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A New Music Séance

Jed Distler

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

This disc’s title, “Scenes from a New Music Séance”, refers to a short series of daylong concerts presented in San Francisco by Other Minds that juxtaposed works by deceased pioneering new-music icons and their artistic offspring. Not only does this splendid mixed program by the violin/piano duo of Kate Stenberg and Eva-Maria Zimmermann reflect the series’ inclusive spirit, but it also stands as an imaginatively-curated 75-minute recital in its own right. What is more, the duo’s dynamic, intensely expressive, and well-synchronized performances largely make compelling cases for the music they present.

Note the variety of attack and timbre they bring to the suspenseful sustained notes in the first part of Ronald Bruce Smith’s Tombeau. True, the droll and not very jazzy “Jazz” movement in Josef Hauer’s Five Pieces for Violin and Piano gets slightly slower and heavier as it progresses, but the folksong-like “Ballade” from Henry Cowell’s 1945 Sonata is appreciably conversational. Calm drones and slowly unfolding melodies characterize Charles Amirkhanian’s Rippling the Lamp, which showcases Stenberg in tandem with her pre-recorded self. Ruth Crawford’s four-movement 1925-26 Violin Sonata sounds fresher than ever with its combination of expressionistic rigor, textural transparency, and skillful deployment of registers between instruments. The duo’s pinpointed accuracy and concentration conveys a stark, sometimes austere impression that differs from the more playful Continuum interpretation on Naxos, yet proves equally convincing.

George Antheil’s seven-minute Second Sonata with added drums toward the end evokes images of a surrealist animated cartoon with its boisterous vaudeville song lampoons and madcap mood cross-cutting. Fine though the Duo’s interpretation may be, I prefer the sharper rhythmic contrasts that violinist Vera Beths and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw bring to the music on their out-of-print, all-Antheil release from Disques Montaigne. However, the duo weaves tonal magic in Alan Hovhaness’ three-part Khirgiz Suite. Listen to the sound sample excerpted from the opening Variations, where the simple yet eloquent violin theme and delicate high-register piano writing serenely coexist.

Danish composer Pelle Gudmunden-Holmgreen’s Double is a two-movement composition full of sparse, jagged gestures that generate tension and mystery both for what they say and for what they leave out. But the “break dance” analogy that the composer ascribes to the second movement’s repeated note riffs, percussive piano preparations, and bent fiddle notes seems as far-fetched as likening the finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh sonata to heavy metal. Henning Christiansen’s post-minimal Den Arkadiske goes on too long for what it expresses, and I can’t help but detect the resemblance of certain violin phrases to the theme from the 1960s U.S. television show “Bonanza” at about one minute and 35 seconds into the piece. On the other hand, Nonette by Amy X Neuberg is a delightful, lighthearted, and harmonically stimulating romp involving multitracked solo violin repeated notes, both arco and pizzicato. The work is complex yet easy to grasp. Excellent sonics and annotations make this stimulating release all the more appealing.

Recording Details:

Album Title: Scenes from a New Music Séance
Reference Recording: None for this collection

Works by Smith, Hauer, Crawford, Antheil, Hovhaness, Gudmundsen-Holmgree, Neuberg, & Christiansen

    Soloists: Kate Stenberg (violin); Eva-Maria Zimmermann (piano); Charles Amirkhanian (tenor, bass drums)

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