Review: Chicago’s Cedille Records Keeps Putting Out Great Stuff

Cedille Records continues its mission to illuminate excellent Chicago musical voices on both sides of the musical portrait. Its recent releases highlight Chicago performers offering classical music chestnuts and new works. These discs also shed light on American composers, several of whom are from Chicago.

Some of these releases also further one of Cedille Record's noteworthy practices of bringing to light little remembered music that would otherwise be completely forgotten. A cynical person could say music that is little remembered is little remembered for a reason. These discs demonstrate the fallacy of that supposition. Over many years, Cedille has shown that there are boatloads of great, unknown music to be appreciated. All that one has to do is look for it. Kudos to Cedille for doing it for us.

Before we get to the new and/or obscure, there is one release that must be acknowledged first….

Dover Quartet, Ludwig van Beethoven, the Late String Quartets

Tender, delicate, emotional, subtle, pensive, dramatic, and reflective are the words I would use to describe the Dover Quartet’s recordings of the last string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven. In my humble opinion, this is the greatest music ever written. These works represent the culmination of Beethoven’s life-long endeavor to transform the string quartet from the classical form perfected by Haydn and Mozart into a romantic musical vehicle to express deeper and more passionate emotions. This music does that, and these recordings spread across three compact discs capture that wonderfully.

From the majestic sounds that open the first quartet, Op. 127 in E-flat Major, the Dover Quartet demonstrates fabulous touch and sonority. They take it and everything else at the right tempo: the Cavatina in the B-flat major quartet Op. 130, the opening fugue of the c-sharp-minor quartet Op. 131, and the Heliger Dankesang central movement of the a-minor quartet, Op. 132. These particular three works establish a hallmark of Beethoven’s late quartets by extending the overall length of a work and moving beyond the traditional four-movement design. The last of the five late quartets, in F-major, Op. 135, brings it all back home.

The original six-movement, B-flat quartet called for a 15-minute finale comprised of the Grosse Fugue, a piece of music extremely demanding on both the players and audience. In a very unusual response to criticism Beethoven substituted a less demanding finale. Modern practice is to keep the Grosse Fugue as the finale, but the Dover Quartet chose the published version. It is nice to hear it that way, as the substitute finale is quite lovely.

The Dover Quartet’s fine performance of the Grosse Fugue, which was published separately as Op. 133, is actually on a separate disc. It leads right into the c-sharp minor quartet, my favorite. It opens with another fugue, the only slow fugue Beethoven ever wrote. Dover’s performance of this quartet is a delight. Beethoven specified that the seven movements were to be played without interruption, and careful transitions are essential. Dover delivered in the transitions between the movements and between the separate variations that form the quartet’s center.

There are so many moments of wonder and magic in these recordings, it is pointless to go through them all. Suffice it to say I have heard and/or owned dozens of recordings of Beethoven’s late quartets, and this one is the best. It takes a special kind of performance to knock off the other beloved recordings, but the Dover Quartet’s version of these quartets does just that. It culminates their excellent recordings of all of Beethoven’s string quartets.

Julian Velasco, As We Are, with Winston Choi

As he writes in the liner notes, saxophonist Julian Velasco used the recording of As We Are to explore various sides of himself, in terms cultural background and musical labels. In doing so, he and pianist Winston Choi created a delightful set of recordings by contemporary composers that take the listener in all sorts of different directions.

The opening four pieces by classical saxophonist Steven Banks encapsulate the variety of temperaments that pervade the disc, from quiet reflection to stormy moods. As Banks explains in the notes, the pieces draw from Negro spiritual or sacred songs chosen by his mother and three sisters. He also attempted to apply a four-movement, classical music sonata. Sure enough, the pieces share motific and other musically unifying features. Velasco and Choi bring this out splendidly.

This release also has a nice juxtaposition of tonal and atonal music. in Court Dances, Amanda Harberg combines both within dance piece using baroque forms one would hear in the music Johann Sebastian Bach was making three hundred years ago.

By the time As We Are gets to Animus by Elijah Daniel Smith, things gets experimental, with Velasco playing over tape recordings of himself. It’s absolutely spooky.

Christopher Cerone’s five movement Liminal Highway goes even further. Adapted from a work originally scored for flute and electronics, Cerone has the saxophone in all kinds of unexpected sounds. When I first heard “A Dream You Can’t Recall,” which features rapid clicking on the saxophone’s keys, I thought my CD was skipping. Fabulous.

Rachel Barton Pine, Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries, with Encore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Hege and Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Jonathon Heyward, 25th Anniversary Edition

From an early age, Chicago born and raised violinist Rachel Barton Pine has promoted the music of black composers. In 1997, Cedille Records first released an earlier version of this disc. To celebrate its 25th anniversary Cedille has reissued it, but with a big change.

Like the original, this 25th anniversary edition contains wonderful works for violin and orchestra from the 18th century by French composer Joseph Bologne and the 19th century by Cuban-French composer José White Lafitte and the British conductor-composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Pine recorded these works with Encore Chamber Orchestra of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Hege.

The original release had also included an 18th century work by French composer Chevalier de Meude-Monpas. It has since been discovered that he was not of African descent and was not black. A more modern work by an undisputed black composer has been substituted for this 25th Anniversary re-release, Violin Concerto No. 2 by Chicago based Florence Price. Pine recorded this with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Jonathon Heyward.

