big Top Parade is fun and full of vigor until that bassoon becomes an inebriated clown. But he’s not alone: soon the whole ensemble’s nipping at the special sauce as the parade tempo slows and begins to wobble. But sure as the sun shines, the buzz burns off and theenergy resumes. Rigoulot, the Strong Man begins with a heavyfooted horn, announcing the approach of our protagonist. The trilling high winds give one the impression of Rigoulot shaking his arms out, warming up for a massive hammer strike to ring the bell at the carnival. Nice horn solo! Lion Lullaby is arguably the sweetest of all the music on this recording. The parenthetical mouse is not the irritated horn  (lion) but the scrambling, trilling piccolo. Doze Friggin’ Clowns concludes this romp of a piece. Impressive chromatic running lines and sharp articulated passages permeate a spirited opening.. Then the friggin’ clowns either get sleepy or schnockered once again as they race in all directions, sometimes in pairs or trios. There seems to be a reference to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik  as the final endpoint of this movement. Do you hear that, too?  This capable ensemble has done a bang-up job with this recording of interesting and varied music. You will want to supplement your quintet libraries with some of these fine pieces.

If there is one suggestion to offer Sunderman Quintet, it is notto be too careful. Go for it! 

Nathan Pawalek, freelancer