Review: Cedille Records Continues to Release Excellence, Including a Grammy Award Winner by Jennifer Koh

Chicago’s classical music label Cedille Records has continued to release compelling CDs highlighting our city’s deep musical talent, both performers and composers. Two recent Cedille releases include compositions inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days of lockdown and sadness. One of those two releases earned yet another Grammy Award for a Cedille artist.

Violinist Jennifer Koh’s Alone Together won the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. Koh asked 39 composers, several of whom are from Chicago, to write short pieces articulating their feelings and emotions during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this time of pandemic-induced shutdown and isolation, this two-disc release provided a platform and some commission funding for several artists who were otherwise stuck at home. Each composer explains their inspiration in the program accompanying Alone Together.   

Several pieces on Alone Together focus on loneliness and isolation, but Katherine Balch’s “Cleaning” highlights the changes the pandemic initially imposed on hand washing, surface disinfection, and other enhanced efforts to fight viral spread. To make this point, Balch has Koh cleaning her violin.

Cassie Wieland’s “Shiner” uses quick rhythms to offer a few moments of light reprieve from all the sadness. In “Un petit brouillard cérébral,” Chicago composer George Lewis uses squiggly sounds and quick flourishes to express the challenges that isolation, cancelled performances, and cancelled commissions had on his motivation to compose.

There are many other interesting pieces to explore on Alone Together, with Koh’s tight playing holding it all together. Winning a Grammy Award for Koh certainly elevates the significance of this CD. For one seeking to explore contemporary music, this is a great place to start.

Third Coast Percussion, Perspectives

In their latest CD Perspectives, set to be released on May 13, Grammy Award winner Third Coast Percussion continues to expand the concept of classical music composition. Perspectives includes music from composers using traditional, five-lined musical scores with time and key signatures, to artists creating sounds in an environment completely free of traditional notation.

Perspectives opens with Danny Elfman’s “Percussion Quartet,” a four-movement work that was specifically written for TCP. Elfman is a very accomplished writer of film scores and onetime front man for the wonderful alternative rock band Oingo Boingo. He was approached for this project by American composer Philip Glass, transcriptions of whose work TCP has recorded several times. Perspectives includes their transcription of Glass’ “Metamorphosis No. 1.

Electronic Dance Music producer Jlin from Gary, Indiana, uses a different approach. She wrote Perspective using the layering, recording process. TCP premiered this excellent work in a virtual performance in October 2020 and are presenting it here on CD.

TCP will be performing several works on Perspectives, including the world premiere of Elfman’s “Percussion Quartet” on Thursday, May 12. The program also includes music by Clarice Assad and Devonté Hynes. DePaul University’s Holtschneider Performance Center, 2330 N Halsted St., at 7:30 pm. $75 premium/$25 general/$10 student.

Aznavoorian Duo, Gems from Armenia

As one former Soviet republic is brutally attacking a second former Soviet republic, Cedille Records releases an excellent CD that highlights music from a third former Soviet republic. Gems from Armenia is the debut CD by the Aznavoorian Duo, Armenian American sisters who were raised and currently live in the Chicago area. Cellist Ani and pianist Marta play beautifully on this recent release.

A remarkable thing about this music by several Armenians, many of whom were themselves Soviet-era composers, is how gentle and bucolic it all sounds. As the world focuses on the nearby horrors Russia is imposing on Ukraine, it’s refreshing to be reminded that this part of the world produces many things of beauty. Yet, over many tracks on this disc is a pall of moody sadness reflecting challenges and tragedies the people of Armenia have suffered over its history.  

Gems from Armenia starts with five short pieces by Komitas Vartabed, who, having flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is a revered cornerstone of Armenian classical music. This is followed by two short works by Aram Khachaturian, including his well-known Yerevan. The Aznavoorian sisters then perform an Elegy to Khachaturian by another Soviet-era composer, Arno Babajanian.

Gems From Armenia also includes several contemporary works, including the world premiere recording of Mount Ararat by American composer Peter Boyer, who wrote the piece especially for this project. Visible from much of Armenia, Ararat is where the Bible says Noah’s ark landed. It has played a major role in much of Armenia’s historic culture, but it is not actually within Armenia’s modern borders, which is a source of dismay in Armenia today.