Florence Price’s music has experienced a well-deserved revival. Several of her scores, including this violin concerto, had been lost but were recently rediscovered. This single movement concerto demonstrates the depth of her style. It’s a nice combination of serious and frolicking. She also sticks to traditional harmonies, although it skirts with atonality at times. Pine’s performance captures everything.

Since the initial release of this disc, the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation started the Music by Black Composers project in 2001. In addition to highlighting music by black composers, these efforts have brought classical music to all communities. Focusing on string instruments, programs include offering training grants and instrument loan programs. For more information, click here.

Lincoln Trio, Trios From Contemporary Chicago

Anything that boasts a photograph of the Aqua Tower on the cover is going to attract my interest. Jeanne Gang’s 82-story wonder in the River East neighborhood is my favorite Chicago building. It’s a very appropriate image for Lincoln Trio’s recent CD release, Trios From Contemporary Chicago, which includes music by several of Chicago’s leading composers. The Lincoln Trio is comprised of pianist Marta Aznavoorian, violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, and cellist David Cunliffe.

“Aqua” is the first part of City Beautiful, a work in three movements by Shawn E. Okpebholo that celebrates the 19th century architectural movement of the same name. Like the building, the movement is very reflective and airy. It is built around quiet melodies on the violin and cello over chords on the piano. Following “Prairie,” “Burnham” turns the string melodies into a robust fugal passages.

The Lincoln Trio next turns to Augusta Read Thomas, whose two-movement …a circle around the sun was commissioned in 2000 by The Children’s Memorial Foundation in honor of George D Kennedy, who supported the Children’s Hospital of Chicago. In reflection of this, it opens with a quiet melody on the piano of long, slow tones that surrounding a G note. Eerie chords on the violin and cello join the fabric, offering a bit of suspense. This brief “Elegant and Spacious” introduction soon breaks into “Dance-like, Playful, and Lyrical,” which perfectly describes how these themes are stretched out. The piano playing the central role in the circle, while the violin and cello make melodic, two-note chords around it.

The disc also includes Shulamit Ran’s Soliloquy, a single movement work based on her first opera, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk). It features interesting interplay between the cello and violin, which the piano providing accompaniment. Fanfare 80 is a fun work Mischa Zupko wrote to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Music Institute of Chicago (which recently celebrated its 90th).

The disc ends with Sanctuary, a dramatic, two-movement piece by Stacy Garrop that is inspired by memories of her father and her reconciling his early death. The opening movement has lots of rushing chords on the piano and interplay between the violin and cello, as Garrop relates to her being a child in search of a lost parent. It ends abruptly and is followed by a tender and delicate movement representing her father’s response. Very emotional.

Black Oak Ensemble, Avant L’orage, French String Trios 1926-1939

Adding to Cedlle’s reputation as a purveyor of little known music is Black Oak Ensemble’s double CD release, Avant L’orage. These recordings forage through French string trios from the interwar era of the 1920s and 1930s, several of which have never been recorded before. Black Oak Ensemble shares violinist Desirée Ruhstrat and cellist David Cunliffe with the Lincoln Trio and adds violist Aurélien Fort Pederzoli.  

Trolling for little known works is necessary in this instance because only a few of the more famous composers actually composed music for a string trio. The familiar repertoire for this line up is rather small. It is astonishing that Black Oak Ensemble found enough music from a single country in a single time period to fill up two full discs with interesting material.

The release includes a few composers I had never heard of before, including Henri Tomasi, Jean Cras, and Gustave Samazeuilh. Wonderful trios by Tomasi and Cras open the disc. By sheer happenstance, the second movement “Lent” in Cras’ piece pays homage to the Heliger Dankesang from Beethoven’s a-minor string quartet recently recorded by the Dover Quartet and reviewed above.

On the second disc Samazeuilh composed a six-part suite using the baroque model popular two centuries earlier. It was a nice marriage of the varied tempi of the dance pieces with modern harmonies and tonalities. This work has never previously been recorded.

Of the more familiar composers, Jean Françaix’s Trio shows a livelier, whimsical approach that is typical of his other chamber music. He also uses classical forms in this work as he does in others. His Rondo that ends the first disc offers nice contrast between the sections.

The second disc opens with a work by pianist Robert Casadesus that has never previously been recorded. It has an interesting middle movement in 5/4 time.

Anthony McGill, Pacifica Quartet, American Stories

As the title suggests American Stories offers portraits of American experiences. Chicago-born, African American clarinetist Anthony McGill and Bloomington, Indiana, based Pacifica String Quartet call attention to various identities and vistas from this country. 

The opening work Four Angels is a lament to the four girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Richard Danielpour composed this single-movement piece as a reflection of racism in America.

He writes, “It behooves us, especially now, at a time when racism is once again showing its face more openly, to remind ourselves of the insidious and malevolent nature of such behavior and such crimes.” He also infused hope into the piece, “This music also stands as a small testament to the choice for a better path, one consisting of the compassion and understanding that we must have for one another.”

A more up-tempo work is Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet by James Lee III, which was inspired by historical aspects of indigenous Americans. The opening movement “Forgotten Emblems” has each stringed instrument playing off McGill on clarinet, in some instances blending the tones of both. The ribald finale, “Celebrated Emblems,” bring that interplay to a climax.

Following Ben Shirley’s High Sierra Sonata, Valerie Coleman’s Shotgun Houses celebrates the life of Muhammad Ali. The first of three installments, this project focuses on Ali’s formative years in Louisville, Kentucky, up to his wining the heavyweight boxing gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Of all the recent releases on Cedille, American Stories is the least accessible. After several listens, I have grown to appreciate it.

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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.