Wednesday 10 October 2012

CD Review - Paper Clips

New music for an old instrument.

The trombone as a long and varied history in Western Classical music, but it has not featured highly as a solo instrument. This is ironic as the instrument itself is flexible and relatively ubiquitous in a variety of other contexts. So if you are a trombone player wanting to extend the repertoire, what to do? If you are Andy Malloy, Julliard trained and based in Los Angeles for the last 30 years, then you commission people to write for your instrument. On this pair of discs he and pianist Karolina Rojahn have recorded a selection of works written specially for Malloy.

The composers are all US based, all but one US born, with a preponderance of them based in California. The styles of the pieces are quite varied, with most composers keen to explore the wide range of timbres, colours and effects that the trombone has available. Not surprisingly, jazz/blues influences creep into many of the pieces but perhaps more surprisingly few of the composers choose to explore the more uncompromising realms of modernism. Judging by the composers' comments in the notes, Malloy is an active commissioner, often being involved in the creative process.

The disc opens with Adrienne Albert's Wind Tides; the name refers both to the breath required for the music and the ebb and flow of the music. Albert's language is essentially tonal and the piece exploits the  trombone's lyrical melodic capabilities, including a cadenza which utilises the high register. The piece also has attractive bluesy undertones.

Gernot Wolfgang's Leaps and Bounds is a 15 minute long single movement for trombone and piano. The name refers to the way the melodic material is full of wide intervals. Again there were jazz echoes with the opening evoking some rather cool jazz. The piece uses a series of episodes with the composer alternating types of material, lyrical trombone writing with subtle rhythmic piano underpinnings, lively interchanges between the two instruments,  mute trombone with cool funky accompaniment. Whilst not to the fore, you feel that jazz/funk elements are never far away.

The final work on the first disc is a fascinating sequence of 14 short pieces for unaccompanied trombone by John Steinmetz, Fourteen Prayers. There is an opening Invitation and concluding Benediction, with the remainder divided into groups of three, in each group according to the composer the first calls on something, the second prays for something and the third makes a short statement. There is no explicit religious programme.

The opening and closing movements use horn-type calls in a very austere manner. The remaining are surprisingly varied, with a number of popular references. Steinmetz is quite brilliant at evoking a complete style or orchestration with just a few gestures on the solo trombone. They are enormously different from each other in style, including hymn like tunes, crazy marches and blues. Though I have to admit that I am not certain that I would want to listen to all 14 in one sitting.

Raymond Burkhardt's The Favourite Poems which opens the second disc, mixes speech with music Three poems are spoken by Malloy, with musical underpinning on piano, then after each poem trombone and piano combine for a musical evocation of the poem.

Shelly's Ozymandias is perhaps spoken rather stiltedly by Malloy, but the musical version is striking, with alternating moods utilising extreme low notes and acoustical effects on the trombone. Stevie Smith's Not waving but drowning receives a rather lyrical lament, with quite a romantic piano part, which exploits the trombone's different registers. Finally The Mower's Song by Andrew Marvell is surprisingly up tempo with some rather jazz harmony, the result is attractively appealing.

Stephen Yip's Sunflower is written for unaccompanied trombone. In it Yip uses the various techniques available to him to create a multiplicity of different aural textures, including some dramatic slides and the production of two notes at once. Though Yip's programme note does not mention narrative, you fell that the piece forms a curious little drama.

Speculation by Jason Barabba, who is a trombonist himself, is a five movement work which is based on a pre-existing fragment. This appears in the opening Grave movement and all the subsequent material derives from it. The Presto is spiky and evocative with some interesting stride bass in the piano. The third movement, another Grave, is slow and lyrical in a tough, rather expressionist way. The piano accompaniment is sparse, but Barabba more than makes up for it in the next movement where the piano has a toccata like moto perpetuo over which the trombone intones. As the piano part rises in pitch the result is compulsive, propulsive and very exciting, exploring the contrast between the piano's high register and the trombone's low one. The final movement, another Grave, brings the suite to a dark, low, quiet conclusion.

The final work is Hoi Polloi by Nick Lane, intended as a tribute to Malloy's Irish roots. The first movement, Air'o the Meadow, is a lyrical folk like melody which shows of Malloy's admirably flowing legato technique. This is followed by No Arms Dance, a punning title which refers both to Irish dancing (which requires no arm movements), and to playing the trombone (which depends on arm movements). It is a rather endearingly eccentric waltz with a busy trombone part, all rather fun. The third movement, Shamrocks and Clover is back to the flowing legato style, but this time with some bluesy elements. Finally The Leprechaun's Hornpipe is a suitably edgy, rather savage and highly rhythmic dance.

The performances from Malloy and Rojahn are exemplary. Malloy has, of course, been involved in the pieces' creation and he has the various technical effects down to a tee. The result is both entertaining and a brilliant showcase for his technique. He is finely accompanied by Rojahn.

The discs include some added value. If you insert the disc into the computer then you can read extended programme notes and see the scores for each of the works. There are also such things as wallpaper and ringtones, videos and photographs of recording sessions.

The pieces one the disc all exploit the wide variety of techniques and timbres from the trombone, in imaginative fashion. None are perhaps cutting edge, when it comes to harmonic language, but all are well made works. There is a little to much reliance on the trombone's jazz roots. But individual pieces make an interesting addition to the trombone repertoire and would seem to provide some useful and approachable recital pieces.

Paper Clips
Wind Tides - Adrienne Albert
Leaps and Bounds - Gernot Wolfgan
Fourteen Prayers - John Steinmetz
Three Favourite Poems - Steven J. Williams
Sunflower - Stephen Yip
Speculation - Jason Barabba
Hoi Polloi - Nick Lane
Andrew Molly (trombone)
Karolina Rojahn (piano)

Recorded March 28-31 2011, Future Productions, Roslindale MA
and December 19 2009, Ritt Recital Hall in Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA


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