Music Institute of Chicago will be hosting the Aznavoorian Duo on Sunday, May 15. They will be performing many of the works on Gems from Armenia. Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. Sunday, May 15, 3:00 pm. VIP $50, Advanced General admission and livestream $25, At the door $30.

Anthony McGill and Gloria Chien, Here With You

It is always a treat to hear Chicago native and New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill. Here With You pairs him with his long-time musical partner pianist Gloria Chien to perform Johannes Brahms’ Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, op. 120, the world premiere recording of “Peace” by Jessie Montgomery, and the Grand Duo Concertante by Carl Maria Von Weber, op. 48.

The clarinet sonatas by Brahms are among the last works he ever wrote. They’re very typical of his late style, with lots of wistful moments and moodiness. As one might expect, these performances are delightful. I have always been especially fond of the second sonata in E-flat major, and this performance is a real treat, especially the variations in the finale.

Jessie Montgomery wrote “Peace” just as the COVID-19 lockdowns were taking place in the spring of 2020. The performance captures the sadness, loneliness, and solitude that “Peace” emotes.

To the wistful moodiness of the Brahms and Montgomery, the Von Weber Grande Duo Concertante offers great contrast. A contemporary of Beethoven, Von Weber’s music is often overlooked. This is unfortunate, because he wrote some wonderful music, and McGill and Chien show how wonderful it can be.  

Alex Klein and Phillip Bush, When There Are No Words …. Revolutionary Works for Oboe and Piano

Following up their Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas release from 2019, oboist Alex Klein and pianist Phillip Bush make another disc of works from that same era. When There Are No Words: Revolutionary Works for Oboe and Piano seeks to highlight the woe and harm that war and civil strife can impose on people and society. Although the composers were certainly affected by terrible and tragic political events, I hear little in this music that is revolutionary, but much of it is good.  

Just after fleeing Nazi Germany for Switzerland in 1938, Paul Hindemith composed his Sonata for Oboe and Piano. This two-movement work opens with perky theme on the oboe, while the piano fills in. It’s second movement has a nice contrast between the two main themes, as well as a fugue in the middle.

William Bolcom is the only living composer on this release, and his “Aubade–for the Continuation of Life” continues my enjoyment of his music. I also enjoyed Benjamin Britten’s Temporal Variations, but really liked Jose Siqueira’s Three Etudes for Oboe with Piano Accompaniment. Siqueira was a political refugee from Brazil who settled in the Soviet Union. Written afterwards, these are lovely Etudes.

It took several listens for me to gain an appreciation of When There Are No Words: Revolutionary Works for Oboe and Piano. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but I generally like it.

Dover Quartet, Beethoven Complete String Quartets, Volume 2, The Middle Quartets

When I consider one-word descriptions of Ludwig van Beethoven’s middle quartets, the words that come to mind are intense, dramatic, frenetic, or passionate. All of these concepts can be found in the latest installment of the Dover Quartet’s compete Beethoven string quartet cycle, the middle period quartets.

One word that never comes to mind when I think of this music is lyrical, but that is something that these excellent recordings really bring out. Examples of lyricism can be found just about everywhere, but the place that is most telling is the two-chord opening of String Quartet No. 8 in e-minor, Op. 59 no. 2. Instead of the gut punching experience, Dover offers something a bit more gentle than usual—and it works.

Another very noteworthy moment is a fast rendition of the super-crazed finale of the C-major quartet, Op 59 no. 3. Even at a break-neck speed, every note is clear and perfect. This is where Beethoven gets frenetic, and Dover Quartet pulled it off.

Four measures of Beethoven’s e-minor String Quartet, Op. 59 no 2, that are not part of Dover Quartet’s recording

One area of disappointment was a matter brought up in the liner notes. Beethoven struggled over whether to repeat the development and recapitulation in sonata-form movements. In the first movement of the e-minor quartet op. 59 no. 2, Beethoven does, indeed, request this repeat; he even wrote two different endings. Few ensembles actually perform it, and, notwithstanding the liner notes, neither does the Dover Quartet. As a result, four measures of Beethoven’s music were left off the disc.

Even with this omission, these are excellent recordings. I can hardly wait for Dover’s recording of the late quartets to come out.

For more information about these releases, check out Cedillerecords.org.

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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.

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