Review: Cedille Records’ New Releases Lead up to Annual Soirée

In the lead-up to its annual fundraising Soirée on September 8, this week Cedille Records will be issuing Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, a collection of quartets and quintets performed by guitarist Sharon Isbin and members of the Pacifica Quartet. These new recordings feature music by Italian and Spanish composers from the 18th and 20th centuries and continue Cedille’s practice of showcasing artists with ties to Chicago.

Sharon Isbin and Pacifica Quartet, Souvenirs of Spain & Italy

Given the quieter dynamic range of a strummed classical guitar, when juxtaposed to a bowed violin, the repertoire for chamber music with guitar and strings is rather limited. Several composers successfully overcame the challenges, and modern performances are helped with subtle amplification of the guitar. One such composer was Luigi Boccherini, an Italian living in Spain who flourished in the late 18th century. As a cellist, he wrote several quintets for that instrument and a traditional string quartet. He also wrote several for guitar and string quartet. Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet offer a wonderful recording of Boccherini’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D-major, G. 448. It has a bucolic, genteel feel that is very typical of Boccherini’s style, as encapsulated by “Pastorale,” the work’s opening movement. The finale, which also closes the release, Grave assai-Fandango¸ concludes with Spanish percussion offered by Edward Leandro playing castanets and tambourine. Opening the collection is a work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco that was written in 1951 for Andrés Segovia to perform in Los Angeles. This four-movement Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, op. 143, has the distinct feel of a traditional classical composition in movement makeup and tonality, which only occasionally drifts into atonality. The opening Allegro, Vivo e Schietto provides plenty of opportunities for Isbin to exchange melodic and rhythm passages with Pacifica Quartet both as a whole and individual players. Souvenirs of Spain & Italy includes Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D-Major, RV 93. This baroque work from the first half of the 18th century was originally scored for the lute, the precursor of the guitar, and a trio of other stringed instruments. This recording is an arrangement for guitar, violin, viola, and cello. The other work on the release is a modern work by Spanish composer Joaquín Turina. La oración del torero was originally scored for a quartet of lutes, but later rewritten for string quartet. It is performed here by the Pacifica Quartet.

Demarre and Anthony McGill, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, Allen Tinkham, conductor, Winged Creatures

In another new Cedille release, two butterflies flitting through the air greet the listener in the title track of Winged Creatures. Making the butterfly sounds on flute and clarinet are brothers and Chicago natives Demarre and Anthony McGill in the world premiere recording of Michael Abels’ new work. Backing up the McGill brothers is the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, headed by Allen Tinkham. The McGill brothers, both alumni of the CYSO, have gone on to bright careers. Among other projects, Demarre is the principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony, and Anthony is the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. In performing Winged Creatures, the McGill brothers wonderfully create the fluttering sensation, weaving the melodies in and out, passing them back and forth between themselves and the CYSO. Composer Abels, who gained critical acclaim for writing the score for the film Get Out, carefully built in the contrasting passages between soloists and orchestra. Winged Creatures was a commission from Cedille Records that emerged from the Cedille Soirée in 2017. The release includes two rarely heard works for flute, clarinet, and orchestra from the classical and romantic eras of music. The first is a charming Sinfonina Concertante, op. 41, by the German composer Franz Danzi. The second is an early work by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Tarantelle, op. 6. This continues another Cedille practice of finding and bringing to light wonderful music that had largely been overlooked. The performances are excellent. Concluding the release is the premiere recording of another work written for the CYSO and the McGill brothers, Joel Puckett’s Concerto Duo. Written in 2012, this delightful work in three movements was inspired by toddlers and sibling interactions, as well as Puckett’s memories riding the Great American Scream Machine roller coaster at Six Flags Over Georgia. The second movement, inspired by a lullaby sung to him by his grandmother, which he also sang to his daughter, has a wonderfully lilting and wispy air. The McGill brothers performed Concert Duo beautifully on this recording, as well as during their July appearances with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Danzmayr. At those rousing concerts, they also played Saint-Saëns Tarantelle.

Black Oak Ensemble, Silenced Voices

The Cedille Records’ practice of bringing to light little heard music is the main mission of Silenced Voices, which has music by six Jewish composers whose lives were impacted by the Holocaust in World War II. Five of the composers, Dick Kattenburg, Sándor Kuti, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Paul Hermann, perished in Nazi concentration, labor, or extermination camps. The sixth composer Géza Frid joined the Dutch resistance, survived the war, and went on to a very successful composing career. This also is the first-ever release by the Black Oak Ensemble, a Chicago-based string trio. At first glance, the line-up of violin, viola, and cello might seem to be rather Spartan, and there are only a handful of string trios by mainstream composers. Those that exist can actually be full-bodied in sound and temperament, belying the sparse set-up. The music on Silenced Voices veers toward dense and is not easy to enjoy. Much of it has the same sound and feel, with little to distinguish. However, these are early works in each composer's career. Repeated listens reveal great promise and sophistication; one can only imagine the music that would have emerged had they lived to old age. It is greatly helped by Black Oak Ensemble's tight cohesion and dexterity. Of the works on the release, the compact Trio à Cordes by a 19-year-old Kattenburg reveals youthful verve and energy. Krása put a modern spin on a baroque form. His Passacalia and Fuga was written while a detainee in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It starts out in dark hues, but eventually finds light as it shifts in and out of atonality. Frid’s Trio à cordes op.1 is one of the more distinctive works on the release. It features rhythms and melodies from his native Hungary.

Jory Vinikour, Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck, 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos

After languishing in relative obscurity for 150 years as keyboard composers focused their efforts on the versatile piano, harpsichord compositions made somewhat of a revival in the 20th century. Chicago native and harpsichord connoisseur Jory Vinikour partnered with the Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Speck, in a recent Cedille recording of four 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos. These pieces by Walter Leigh, Ned Rorem, Viktor Kalabis, and Michael Nyman explore different sides of the harpsichord paired with a smaller, chamber ensemble. These works illustrate how to get around the harpsichord’s inherent limitations of only two volume levels and a rather tinny, trebly sound that can easily be buried by accompanying instruments. Nyman’s Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings solves the challenge by applying modern technology to give a clearer harpsichord presence and balance with the orchestra. Musically it has a very rushed, industrial feel. It is intriguing in the way it suddenly shifts in rhythms. Leigh’s short Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings is the most accessible work on the release. Its three movements explore lighter melodies and more familiar sonata structures. In the opening Allegro Vinikour gives a marvelously fluid treatment of an extended cadenza. This release also features a world premiere recording of Ned Rorem’s very early Concertino da Camera, scored for harpsichord and a septet of strings and winds. This work, composed in 1946, was not performed until 1993. The up-tempo outer movements of this work evoke a festive atmosphere and feature careful interplay between the harpsichord and other instruments; the slow middle movement sags a bit.

Soirée Cedille 2019

Soirée Cedille 2019 will take  place Sunday, September 8, at 4pm at Venue Six10 at Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave. There will be performances by Matthew Lipman/Henry Kramer and Pacifica Quartet/Sharon Isbin. Also, the Martin D. Ginsburg Award will be presented to Henry Fogel by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Musical Partnership Award will be presented to Rachel Barton Pine Foundation. Tickets are available for reception and concert ($150) or reception, concert and dinner ($350).
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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.